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Dalit Literature: Written in the Margins

Radhika Oberoi is a Delhi-based journalist
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What the power and poignancy of Dalit literature say about an unequal India

THE LANGUAGE OF rage isn’t always an incoherent jumble of words. Rage can be eloquent too. A canon of poetry and literature classified as ‘Dalit’ has smouldered since the mid- 1970s, when it was noticed through the poetry of student-activist Siddalingaiah, who set up the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti in Karnataka. But Dalit ire came recently to the fore in the suicide note of PhD scholar and Ambedkar Students’ Association activist Rohith Vemula. The letter, an outcry that dwells on science and philosophy, stars and the soul, contains a telling metaphor: ‘My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.’

The unappreciated child appears often in Dalit poetry. Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy, a poet and writer from Chamarajanagar district in Karnataka, writes of him, in To a Rag and Bone Boy: Broken eggshells may cut his feet,/ He may thrust his hands into the pockets of old shorts / and touch a blunt blade / and the gush of spurting blood / will further squeeze his sapless frame.

Chinnaswamy’s poetry, translated into Spanish and English by Venezuelan scholar Rowena Hill, exudes an urgent anger reminiscent of Vemula’s words, which encompass nature, art, originality and Carl Sagan. Hill, who first met Chinnaswamy in 2002, struggled to translate the ferocity of his verses. She says, “The language used may be a dialect, and will certainly contain non-standard features. It may depend on rhythm to give it a sense of form, and the rhythms of Kannada, as other Indian languages, with their ‘back to front’ syntax and repetitive verb endings, can only be hinted at in a European language.” Her diligence has made verses like these accessible to an international readership: When I go to the temple/I don’t leave my / sandals outside, / I stay outside myself. / Sandals on a cobbler’s feet / is news as rare / as a man biting a dog. (Sandals and I)

Hill has translated 26 of Chinnaswamy’s poems into Spanish, which were published in the Colombian journal Arquitrave in 2004, and as a book later by a Venezuelan state publisher.

What gives contemporary Dalit voices a grainy undertone is invariably a history suppurating with upper-caste violence. For instance, the Karamchedu massacre of 1985 is widely believed to have laid the foundation for Telugu Dalit literature. The incident flared up when a woman of the Madiga caste objected to two Kamma youth bathing their buffaloes in a village tank. The attack led to the formation of the Andhra Pradesh Dalit Mahasabha in 1985, a consortium of activists from ‘untouchable’ castes like Mala and Madiga. But incidents like the one that led to the Karamchedu massacre are common even now.

“The situations I describe in my poems have not stopped occurring. Recently, in a town in central India, a Dalit girl was beaten by an upper-caste woman on the pretext that her shadow had fallen on the relative of that woman,” says Chinnaswamy, explaining the poignancy of his poems, borrowed from a milieu where “nothing much has changed.”


Autobiographies, too, chronicle with searing intensity the loneliness of not belonging—to a village, a community, the local school—because of one’s caste.

Urmila Pawar, who grew up in Adgaon village in Ratnagiri district, Maharashtra, tells of persistent humiliation, in her memoir, Aaydan, translated from Marathi into English by Maya Pandit in 2008. ‘Aaydan’ means ‘things made of bamboo’. The English title, The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs, captures the conceit that governs the language of the text. The weaving of cane baskets was the work of the Mahar community that peopled the picturesque Konkan coast, and is a vivid metaphor for the community’s destitution. Pawar writes: ‘My mother used to weave ‘aaydans,’ the Marathi generic term for all things made from bamboo. I find that her act of weaving and my act of writing are organically linked. The weave is similar. It is the weave of pain, suffering, and agony that links us.’

The translation of Aaydan presented the challenge of “breaking down hegemonic traditions of translation”, says Pandit, a professor at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. “Modern Marathi language and literature is often described as the reincarnation of English. Translation of literature from Marathi into English seeks to change the balance of power,” she explains. Aayadan also dares to defy the norms of Dalit storytelling that attempt to evoke pity in the reader. “It isn’t merely a sob story; it is a tale of resilience, of grit,” she says.

Dr Milind Eknath Awad, assistant professor at the Centre of English Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and the Dalit author of The Life and Work of Annabhau Sathe: A Marxist- Ambedkarite Mosaic, recalls a childhood spent in Beed, Maharashtra. “My father was a Dalit Panther activist; I grew up in an environment that encouraged me to questions the limitations of being born into a particular caste,” says the 35-year- old scholar. He believes that a corpus of scholastic work on Dalit literature, and events like an upcoming literature festival this December to mark the 62nd death anniversary of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, herald an upsurge of interest in voices from the margins: “A new intellectual engagement—books and essays on Dalit perspectives—is an optimistic sign for many writers whose work is more relevant today than ever before.”


The influence of Dr Ambedkar is indelible in young authors like Awad, and in Pawar. She recalls reading him after she matriculated from a small school in Ratnagiri: “A few Ambedkar activists came to the district and told us that the Hindus hated us; there was no place for us in their religion.” Her words resonate with Ambedkar’s impassioned preface to the second edition of Annihilation of Caste (1937): ‘I do not care for the credit which every progressive society must give to its rebels. I shall be satisfied if I make the Hindus realise that they are the sick men of India, and that their sickness is causing danger to the health and happiness of other Indians.’

The ‘sick men of India’ are also the loathsome protagonists of the stories and poems of contemporary Dalit writers like Anita Bharti, who is the vice-principal of a school in Delhi. Her collection of short stories, Ek thi Quote Wali, (2012) contains a story which retells Munshi Premchand’s Thakur ka Kuan. Thakur ka Kuan II, begins where Premchand’s story ends. Bharti redefines the female Dalit protagonist, Gangi, as a feisty crusader, who fights for the villagers’ right to access clean drinking water.

Professor Kiran Chaudhry, who teaches at JNU’s Centre for French and Francophone Studies, says “The story of Thakur ka Kuan II is a contemporary redefinition of canonical literature; the protagonist asserts herself and refuses to give in to self-pity.” Professor Chaudhry has also translated into French Hum Kaun Hain by yet another Dalit writer, Dr Rajat Rani Meenu. “Most modern Dalit short stories lay a lot of emphasis on education— as a way out of oppression,” says Professor Chaudhry in praise of the story.

Meenu teaches in the Hindi department of Kamla Nehru College, Delhi. She is also a poet. In a poem titled Kyun Nahin Hilta Patta Ek Bhi: Desh ke Daliton ke Prati, she poses a pertinent question:

Hamare saath jab hota hai balatkaar, / Saamohik balatkaar—/ Tab kyun hilta nahin patta ek bhi?/ Aur jab tumhare saath hua balatkaar / Tab kyun hil gaye sansad bhi? (Not a leaf stirs when we are collectively raped. But when you are violated, it shakes up the parliament. Why?)

Her words bring to mind Vemula’s suicide note and may some day stir a mindful reader to an equal fury.