Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan is an autobiographical account that talks of growing up in a village near Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh in an untouchable caste Chuhra. A teacher with a different life-history undertakes a journey with Valmiki, and rediscovers the relevance of empathy and compassion.
It is often said that there is no end to learning; till the moment we die we keep evolving and blooming. True, as far as the formal/institutionalized process is concerned, education means a linear stage of development—from school to university: we study ‘legitimate’ texts chosen on the basis of our measured aptitude and intelligence, pass examinations, and acquire degrees and diplomas. But then, the curved and complex trajectory of life is full of surprises, and it is through this journey that we learn some deeper truths of existence. An intense experience, a moment of pain and separation, a longing for love, a river, a poem, a song, a journey, a look at the sky, a sudden discovery of a book—something happens, and we undergo a process of transformation. At a higher level, to speak of education is to speak of these puzzling experiences, this lifelong journey.
In this small piece I wish to speak of one such experience. I love to read books—academic/ non-academic, poetry/ philosophy, biography/travelogue. Quite often, the books I love to read are outside my purely professional realm, and it is really great to feel that many of these books—not my school/university prescribed syllabus—have changed me , and enlarged my vision of the world. As I write this piece, Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan: A Dalit’s Life comes to my mind—particularly what he passed through at his village school when he was a child—his experience of humiliation, agony and pain. I know that my life- world is different. Unlike Valmiki who was born in the Chuhra caste, I am privileged because of my ascriptive identity—my location in a Hindu forward caste family. As a result, never did I feel what Valmiki experienced: ‘Untouchability was so rampant that it was considered all right to touch dogs and cats or cows and buffaloes, if one happened to touch a Chuhra, one got contaminated or polluted. The chuhras were not seen as human. They were simply things for use.’ Moreover, my school days (unlike what Omprakash as a child passed through) were pleasant. My two elder brothers studied at the same school; in our small town most of my teachers knew my parents; in a way, I was loved, pampered, taken care of. For me, there was no reason to complain. Never did I carry any stigma. The world around me was beautiful—school, good marks, caring teachers, positive reports. But can I generalize my experience? I can idealize my teachers. But is it possible for everyone to do so? See the way Valmiki speaks of his teachers: ‘ The ideal image of the teachers that I saw in my childhood has remained indelibly imprinted on my memory. Whenever someone starts talking about a great guru, I remember all those teachers who used to swear about mothers and sisters.’ Valmiki’s observations shatter me. Because I still see a high degree of moral/ethical values in some of my teachers. However, I do not escape. I wish to understand Valmiki’s anguish. I undertake a journey with him. It was 1958—Gandhiji’s uplifting of the untouchables was resounding everywhere. Although the doors of the government schools had begun to open for the untouchables, ‘the mentality of ordinary people’, says Valmiki , ‘had not changed much’. See the way he recalls his early days at school:
‘One day the headmaster Kaliram called me to his room and asked: ‘Abey, what is your name?’
“Omprakash,’ I answered slowly and fearfully. Children used to feel scared just encountering the headmaster. The entire school was terrified of him.
‘Chureka?’ Headmaster threw his second question at me.’
‘All right…See that teak tree there? Go. Climb that tree. Break some twigs and make a broom. And sweep the whole school clean as a mirror. It is, after all, your family occupation.
Go…get to it.’
Where is that affection, that care that I saw in my teacher? Omprakash was not as lucky as I was. I ask myself whether it is ever possible for me to understand what it meant to him: ‘I had to sit away from the others in the class , that too on the floor. Sometimes I would have to sit way behind everybody, right near the door. And the letters on the board from there seemed faded. The children of the Tyagis would tease me by calling me ‘Chureka’. Sometimes they would beat me without any reason. …The boys would beat me in any case, but the teachers also punished me. All sorts of arrangements were tried so that I would run away from the school and take up the kind of work for which I was born.’ No wonder, there was no end to his agony; there was nobody to see his hidden tears. For two days, as his text informs us, he kept cleaning the entire school. Yet, his headmaster was not happy.
’The third day I went to the class and sat down quietly. After a few minutes the headmaster’s loud thundering was heard: ‘Abey Chureke, motherfucker, where are you hiding…your mother…’
I had begun to shake uncontrollably. A tyagi boy shouted, ‘Master Saheb, there he is, sitting in the corner.’
The headmaster had pounced on my neck. The pressure of his fingers was increasing. As a wolf grabs a lamb by the neck , he dragged me out of the class and threw me on the ground. He screamed: ‘Go, sweep the whole playground…Otherwise I will shove chilies up your arose and throw you out of the school.’
Yes, I have studied about caste—its inherent hierarchy, its ‘purity vs. pollution’ duality, its principle of exclusion and violence. Yes, as a so-called ‘good’ student I have understood it—at least intellectually. But never did I experience it because of my privileged location. However, Valmiki’s experiential account comes out of printed words; it enters my being, touches my soul. And something happens. I begin to develop a very important faculty of learning—empathy . I can imagine myself in the position of Valmiki. And as a result, I realize how important it is to see beyond one’s limited horizon, and understand others. And this leads to the growth of yet another faculty of learning—compassion: the ability to go beyond oneself and heal others.Furthermore, I begin to realize that I cannot fight the ugliness of caste hierarchy only through my ‘intellect’ and ‘politics’. Unless I become sensitive, and my ‘self’ incorporates the ‘others’, I cannot overcome division, duality and hierarchy. Politics without inner light does not curb the disease; instead, it reproduces it.
And above all, I realize how difficult it is to evolve as a teacher. A teacher is not just a subject-expert; a teacher is not just an administrator managing ‘order’ in the classroom; a teacher is not an authoritarian figure causing terror. A teacher, I feel, ought to embody the universal—the flow of eternal life-energy that makes no distinction on the basis of caste, creed and religion; and instead, sees the divine in every child. And how important it is in a society that is so ruthlessly hierarchical! The headmaster Valmiki described was the complete negation of the spirit of the being of a teacher. Valmiki comes in my dream: Does that headmaster exist in me? Does my privilege make me indifferent to others? Does it make me a sado-masochist? It haunts me. I become alert and reflexive. And I tell myself: there is no end to learning; the realization of the spirit of a good teacher—sensitive, humane, egalitarian— is not a finished product; it is a lifelong process.