About the book
A coming-of-age novel that follows its young Dalit protagonist, Prakash Vadaliya or ‘Pako’, the name his ears have got used to. Young Pako leaves his village of Vadali to come to the city of Ahmedabad as a student. We see Pako’s life in the city: his job, the room he rents, the landlord who collects the rent on the tenth or eleventh of every month who Pako doesn’t really know. We learn about Pako’s life in flashbacks, and a narrative that moves between the past and the present. Through his losses – the death of his father, the discovery of his mother’s infidelity, the death of his friend who made him a better student, the betrayal of an upper-caste lover who marries and leaves the country – we see Pako transform. We learn of Pako’s move from country to city, to a government hostel as a student and then to work in a factory. Pako’s experience of caste and discrimination, his intellectual awakening through his reading of the work of Akmedkar and Gandhi, his transformations as he begins to understand the social structures he is caught in and his will to change them engage us in the social life of India. Pako’s conversations with his friends about Gandhi and what he means for Dalits and for India, his debates with his friends about the grand narrative of the Ramayana, about Kabir and his legacy are all debates about the many meanings of India.
Why the Selection Panel chose it
Umesh Solanki is an exciting voice in Gujarati literature. This coming-of-age story explores how Dalit communities experience the urban transformations of post-independence India, and its unique narrative voice and modernist formal tendences are conveyed with character and attention in Gopika Jadeja’s wonderful translation.
Awards and press
“Society and literature in Gujarat today are in need of works like Transformations” – Bharat Mehta
‘God has been possessed of sweetness,’ I say with a blank face as I take the salary increment papers from my supervisor. He narrows his eyes. I don’t think he caught my meaning. I look at the few white hairs on his head waving in the draft of the fan. He tilts his head a little to the right, lifts the glasses on the tip of his nose closer to his eyes, and smiles without showing his teeth. Feeling a little weak after my bout of ill health, I ask him for permission to take the rest of the day off.
I have been walking the same twenty-minute route to my small room on the second floor of the building on the left of the last narrow street in the east of the city for so long that it offers nothing new anymore. The city has stood the same for a long time.
I finally make it to my building. My room houses several books and a few magazines, as well as other practical belongings. My acquaintance with the landlord is limited to his collection of rent on the tenth or eleventh of each month. It is in a quiet area, sparsely populated. I have observed of others and experienced for myself that the sharp smell coming from the urinal at the end of the street quickens one’s pace. I decide to walk a little longer.
Another five minutes and I arrive at the railway station. The station fascinates me. There are two trains every day, one at seven in the morning, the other at two in the afternoon. Whenever I have come to the railway station, I have not seen any trains. At one end of the station is an ambli tree, and under it a government-sponsored bench. It is covered in bird droppings so thick that you have to get very close to see its original colour.
Today it feels like the bench is sleeping, wearing a blanket of dust. As I sit down, I feel a little fatigued. The warm June air is suffocating. The cawing of a crow makes me think about the many different conditions in which beauty can be found. The far, unpopulated horizon is the meeting of emptiness and abundance.
Across from the bench are the railway tracks. Before the tracks is an area of dried grass. Surrounded by the grass, a small pond. Nearby, there are animals grazing: three cows, two buffalo, six or seven donkeys. A lone donkey sits under a neem tree not far from the pond, flitting its tail, chewing cud, and looking at the grazing drove. I sit and watch them all for ten or fifteen minutes. Everything is utterly quiet. Then the donkey sitting under the tree stands up and walks to a female, nuzzling her and attempting to mate with her. She runs away. He tries again, to no avail. The third time, he is successful. Then the female walks away, waving her tail. The donkey walks back slowly to the neem tree.
A different kind of mating! Removed from the imperatives of sin and merit. Watching this act, I thought of ancient man – not the ancients organised in established social groups in religious texts, but the ancient men who were untouched by clothing or holy books. Abruptly, a goods train comes and stands between me and donkey.
The sun streaming in wakes me. I open my eyes and look at the clock. It has stopped working. I try to shake off my lethargy but can’t. It clings to me. I lie in bed like this for a few minutes. My body feels stiff, the product of extended rest and medication. I look out the window to the clock tower. It is 8am.
