'Untouchable Spring', written by G Kalyana Rao in 2000, and 'My Father Baliah', a family biography written by YB Sathyanarayana in 2013, have become central to the understanding of Dalit lives in the two Telugu states.

Covers of the books My Father Baliah and Untouchable Spring
Features Literature Tuesday, July 06, 2021 - 18:30

"Though my father did learn to read and write a little, we are the real first-generation learners in our family. My father's strong determination that we should pursue higher studies at any cost was what helped us achieve that goal. Untouchable families had been kept away from learning for centuries; and so, having been forced to serve people of other castes for generations together, having never learnt to question or nurture independent thought, their minds were unprepared." 

The above excerpt, from My Father Baliah, the biography of a Madiga family, highlights the role of education in the lives of Dalits in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. When Narsaiah, a Dalit, began working as a fourth-class employee in the Nizam-guaranteed railways under the British, he perhaps could not have known that his exile from his Andhra village would usher a new dawn in the lives of future generations of his family. Following in his footsteps, his son Baliah, the first person to learn to read and write in the entire community, also joined the railways as a boxman. Embracing education and joining the railways offered him a life free of caste oppression, unlike the well-worn path others have taken. Baliah's vision of education as a tool for change remains an exemplary story for Dalits in pre and post-independent India amid the struggles to liberate themselves.

Literature that comes from the oppressed and subaltern strives to highlight the forms of exploitation and struggles against it, and bring it to life. In that backdrop, two books — Untouchable Spring, written by G Kalyana Rao in 2000, and My Father Baliah, a family biography written by YB Sathyanarayana in 2013 — stand out, and have become central to the understanding of Dalit lives in the two Telugu states.

Though the two books speak about individual experiences, they have a common thread — the gruesome and brutal nature of caste discrimination. Though written in the last two decades, Untouchable Spring and My Father Baliah have embedded themselves into the landscape of Dalit literature, where they will remain for a long time. Untouchable Spring has been translated into five languages, including English, while My Father Baliah was written in English and translated into Telugu. 

Director and filmmaker Pa Ranjith referred to these two fierce books in two of his movies — Untouchable Spring in Madras (2014) and My Father Baliah in Kabali (2016).

"These books give not just individual accounts and collective memories of pain, discrimination and exploitation, but also the way the Dalits have rebuilt their lives and survived. Each aspect of life that stalked the Dalits was written," said Dr Jangam Chinnaiah, a historian who teaches at Carleton University in Canada and author of Dalits and the Making of Modern India.

Dr Jangam, once a bonded labourer who rose to become a historian, is now set to write his own autobiography. "One of the inspirations for me to write my story is My Father Baliah. All of us have those stories, and atrocities that were unleashed; the book mirrors experiences of Dalits unlike the other works produced by dominant sections," he said.

Untouchable Spring by G Kalyana Rao traces the untold story of seven generations of a Dalit family and the lives of Mala-Madigas of Enneladinni in Andhra Pradesh. Ruthu, a woman from the family’s fifth generation, narrates the story. She relates the events that she has been told by her husband Ruben, along with her own experiences. The book depicts the struggle by the Malas and Madigas against caste Hindus for life and dignity, self-respect and survival.

My Father Baliah follows the story of a Madiga man's exile along with his young son, after the death of his wife from cholera in the latter part of the 19th century in Vangapalli in Telangana’s Karimnagar, to flee from caste oppression. The story highlights how the incident shaped a new life that changed the trajectory of a Dalit family.

Both stories emerge from two different geographical locations – one being the Nizam-ruled Telangana region, and the other in British-ruled coastal Andhra, neither unfamiliar to the whip of the brutal caste system that Dalit communities have long suffered under.

Dr Jangam notes that both books are inspirational for their ability to narrate individual stories, while also telling stories of the communities. Though both books present the vast experiences of Dalits by portraying their lives mired in caste oppression, the books don’t just highlight their struggles and pains, but also talk of joy, art and culture, facets that are often stigmatised in mainstream literature. These art forms and creative skills have been historically sidelined due to caste oppression, such as the nuance of footwear-making by the Madiga community in My Father Baliah, and recognition for Udumala Nruthyam, a subaltern dance form, that’s sketched through the artful life of Yellanna, also known as Atala Yelladu-Patala Yelladu, in Untouchable Spring.

Importantly, these books have resonated with many scholars, some of whom are the first in the family to receive an education. Contemporary Dalit scholars and writers say these books are close to their hearts as they mirror their own lives in some respects.

Uppuleti Ramana Rao, a geophysicist with the Oil and Natural Gases Corporation (ONGC) who born into a Dalit-Madiga family and brought up in a railway settlement of Dornakal town in erstwhile Warangal, recalls his journey and the shades of casteism he faced, like that in the story of My Father Baliah.

"I feel this book is true to the life and struggles faced by any Dalits during their time. It’s inspiring to see a Dalit autobiography in English. Reading My Father Baliah not only reminded me of my own father and family, but I also connected to the language, to the characters who embraced and rejected Baliah, and even those who ridiculed them. All of them brought back memories,” he said.

It is also pertinent to note that in both books, it is migration that gives the hope of freedom from labour exploitation and caste. Dr Jangam pointed out that both books show how migration was an avenue to liberation. In Telangana, Dalits frequently chose to migrate to Mumbai and other cities, and sometimes to Gulf countries for employment to escape caste oppression in village societies, seeking work in sectors such as the railways or the government-owned coal mining company, Singareni Collieries.

Ramana's father was also a migrant and a fourth-class employee in the railways, just like Baliah in the book. "Although the story had nothing to do with the place I was brought up in, it had everything to do with the culture I grew up in. I was overwhelmed to see a part of myself in the story many times. It was a ride through numerous emotions. Right from the death of Baliah's mother and migration during cholera (Gattara) to striving for education."

Mercy Margaret, a fine arts academic and well-known poet, feels that Untouchable Spring reveals the so-called myths perpetuated behind the conversion of Dalits to Christianity. To live a life with dignity and self-respect, the Malas and Madigas of Enneladinni chose to embrace Christianity, and thereby education, only to face discrimination from a different level. Throughout Enneladinni, Malas and Madigas led a battle for life, survival, dignity and self-respect, be it Yellanna who fled to save his life or Jessi who took up armed struggle, who said that “fight is not an ideal but a necessity” for them.

"I knew that I'm a converted Christian from my forefathers, but I never knew the absolute circumstances behind our forefathers conversion. This book has shown me that history," Mercy said. 

She further notes the representation of Dalit women. Bhudevi, Subhadra, Shashirekha, Ruthu, Mary and Rubi — these women characters are independent and assertive, as compared to mainstream media’s portrayal of marginalised women as weak and vulnerable, lacking joy and romance in their lives. "Their fighting was on par with the Dalit men," Mercy said.

For Dalit feminist writer Manasa Yendluri, who recently won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, Untouchable Spring also allowed her to realise the history of her ancestors.

"The book picturises the transformation that Christianity brought to the lives of Andhra Dalits. I'm connected to it as my mother comes from a place close to where the story could have probably taken place. It has certainly educated me about my roots with its powerful picturisation," she said.

Manasa, however, feels that it is caste Hindus who have to read this book, for an understanding of how the oppressive caste system has upended the lives of generations of Dalit families. "The books are an eye-opener for non-Dalits, especially those who do not acknowledge discrimination by performing their caste. Those who say that they don't know about caste should read them."

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