Funeral Procession

A Translation of Om Prakash Valmiki’s Shav Yatra

by V. Prem Lata

 A balhar family lived across a small lake in the village of chamars. This lake acted like a line of control between the balhars and the villagers. In rainy season the overflowing lake water   severed all connections  between balhars and villagers. Rest of the year due to low water level they somehow crossed the lake and reached the village. Poor balhars had no other means to reach there. No one ever felt the need to create a way for them too!

The chamars called from the other side of the lake whenever they needed their help. The lake wasn’t that big so their voice reached the balhars easily who rushed out on hearing their call.

Only two members were left in the balhar family, Surja who had become very old and his widowed daughter Santo who lost her husband after three years of marriage and came back to him. Surja had  lost his wife three years ago and Santo had taken the charge of both household and outside work. Anyhow Surja had also become frail with weak vision, still whenever possible he used to do light work of the village.

Surja had a son too who ran away when he was about ten – twelve years old. He wandered aimlessly for some time  and then found a job in railways which drew him towards studies. After qualifying his tenth examination and undergoing technical training he became a fitter in railways. Thus from Kallu ;his original name , he became Kallan.

Kallan bore all the expenses of Santo’s marriage. Surja was penny less. Kallan’s marriage was held in railway colony itself as his father- in- law was also in railways. His entire life style changed once his educated wife arrived.

 Once in a while Kallan visited the village, but whenever he came the chamars stared at him strangely. They were unable to accept his transformation from Kallu to Kallan. He was still a balhar in their eyes, lowest in the social system, the most untouchable of all the untouchables.

Kallan felt forlorn in the village. There was no one except his family with whom he could share a few words. Even the educated people of the village kept away from him. After all he was a balhar from across the lake! The villagers called him Kallu balhar, the address which he dreaded. It pierced him like a sharp knife and filled in him the feeling of baseness.

This time Kallan came to his village after a long time.“Bapu ,you come to Delhi with me” on reaching he told Surja “We shall stay together in my government quarter.”

“No beta! Now in these last days why to leave this village …… our ancestors came here long ago and settled here .They turned into ashes here in this soil and lived very much at this bank .Now where will we go?” Surja blinked his eyes while speaking as if he was searching something in the past.

Kallan looked at Santo who herself was desperate to get rid of this abasement. But  neither did she ever  have  the courage to refute her bapu’s words in the past nor does she have it now, she silently  sat   digging mud with her toes as if her thoughts were taking her so remote from where no bank of any kind was visible.“ Bapu here there is neither honour nor livelihood, in the eyes of chamars we are only balhars.…. we have to come here because of you….. my children don’t want to come here….. They don’t feel comfortable here….”

Interrupting him Surja said “Then beta!  Don’t come here…. I shall spend my time this way …I am only worried about Santo. She will be left all alone…. this decaying house may perhaps not see the next rain too. Since you are so concerned about me ,you get the house renovated….” the thought  which had occurred to him several times in the past, at last he spoke on sensing the  appropriate situation .

Bapu what will we gain by spending my little savings here? After your demise I shall not stay here and Santo will come to Delhi with me” Kallan said candidly.

Surja flared up on hearing this. Abuses poured out from his mouth. “Why should you wait till I die…. take her today itself. And yes don’t show me the power of your money… keep it with you…. when I have passed so many years in destitution  ….. the rest would also pass ” he yelled.

It  seemed  their dialogues had suddenly got scattered. A silence swept across.  

Kallan left for Delhi next morning and came back within a week after arranging the required money. His wife Saroj and ten year old daughter Saloni were also with him. They left their son at his grandmother’s place. “You talk to some mason, tomorrow a truck loaded with bricks will come” Kallan told him. Suraja’s eyes sparkled on hearing this. Though he couldn’t believe what Kallan said initially, Kallan convinced him. He immediately went out looking for mason.

Most of the village houses were constructed by contractor Suratram. “Construct my house also contractor ji” Surja requested him.

