Urmila Pawar's Memoirs: Weaving a Tale of Life on the Margins

in Article
Published on: 31 October 2018

Vaishnavi Mahurkar

Vaishnavi completed her Master's in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Urmila Pawar’s autobiographical work, Aaydaan, translated by Maya Pandit as The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman's Memoirs, is an important milestone in Dalit women’s writings. This article will highlight some of the key aspects of the text which reveal the viewpoint of Dalit women. Often, the upper caste critique of these memoirs has been along the lines that an individual story cannot be generalised to a community’s experience. However, when there is a pattern to these several individual stories, the reader must look at the underlying social structure that allows for such oppression and violence to be perpetuated, as is depicted and illustrated in several of the memoirs of these women.


Pawar’s memoir is a story that gradually unravels the story of her awakening as a Dalit girl living in a small village near Ratnagiri, and her journey from there to Mumbai. The story of her life is woven around the eventual stirring of the Dalit feminist in her. It is written in a manner that allows the reader to understand and empathize with her experience of caste discrimination in school; she, and numerous others around her were the victims of discrimination due to caste and gender.


Pawar’s story weaves together the struggles faced by the women in her life—her mother, her sister, and numerous other women she crossed paths with. She is able to project her struggle to discover her identity and her need to understand the caste system and its consequences around her in a way that even a reader who has no sense of such a suffering, is able to empathize with. This holds equally true for her short fiction stories which she had written long before her memoir. It is interesting to note that her fiction and autobiographical works keep feeding into each other. Several experiences of the characters in the short stories can be traced in her autobiography. It is also important to note that Pawar destabilizes using fiction and fictitious endings; she imagines more rebellious outcomes of the very situations which in real life (autobiography), most of the times, end tragically. The concept of understanding issues such as caste and gender through the lens of lived experience becomes a process to articulate the lack of choice and oppression because of being situated in a certain social, political and cultural space.


In order to contextualize discrimination based on caste as experienced by the people of the Dalit community, lived experiences and fictional accounts based on lived experiences, form a legitimate source of theorizing. It brings out the various nuances of discrimination and helps the reader understand not only the diverse forms of oppression that have been perpetuated but also newer forms of oppression legitimized under the current structure. Pawar’s work critically examines responses to the experiences of being in situations not of one’s own making. For example, she critically analyses her sister’s need to adopt the Brahmanized/Sanskritized way of addressing her in-laws and husband. Or how her sister picked up Brahminical ways of doing certain things from a few Brahmin friends she had made in high school.


माझ्या मेहुण्यांची वकिली निर्धोक चालावी म्हणून माझ्या बहिणीनं त्यांचं कांबळे हे जातीवाचक आडनाव बदलून, गावावरून 'दाभोळकर' असंकेलं. तेपाहूनमीही 'भिरंवडेकर' असं आमचं आडनाव करणार होते, पण 'पवार' हे मराठ्यांमध्येही खपून जातं म्हणून ते राहिलं. (Pawar Aaydaan pp.123)


The above lines are a frank analysis of her nephew’s act of adopting a surname that did not reflect the caste he belonged to; in fact, there were moments when Pawar herself contemplated changing the family name to ‘Bhiranwadekar’. Such a poignant self-reflection is possible for Pawar because she crossed over to the other side, a side where she could in retrospect reflect and theorize based on her experience. Sometimes it is important to distance oneself in order to understand the social space you are in.


Pawar was extremely sensitive to cultural and spatial aspects of caste and gender oppression since her childhood. Even as a child, she seemed to be observing and raising doubts about these issues. For instance, she illustrates the issues faced by the women of her village regarding access to toilets, the danger of exploitation that loomed with lack of access to toilets, and defecation in the open. There are several accounts of men molesting children and getting away with it; she thus reflects on gender issues as are lived and faced by women of her community.


Caste and gender in labour


Pawar’s book starts with narrating how women from her village, Phansawale, would travel all the way to the Ratnagiri market, braving hills and thick forests to sell fruits, fish etc. to make ends meet. She narrates how they would carry these heavy loads of baskets on their heads and walk the difficult path; how they would curse along the way, cry for their babies left back home and worry whether their children would be fed properly. She describes the steep climb, the cramping of legs, the dangers that loomed in the thick of the forest. All of this was probably real and yet as a reader one cannot help but speculate whether it is also a metaphor to speak about the hardships and the difficult lives lived by these women of Pawar’s village. This book illustrates the sexual division of labour as it talks about the domestic work that the women were made and expected to do, along with earning a living for the family. She was expected to sell in the market the produce collected, and the fish she caught at early dawn when everyone else slept peacefully. She writes about how these women were aware of their position and would curse saying,


आमचा मेला जन्मच खोटा .... ' म्हणून समोर कमरेइतक्या पाण्यातनं तुडुंब भरलेल्या नदीच्याकाठावर त्या एकमेकांचा आधारानं डोक्यावरचं ओझं उतरायचा. (pp.5)

“What a Wretched life!” they would exclaim and then lower the heavy loads on the bank of the river, flowing with waist-high water. (The Weave of My Life)


Later parts of the book also have Pawar elucidating the unequal division of labor in the urban context by citing the example of her sister’s struggle with her in-laws; a large chunk of domestic work was left for her to take care of once she was back from office. Pawar talks about the constant quarrels in her sister’s family and her husband’s silence and unwillingness to stand up for the wrongs done by his parents. Pawar’s work is symptomatic of the different struggles women face based on their social positions. The intersectionality of caste, class and the urban/rural setting is revealed with every micro-story she weaves into the larger story of her life.


