Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Weave of My Life by Urmila Pawar

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The Weave of My Life
by Urmila Pawar

Hardback: 320 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press
First Released: 2003

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Source: Review copy from publisher

Back Cover Description:
Activist and award-winning writer Urmila Pawar recounts three generations of Dalit women who struggled to overcome the burden of their caste. Dalits, or untouchables, make up India's poorest class. Forbidden from performing anything but the most undesirable and unsanitary duties, for years Dalits were believed to be racially inferior and polluted by nature and were therefore forced to live in isolated communities.

Pawar grew up on the rugged Konkan coast, near Mumbai, where the Mahar Dalits were housed in the center of the village so the upper castes could summon them at any time. As Pawar writes, "the community grew up with a sense of perpetual insecurity, fearing that they could be attacked from all four sides in times of conflict. That is why there has always been a tendency in our people to shrink within ourselves like a tortoise and proceed at a snail's pace." Pawar eventually left Konkan for Mumbai, where she fought for Dalit rights and became a major figure in the Dalit literary movement. Though she writes in Marathi, she has found fame in all of India.

In this frank and intimate memoir, Pawar not only shares her tireless effort to surmount hideous personal tragedy but also conveys the excitement of an awakening consciousness during a time of profound political and social change.

The Weave of My Life is the memoir of an "untouchable" caste woman in India. She is an excellent storyteller, skillfully bringing her stories alive in my imagination.

She gives details of what daily village life was like in the time of her grandmother, mother, and in her childhood. She also talks about how things have changed for the Dalits during her lifetime. She gives some information about Hinduism and Buddhism and the political movements that helped change life for the Dalits, but generally only as it directly impacted her life. The first half of the book is full of general stories about her relatives and her childhood and gives the reader a look into their culture. The second half focuses more on specifics of her life story (including life in a city and dealing with the changing times in regards to the untouchable castes). I found it all very interesting.

Most of the bad language in the book was indicated using the "he cursed" style. A minor amount was spelled out, mostly when she was relating specific dialogue she had overheard.

Overall, I'd highly recommend this fascinating memoir to anyone interested in what life was like for the untouchable castes in India and how things are changing for them.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
Women from our village traveled to the market at Ratnagiri to sell various things. They trudged the whole distance with huge, heavy bundles on their heads, filled with firewood or grass, rice or semolina, long pieces of bamboo, baskets of ripe or raw mangoes. Their loads would be heavy enough to break their necks. They would start their journey to Ratnagiri early in the morning. Between our villages and Ratnagiri the road was difficult to negotiate as it wound up and down the hills. It was quite an exhausting trip.

When they came to the first hill, the vexed women would utter the choicest abuses, cursing the mool purush of our family, who, had he heard them, would have died again. The reason for the abuse was quite simple. It was he who had chosen this particular village, Phansawale, in the back of beyond, for his people to settle. It was an extremely difficult and inconvenient terrain, as it lay in an obscure ditch in a far-off corner of the hills. Two high hills stood between the village and the outside world. The steep climbs, with their narrow winding paths full of jutting sharp stones and pebbles, were extremely slippery. One wrong step and one would straightway roll down to one's death somewhere in the bottom of the deep valleys. Then there were two big rivers to cross. These rushed down the hills, looping through thick forests and valleys, their bellies carrying who knows what under the deep water. But that wasn't all! After crossing the hills and the rivers, the women had to walk quite a distance on a long, dusty, and dirty path till they reached the city. Every time a toe crushed against a jutting stone, a curse rang out, probably making the poor ancestor turn in his grave.

Occasionally, the women heard the bloodcurdling roars of a tiger even in broad daylight and, indeed, incidents of tigers attacking people on their way were not uncommon. Danger lurked everywhere. It crawled across one's path in the form of poisonous snakes such as ghonus and phurse who looked as if they wanted to inquire casually after the travelers. The barren open spaces were covered with shrubs as sharp as the teeth of those creatures and resembled some ancient armor. The howling wind, ferocious enough to topple one to one's death, blew continuously. Then there was a huge, deep well on the way, without any protective walls around, shrouded in the mist of chilling stories of evil spirits lurking there. And as if all this were not enough, there would be freaks and perverts, hiding in shrubs and trees, who occasionally assaulted the helpless women. They would be tense not only because of the obvious threat these miscreants posed but also because of what it would do to their reputations.

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