Suratram glared at him from top to bottom and thought he doesn’t have proper clothes to cover his naked body and wants to construct a house! Suratram was in hurry to go somewhere“ Today I don’t have time. We shall talk later” he laughed and deferred.

Without accepting defeat the next day at dawn Surja again embarked on his hunt. Sabir mason lived in the nearby village. Surja explained him the purpose of his visit.“Alright! I will come tomorrow and see. I will let you know my charges” he said.

“Sure Sabir ji , you come tomorrow… Our house is just across the lake” Surja was unable to conceal his joy. He was intoxicated with delight .His feeble body was brimming with renewed energy.

By the time he reached home, bricks had arrived. He forgot his exhaustion on seeing the red bricks. He was exhilarated. Never had he experienced such happiness!

The sight of the bricks across the lake was no less than a wonder for the villagers. It appeared as if an earth quake had hit the village. Many villagers were standing at the bank.

Ram ji lal was the president of the association of devotional songs. On Ravidas Jayanti the whole  night devotional songs were sung. He was also standing in the crowd. When he couldn’t resist he shouted “O Surja…who has brought these bricks?”

“My Kallan is getting my house renovated” an ecstatic  Surja shouted back.

Ramji lal was dumbfounded. “Surja it is a good thing! But before starting the work did you seek Pradhan ji’s permission?” he said suppressing the sudden surge of jealousy inside him.

Ramji lal’s words pierced Surja’s heart like an arrow. He felt as if a corrupt money lender was threatening him. Trying in vain to control his anger Surja snapped “What is the need to ask Pradhan?”

“But still you should have asked” saying this Ramji lal left but pushed Surja into a conflicting state of mind.

Ramji lal straight away went to Pradhan. He narrated with exaggeration the happenings across the lake to Pradhan Balwant Singh who didn’t show any reaction at that time. He nodded his head and sat running his hand over his moustache. He was a shrewd man who was aware of Ramji lal’s temperament too. But he somewhat became sad after Ramji lal left .The news of Surja balhar renovating his house was enough to disturb him. Moreover Surja was no longer useful to the village .

The news rapidly spread in the entire village that balhars are renovating their house across the lake. Now they have railway income, a truck loaded with bricks is there!  Cement ,sand, iron rods, gravels are coming! The news went on spreading to the extent that it seemed as though  it was not a house but the construction of a mansion on village’s bosom. Teak wood is coming for windows and doors, coloured marble tiles are also coming ! More mouths and   more talks!

Next day morning Pradhan’s messenger came across the lake. Surja had to go with a heavy heart.

Balram Singh shrieked on seeing Surja “with little money in your pocket you have forgotten your status! We didn’t permit balhars to live here so that later they would construct a mansion on our bosom….. the  land on which you live belongs to our ancestors. You remain the way you are … no one will raise any objection. If you try to raise your head you will be ousted from the village.”

Each word of Balram singh battered Surja’s body like a burnt arrow. The joyous and gruesome moments  of life started dancing before his eyes as if everything was recent. What had Surja not done for the village! He recalled Balram singh begging  for votes before him during elections ,and how then his status elevated to Surja brother from Surja balhar! Surja heaved a deep sigh and went back without answering. Balram called and attempted to stop him but he didn’t stop. The screams of Balram had by then transformed into abuses and could be heard outside too.

Surja reached home and told Kallan “You were correct Kallu…. this village is not worth living.”His long moustache was fluttering in fury. Tears had welled up in the corners of his eyes.

 “Bapu! Now also it is not too late….. anybody will buy these bricks, these people will not allow us to construct our house” Kallan attempted to explain but Surja had become obstinate this time and was not ready to yield. Surja repeated deep down in his heart “Let us see what will happen!”

“No beta...this time our house will be constructed …. I will give my life but I will not leave my village” Surja said firmly with self-pride.

