When I read Vultures written by Dalpat Chauhan, translated from the Gujarati by Hemang Ashwinkumar, I had tears in my eyes long after I closed the book. The bleakness of the main protagonist Iso’s life, as well as the life of all the untouchables continued to haunt me. Never has a book affected me as much as Vultures did.
Originally written in 1991, as a Gujarati novel titled Gidh, its English translation suitably titled Vultures is a stark and unflinching portrayal of custom-sanctified violence, debt bondage and caste labour.
The story starts with Bhalabha visiting a paan shop to buy bidis and matchbox. A small boy (the owner’s grandson) sitting at the counter, triggers some memories, all unpleasant, in Bhalabha’s mind. As Bhalabha doddles with his walking stick to his house (vaas) in the Tanner’s lane, his eyes turn to an empty plot of land, now over run by dry grass. It had belonged to Ghemar, his wife Vhali and their only child, their son Iso. This sets forth a chain of memories, with Bhalabha morphing into his younger self and plunging us right into Iso’s life and story.
Young and handsome Iso, nearly fifteen years old, is a bonded labourer working in Mavajibha’s field. Shrewd Mavajibha and his calculating wife Fulima ensured that they got their money’s worth from their serfs (labourers) by squeezing as much work as they could from them. The other serf Velyo was always missing in action, and Iso had to shoulder all the responsibility. The ploughboy Shanoji was a serf too, but unlike the other two, he had a share in the farm produce, besides he was a Thakore, thereby lording it over them. Lazy and a drunkard, Shanoji had eyes for buxom Diwali, Mavajibha’s daughter.
Diwalinearly the same age as Iso, both of them had been married off in their childhood, Diwali to a landlord’s son and Iso to a childbride of his own caste from an adjoining village. Diwali is constantly flirting with Iso and he is always running away from her.
Iso’s parents, his father Ghemar who made flat-soled slippers and his mother who cut grass and threshed grains in the fields of the rich landlords, both lived an extravagant life which resulted in their son Iso slaving in Mavajibha’s field, first as a pendhariyo (kid-slave) then as a serf, in exchange for food, in a series of traps called auto-renewing annual bonds.
The story transports the readers into the fields, under the harsh sun, watching Iso lament his accursed destiny, doomed to endless drudgery, Iso wished for a free unfettered flight, much like the vultures and kites soaring overhead. The writing is so visual that when Iso accompanies his friend Ranacchod and others, to a field to carry a dead buffalo to the scrub where the buffalo’s meat will be distributed amongst the tanners, weavers, scavengers and others, the reader is with them every step of the way.
As the story unfolds one sees a train of horrors being unleashed on Iso, for no fault of his. His only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The brutalities inflicted by the upper caste on the Dalit labourers, the way they are oppressed and suppressed, holds a mirror to the collective conscience of society which has allowed caste hierarchy and cast supremacy to reign supreme and heap atrocities over the untouchables.
The title “Vultures” has many symbols: the large birds of prey constantly wheeling overhead in search of food/prey, the human vultures aka the rich landlords who peck at their bonded labourers, reducing them to bare bones, by subjecting them through the rigorous daily drudgery. Vulture has another symbolism, the free life the bonded labourers craved, the freedom to come and go as they pleased. There is a wealth of books written in the regional languages, Vultures is one such gem. My advice would be to grab that shiny gem.
By Dalpat Chauhan
Penguin Random House
pp. 328, Rs.599...