Giving words to India’s Dalits

On Friday, Dec. 3, York University Professor Arun Mukherjee made history in New Delhi, India. At a ceremony held in the India International Centre, the New India Foundation awarded its first ever “New India Book Prize” to Mukherjee’s translation of Omprakash Valmiki’s memoir, Joothan, which was originally written in Hindi. Joothan was published in 2003.

Left: Arun Mukherjee

Mukherjee, a professor of postcolonial and South Asian literatures in York’s English Department and Valmiki, one of India’s premier writers, will share the award’s 100,000 rupees ($2,767.00 Canadian) for producing “the finest book on independent India published between April 1, 2002 and March 31, 2003.”

Joothan recounts the birth and upbringing of Valmiki as a Dalit or ‘untouchable’ in the newly independent India of the 1950s. The word “joothan” literally means “scraps of food left on a plate and destined for the garbage” or “the family pet in a middle-class urban home”. Currently Dalits make up about one sixth of India’s population and have been forced to live on joothan for centuries. As a result, the word has come to embody the pain, humiliation and poverty suffered by Dalits whose story has remained largely untold — until now.

Joothan is one of the first portrayals of Dalit life in north India from the point of view of a Dalit,” said Mukherjee. “Traditional historical accounts of Dalits have either ignored these people or treated them as victims, as objects without power. But this book has changed all of that.”

Through Mukherjee’s acclaimed translation, Valmiki recounts his heroic struggle to ascend from the bottom of India’s social pyramid and become the first high-school graduate in his neighborhood, and, eventually, a renowned writer. In doing so, Valmiki has not only given an authentic voice to Dalits, but he has also created a manifesto for the revolutionary transformation of an oppressed and stigmatized community.

Left: A Dalit girl eating scraps in a sugar cane processing plant

The jury for the New India Book Prize included André Béteille, India’s most distinguished sociologist and social anthropologist; Ravi Dayal, one of India’s leading literary publishers; Ashok Desai, former chief economic adviser, Government of India; Salman Haider, former foreign secretary, Government of India; Nandan Nilekani, president and CEO of Infosys Technologies Limited; and Nandini Sundar, professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and member of the International Scientific Advisory Board, NCCR North-South Project of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Comments on the translation

“A searing memoir of the life of a sensitive and intelligent Dalit youth in independent India, Joothan tells us how he overcame contempt, humiliation, and violence to gain an education and join the slowly growing ranks of Dalit intellectuals in India. Full of vivid sketches of people and events, this book is indispensable to those who would understand modern South Asia, and valuable for those interested in gaining a comparative understanding of social discrimination and its effects worldwide.”
Sumit Guha, professor of history, Brown University

“A moving evocation of the underside of life in India. An excellent translation from the Hindi with a useful introduction to the life of a man who deliberately uses his name, Valmiki, to signify his identification with the lowly scavenger even though he has climbed up to status as a middle-class intellectual.”
Eleanor Zelliot, professor of history, Carleton College and author of From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkarite Movement