A Kalidas with his cloth bag

Dr Kalidas Shinde
Dr Kalidas Shinde

This is a story of a boy who had no choice but to follow his community’s traditional occupation of wandering and begging but still went on to earn a doctorate from Mumbai’s prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Dr Kalidas Shinde’s autobiography ‘Jholi,’ published by Samiksha Prakashan in 2021, is a perfect case study of the life of the Nathpanthi Davari community, running parallel with the author’s own life, from the first page to the last. 

The book documents the daily struggle of Shinde and his family for survival. The second parallel part is the empirical details about the Davari community’s customs and religious beliefs.

In 2018, not only Maharashtra but the entire country was shocked by the brutal killing of five Nathpanthi Davari men who had gone to Maharashtra’s Dhule district for begging. It was only after this incident that people came to know that there is a wandering community in Maharashtra that survives on begging even in the 21st century. However, even after four years since the incident, the Maharashtra government has not come up with any plan for the development of the Nathpanthi Davari community. 

Shinde’s autobiography begins with his childhood in Dighanchi village in Atpadi taluka of Maharashtra’s Sangli district. Until the fourth standard, Shinde didn’t have slippers on his feet. Shinde’s parents, Ankush and Kamal Shinde, had neither the will nor the opportunity to access education. They were illiterate and begged for alms to raise their six children. The Shinde family’s plastic tent in the Dighanchi village still lacks a toilet and an electricity connection. His parents helped Kalidas complete his education by begging in his village and outskirts. To supplement his family’s hand-to-mouth existence, Shinde sold ice cream during vacations. At the age of 14, he started collecting and selling scraps on his maternal uncle’s bicycle. He topped the school that year. College life presented Shinde with worries that were not just financial. Caste Hindu students would bully him, calling him ‘dowry’ (a distortion of his surname Davari), which compelled him to change it to ‘Shinde.’

Shinde wanted his parents to be with him during the PhD convocation ceremony at his university in Mumbai but they could not spare time. They said, “What are we going to eat if we were to not beg today?” It brings chills to the reader’s body while reading this sentence.

Kalidas Shinde while receiving his doctorate
Kalidas Shinde while receiving his doctorate

‘Jholi’ fits the literary test of a true and captivating autobiography, but its significance is far greater than just a social document. Dr Shinde should be lauded for such an eloquent and explosive autobiography written with utmost sincerity and natural honesty. Many a time we forget that Maharashtra has 12 dialects of Marathi and 38 other languages spoken by Adivasis, nomadic tribes, and denotified communities. And it’s a refreshing experience to read Shinde’s book in his own dialect.

The Prevention of Begging Act has made begging a crime. The use of this law to arrest beggars from the Davari community is widespread and is a sign of the insensitivity of the police. And the tendency of society to ignore this injustice is even more regrettable.

Shinde’s autobiography is not only the story of his life but also a representation of a community that has no other option but to beg in the name of tradition. In Marathi, there have been autobiographies of many personalities from Dalit as well as nomadic and Adivasi communities, and from their work, they have outlined the social problems of Maharashtra’s society. Even then Dr Shinde’s autobiography will prove to be a milestone in the Marathi and Indian literature.

“Hunger makes our youth leave shame and opt for begging.” 

A tremor strikes the reader when they read this sentence in the last chapter of the book.

“Even with my PhD I don’t have a job. So don’t be surprised if you see me begging with them [community members] someday.”

A mantra to fight inequality in society is given at the end of the book:

No more endurance
Now fight for existence…
From the consciousness of Babasaheb Ambedkar
We have to move forward With inspiration…               

Jholi is an important work of literature. The author warns in the book, ‘’My community and other downtrodden communities will be considered as ‘primitive man’ in the modern times and will have to live a new kind of slaves. I would also like to underline here that it is a burning social experience, a social document for which I will call upon an ‘Elgar’ (call for the revolution) for a ‘hunger-free’ Maharashtra.”

In the primitive times, humans were in search of food. Even after so many years the situation is the same for the Nomadic and Denotified Tribes. They are called ‘primitives of the modern age’ even today. Let them live like citizens of this country… They are the original dwellers on this land. And if we want everyone to live with dignity, we have to prepare ourselves to throw away this mental slavery and develop the ability to face new challenges.

Just as Mahatma Jotirao Phule had raised his voice against inequality and exploitation in his book Shetkaryacha Asud, similarly people like Kalidas Shinde are an inspiration for all the nomadic/semi-nomadic communities by giving them strength by spreading gulal – not the traditional gulal used by Shinde’s community but the gulal of thoughts, freedom and struggle. Then and only then the ‘Jholi’ or bag will be folded and a begging-free Maharashtra will be created.

‘Jholi’ is a mirror that Kalidas Shinde has held in front of the self-absorbed society of Maharashtra. Therefore, it is expected that the attitude of society towards his Davari community will now be somewhat changed. This will pave the way for the upliftment of the community in the future.

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