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Valmiki tells a riveting story of growing up in a village in the newly independent India. It is a story of survival, of oppression as grievous as slavery or apartheid, and of victory, as the author gets an education and learns to embrace his identity and become a spokesman for his community. Omprakash Valmiki's "Joothan," an autobiographical account of his birth and upbringing as an untouchable, or Dalit, in the newly independent India of the 1950s, is one of the first portrayals of Dalit life in north India from an insider's perspective. "Joothan" literally means scraps of food left on a plate, destined for the garbage or for the family pet in a middle-class urban home. It is related to the word "jootha," which means polluted, and such scraps are characterized as "joothan" only if someone else eats them. India's untouchables have been forced to accept and eat "joothan" for their subsistence for centuries. The word encapsulates the pain, humiliation, and poverty of this community, which has lived at the bottom of India's social pyramid for millenia. Although untouchability was legally abolished in the constitution of the newly independent India in 1949, Dalits continue to face discrimination, economic deprivation, violence, and ridicule.
Traditionally, Indian literatures have either ignored untouchables or portrayed them as victims in need of saviors, as objects without voice or agency. Valmiki has broken new ground with an authentic recording of these unrepresented experiences. He tells the stories of life in the untouchable caste of Chuhra, at the bottom rung of society; his heroic struggle to survive this preordained life of perpetual physical and mental persecution; the cruel obstacles he overcame to become the first high school graduate of his neighborhood; his coming to consciousness under the influence of the great Dalit political leader B. R. Ambedkar; and his transformation into a speaking subject bearing witness to the oppression and exploitation that heendured as an individual and as a member of a stigmatized and oppressed community.
Dalits today constitute about one sixth of India's population. Spread over the entire country, speaking many languages, and belonging to many religions, they have become a major political force. As a document of the long silenced and long denied sufferings of the Dalits, "Joothan" is not only a contribution to the archives of Dalit history, but a manifesto for the revolutionary transformation of society and human consciousness.
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