The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoir
At the end of her memoir, The Weave of My Life, Urmila Pawar writes, “Life has taught me many things, showed me so much, it has also lashed out at me till I bled. I don’t know how much longer I am going to live, nor do I know in what form life is going to confront me. Let it come in any form; I am ready to face it stoically. This is what my life has taught me. This is my life and that is me!”
People write memoirs for different reasons. Some write memoirs because they’re paid a lot of money to give their version of important eras or events in which they were a pivotal player. Some want to even the score, set the record straight, or tell their story so others might learn from their experiences. I suspect that Pawar’s reason for writing The Weave of My Life was the last one.
Pawar is a well-known activist and award winning writer in India who continues to advocate for greater rights for Dalits (formerly called untouchables) and women in a country with complex social mores rooted in ancient traditions and religious teachings. Pawar tells of growing up as a Dalit on the Kolkan coast near Mumbai in the ‘50s and ‘60s when charismatic leaders like Dr. Ambedkar were advocating for a new casteless society where, if you were born into a lower caste, you were not born into your destiny with no hope of ever rising above your circumstances.
She writes about her experiences with caste discrimination in a matter-of-fact manner devoid of self-pity. As she recounts in her memoir, “the community grew up with a perpetual sense of insecurity, fearing that they could be attacked from all four sides in times of conflict. That is why there has always been a tendency in our people to shrink within ourselves like a tortoise and proceed at a snail’s pace.” Pawar says this slow pace picked up radically after her community’s mass spontaneous conversion to Buddhism in the wake of Dr. Ambedkar’s death because Buddhism allowed them to view themselves and their place in the world in a new way.
The book traces Pawar’s life from a very young age in a village where men and women lived a life of hard work and drudgery. Pawar’s family was somewhat unique for a Dalit family. Her father performed priestly duties for their caste, which were typically performed by Brahmins. Both of her parents were also strong believers in the importance of education to propel their children into a better life. Pawar’s resilience and strong belief in herself and her abilities shines through in this candid and inspiring memoir. From a young age, Pawar enjoyed acting in plays and participating in every aspect of school activities.
Pawar goes against her family’s wishes and marries a man whose family is somewhat below hers in social stature and who is less educated than her. It becomes clear early on that there will be tension in marriage because Pawar is a force of nature whose intensity only strengthens as she comes into her own. After the family moves to Mumbai, Pawar becomes involved in the Dalit rights movement and is recognized as a leading light in the Dalit literary movement. She writes frankly about her husband’s constant criticism and emotional abuse as she continued to do her “social work” and her writing and gained acclaim in the form of awards and published works. She also describes the fissures in the Dalit rights movement between human rights and women’s rights, which were not considered as important by the male leaders and often fell by the wayside.
By the end of the memoir, Pawar has experienced much loss and tragedy. She loses her son, her mother, and her husband in a relatively short period of time and finds herself being blamed by some in her community for these misfortunes because she was not a more traditional wife and mother.
At times I found it hard to keep track of the numerous family members, acquaintances and fellow activists Pawar mentions in the book. I also found myself constantly checking the glossary to remind myself of the meanings of various Marathi words used throughout the text. That aside, what I especially like about this memoir is that Pawar doesn’t whitewash, or sugar-coat the difficulties she encountered both personally and professionally. Her honesty in presenting her life and the daily struggles and victories she experienced is inspiring and is a testament to her courage and strength of character.