‘My Father Baliah’ written by Y.B. Satyanarayana is the earnest and often harrowing account of the lives of four generations of a Madiga family – a Dalit community from the Telengana region. It is part biography, part autobiography, capturing the lives of the Madigas in a pre-independence, newly independent and post-independence India. From his story, we understand that several Dalits benefited from the colonial rule in our country, which gave them opportunities that were previously denied. His grandfather started working in the railways as a pointsman, and it is this job that is the turning point for the Yelukatis. Forced into sharing living spaces with caste Hindus, they navigate a new world that is changing yet maddeningly constant. For instance, in the railway colonies, they do not have to follow the abhorrent practices their masters insisted on in the villages, but they still cannot draw water at the same time as Sudras. Their children now have access to schools, but the environment at home is far from conducive for involved learning – there are perpetual financial troubles, and no one to guide them through a rigorous academic program.
The author is honest, when he talks about the emotional and psychological impacts of centuries of oppression. Through him we realize how easy it is for such a community to believe in their own inferiority, and we learn to appreciate the effort it takes for someone to leave behind the boundaries of their upbringing. While the author’s parents had no formal education, they realized early on that hard work and education would lead the way to success. They work their way through every conceivable obstacle, so as to be able to provide an education for their children. They are also believers in the idea of self-respect, not because they are aware of Ambedkar, but because they consider it their right. These are the lessons they teach their children. ‘My Father Baliah’ is a tribute to Baliah, and Baliah’s wife – the people who made it possible for their children to beat the odds, to not just survive, but to thrive.
In what was a coincidence, the next book I happened to read was ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, which deals with many similar themes, in spite of being set in the Appalachian Mountains halfway across the world. It is a memoir written by J.D. Vance, who also beat the odds to go from a life of almost nothing to one of affluence.
During my first year in the US, I heard the word ‘hillbilly’ being used as a slur. I wanted to know what it meant. I was told that hillbilly referred to a boorish white person who had no idea of life in the city, a hillbilly was often ignorant and rude. I was also asked to not use that word. ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ tells us who a hillbilly really is, from the mouth of a hillbilly. The author, born in the region of America that exports workers to coal mines and manufacturing mills, explores the social rot that is widespread in his beloved mountains. He writes of how in the face of adverse circumstances, he was able to pick up the pieces of life, because he had his grandparents and his elder sister watching out for him. The most affecting part of his story is the domestic violence and poverty he had to witness growing up – with a mother addicted to drugs and a number of father figures who never stuck around long enough. He tries to arrive at the root of the problem, attempting to explain from the inside why this group of people lead such miserable lives. ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is the author’s tribute to his grandparents, without them he may have been lost.
What stayed with me after reading both these books is the idea of agency. The act of being responsible for one’s life, the importance of setting goals and working hard to achieve them, the motivation to keep trying, the desire to subvert society’s dangerously low expectations of them, the ambition to escape the negativity that was all around – it is these qualities that allowed them to rise above the circumstances they were dealt with. And of course the support group that constantly cheered for them, providing words of encouragement when material comforts were out of reach. These are stories of great courage, suffering and strength. They make me too aware of my own privilege, they demand I feel grateful.
P.S. ‘My Father Baliah’ is my first reading choice inspired by a Tamil movie (Kabali). In his introductory scene, Kabali is shown to be reading this book in prison. Interestingly, both books and the movie talk about dressing well – disadvantaged people do not always have to look a certain way.