[This is the second part of excerpts from an interview with Baby Kamble conducted by Maya Pandit, originally published as part of the English version of her autobiography (‘The Prisons We Broke’)]
Continued from here.
How did you think of writing your autobiography?
(Laughs.) It so happened that I used to sit in the shop at the counter. I used to have plenty of time on my hands. There were books that came along with the old newspapers we bought for packing. Some of them were story books and I began to read them. Many contained stories about gods and their great deeds. But gradually I started feeling very angry because the stories were all wrong. Consider for instance, the story of Vrinda, a Shudra princess.
What about this story?
One day Narad, Lord Vishnu’s celestial follower, paid a visit to Vrinda. He knew that she was going to be mother of very strong sons. In those days, there was great enmity between the Shudras and the Gods. The Shudras never accepted the authority of Gods. They did not even utter names. So Narad came to Vrinda and praised Lord Vishnu’s prowess. She was a young child and she accepted Lord Vishnu as a great God. She waned to see Vishnu. So Narad gave her a small image of Vishnu and asked her to worship it. She kept the idol in her room. Her father got very angry with her. But Vrinda did not give up her prayers to Vishnu. Her father tried very hard to convince her that Vishnu was not what she thought him to be. But she wouldn’t give up. She grew up and her father got her married off to Jalandar, the son of another Shudra king, Sagar. She did not leave her idol of Vishnu behind. She took it along with her and worshipped it as usual. Sagar also appealed to her not to worship Vishnu but she did not listen to him either. She continued her worship of Vishnu. She was an extremely virtuous woman and that was her strength. Now, because of her virtue, her husband never suffered defeat at the hands of gods. When he was at war, she would not eat or even drink water till he came back. And Jalandar always returned victorious. The gods were at their wit’s end. They just couldn’t defeat Jalandar. Then Narad realized that it was Vrinda’s virtue that gave Jalandar such great protection and that the Shudra king would rule as long her virtue remained intact. So he went to Vishnu and told him about this. Then when the battle started again. Vishnu came in the form of her husband Jalandar and took her to bed. The moment her virtue was lost, her husband was killed, his severed head came and fell on her lap and Vishnu stood before her in his real form. Then Vrinda realized how horribly she had been tricked, she accused Vishnu of treachery and deceit. Vishnu patted her and said, ‘Now let bygones be bygones. I’ll give you a boon. You will eternally be a sowbhagyawati. You will get married to your husband Jalandar every year. People will marry you to a round nut representing your husband. Nobody will call you a widow.’ Since then the custom of performing tulsi vivaha came into being, you know! Vrinda is Tulsi. And you have to keep a shaligram to represent Jalandar in the ritual. But since Tulsi is a Shudra, she can’t enter the house. So the marriage of Tulsi has to be performed outside the house and Tulsi Vrindawan has to be kept outside the house. No one will place it inside their house.
When I read this story, I was furious. The story clearly represented how the upper castes had mythologized the repression of Shudra men and women. So I started writing about these women who were repressed. Then I also got some books on women like Pandita Ramabai. Attending Baba’s meetings and reading these books gave me an acute sense of the agony many people, especially women, have suffered. Then I thought, I have to express this anger, give vent to my sense of outrage. But merely talking about it will not suffice. How many people can I reach that way? I must write about it. I must proclaim to the world what we have suffered.
But how did you begin to write? And when did you get time to write– you had to sit at the counter and take care of things?
Oh, that’s a long story indeed! Look, I reached the shop at nine in the morning, after which my husband would leave the shop and go to buy things that we required. He used to return only around four o’clock. That gave me plenty of time. I began to write, putting into words the suffering of my community. I also joined a library and started borrowing books. Whenever I had a little time, I would furiously make notes. I filled many such notebooks. Writing was a difficult task. I had to take great care that nobody saw me writing. I used to hide the papers under old newspapers. I used to keep my notebooks hidden in places that nobody bothered about, like the uppermost corner of an alcove where all useless things were thrown together.
You started writing when you were thirty or so, but by the time you published, twenty years had gone by. Did you keep your writing hidden for twenty years?
(Smiles) Well, I had to. So I hid everything I wrote in the most ignored and dusty corners. My son had started going to school when I started to write. So for me he was a knowledgeable, learned man. I used to be scared of both my son and my husband, scared of their reaction. My husband always called me an ignorant woman! I was afraid of his response. So I kept everything hidden away from their eyes for almost twenty years.
Let us turn to the major question of the political participation of women in the Dalit movement and the subsequent developments. Women joined Dr. Ambedkaer’s movement in such large numbers. What do you think about their participation in the post-Ambedkar Dalit movement? One finds very few women emerging as leaders. Why?
You are right. Women played a major role in Dr. Ambedkar’s movement. But that doesn’t seem to have happened later. Babasaheb passed away in 1956. After his time, there was a great tug of war among the leaders. Everybody wanted to prove himself to be another Ambedkar. This had an adverse impact. People were confused. Who was Baba’s heir? The people were left far behind in the ensuing power struggles. Leaders went and camped in Mumbai. Every person had his own camp of sycophants around him. Every person was busy blowing his own trumpet. Let me give you an example. Ramdas Athawale was a young man then, bright and intelligent. He was from the Dalit Panther, the organization that represented the anger of the young men against the established post-Ambedkar Dalit leadership. People were really impressed and many accepted him as their leader. They thought that only he could implement Baba’s agenda. Many Dalits became his followers. They trusted the Dalit Panther more than the leaders of the Republican Party. People felt that old times had been revived. But the upper castes such as the Brahmins, the Marathas and their parties could not tolerate this. They were worried that they would lose their power if the new leadership and the Dalit community became strong. So they played the usual game. Their leaders lured Ramdas away with promises of making him a minister. Dalit Panther became considerably weak. The Republican Party was divided into factions that kept fighting with each other. There was no one left to think about the people and to provide any kind of leadership to the masses.
So the same politics continues, doesn’t it? Keep the Dalits down by hook or by crook!
Absolutely. In those days, it happened because the Dalits were uneducated. Today this happens because the Dalits are educated. In those days, the whole village kept us down with tactics like refusing to give us water, keeping us at a distance, and through oppression and injustice. Now the educated Dalits are behaving exactly as the upper caste villagers used to behave with them. Educated Dalits occupy top positions in the government. Their children enjoy the good life. They are not bothered about what’s happening to poor people. Whatever they do, they do only for themselves. The poor Dalits are left where they were. At least that’s what I feel.
Why didn’t the Matangas join you and convert to Buddhism?
For many reasons. Firstly, they didn’t question the Hindu religion. Secondly, they were far less in number. There would only be a couple of houses of the Matangas in the village. They didn’t have the power to refute Hinduism. So they sought safety in sticking close to the Hindu religion, by remaining within the fold. That is why we find ourselves alone now in spite of the fact that we are one of the largest communities.
What do you see today as the major problem of Dalits?
Consider migration of Dalits from villages to cities. Many people migrate in search of work to the cities from the villages. Yet, quite a sizeable number are left in villages as well. If there are only seven to eight houses of the Buddhists, the village can pressurize them, but when there are twenty five to thirty houses, then generally there is far less pressure. Of course, in cities like Pune, Mumbai, even Phaltan, there is no question of anybody trying to apply pressure on them. But then, how many have access to education? How many have jobs?
Basically our people are still quite poor. And now there are so many divisions. Big versus small, Ambedkarites versus non-Ambedkarites, high culture versus low culture. But there is one thing I must say. Today untouchability is not so big a problem as reservation is. That’s a major problem. But any struggle requires a good leader. Dr. Ambedkar, it is true, had said, ‘Don’t run behind jobs, get into business.’ But in spite of so many banks and loan facilities, how many of these things reach the poor? Take government schemes for instance, they don’t reach us. We have to face problems of superstitions, corruption, liquor, addictions like that. There is no control on these.
Do you think women suffer more?
Yes I think so. Now take for instance, reservation. Many illiterate women from communities like Dhanagar, Ramoshi, etc., have the opportunity to become village sarpanchs. But how many women are allowed to function meaningfully? The upper caste goons will never allow them to work. They control everything. Women are still slaves. And it is not just Dalit women; see around me many women from both upper and lower castes. All women are facing problems. Especially, women from the villages! Their oppression doesn’t come to light. All cases of rape are suppressed for fear of family honour, pressures from the dominant communities and political parties. Women work very hard and yet face so many problems in spite of a slight improvement in the financial position.
Did you suffer in you personal life as well?
In my personal life, I had to suffer like many other women. But how do you go and talk about it when everyone is suffering? In my personal life there were some issues. In those days, men always wanted to control women. It was quite common for a husband to beat his wife because he doubted her faithfulness. And I wasn’t an exception. Once we went to Mumbai to attend a meeting, we traveled in a general compartment that was very crowded and some young men happened to stare at me. My husband immediately suspected me and hit me so hard that my nose started bleeding profusely. But people do look at you in the train, don’t they? How do you stop them from doing so? But there was no point in explaining this to him. He wouldn’t listen. We did not stay for the programme either. The same evening we returned and he was so angry that he kept hitting me in the train. Such things were so common. All my life I had to face this violence.
How did you endure it? Where did you get the strength?
He would beat me up for some flimsy reason. Actually he used to be very suspicious. I tried very hard to prove my innocence. I used to cry, explain, and plead with him. Then for a few days everything would be normal. Then again after a week or so, something would happen and suspicion would raise its head once again. I had to pass through a series of such things constantly. In fact this was the life most women led. Every woman knew it by heart. Every woman tried to negotiate her way out of these hardships. Giving up one’s husband and marrying another wouldn’t solve the problem because the ‘husbandness’ would be the same in every man. So I decided that I won’t leave. I wanted to do something constructive and that I would, come what may! I never retaliated. I used to say, ‘Let him say whatever he wants; nobody else says it except him! It’s okay.’ All the others in the society had good words for me. And I had the support of all our men and women. That was very precious for me. That was my strength, really.
Do you feel it was the fear of this violence, the fear of the suspicion in the husband’s mind that kept women away from staking claims to political leadership?
Absolutely. Women used to be afraid of even looking up at their husbands. Fortunately I was from Phaltan, people here knew me. I had the backing of everybody, my father, my brother, people in the community. So I could achieve something.