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[Book Review] Urmila Pawar's 'The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman's Memoirs' (2008)

"My mother used to weave aaydans. I find that her act of weaving and my act of writing are organically linked. The weave is similar; it is the weave of pain, suffering, and agony that links us."

Urmila Pawar's memoirs are so much more than mere autobiographical accounts. Translated into English by Maya Pandit, this keynote feminist text introduces the reader to a world hitherto unknown to them. Urmila takes the reader from life in the hills of the Konkan region, through the socio-cultural context of the Mahar community before the Ambedkarite movement reached them, to the homes and minds of people from within and without the community, to the chawls of Mumbai, life as a writer and woman activist who is a mother, to the workings of the dalit and feminist movements in the latter half of the past century.

With her uniquely fresh, witty, and unapologetic style, Urmila sets the tone for this riveting account through which she confronts the breathtaking beauty and the imperfections, the gross ugliness and the hard truths of life as she experienced it. The book begins with Urmila's recollection of life as a child. She lived with her family nearer to the market town of Ratnagiri, where women from her ancestral village, Phansawale, would come to sell their wares every day after embarking on a back-breaking journey at the crack of dawn, and returning late in the day. The women found the only refuge from their ever-busy lives when they walked to and from Ratnagiri; it was a time of sharing pain, offering consolations, and expressing themselves freely.

Refreshing, poetic interludes paint the picture of a community and life cradled in the arms of nature. At the same time, we see lives being turmoiled due to human (social) constructs. When they were little, Urmila and her siblings would travel with the women some days, and return to Ratnagiri on the women's morning trips to the market. Of these trips, she writes:

"Women and their clothes would carry mixed smells of cashew nuts, mangoes, grass, wood, ash, cow dung, and earth. Even the anecdotes they narrated to us carried the smells of various objects and things, living and otherwise. They evoked a fragrance of mango blossoms and flowering kuda trees, the soil soaked in the first rains, of mud, moss, gum, and other juices oozing from the trees... And sometimes they carried sounds such as the murmuring of a flowing river, splashing of streams, and chirruping of birds."

Urmila writes poignantly about the rich, inner lives of women, and of her family, community, and village's history. Several themes surface: oppression of women within their homes and at the hands of the community, caste oppression experienced by the Mahars through long-held Hindu rituals and religious practices, historical accounts of community and individual rebellion and negotiation with systems of power, joys and sorrows of living in a close-knit community, and finding peace in one's circumstances.

Urmila recounts numerous childhood experiences and her early confrontation with the caste system. She talks about the festivals and rituals that her community partook in, and through such memories, brings forth the nature of caste oppression in a way that doesn't make the privileged 'Savarna' reader feel guilty or sorry, but which makes them think about the way in which they perceive Hinduism. The broad-brush, supposedly pan-Indian image of 'Hindu' festivals, traditions, rituals, and practices is at once unmasked and is forced to face itself.

Mumbai's chawls.

Urmila's eloquent writing turns noticeably witty as she explores and examines the world around her as a young woman. Then, it cuts to a balanced recounting of her writing and activism. She writes, no holds barred, about her experiences of the erotic and the deeply personal, her failings as a mother, her moral conundrums, among other things. She proceeds to describe, in detail, her story as the scene shifts to Mumbai. We learn how writing became crucial to her existence, how she grew as a writer of prominence in the Marathi canon, and how, eventually, she successfully founded a women's literary conference; here, she doesn't hold back from an honest, much-needed critique of feminist and dalit politics.

The non-linear timeline followed within each chapter reflects the stream-of-consciousness style; the scenes flit between childhood experiences, recollections of early days of marriage, learnings from professional practice, motherhood, and the recent. It truly is the weave of life.

This makes the read fast-paced, yet deeply moving and thought-provoking throughout. Towards the end, Urmila writes: "I expect nothing from the readers. I want them to see that each person's life is a social document. If they look at what I have written as a part of what life is like, that would be enough for me."

Some readers (much like the writer of this review) might have hitherto known little about the challenges of intergenerational social mobility of dalits, or the intensity of their struggle to claim the space that has been historically denied to them. The influence of Phule, Ambedkar, and to some extent, Marx, in shaping the lives and ideas of the dalit was a riveting phenomenon to read about; how a community consciousness was raised and roused, experienced and lived, shook me. I had known little about just how significantly the neo-Buddhist movement has shaped and changed people's lives. Here I was, a person with significant social and economic privilege, looking at the early struggles of (dalit) women as they negotiated their way through a modern world, carried onwards by the dalit and feminist struggle. Something within me moved, opening me up to a deeper understanding of the lives invisibilised under the label of 'marginalized'. This book has a lot to offer for anyone willing to receive it.

This book can be purchased here.

This Night Owl Original has been authored by Pallavi Singh. They are the co-founder and editor-in-chief at The Night Owl Writes.


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