I feel apathetic. My hands are unwilling to pick up a book. There is a message on my phone. The philosopher’s words: ‘Humans are at times social, and at other times animals. To be social and an animal is an ordeal.’ I laugh softly and sit on the chair. I turn my laptop on and open a file titled ‘Slices of my life.’ On the first page is a placeholder title, ‘0’. I move to the second page and read the paragraph I composed two weeks ago. I think about it, delete it, and begin writing again.
My name is Prakash, but my ears are used to Pakla. I come from a village, no, a town, called Vadali. Our home is behind the bus stand. I should write about my ancestors, but what can I say about them? I can only write what I remember. My Dada and Dadi’s names were Mulabhai and Manibahen. I never met them. My father did not remember his parents’ faces, nor did he remember any stories about them. All I can remember is that once someone remembered Dada-Dadi in conversation and dismissed them in a knowing silence. If I were to write anything else about my ancestors, it would be that they were born, they lived, and they died.
My Bai’s name is Kamalibahen. My Bapa’s name is Kalubhai. I have two siblings: Jasu and Leela. Jasu is the oldest. Our Bai is the same, but our fathers are different. Jasu’s real father was crushed underneath a state transport bus. My Bapa, who is also Leela’s father, lost his first wife. She drowned in a well. After she died, my mother came to our father’s place with Jasu. This is called ‘natre aavavu’, for a woman to marry a second time. Jasu must have been three or four years old.
I don’t know my date of birth. According to my birth certificate it is 17/05/1983. Bai once said, ‘After your birth, your father refused to go to the panchayat to register your name. I got tired of telling him to go and record your birth. It was seven months before your name was registered. The Talati wrote your birth date, by that time your father couldn’t remember it.’
I was breastfed until I was six. Whatever I was playing with – cards, coins, matchbooks, a top – or khunpaniyu, whenever I was hungry, I would go to my mother, pull her kabjo up and begin to suckle. Because I used to dhav, to suckle, my name became dhavaniyo. I was ashamed when I understood its meaning, and eventually I stopped.
I loved my father a lot, but he loved smoking beedis more. When he smoked, I would watch him. Sitting on his haunches against the wall, with the beedi between his thin purple lips, he would inhale the smoke with such intensity that my mouth would begin to water. I would sometimes surreptitiously put the ash that had fallen on the ground on my palm and surreptitiously lick it. Once my father caught me licking the ash. I was afraid he’d punish me, but instead he laughed, and I laughed too. I ran outside, picked up an ice lolly stick lying on the ground, and started poking inside the gutter with it.
I wanted to smoke beedis like Bapa. One time, Bapa forgot to crush the beedi end. I took the end, and slipped it into my pocket. Bapa was out and Bai had gone to town to buy vegetables. I came in from the verandah into the house. In the light of the kerosene lamp, I turned the beedi around: looking at it, smelling it, even licking it. With the flame, I lit the beedi. I walked to the cow-dung plastered wall of the house, crouching against it like Bapa. I glanced at the gate a few times to make sure the coast was clear. I pressed the beedi between my lips like Bapa would and inhaled. As the smoke filled my mouth, I made a face as if I had drunk some bitter medicine. My mouth made thoo thoo noises. I coughed and threw the beedi away. The sweet taste of mithai I’d imagined had disappeared. From that point, I developed an aversion to beedis. But I still enjoyed watching Bapa smoke. When Bapa came home after drinking, I became angry. He would collapse onto the string cot and fall soundly asleep, and I wouldn’t get to watch him smoke.
I was ten, in Class Three. Every poonam, there was a fair in Khedbrahma, 11km away from Vadali. I was set on going to the fair. Bapa was looking for his sack-lifting tool as he prepared to go to the market yard to load his truck. He couldn’t find it and lost his temper. Bai returned from Vora’s shop bearing mustard oil. I asked her for 20 rupees; she refused. Bapa found out. He also refused. I began to cry and stamp my feet, repeating my demand for 20 rupees. Each time I asked, Bapa refused. My tantrum continued.
Bapa got tired of it. ‘How many times have I told you?’ he shouted. ‘There is no money! No money! No money!’
I don’t know what came over me. ‘You have money for a bag.’
My hand fell on the saucer resting on the paniyaru. It shattered. The broken saucer and my words hit Bapa hard. He rushed over and kicked me. ‘Made of my piss and you go tut tut against me!’ I lost control over my body. I tripped and fell as I tried to get away. Attempting to regain my balance, I hit my head on the edge of the door. I felt as though I was spinning. My tears were wedged in my chest. A bubble escaped my nose and burst.