Caste and gender in food


Pawar’s book also traces discrimination based on caste and gender in relation to the consumption of food items. What was to be consumed and by whom? Even within the Dalit community, men and women especially the daughters-in-law, would get differentially fed owing to poverty and the gender oppression rooted in patriarchal ways of living. This helps readers, especially those not belonging to the community, have greater insights into how structural inequality manifests itself. Pawar narrates:


घरात तूरडाळ वगरे नसेल किंवा जेवायला पुरुषमंडळी नसतील तेव्हातो 'काट' पाण्यात टाकून तिखट, मीठ,कोकम किंवा आंब्याच्यादिवसात कच्याआंब्याचीफोड (आंबट)  घालून सार करत. हे सार अगदी निष्कृष्ट दर्जाचंअसे. खरंतर, तेखाऊन पोट बिघडण्याची, खुटखुटण्याची शक्यता जास्त. ... हे ‘सार’सासुरवाशिणींच्या पाचवीला पुजलं असे. (pp.83)


Pawar’s book has important revelations into the politics of food, of how once the men were fed or they left the house, women and girls would eat leftover rice with a watery dish made with chili powder and a piece of mango. The above lines are illustrative of the same.  Another important incident is when Pawar saw the acute difference between the contents of what her schoolmates brought in their lunch boxes, and how she never heard of these dishes being made at her own home. She writes:


वरच्या जातींतल्या मुलींच्या तोंडी लाडू, मोदक, करंज्या, पुरणपोळ्याअसले शब्द वरचेवरअसत. त्या ते पदार्थ डब्यांतून शाळेत आणत, सहलीला नेत इतकंच नव्हे, तर भातुकलीच्याखेळात खाऊ म्हणूनही त्या ते पदार्थ घेत असत. आपल्या घरी तसले पदार्थ का करत नाहीत ?असला आचरट प्रश्न मात्र आम्हाला कधीच पडत नसे. ज्याठिकाण ी, ्याजातीत-परिस्थितीत आपण जन्मलो त्याप्रमाणे आपण जगायचं आहे, राहायचं आहे ही जाणीव कोणीही ना सांगता शिकवता आम्हाला होती. (pp77)


The upper caste girls always used words such as laddu,modak,karanjya,puranpolya (various kinds of sweets). They brought such novel items in their lunch boxes as well as at times when we went on excursions. However, I never asked myself the stupid question, “Why we do not prepare such dishes at home?” We were aware, without anybody telling us, that we were born into a particular caste and in poverty, and that we had to live accordingly.


Memories of food and the poverty deeply felt, come up in narrative as Pawar reflects on her experiences. She recalls one such incident in the following lines:


एकदा, मी नि माझ्या दोन मावस भाच्या माझ्या वाहिनीकडे माहेरी शिरगावला लग्नाला गेलो होतो. आम्ही तिघी चांगल्या जाड्याजुड्या पोरी जेवायला बसलो नि पुन्हापुन्हा भात मागू लागलो, तशी वाढपी चिडला आणि म्हणाला, 'कुणाच्यारे यापोरी, बकासुरासारख्या जेवतायत...

कुणीतरी म्हणालं, 'आमच्या सुशीच्या घरच्या...अर्जुनमास्तरांच्या पोरी हायतत्या...

आँ, जोशीबुवांच्यापोरी काय ... असुदे असुदे ...वाडा वाडा पोरींना खातील तितकं वाडा ...

यजमानी पुढे येत म्हणाला. वाढपी सढळ हातानं वाढायलापुढे आला. पणते ' बकासुर' वगरे म्हटल्या वर आम्हीआमचा हाथ आखडता घेतला. (Pawar 98)


Once, I went to attend a wedding at my sister-in-law’s place, along with two of my nieces. However, when we three girls sat down to eat and began asking for rice repeatedly, the cook got angry, ”Whose daughters are these anyway?” he burst out. “They are eating like monsters.”Then someone answered, “They are from our’ Sushi’s family! Daughters of Arjun master!” On hearing this, the host came forward. “Oh! Are they? All right, all right let them eat as much as they want! Serve them well!” The cook returned with more rice but being called monster was not easy to digest and we politely declined.




To write is to share what you know with the world, it is an expression of your understanding of the subject intimately experienced. It is extremely humbling to read these memoirs because it comes with the experience of having seen life lived on the margins of society; it is the story of a stagnating community whose women were doubly marginalized due to their position in the hierarchy of caste and gender. These stories are what one could call everyday manifestations of feminism. A feminism which is aware of the different positions we all inhabit. These are moving anecdotes of the humiliation felt, the resolve to overcome but above all the awareness that only grew gradually. Pawar traces the evolution of the feminist entity in herself while recalling the experiences of her life. However, as the title goes, the memoir is a beautiful and intricate weave of several stories that come together to make this story that is Pawar’s autobiography, a Dalit woman’s memoirs of a life lived on the margins.