Kallan got entangled in a strange dilemma. Of course in that moving emotional moment he brought the bricks but now the attitude of villagers was terrifying him . Oh! There should be no furore of any kind ! His wife Saroj and daughter Saloni had also come with him. But ever since they had come to the village, high fever had taken Saloni in its clutches. Saroj gave some tablets but the temperature didn’t come down. Saroj was getting worried and was repeatedly expressing  her desire of going back “Unnecessarily you are spending your money on this house. Santo will stay with us. You explain babuji.” But Kallan was unable to explain babuji. “Will it be right to disappoint babuji in the last moment?” when he asked  she became silent.

The whole night Surja remained awake and looked after the bricks. He didn’t bat his eye lids even for a second .Early morning he rushed  to call Sabir mason as he was  afraid that somebody might change Sabir mason’s mind . Now he didn’t trust anyone.

Saloni’s fever was not subsiding .Saroj told Kallan to get a doctor. There was only one doctor in the entire village. Kallan went to bring him.

The doctor refused the moment he saw Kallan. After simple queries he gave some medicines in small sachets. Kallan helplessly begged in all possible ways “Doctor sahib please come and see once” but doctor didn’t budge.“I will bring the patient to your clinic” Kallan again begged.

“ Oh no …… don’t bring here….. my clinic will be shut down from tomorrow. Don’t forget that you are a balhar! Doctor cautioned him bluntly “Give her these medicines ,she will be alright.”

A dejected Kallan came back. There was no improvement in spite of giving doctor’s tablets. Her body was burning with fever. High fever had made her delirious and she was continuously murmuring. Santo who was taking care of her didn’t move from there for a minute .Saroj was getting vexed and all sorts of qualms were tormenting her.

Surja who left the house in the morning came back in the noon. He was looking absolutely exhausted and  defeated. “What happened bapuji ?” seeing him in such a state Kallan asked. Surja replied listlessly “What else can happen? …. Mason has gone to meet his relatives. He will come after ten- twelve days….. beta I don’t think he will come” he sounded hopeless.

“Why bapu? But we agreed to pay his charges, still he has backed out” Kallan expressed his astonishment.

“Some villager might have stopped him….. Sabir is not such a man… .. he must have got frightened of them … can you see ….”Surja said as he plunged  into deep sorrow. They were both extremely anguished.

“How is Saloni?” he asked.

“Her condition has worsened. Tomorrow I will have to take her to a hospital” Kallan expressed his anxiety and concern.

“Should I call somebody who knows black art ….. perhaps it is some evil spirit” Surja expressed his doubt.

“No, bapu...tomorrow morning itself I will take her to the city. I just hope this night passes peacefully”. There was immeasurable agony in his voice. Surja tried to comfort him.

The whole night passed without sleep. Saloni‘s condition further deteriorated .Early morning he covered Saloni properly in a cloth and carried her on his back. Saroj was with him. They wanted to reach the city before noon.

The city was approximately 8-10 kilometres away. There was no transportation facility. Kallan had prayed to the affluent villagers to lend him a bullock cart ,but they were not ready to lend the cart to balhars.

It was becoming hard to walk with Saloni on his back. She was slipping again and again from his back. Kallan’s wife who was walking behind him was giving her support. They wanted to reach the city as soon as possible but the path seemed endless.

The sun was  reaching its zenith and  Saloni’s body was  becoming heavier. Her breathing had slowed down. When they were just  half a kilometre away from the city , suddenly Kallan felt as if Saloni’s weight had somewhat increased. The body which was burning had suddenly become cold. “Just see if Saloni is fine” he told his wife.

Saloni’s body was motionless. Saroj screamed  “What has happened to my beti?…… why is she not moving?……” she was weeping bitterly.

Kallan made Saloni lie at the road side. He was standing aghast and doomed. An indescribable turmoil arose within him. He couldn’t believe that a bubbly ten year old Saloni got transformed into a corpse in his hands. Everything happened before his eyes. They were wailing and yelling. The path was deserted. There was no one to hear their loud shrieks. They sat and wept for a long time like this. “What should they do now?”They were unable to think . They were sitting traumatized on the muddy road side holding the dead body of Saloni. After a long time he saw somebody coming from city side.  They saw a ray of hope !Perhaps this person could be of help to them.