Bai ran to me. She began to wipe droplets of sweat off my upper lip with her saree. My tears finally burst forth. Bai pressed her saree against my face. She kissed my face saying, ‘Don’t cry, beta, don’t cry.’ Bai stroked me gently and quieted my tears. She brought me water, then untied a knot at the end of her saree to give me a 20 rupee note. I did not take it. She tried to push it into my hands, but again I refused. In the end, I took it and threw it aside before leaving the house. ‘Pakla, Pakla!’ my mother called after me. I didn’t look back.
The pain from Bapa’s kick faded, but his words remained etched on my heart. In the evening, he returned home. He brought halwa for me. I ate it, but his words did not leave me. After that, I would only speak to Bapa if he spoke to me first. If he gave me small jobs to do, I would do them without a fuss. Bapa began saying how I’d become such a good child. Whether I had or not, only Bapa knew, but after his words I stopped watching him smoke his beedis.
When I was eleven, Jasu and Leela went to visit our maternal grandparents. I was on my own. It was 10pm on a moonless winter night, and the streetlights were not working. Not a single person could be seen. The sound of dogs barking would erupt and then quiet again, and so on. I had just finished doing my homework at my friend Dinesh’s place. Halfway home, I saw Kaniyo and Jaglo stood pressed against the wall of Kachra Bhagat’s house, looking at something. I crept up behind them and saw two figures clinging to each other. I understood and began to giggle quietly with Kaniyo and Jaglo. We couldn’t see who those two intertwined figures were. We just looked and giggled. I stepped on the tail of a dog sleeping next to the wall and, startled, it began to bark. From the verandah next door came a shout, ‘Who’s there?’ We panicked and ran. The two figures also separated and made a getaway. I ran as fast as I could. One of the two figures, a woman, ran a few paces away from me. She turned onto my street, and then entered my home. I slowed down and began to walk. I arrived home to find Bapa fast asleep on the string cot on the verandah, drunk. I sat on the edge, close to him. After some time, Bai came out and asked me, ‘Pakla, when did you get home?’
It was morning by the time sleep came to me. I did not go to school the next day, or the two days after that. I would leave home, but not for school. I went to the voghun at the far end of town and wandered there instead. I razed berry bushes, tore the aakdo, threw stones to terrorise the boar. I picked up baby boars that crossed my path and smashed them to the ground. I chewed at my shirt sleeves and put sand in my mouth. Those three days in the voghun were days lost.
I finally went back to school to play with my friends. Slowly, I began to meet Bai’s eyes and speak with her. It was only a couple of weeks before I began to love her again.
I am feeing healthier in both mind and body. Work is a pleasure. Welding the seam of a pressure vessel is difficult, but today it feels like an easy task. I finish welding a rod and sit down to rest. As I sit, my phone beeps. It’s the philosopher: ‘Nature is passive. The passivity of nature emerges from its self-centred action.’ I read it and think about its meaning. I smile knowingly. Our supervisor, James, stands next to me. His loyalty to the company has not endeared him to the rest of the workers. But I like him, and he likes me.
‘Prakash, what’s with the soft smile? Whose message was that?’ he asks. When I hear him say ‘Prakash’, the pride that lies inside me awakens. Everyone in the factory is addressed by their last name. When James calls me Prakash, it is special. James speaks with me pleasantly for a few minutes. In our conversation, he calls me ‘Prakash’ several times. He says my name in such a way that all my negativity begins to crumble, eventually disintegrating completely.
James gives me a task – ‘A 200mm plate needs gas cutting.’ I am the only one in the factory who can accomplish the task well. I agree. James asks me to go to the high fabrication workshop and leaves. I turn off the welding machine and prepare to head to the workshop. Digrajsinh, Mayank and Aniruddhsinh, who are working by my side, begin to murmur among themselves. Digrajsinh’s taunting voice reaches my ears: ‘Hears his name spoken and this pleb flies high.’
The blood in my veins feels like it could boil over, but I remain quiet and leave. Within a couple of hours I finish the gas cutting, leaving James happy.
The shift ends at 4pm. As I walk home, Digrajsinh’s taunting voice and the philosopher’s message are playing in my mind. I don’t know how I reach my room. Exhausted, I fall into bed with my shoes on and close my eyes. When I open them, it is already 8pm. I get out of bed, not feeling particularly hungry, and turn on my computer.
