Review: ‘When I Hid My Caste’ by Jerry Pinto

This book of 135 pages captures 10 unapologetic and uncensored short stories of the marginalized in Indian society. Marginalized based on their caste, their gender, or their appearance. Originally published as ‘Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti’, the debut collection of short stories by Baburao Bagul has been given a new life and made more accessible by Jerry Pinto, who translated it in English under the title ‘When I Hid My Caste’. Apart from the addition of interesting and informative footnotes, it rarely feels like a translated work. When the original stories were published in 1963, they were claimed to revolutionize not just Dalit literature but Marathi and Indian literature too, and I can see why.

Most Indians are aware about the history of castesim in the country, at least vaguely and often inaccurately. The stories in this book hardly come off as preachy, focusing on the characters and their nuanced socio-political circumstances that lead to the society treating them the way they do, and the characters accepting the treatment at times, even if it seems like the most outrageous injustice on paper. Not every story lands a punch in the gut, but most of them do. You’ll find yourself horrified or angry at times. (Personal advice: Do not read it before sleeping or eating. Thank me later.)

One of the stories that really stayed with me was ‘Revolt’ where the protagonist protests his dying father’s wish that he follows their caste assigned duty of manual scavenging. He has plans of his own: to earn a PhD and have the journalists write stories about him and his parents. What his family sees as selfishness and rigidity, he realizes is the only shot at escaping the inhuman job that will be thrust upon him by the Hindu, Christian, or Muslim boss he comes across.

Some of the other stories, especially ‘Prisoner of Darkness’ and ‘Pesuk’ (roughly translates to an evil spirit generally in the form of a woman) reinforced the notion of how castesim and the subordination of women specifically thrive off each other in the Indian society. Various tools, some subtle and others not so subtle (Sati, degraded widowhood, child marriage, justification of rape to assert caste dominance, forbidden inter-caste marriages, etc.), have been applied to make women second class citizens (objects and status symbols) even within their own castes.

The stories are from the 1960s. Since then, our nation has seen a lot of ups and downs. The lines exposed by the book are perhaps murkier than they were back then. However, I don’t think they are anywhere close to being eradicated. You only need to turn off the nationalist TV and follow the works of some local and independent journalists to see that.

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