A Return to Homelessness? Reflections on Modernity and Migration in a Dalit Short Story
In Yogiraj Waghmare’s “Begad” (2013), originally published in Marathi in 1980
in a collection of his short stories by the same title, one finds an experiential
account of the feeling of homelessness in a young Dalit man albeit from the
perspective of his father. This shift of perspective with the father as the narrator
is highly important for the story’s plot and ethical reasoning. The story could be
summarized as follows: Prakash is returning to his village in rural Marathwada
from the city of Aurangabad after around four years. His family is waiting for
his return to the village for a brief holiday period of a week with utmost
eagerness. His father, Vithoba, who is employed as a peon in the local
government office, has come to receive his son Prakash at the bus stop. Upon
his return, Prakash begins to behave in a strange manner. Now employed in the
city, Prakash avoids speaking with his father who in fact picks up all his luggage
and walks a long way back to their hut in the area outside the village boundary.
When he hesitantly arrives in their house, Prakash sees a huge crowd of
neighbors and other inhabitants of the Bouddhwada gathered to see him, as he
was the first from his village to receive a higher education and a well-paying job
in the city. All the while, Prakash’s father is wondering about the cause of his
son’s strange behavior, his unwillingness to even mention his siblings, mother
and other relatives, and his son’s scolding for not having arranged a bullock-cart
for him in the extreme heat of rural Marathwada.
Vithoba fails to recognize Prakash as the son who had left for the city four years
ago. Prakash’s inability and abhorrence for the condition of his family’s hut in
the village and his “sudden” disgust for his mother’s food— which he used to crave for in his childhood— plus the unwelcome proposal brought forward by
his parents to get married to his maternal uncle’s daughter Sita make him feel
suffocated in the village. The residents of the Bouddhwada, who wished to
listen to his thoughts on Ambedkar and the condition of Buddhism in the
socially and politically active city of Aurangabad, return disappointed when
they hear him say rather rudely that in the city his time is mostly occupied by
the demands of his work and thus, he gets no time to think about the Buddhist
community and about Ambedkar. Vithoba and Anjana (Prakash’s mother) keep
wondering why their son has changed so drastically, why he feels no love and
empathy with the ones he spent his entire childhood with, and why he has come
to abhor the village and their home. Rather than spending a week as per the
holiday period with his family, he cites untrue pretexts of an official emergency
and leaves the village after two days .
Vithoba and Anjana no longer try to convince him to stay. While carrying
Prakash’s heavy luggage on his head, Vithoba realizes that Prakash’s education
and job are merely like the paint put on the horns of the bull during the festival
of Pola, which gives those horns a golden sheen for a couple of days before
wearing off and exposing the horns’ real texture and color later on. He realizes
that Prakash, despite having a good education and a well-paying job in the city
of Aurangabad, has strayed far away from feeling any sense of responsibility
and empathy towards his parents, his kin, and his community. Vithoba, at last,
confesses to have felt like disinterestedly walking about the bull owned by the
Patil with its horns painted during Pola rather than walking with his son to bid
him goodbye upon his departure from their village home.
This story, lucidly written with thickly layered descriptions of the village landscape in general and the “untouchable” ghetto of Bouddhwada in particular, mainly is about the relationship between a father and a son in a modernizing caste society. With the father as the narrator, this relationship is explored through the socio-economic changes occurring in rural and urban Maharashtra in the 1970s. The thematic underlying the father-son relationship in this story, the intergenerational economic and social mobility, is far from being the most interesting aspect of the story. Intergenerational migration and its consequences of modern education and employment is the stuff of many autobiographies written by Dalit authors in Marathi like Narendra Jadhav’s Aamcha Baap ani Aamhi (1993) and Daya Pawar’s Baluta (1978). These stories are mostly written from the perspectives of the ones who have ‘arrived’, in all its senses of the term, who invariably see a ‘good’ in modern education and employment that could only be accessed in urban spaces. Jadhav’s autobiography memorialized the ‘ideal father’ in Marathi literature, weaving the narrative of the liberating importance of modern education and urban migration upon several generations of a Dalit family in Maharashtra. Pawar’s Baluta, in turn, could be seen as memorializing the modernised Dalit son who could shed a critical light upon both the servility of rural life as well as the crushing mechanicity of the city of Bombay. Both these accounts mark a crucial experiential dynamic of rural-urban migration in Maharashtra in the context of changing material conditions of caste in the latter half of the 20th century.