When I was twelve, I was studying in Class Six. A winter afternoon like a dhabadu. We had a science class. Latabahen was explaining an experiment. I did not understand anything. Maths, Science and English were my weakest subjects. I always failed the term-end and preliminary exams. I barely passed the final ones. In English, everyone had to be moved up, so I passed with grace marks. The period was about to end when Karshankaka, in the guise of an assistant, entered the classroom with a letter for Latabahen. It said that a circus had come to Vadali. Students were being given concessionary tickets for 10 rupees instead of 20, and would be taken to the circus three days from now, at noon on Friday. Whoever wanted to go needed to hand 10 rupees to the class teacher and register their name. Listening to this, everyone smiled. I began to smile, too. But for me it was different.
The circus had already been in Vadali for a long time. I had thrown three tantrums to try and get money to go to the circus, and instead of the 20 rupees got a beating. But Bapa would surely give me 10 rupees, I thought happily. During the long recess, I went home. Bai was lying down. I woke her up and asked for 10 rupees, but Bai refused: ‘Don’t have it. Ask your Bapa.’ I sulked, and didn’t even drink my afternoon tea.
It was Thursday, Sanskrit period. Gayatribahen taught well, but she had this habit of making five students read aloud in Sanskrit every lesson. It was the backbenchers’ turn that day. With many mistakes, Kanti, Pravin and I barely managed to finish our reading. Now it was Popat Rana’s turn. Rana wasn’t Popat’s last name, and nor was it his father’s. Rana was the name of some Bollywood villain that Popat liked and mimicked. Eighteen years old, Rana was notorious. He had failed Class Five about four times. The fifth time they passed him out of necessity. It was his third year in Class Six.
Rana got to his feet, folded his hands against his chest, and said innocently, ‘I don’t know how to read this second number in Hindi!’ The whole class burst into laughter, and so did Gayatribahen. I didn’t laugh. Where could I find 10 rupees? It was the last day to register our names for the circus. My request for 10 rupees had earned me a beating from Bapa. I couldn’t think of a solution. All anyone was talking about was the circus. No one bothered me, even my friends had forgotten me.
The long recess started; I did not go home. I put my head on the low table and stared into nothing. I felt like climbing onto a train and running away to Mumbai. At that moment, I heard the sound of chappals. I looked up and saw that it was Afsana. She was chewing something. ‘Here, 10 rupees.’ She extended her hand. I took the money. Afsana left the classroom, making that chap chap noise with her shoes on the floor.
It was morning school on Saturday. Recess was almost over when I went to drink water at the tap. As I returned, I heard someone say, ‘Prakash, wait!’ I turned around to see it was Afsana. ‘The circus was cool, wasn’t it?’ she asked. I nodded my head. She immediately followed with, ‘Do you know why I gave you the 10 rupees?’
‘If one gives money to the poor during Ramzan, one receives punya, and since you are of a lower caste, there is even greater merit,’ Afsana said. I didn’t understand these words. My heart was filled with the joy of the circus. So I laughed.
I had always been punctual with my routine, but now I started going to school fifteen minutes earlier and coming home ten minutes later. This schedule was in tune with Afsana’s. I didn’t understand whether she had given me 10 rupees because she liked me, or for some other reason. All I was sure of was that I began to like her.
Afsana always wore a sparkling-white uniform. Her hair was combed close to her head, tied with white ribbons. She wore bright, white earrings and a diamond nose stud. She had white teeth and always had a measured smile on her face. On her feet, white socks and white shoes – and, on non-uniform days, white chappals. Her white clothes made her fair skin glow. Afsana appeared to me like glitter on the classroom’s cheek. I wanted to speak with her but didn’t have the courage.
We had a break for Holi. When the holidays ended, I continued my new routine and arrived at school fifteen minutes early. Afsana wasn’t there. The next day, the same thing.
Two weeks went by like this, and eventually I returned to my old routine. I later heard that Afsana had dropped out of school, and I don’t know what happened to her after that.
It’s Friday. Our day off. I leave my room to go to the library at 4pm. Halfway there, I hear my phone beep. There has been a deluge of messages since the morning – nothing worth opening. I am tired of adverts and poetry and jokes. So I ignore it. But when it beeps a third time, I open my inbox. Two messages from unknown numbers and one message from the philosopher: ‘Children are animals, so I like them.’ I stand there for a while, lost in thought, before walking towards the bus stand.