The passer by stopped there for a moment, but without uttering a word he moved ahead. Perhaps he had recognized them as he was from the same village. It seemed to Kallan that the ‘caste’ of a person is everything.

At last they got up and started moving towards the village carrying the dead body of Saloni on their back. The burden inside them was heavier than the weight on their shoulders.  Saloni’s childhood  shouts were still bounding in their memory. They were heading to village with heavy hearts holding Saloni’s lifeless body but it seemed their journey didn’t have any end. It was taking more time in reaching the village than it took to reach the city. Saroj ‘s condition was also worrying him . She was somehow dragging herself. Kallan himself was shattered but he was somehow sustaining himself . Saroj  was half dead and she was just unable to walk.

Surja had seen them from a distance but could only recognize when they came nearer. He had got some premonition on seeing the hazy figures coming towards him. But what alarmed him was the way they were bringing Saloni .He came out of his house and stood  on the road. He couldn’t control himself on seeing the dead body of Saloni. He was wreathing with agony and  was inconsolably crying  hitting the ground with  both his hands .Tears were flowing unchecked from Kallan’s eyes too. Santo also came out on hearing their screams and cries. Oh! There was no one to console them.

Since they returned late from the city there was no time to call anyone. Their miserable state didn’t allow them to wait the whole night. Kallan wanted to cremate her body before dusk. Saroj was fainting again and again on seeing the lifeless body of Saloni .

Now wood was a problem! They didn’t have wood for the cremation of Saloni. Surja and Santo went in search of wood. They went pleading to the houses of chamars. But no one was ready to help them. In spite of wandering for almost an hour they couldn’t collect enough wood to properly cremate her body. There were some dried cow –dung cakes at home. “In place of wood use  these cakes” Santo said.  

The cremation ground of chamars was near the village .But balhars  didn’t have the permission to cremate their dead bodies there. They faced similar problem  when Kallan’s mother had died. The chamars had outrightly refused. They had to go at least two- three kilometres away from the village for cremation. Now how to carry Saloni’s dead body so far…..wood, dried cow dung cakes were also to be taken. There was no one who could help  Surja and Kallan.

No one from the village either came to touch the dead body or participate in the funeral procession. ‘Caste’ was detaining them. A bereaved Kallan tried in all possible ways. He went and met the members of Ravidas Association and Ambedkar Youth Association. But no one agreed to come forward to help in cremation. On some or the other pretext they all escaped.

Kallan recalled the eloquent speeches on the occasion of Amdekar Jayanti in railway colony but he instantly pushed aside all such thoughts. Inexplicable repulsion was raging within him. How shallow and ostentatious those speeches were! he sighed.

“Bapu! Don’t delay any more …..”Kallan told Surja. They lifted the wrapped dead body of Saloni. As per the custom of balhars women never went for cremation but Santo and Saroj didn’t have any other alternative except violating that custom. Santo kept the bunch of wood on her head and took the fire and pot in her hand and  Saroj followed her with a basket of dried cow dung cakes.

The wives of chamars were on their terrace to watch this funeral procession. The corners of their eyes were wet with tears. But they were powerless, encaged in the vicinities of customs!  Balhars were after all balhars! They were accustomed to carry not only their dead bodies but also those of others…..

Oh! the village of chamars and the balhar family!

Annotations

chamars– the community of leather workers in India, balhars– untouchables  ,bapu– father,beta– son, ji– suffix of respect ,  beti –daughter, Pradhan– head of the village

On Translating Om Prakash Valmiki’s: Shav Yatra

The story is set in a village in modern India . Although ‘untouchability’ was abolished in 1949, even today in India  dalits- untouchables  continue to face discrimination, economic deprivation, violence, and ridicule as depicted in the story through balhar family . Om Prakash Valmiki is well known for his autobiography Joothan ,a milestone in Dalit literature which presents Valmiki’s heroic struggle as a dalit . His works endeavour to usher in the much needed revolutionary societal transformation and raise our consciousness.

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