by Francis (Frans) Baartmans mhm
The Mysterious Trail of the Tamarind
Voices from the Margin
In a recently published book Fr Francis Baartmans mhm presents a fascinating account of the Dalits of the Nagwa Basti in Varanasi, India. Extracts from this study will be serialised on this website over the coming days/weeks. (Instalment 1)
From the Foreword:
"The present book is a serious study on the Dalits in the Assi-Nagwa area of Varanasi. It deals with a community who lives in a colony in the midst of a rather upper-caste neighbourhood with a Brahmanic aura. Dr. Frans Baartmans' study is not a desk analysis of Dalits. He is a scholar, a social activist, a tireless catalyst for a transformation of a community while living among them for the last thirty- four years. He is heart and soul dedicated to the cause of making an unbroken identity out of a broken community. Baartmans is an exceptional transformational leader in this epoch of slow, yet emerging discourse on discrimination of a community wrought by the upper castes.
The author does not tell a story of wailing about a hapless people, but of a resolute dedication to uplift, adjust and bring a micro-community to a new liberated consciousness on their own.
He volunteered to share the same geographical space and lifestyle with the Dalits. There is a huge body of literature on the Dalit movement, particularly on the iconic figure of Dr. Ambedkar and his life but there are very few instances where the history of day-to-day life of a Dalit community at grass-roots level has been captured. Baartmans' work is a pioneering narrative of the life of Dalits.
In post-colonial India, Dr. Ambedkar's efforts to improve the lives of the Dalits brought about a new wave of consciousness. It resulted in the formation of an educated middle class and a State empowering the Dalits and their long cherished dream to live and walk under the sun without being enslaved by the longest serving feudal mentality and the Hindu Chaturvarna system of discrimination. But the infrastructural instruments have not been enough to fulfill the promises unless simple tools are provided at grass-roots level.
Francis Baartmans mhm
Francis Baartmans' story precisely describes this scenario. There has not been much of a "history of the oppressed" in India. This book addresses this historical deficiency. It meticulously records the details of the life of the residents of Nagwa Dalit Basti. But for the painstaking collection of data and interviews done by the author, the whole story of Nagwa Dalit Basti would have been lost merely as a pantomime in a foggy past.
The work also breaks through self-censorship practised by many social scientists who do not want to go beyond the stones of an old city and its humming rituals. This is a classic approach of the orientalists, fascinated by the facade of the oriental societies. Speaking of the great liberator Mahatma Gandhi, even he was for some initial years of his life mesmerized by the Western civilization but the colonial disappointment changed the course of events. When it came to the domestic matters, in 1933, Gandhi fasted when he felt very disturbed and disappointed with the inflexible as well as inhumane treatment by the Savarna Hindu society of their 'lesser' compatriots of the Dalit Community.
Orientalism is an art and craft of the West to define the non-West from a somewhat domineering vantage point of the West leaving its imprints on the subject surveyed. It would seem that Western scholarship on Varanasi becomes an unconscious exercise fraught with narratives which tend to ignore or to silence the struggling masses particularly the most marginalized as well as oppressed social classes. Dr. Baartmans, on the opposite hand is aware of this flawed scholarly approach.
Besides his scholarship, the author uses all his strength in the service of the discriminated families huddled in the Basti. The residents find solace, peace and a new purpose in their lives by having Baartmans living among them, sharing their joys and sorrows and opening a brand new world of opportunity for them. His anthropological observations do not come from a detached, insular scholarship but from the overflow of participation, sharing, and agape. This is what distinguishes his work from the body of work done by many anthropologists including the distinguished work of the late Prof. Bernard Cohen whose studies reached only at the doorstep of the Dalits.
"Dalit is a condition. Historically that condition has been imposed on Dalits by others, non-Dalits, by denying them language, by denying them their sense of self, a most precious human condition for the sense of ownership""