All he has is his own body, which he must use to earn a livelihood. And, as for the body of the Dalit woman, it is very easy for it to be seen as an object of casual, easy abuse.”
Nirupama Dutt’s Ballad of Bant Singh describes the deep-seated caste society of India and the place that Dalits have in it. Also, the plight of women has been talked about at length.
Based in a small town of Burj Jhabbar in the Mansa district in Punjab, the story is about Bant Singh, a Dalit agrarian labourer, who is also an activist and his pursuit of justice.
His eldest daughter Baljeet was gang-raped by upper-caste Jats while she was a minor. Each time such cases happened, there was an out of court settlement with the victims withdrawing the case after taking a little money.
However, Bant and his daughter decided to fight and take the matter to court. Going against the societal norms during that time, the price that he paid was something no one imagined.
As Dutt quotes a prominent daily reporting the grave injustice: In a country like India where law-breakers excel in subverting the system, how much is a landless farm worker expected to pay for getting justice for his minor daughter? To be precise, two arms and a leg.
Through Udasi’s song, a famous revolutionary poet during Bant’s time, the severity of the situation is reflected when a girl asks her father to gift her a pistol in dowry as she can’t bear the brutalities which women have to deal with.
In another, the girl entreats her mother to not give birth to her in a village where her dreams will forever be shackled. “If there is any village in my Punjab where this does not happen, I would like to know its name.”
Dutt also quotes Rahi to explain how tradition has sanctioned the abuse of Dalit girls in different ways. Such was the plight of women.
The influence of caste existed everywhere. This can be witnessed from the fact that Bant Singh’s Akali friend Beant Singh, refers to Bant as a “poor man”.
But the undying spirit of Bant is felt when the author quotes Annie Zaidi, “how does one react to a man who is lying in the hospital minus three limbs?... And what do you do when a man minus three limbs in a government hospital’s trauma ward begins to sing? Quite simple really, you salute his spirit.”
The language used is lucid. It gives a vivid account of the prevalent norms in the society which were then against the Dalits. The use of Punjabi songs is a welcome stopover considering the subject. Prominent among them being the Sikh favourite (a song about Dullabhati) and various others.
With the novel oscillating between the present and past, the transition is smooth. The author also draws in media and how it acts as a mere spectator to atrocities, when rather it should be doing otherwise.
“It was only when his limbs were amputated that journalists seemed to find the incident newsworthy. Tragic indeed are the yardsticks of news-making.”
However, the positive side of media was also witnessed when Tehelka reported Bant’s condition and launched a fund raising campaign which turned out to be successful and helpful.
Bant contines to fight for equality and dignity for millions like him.
If you are the one who interests in revolutionary stories, then this novel not only quells you but also brings forth the fault lines which India still has inspite being branded as a progressive country. Here lies the irony which has been clearly explained by the author.