One of the most striking things that immediately occurs to the reader once they put down this magnificently important book, The Weave of My Life by Urmila Pawar, is the juxtaposition of the simplicity of the narrative and the language, and the strong and distinctly bold nature of the political significance of the autobiography, and what it aims to achieve. This book encompasses the slogan that gained immense traction during the second wave of feminism, ‘the personal is political’, and makes the reader rethink the distinction between the private and the public. Another substantial aspect brought forth by the immensity of the message that is highlighted by this book is that of representation. Popular literature, film, and art addressing various socio-political issues faced by Dalit women are often lacking first-hand narratives and rendering and are portrayed from a position of privilege. The Weave of My Life being an autobiographical account drawn from Urmila Pawar’s lived experiences through her childhood in the village and her adult life in an urban setting does complete justice in providing a nuanced sketch of the triple burden of patriarchal views, caste bias, and economic vulnerability faced by Dalit women.
Economically deprived from an extremely young age, having to bear witness to her father’s demise at a very tender age, the author paints a life of pain and agony that she bore witness to. The symbolism of the aaydan or the baskets, that her mother wove relentlessly to sustain her family and provide her seemingly unappreciative children with a sound education in age where literacy was barely given any importance, is a recurring theme that the author relates to as an adult and a mother herself. Often written off as individual and psychological, the problems emanating from a deep-seated hatred towards lower- caste women are hardly given any credence. Systematic denial of any opportunities towards progress have held down any movement forward in the regressive social hierarchy of society, which Dalit women find themselves on the lowest rung in. Education, a destabilizing factor was given utmost importance by the author’s parents who ensured that she went to school in an age where it was extremely uncommon for girls to be educated. As described by the author in her early years, the indifference towards education despite the conditions under which she was offered the opportunity to attend school, stemmed from the cruelty of the caste system which her teacher was an ardent subscriber of. Subjecting Dalit children to specifically inhumane tasks such as cleaning animal excreta and beating them in a Brahmanical setting like a schools and universities, where even the curriculum caters to the Brahminical viewpoint is a shockingly common phenomenon. The outlook towards education thus turns into one of utter distaste and education, an important tool in the annihilation of caste becomes a bitter experience. This early experience is in stark contrast with Urmila Pawar’s burning passion to obtain a graduate and post-graduate degree later on in the city. An exposure to various academic and literary events on Dalit rights and Ambedkarite ideals, along with listening to first-hand accounts of the working conditions of poverty-stricken manual scavengers, fueled the inner writer in her.
Through her literary works, Pawar was deeply integrated in the Dalit literary movement which started taking shape in the 1960s. The politics of representation have always diverted the focus of the movement from the actual objective. Pawar by writing in the language of the subaltern that directly rejects the largely accepted Hindu narrative intimately appeals to the masses. Identity politics presents in furtherance, the problem of inaccuracy in the sense that it fails to encompass other aspects of oppression. Urmila Pawar and Hira Bansode within the umbrella Dalit movement see the necessity for a focused Dalit Women’s organization to bring to the light the intersectional plights of a Dalit women and the triple edged sword of oppression that cuts her wings before she can fly. In tandem with the global intersectional feminist movement against race in the 1990s, Dalit women organized at national and international levels to recognize the cruelties presented by the caste system and to place their demands for basic access to justice and reorient the public’s perspective.
The dichotomy between men occupying public spaces and the woman’s role being limited to the household is a vicious product of the patriarchal views that govern our society. Urmila Pawar is seen challenging this established dichotomy through her determination to pursue university education, to take the front stage at various cultural and literary events organized by Dalit rights organizations, and in her passionate activism at the ground level. Her descriptions of the hard-working women in her village who she grew up around are extremely vivid. These women who toiled on the fields with their husbands and then came back to do even harder domestic work were also victims of the angry claws of hunger. Violence and hunger in the private sphere are seen as an ordinary part of a marriage in rural settings. The socioeconomic conditions Dalit women of the village reflected on their inability consume nutritious and healthy food, sacrificing whatever little food they could procure to the men and the elders of the family. It was often seen as the norm for these women in the private sphere to be nurturing, selfless and tolerant of the poor conditions that men from the Dalit community are already unfortunate sufferers of. A nuanced understanding of this dichotomy, which was the focal point of the second wave of feminism that the author found herself heavily inspired by, finds that the confinement of a woman within the four walls of the house was to check a woman’s autonomy and ensure that her identity remains relative to the man’s. Urmila Pawar by delving into the politics that determine a woman’s personal life, and by ensuring the visibility of the Dalit woman in the public through her activism, went on to be an extremely important figure in the de-gendering of spaces and resistance against the patriarchal notions of the idea of womanhood. The impact of her politics took a toll on her personal life, with her husband reacting poorly to the emancipation of the author. The author’s education, and her political life threatened her husband’s manhood as defined by societal norms. Often, a woman’s involvement in the public sphere leads to her victimization in the private sphere, and an increase in violence and harassment inside the home in order to establish patriarchal dominance in the private sphere.
The significance of The Weave of My Life, on the movement for the upliftment of Dalit women, its beautiful literary verses and the honest and unvarnished account of the events that shaped the author’s life shake the core of the reader. Drawing from Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Phule, the narrative put across in this book makes one re-question the societal ideals that they have adhered to their entire lives. The firsthand perspective of a Dalit woman as portrayed in this book provides the reader with a new vision to sensitize and work harder towards the annihilation of caste and reorient the resources of the democracy in a manner that truly ensures progress.
Hima Trisha is a third-year student of law, studying in Jindal Global Law School.