At a distance from the stand is a shady neem tree. Under it is Patel’s kitli. I sit on the bench at the kitli and ask for tea. Teeno, the ten-year-old worker, brings it over. I take the cup and ask Teeno to sit next to me.
‘Tea?’ I ask.
‘Don’t like tea.’ Then, ‘Prakashbhai, can I listen to that song on your mobile?’
‘The one you made me listen to the other day.’
I hand the mobile and earphones to him. ‘You find the song.’
He finds the song and begins listening to it. As he listens, he smiles, sometimes softly, sometimes wide. When it finishes, he returns the mobile and earphones to me. I ask Teeno why he works here.
‘My old man drank himself to death and my mother sold herself to feed me. Her womb was infected, and she died too. Now it’s just me. I have to get by.’
Teeno says this as if spitting it out. I am quiet. I look at the beads of sweat on Teeno’s nose. This sweat is the life of children like him.
I sit on the bench for half an hour. I try to understand Teeno as I watch him go about his tasks: serving cutting tea, washing cups and saucers, coming and going, sitting or standing. Such inequity. It unsettles me no one is angry. No one lifts a finger. They don’t care about the sun, they don’t care about the soft, flat earth. They don’t care about their surroundings. I feel claustrophobic.
I come back to my room, and open an old magazine and begin reading a story from the Adivasi region.
‘I’m Lalo. My real name is Mahesh. That fat woman over there started calling me Lalo, and I guess it stuck.’ Lalo could barely speak, but once he started, he could not stop. He was wearing a red shirt and cream-coloured trousers. The shirt had only two buttons, and his trousers were held up by a thin rope. I saw him in the same clothes the whole week.
Speaking with innocence, Lalo, who was twelve or so, surprised me constantly. He had the ability to draw links between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Though I met him only once, the aptness of his nickname touched me.
Lalo had a clock in his house. The numbers on the clock were in English. He couldn’t read them. But he knew that it was a clock, and that it told the time. Lalo’s mami asked him what the time was and he quickly ducked into the house, then came out and said, ‘Time of the owl.’
‘Hmm,’ Lalo’s mami said. ‘So it is 3 o’clock.’
Lalo’s curiosity made him to see the numbers on the clock in his own way. The number three appeared to Lalo to be an owl. Four was like a chair, six was a like a camel, and seven was hook-like. Eight was like the dhank drum, and nine a bracelet on a wrist, or a fishing net. Why he compared two to a bow and arrow was difficult to understand. One was a line and ten a line and a circle. He called eleven ‘two lines’.
Innocent of speech and good with his metaphors, Lalo played, roamed and wandered, carrying a load of sorrow. The weight of it didn’t bother him, though – mostly because Lalo didn’t know that his childhood was being wasted.
Lalo took a fistful of chavanu, put it in his mouth in an odd way, and chewed a few times.
‘My bapo was from Vav, my ma from Okli village. My bapo died. He used to smoke beedi ends, drink a lot of daru, so he died.’
After chewing on his chavanu for a while, Lalo continued, ‘I don’t have my own mother, she went to Kathiawad, to Juni Bedi. I made my mama’s house my home.’
‘Lalo, which class do you study in?’ I ask.
‘Do you not want to study?’
‘I am a gowaliyo, that is why,’ Lalo said, wiping his nose with his right hand.
In Dahod-Panchmahal, boys like Lalo who herd goats are called ‘gowaliyo’. He goes to graze the goats for two hours twice a day. He returns to play, roam around, eat and go to sleep. Lalo goes to school every day, but only to graze the goats in the grounds after school is out. Lalo has no desire to study. Lala’s mama-mami prefer gowaliyo Lalo to Mahesh Nayak who goes to school wearing his school bag every day.
It feels like someone is drawing oxygen out of my room, pumping it out of my body. I sit up, shaken by what I have read. Slowly, I turn to the computer.
When I was thirteen, Bapa’s health had deteriorated and our family’s debt had risen. Bapa recovered with difficulty, giving up drinking daru and smoking beedis. He was afraid of death. His pujas and prayers increased: Satyanarayan katha, a vow of abstinence for Mohaniya Bavaji, another vow for Chamunda. Bapa took many vows. Images of many gods and goddesses graced the walls of our house. Bapa lit a pure ghee lamp and offered two incense sticks to each god and goddess morning and evening, making sure that the smoke touched each of their faces. After three months, Bapa fell sick again and died. After his passing, we flailed like a plastic bag in a hurricane.