For example, the absence of the coercion of performing servile caste-based
labor that was the lot of Dalits in the village society is invariably looked at as a
great social and personal gain by the authors of the above-mentioned
autobiographies. The underlying experiential effect outlined in these accounts is
that of success, prosperity, progress, as compared to their life had they
continued to live in rural India, although the painful struggle involved in
pursuing such a life is the most important affective element in such accounts.
Waghmare’s short story is different from such accounts because it narrates this
story of migration and mobility not from the son’s but from the father’s
perspective, that is, not from the perspective of the ‘arrived’ but from the
perspective of the ones who have been ‘left behind’. Hence, we get such a
powerful portrait of the emotions of the father as he comes to receive his son at
the village bus stop after a long gap of four years. Vithoba and Anjana’s life has
not seen the kind of modernizing transformation that Prakash’s has during the
gap of those years. They have no story of success or progress or prosperity to
tell. All they have as a matter of pride is not their own condition but the
condition of their son. Their intelligence in sending him to the city and their
sacrifices in educating their child had been successful which was the cause for
their jubilation upon hearing the news of their son’s brief return to the village.
However, Prakash’s behavior made them feel like their son had grown distant to
them in terms of compassion and sympathy after living in the city. He no longer
feels a sense of love for them. Instead, he abhors their life, their manners, their
food, their conduct, and their concerns, which to him is indicative of the totality
of village life to which he has now found a stable escape from in the life of the
Thinking of this story in more determinate conceptual terms, it may be said that
Prakash feels homeless in the village where he had spent his entire childhood
and where his parents currently reside. Even as Prakash’s voice is absent in
Waghmare’s narration, one may still glean such aspects of urban life that
compelled Prakash to abhor his return to his parental village. Prakash’s loathing
discomfort with the ensuing heat of rural Marathwada has already been
mentioned as his first abhorrent encounter with the reality of rural life upon his
return. The element of having to walk towards his house in such intense heat led
him to arrogantly scold his father for rural Marathwada’s fault in not having
modern means of transport. At another instance in the story, Prakash’s romantic relationship with a (presumably modern and educated) colleague at Aurangabad is narrated as constituting a major reason for why he felt repulsed by his parents'marriage proposal to Sita, his first cousin who resided in the village. Vithoba and Anjana constantly wonder why he has changed so much and why he has come to resent the life of the village which he used to heartily enjoy in his childhood. The answer is that the life of the city made him realize its superiority over the life of the village, hence he displayed no sense of nostalgia for either his childhood or his village.
The element of an irretrievable loss is very important in understanding the effect
of nostalgia, because nostalgia for the past is akin to the feeling of nostalgia for
one’s childhood. Its memory lingers in one’s mind as an adult, and the desire to
get back to the innocence of one’s childhood is a desire that cannot possibly be
fulfilled. One way to partially satisfy this desire is by returning to the place
where one grew up, say one’s childhood home. However, the difference in
comfort, luxury, and privilege is so stark for someone like Prakash that even the
desire to return to one’s childhood home does not arise in his mind. Urban and
educated upper-castes whose ancestral or childhood homes fall in villages or in
cities and towns mark a definite nostalgia because this difference in privilege
and comfort between their previous homes and their current ones is not so stark
for them as it is for Dalits. They feel, imaginatively and effectively, at home in
both the rural and the urban.
What concerns us here is the feeling of homelessness as felt by Prakash upon
his return in Waghmare’s short story. Vithoba, whose labor was exploited quite
harshly by the village bureaucracy, felt no such sense of homelessness. He felt
no great degree of dissatisfaction towards his home in the village. It would have
looked like a story of success and overcoming if it were told from the
perspective of Prakash. However, Waghmare had intended his short story to be a damning portrayal of the insensitivity and superficiality of certain white collar
(pandharpeshi) Dalits for their possessive individualism and lack of any social
and political commitment to the anti-caste struggle.
From our previous discussion, it is clear that Prakash from this short story could
be seen as a fictionalized figure of a generation of Dalits which did not have to
face the brunt of performing undignified caste-inherited labor. Vithoba here
memorializes the lack of love and sympathy that he encountered in his modern
and educated son. Their relationship is, however, shown to end in a resolved
complacency towards the end of the story.
