Up From Caste


My Family's Triumphant

Journey Out of the Caste

System in Modern India

By Narendra Jadhav

Scribner; 295pp; $26

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Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good An instructive memoir about the personal and political struggles of India's downtrodden.

The Bad This personal account would benefit from livelier writing.

The Bottom Line A worthwhile chronicle of a historic battle against oppression.

One of every six of India's 1.1 billion people is born an untouchable, a member of the lowest stratum in Hindu society. In rural parts of the country, untouchables -- also called Dalits -- are still forbidden to draw water from the same wells as their upper-caste neighbors. Even in the cities, Dalits are subject to subtle discrimination. But their lives have improved over the past century as a result of a struggle for equal rights. One success story is that of the chief economist for the Reserve Bank of India, Narendra Jadhav. Untouchables: My Family's Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India is his instructive memoir.

Jadhav's chronicle first took form in the late 1960s, when his newly retired and practically illiterate father, Damu, began to record his memories. After Damu's death, Jadhav combined the recollections with those of his mother and other family members. The resulting account was first published in 1993 in the Marathi language spoken in and around Bombay, and in an English version in 2003. Both volumes were best-sellers in India, and the book has now been published in the U.S.

The account tells how, starting in the 1920s, Damu became a foot soldier in the civil rights movement led by Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the university-educated Dalit leader during India's battle for independence. In his first act of rebellion, Damu joined other Dalits to march en masse to a water tank where, in a symbolic move intended to establish Dalit human dignity, they took a drink. The act scandalized Brahmins -- and prompted an elaborate purification ritual. For Damu, the event was a defining moment: He went on to participate in other actions that led to greater Dalit acceptance and to fight tenaciously to win proper education for his children.

Jadhav lets his daughter, Apoorva, a student at Johns Hopkins University, have the final say. She sums up the distance her family has traveled in just three generations, saying she doesn't reflect much on her caste. "I have no reminders of being a Dalit, or any reason to think I am different from my peers," she says. Untouchables is an important chronicle of a battle against oppression and the improved prospects for victory.

By Jessi Hempel

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