A young boy and girl drawn to each other by the first rush of physical attraction, both testing social propriety—this has been the basis of numerous love stories on screen and in print. And yet, in the hands of Gujarati Dalit literary icon Dalpat Chauhan, this template takes off on a fiery tangent, one that lacerates the comfort of the world you know, taking you to another where caste determines how you live, breathe and die.
Chauhan is known for his powerful commentary on the oppression faced by Dalits and Adivasis. Vultures, translated from the Gujarati (Gidh, 1991) by Hemang Ashwinkumar, is a horrifying reminder of the inequalities wrought by an entrenched caste system.
The story is based on a real incident, the murder of a young Dalit boy by upper-caste Rajputs in 1964, in a village in Gujarat. The title is a nod to society’s deep aversion to vultures; they symbolise the way Dalits are treated and perceived.
An old man, Bhalabha walks home from a small shop owned by an upper-caste man. As he slowly makes his way, the narrative acquaints the reader with the village itself: the segregation of houses by caste, the difference in atmospherics in each lane, decided by the nature of work of the caste living there. Bhalabha, our narrator, takes us through the fate of a neighbour, a tanner, whose young son, Iso, is an indentured labourer at a landlord’s house.
The barren world of the lowest, in a toxic casteist and feudal order, is brought home with the token payment Iso and others receive in return for round-the-clock work—a bowl of gruel. It is driven home in the description of how a carcass is carved up, distributed for food and then cured in the sun. The weight of the animal, the stench, the clamour for meat amongst humans, birds and animals of prey, and the dark reminders of the acute hunger of those toiling in the fields—all these establish the mood and caste politics of the novel’s setting.
The only two female characters are victims of the system. There is Vhali, Iso’s mother, who slaves away like her husband but must be servile to him. Then there is Diwali, the girl who, like Iso, has been married as a minor. She discovers the temptation of physical desire and throws caution to the wind with the safety net of her social place as the landlord’s daughter. Diwali’s transgressions, however, make Iso a victim.
A passage where Iso is being beaten to near death, the pain making him imagine himself as a buffalo being cut and carved up, will stay on with you, as will the book.
Vultures is published by Penguin Random House India, 328 pages, Rs. 599.
Chitra Ahanthem is a Delhi-based journalist.