Both have an inkling of being at home, one in the village and another in the city.
The son returns to his home in the city while the father remains in the village.
Vithoba and Anjana in the story do not, crucially, show any desire of shifting to
the city with their son.
Prakash is presented by Waghmare as the specimen of a thoughtless bourgeoisie
who after having migrated to the city does not appear to be concerned about its
emotional estrangement and his evasion from having meaningful social and
political commitments. Although modern urban life gave Prakash relative
material comforts, and whose absence in the village were not crucially
romanticized by him, he nonetheless could not understand and respond to his
parents’ need for emotional support. His only response towards them was one of
evasion. Vithoba’s disappointment in Prakash should be taken as his
disappointment with Prakash’s educated thoughtlessness which also made him
into an apathetic emotional stranger towards his family and community in the
village. Though in more explicitly political terms, Prakash’s orientation towards
his family is a case of a failure to extend the implications of one’s personal
‘arrival’ in modernity to its collective manifestation in the form of everyone’s emancipation from the servility of caste-labor as such. Here modernity is interpreted simply as referring to the material conditions of urban life in
Aurangabad as opposed to Prakash’s parental village, which are presented as a
stark contrast. Waghmare’s intention in portraying the peculiar thoughtlessness
of Prakash could be seen as portraying such regressive effects of capitalist
modernity and possessive individualism on the life and thought of the residents
of the city, typified by their emotional evasions from assuming any
responsibility for those lives that they come to negatively affect both within the
city and beyond it.
However, even Vithoba does not display any nostalgia in the narrative of the
story, whose hopeful orientation towards modernity is put to the test by the
thoughtless behavior of his son. He never regrets that he sent his son to the city
for his higher education, for he is truly happy in Prakash having a well-paying
and dignified government job in the city. Yet he is all too keenly aware of the
limitations of the liberating potential of modern education and employment,
which could not intensify or even retain the feelings of love in him, nor
enlighten him about the political prospects of collective i.e., social
emancipation. Prakash, unlike the figure of the Bodhisattva in the Buddhist
tradition, has no intention of stalling his personal “arrival” for the sake of social
emancipation and enlightenment. The thought of this possibility is what is
absent from Prakash’s mind, which is why his thoughtlessness is made into an
object of fictionalization by Waghmare in the story.
As compared to the aforementioned autobiographies of Jadhav (1993) and
Pawar (1978), which supply ample and important social commentary on the
dehumanizing aspects of caste in their respective tellings of rural-urban
migration, Waghmare’s fictionalized account deliberately eschews such a
critical view from both the generations discussed in his story. Waghmare’s narrative, therefore, leaves the reader without any aid in terms of a simple
“choice”, and that is why the story ends in a vein of resigned complacency.
Neither Vithoba, Anjana, or Prakash is intended as being a ‘role model’ for the
reader. What pushes through its narrative is the impetus of questioning the
thoughtlessness occurring around the processes of modernity and migration in
Marathwada, making their portrayal different insofar as none of the protagonists
of the story portray a sense of critical consciousness regarding the effects of
caste on rural and urban life.
Bouddhwada: The segregated part of the village where former “untouchables”
or neo-Buddhists live in Maharashtra.
Dalit: A name which the ex-untouchables use for self-reference as opposed to
undignified caste-names operative in Hindu society. The occurrence of this
name is dated back to the writings of Jotirao Phule and BR Ambedkar, and it
began to be popularly used after the emergence of the militant organization
named ‘Dalit Panthers’ in Maharashtra in the 1970s.
Marathwada: One of the main regions of Maharashtra, with Vidarbha to its east
and Khandesh and Konkan to the west. Aurangabad is the largest city of this
Patil: A name referring to the village headman in Maharashtra, which often
recurs in the form of surnames.
Pola: A rural festival in Maharashtra and neighboring states associated with the
ritual celebration of bulls and oxen due to them forming an essential part of
agriculture and allied activities.
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Ankit Kawade is an MPhil candidate at the Centre for Political Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His MPhil dissertation focuses on
F.W. Nietzsche's and B.R. Ambedkar's reading of the Manusmriti.
His research interests include political philosophy and Dalit studies.