Om Prakash Valmiki lost his battle for life to liver cancer on Sunday, aged 63, leaving behind a literary legacy that is iconic not just for his words, but also because of what it tells us about our times.
Born at the lowest rung of the scheduled castes as an untouchable chuhda in Muzaffarnagar district of western Uttar Pradesh, he rose to occupy the highest place in the world of Dalit literature because of his powerful writings.
While Dalit literature had gained wide acceptability in other Indian languages like Marathi, Hindi came to recognise it much later. This meant that when Mr. Valmiki started writing, there were not many takers in Brahmin and Thakur-dominated Hindi literary scene for this kind of literature.
It goes to the credit of Rajendra Yadav, who too passed away last month, that he turned his monthly magazine Hans into a platform for Dalit writing and its concomitant literary discourse.
When Mr. Valmiki penned his autobiography, Yadav suggested “Joothan” (Leftovers) as its title, and the rest is history. Joothan is one of the most celebrated autobiographies in Hindi today and has been translated into several Indian as well as foreign languages.
Joothan tells the heart-wrenching story of an untouchable boy who grows up in a Tyagi-dominated village in the period that immediately follows the advent of Independence.
Mr. Valmiki was born in 1950 and he experienced the cruel inhumanity of the caste system every minute of his life. In following the age-old oppressive customs, Muslim Tyagis were no better than their Hindu counterparts. Untouchables were treated no better than cattle.
The Constitution of free, democratic India had done away with untouchability, but only legally. The social goal of eradicating it is yet to be achieved — but in the 1950s, the process had not even begun in right earnest.
Mr. Valmiki’s autobiography tells us in touching detail about his horrific experiences, his valiant struggles to overcome his social situation, and his eventual triumph.
However, if one reads him carefully, one becomes painfully aware that even after achieving literary fame and success, Mr. Valmiki continued to feel that so long as the well-trenched social biases enjoying support from religion and tradition remained, Dalits can never shed their Dalitness and become part of the society as a whole.
If one book acquires great fame, his other works tend to be ignored as they are overshadowed by or compared with it. This happened to Shrilal Shukla, whose Raga Darbari overshadowed his other great works like Bisrampur ka Sant. Mr. Valmiki published three collections of poetry — Sadiyon ke Santaap (Centuries-old Sorrows), Bas! Bahut ho Chuka (Enough is Enough) and Ab aur Nahin (Not Any More) — and two collections of short stories, besides penning a treatise on the aesthetics of Dalit literature. However, his name was inextricably linked with Joothan and the other books did not get adequate attention.
He was in the thick of many literary controversies, one of which concerned the great writer Premchand too. In contrast with his peers, he was marked out for his much more balanced view of things — literary and non-literary.
He will always be remembered by those who knew him not just as a literary trailblazer, but as a fine human being
He succeeded in providing the Dalit writing in Hindi with a solid foundation [thehindu]