ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Thieves of Identity

Baburao Bagul’s short story, “Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti,” reveals how caste fundamentally perpetuates different kinds of theft.

At Ramcharan Tiwari’s home, I was robbed.” This is how the unnamed protagonist of Baburao Bagul’s short story, “When I Hid My Caste,” translated in English by the ace novelist and translator Jerry Pinto in 2018, describes his torment when his identity of being an Untouchable becomes known to his colleagues from the Indian Railways in Gujarat. First published in 1963 under the title, “Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti,” this Marathi short story can justifiably be claimed as being Bagul’s most well-known and memorable one, perhaps rivalled only by his “Maran Swast Hot Aahe” (Death Is Becoming Cheaper) in how it shaped the contours of Dalit literature in Maharashtra and elsewhere. What is intriguing in Bagul’s story, about the impossibility of embodying a modern and emancipated identity as long as caste persists, is the theme of “theft,” which runs across its entirety as the main emotional hook.

Indeed, in the very beginning of the story when Bagul’s protagonist claims to have been “robbed,” he continues with “one of the thieves had announced that I had been hiding my caste [eka chorane jaat chorichi chori jahir keli]” (Pinto’s translation). Interestingly, Pinto chooses the word “hid” for “chorli” in the English version of the title, which somewhat obscures a crucial political insight about the nature of caste, as indicated in Bagul’s Marathi title. Bagul’s decision to choose the word “chorli” (literally, stealing or thieving) in the title of his short story, along with calling those who asked the protagonist his caste as “thieves” and “robbers,” raises a paradoxical question. Who is the (bigger) thief in Bagul’s story—the protagonist, who hides his caste due to the fear of prejudice and violence—or his colleagues, who harbour the perverse desire to find out the caste of their newest employee?

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