Monday, June 5, 2023
Support Our Journalism
HomeThePrint ProfileBabytai Kamble — the Mahar icon who was 'reborn' to write about...

Babytai Kamble — the Mahar icon who was ‘reborn’ to write about Dalit women’s subjugation

Babytai Kamble's 'The Prisons We Broke' subverted the traditional, casteist representation of Dalits across Indian literature. It gave women a voice.

Text Size:

In 1929, in Veergaon, a small taluka village in Pune, the cold body of a one and a half-year-old lay on the lap of a woman at night. A couple of young men from the ‘maharwada’ — the Mahar community — armed with hoes and spades started digging a grave in a nearby garbage pit.

‘You buried all my daughters in the night. Now let me at least hold this girl in my arms till the break of the day. Let me gaze at her face, I won’t see it again,’ the woman told them as her relatives sat around her, reading verses from  Pandav Pratap. In the wee hours of dawn, as the reading reached chapter 11, the eyelids of the ‘dead’ baby fluttered. Just like that, Babytai Kamble, as she will come to be known, was resurrected, ‘reborn’. And went on to leave behind a legacy of freedom, equality and self-expression for Dalit women.

Also Read: Dalit poet Lal Singh Dil was true ‘faqir’ who understood Punjab economy better than govt

Dailt autobiographies and Jina Amacha

One of the most prominent ways in which Dalit voices have managed to carve out their own space is through autobiographies. Babytai Kamble’s autobiography Jina Amacha (The Prisons We Broke) does the same by not just sharing her own stories but also

subverting what has been the traditional, casteist representation of Dalits across Indian literature.

In an interview published in her autobiography, Babytai Kamble highlighted how Dalit narratives are built on a sense of community over individualism.

“I wrote about what my community experienced. The suffering of my people became my own suffering. Their experiences became mine. So, I really find it very difficult to think of myself outside of my community.”

For Dalit women, this narrative voice becomes even more crucial as they are often caught between layers of Brahmanical and Dalit patriarchy, with no means of escape or expression. Kamble writes in The Prisons We Broke: “There is a saying that a black cow can survive even on thorns. Our women were like that proverbial black cow. Even on occasions when they had a right to be indulged a bit, they had to fill their stomachs with thorns to stay alive.”

Also Read: Don’t remember the 1857 Mutiny with Rani of Jhansi alone. You’re missing out on Uda Devi

Voice of the Mahar community

Babytai belonged to the Mahar community, considered ‘untouchable’ within the established caste hierarchy in India. She excelled in her various roles as a teacher, a human rights activist, an entrepreneur and a champion of women’s rights.

She had examples in her own family, which she used as inspiration apart from B.R. Ambedkar’s teachings. Her grandmother, Sitavahini, is known to have led the revolution against the Dalit community eating dead cattle meat.

Kamble’s autobiography brings to light the triple subjugation –gender, caste and patriarchy — that Dalit women suffer when she talks about the expectations of her as a wife and daughter-in-law. A passage in her book describes how newly married women were mistreated in their in-laws’ house: “Attyabai, come and see what happening here is. Didn’t you think that I’d brought the daughter of a good woman into my house? Look at the bhakris this slut has prepared. She cannot even make a few bhakris properly. Oh, well, what can one expect of this daughter of a dunce?”

Despite her own business, she was expected to also be a ‘good’ wife and perform all chores, even if it meant getting up at 3 in the morning. Kamble gave birth to 10 children, three of whom died in childhood. Access to basic facilities like a hospital was denied to Dalits.

Also Read: Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Bengali Dalit leader who went on to become a Pakistani minister

A life of her own

‘Baby’ was a name given to Kamble affectionately by her peers and supporters. She was married to Kondiba Kamble when she was 13. Struggling with poverty, the young couple opened a provision store. Babytai was inspired by Ambedkar’s advice on starting a business and started by selling grapes.

It was at the shop that the activist had her first brush with the literature of the world — through newspapers she used to wrap the provisions for customers. Kamble had completed only till fourth grade but with severe discrimination. As a Dalit child, who was eventually married, her formal education remained incomplete.

Kamble’s involvement in business and her exposure to literature marked a crucial change in her life, as she understood the importance of both literacy and earning. Kamble started writing her own book soon after but decided to hide it from her family for nearly 20 years.

“I hid everything I wrote in the most ignored and dusty corners. My son had started going to school when I started to write. So for me he was a knowledgeable, learned man. I used to be scared of both my son and my husband, scared of their reaction,” she said.

Kamble also wrote a collection of poems in Marathi — Man Bolata. But it is Jina Amacha that, to date, remains one of the most popular and powerful assertions of the lived experiences of a Dalit woman.

Also Read: P Kakkan, the Dalit leader who opened Meenakshi temple’s doors to scheduled castes

Resistance and revolution

Babaytai actively participated in the Mahila Mandal formed by Raja Malojiraje Nimbalkar and his wife Lakshmibai in Phaltan, Maharashtra. Since her father would not allow her mother to attend meetings held by the Mandal, Kamble decided to attend them instead.

The organisation focused on Dalit women’s right to education and employment and fought for social equality for the Dalit community. Kamble also ran an ashram for children of the disadvantaged communities in Nimbure, Maharashtra.

She was aware that education provided the kind of empowerment Dalits lacked. Her own experience was proof of that. In fact, once women from her community started getting an education, they also began attending meetings. It was Ambedkar who made it possible.

Ambedkar’s clarion call for education brought about a narrowing of the gap between Dalit men and women when it came to access and action. Probably it was because a man was speaking, but Babasaheb’s words made men encourage and support their wives as they lead demonstrations and meetings, to reduce caste-based discrimination in society.

Kamble says, “They (the women) got a lot of encouragement from their menfolk as well. And both their young and old family members staunchly stood by them. Baba sent telegrams and asked people to do something. Immediately preparations got underway.”

Babytai Kamble passed away on 21 April 2012 at the age of 82.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular