Here was a pinkish-red staircase, and a small piece of sky and the white fairies of delirium and the handsome prince who would visit me and tease me.
I have peeled away the skin of my life and served it up to you. Some may say this fruit is inedible but that doesn’t matter …
I Want To Destroy Myself (Mala Uddhvasta Vhaychay) by Malika Amar Shaikh, now translated into English by Jerry Pinto, shows her growing up as the pale but intellectually rigorous second daughter of Amar Shaikh, the Communist Party worker, and, then as the wife of Namdeo Dhasal, the Dalit poet. Shaikh’s life-story begins with an almost-idyllic childhood, followed by the death of her father and marriage to Namdeo Dhasal, and then becoming a narrative of pain and suffering.
Throughout this constellating tale what remains constant is Shaikh herself—an autobiographical subject who is graphically represented as a female in pain, a writer who is suffering and thereafter recording each moment of pain. Shaikh’s life-story focusses on her pain, and Jerry Pinto as the translator says that: ‘I wept for the young woman with the endless meals and floors and nappies, for the boils and also for the kindness of strangers. It’s that kind of book’ (p. 11). Both Pinto and Shaikh remind the reader to recognize the autobiographical subject as a human in pain, a suffering self from among other possible self-representations. That all other representations quickly fade away and the reader sees only a female writer living in agony testifies to the inherent pull of pain—pain draws inward. Pain functions as a discourse.
Most autobiographies by Dalit men and women are testimonies of their painful lives and portray the gradual evolution of the writing subject. Pain acts as an agent of change, and the triumphant autobiographical self is linear, progressive, and projects an identity that challenges the societal norms. Shaikh’s autobiography is unique because it does not tell the story of any victory. Unlike Shantabai Kamble, Baby Kamble, Kumud Pawade, and Bama, Shaikh tells a story about losing control of her body, her desires and dreams, and then withdrawing into her abject conditions so much so that she wants to destroy herself—as the title of the book suggests. If Dalit autobiographies emphasize the universality of their abject conditions, Shaikh strives to portray the specificity of her pain. In the process, Shaikh creates a very unique autobiography—a tale that is sad and minutely chronicles the impossibility of any triumph —hence almost an impossible text to be retold in another language.
Shaikh’s unique life-story is a result of her unique historical location—she is the daughter of a Communist leader and wife of a Dalit revolutionary. She is a poet and recipient of the Maharashtra Balkaviyatri (child poetess of Maharashtra) Award in 1971-72. Through her father and husband she has imbibed the revolutionary ideals. She is disgusted to see the societal inequalities and supports her husband’s movement called the Dalit Panthers. But her ideals and dreams begin to leak when Dhasal, her husband, is indifferent to her, visits prostitutes in Kamathipura, and leaves her and their child in poverty and squalor. Shaikh has to feed guests, sometimes survive on borrowed money to provide food and shelter to her child, and once suffers from venereal sores (infected by her husband) but with no money to visit a doctor. To make matters worse, Dhasal beats her, and psychologically traumatizes her. From a child-poet, Shaikh is reduced to a life of bare survival.
This ‘memoir’, as Pinto calls it, does not have any ‘ladder of success’ (p. 200). Shaikh’s story is a story of a lonely woman, one who barely manages to survive hunger, childbirth, and, disease. She is ‘Chindyadevi’—the goddess of rags (as her father lovingly called her when she used pieces of cloth and flowers for the wedding of her dolls). She continues to be in pain even in the last page of the book. The readers are not even provided with a possibility of prosperity and grandeur. Yet it is a story that Shaikh decides to tell and Pinto strives to re-tell. For me, this story is important because it provides an alternative possibility to Dalit narratives. Those stories that do not have a life-altering triumphant tale also need to be told. Not every autobiographical subject has deliverance from pain. The uniqueness of a writing-subject in dissociating that self from painful memories is one of the many possible representations of selfhood—a realization that dawned upon me only after reading this autobiography.
Pain becomes a mode of experiencing selfhood in Shaikh’s narrative. Her act of writing about her pain is a way of coping with her life’s circumstances, and a means to survive in it. Her trajectory then does not require any epiphanic moment nor is it journey of self-discovery. The slow, excruciating details of her hungry and diseased body do not lead to any climatic moment in the text. Pinto’s translation follows this dispersed narrative of a self in pain. Even in the introductory note, Pinto eschews any metanarrative to Shaikh’s solitary painful journey. The reader is expected to read, feel, pause, perhaps cry with Shaikh.
Aratrika Das teaches at St. Stephen’s College, Department of English, University of Delhi,