Dalit Writing | Speaking from the shadows
An anthology and an autobiography provoke reflections on the politics of exclusion in modern India
“If there is not a single dalit who is an editor of a national daily, an anchor on TV channels, or a member of (industry bodies) FICCI or CII, it is not by incident, but by virtue of the doctrine of untouchability.” So wrote Chandra Bhan Prasad in 2000 in his “Dalit Diary” column in The Pioneer. In 2013, this indictment of mainstream media still holds true.
The majority of us remain complicit in a horrendous erasure and an appropriation of injustice where casteism continues to be a problem of the invisible Other, to be discussed or ignored among ourselves.
Prasad’s columns are the only piece of individual Dalit writing originally in English featured in the anthology The Exercise of Freedom: An Introduction to Dalit Writing. This is a symptom of the conspiracy of caste that even champions of Indian English tend to ignore (the book’s publisher is Navayana, an independent press known for its championing of the Dalit voice though it is not founded, owned or run by a Dalit).
It is pertinent that the reason is not that Dalit writers cannot express themselves in English; one of the most searing and lucid essays in the book, annotated with citations from Michel Foucault to Frantz Fanon, has been translated into English by its author T.M. Yesudasan himself. Yet, though he was the head of the English department in the CMS college in Kottayam, he originally wrote this essay in Malayalam, to be given as a lecture in the language of the people with whom he was choosing to have this dialogue.
The existence of this anthology probably goes hand-in-hand with its prescription as core text for the University of Kerala’s course on Dalit writing. Though it is a book that should be read (and enjoyed, even) by everyone, for students of literature it is especially imperative to be able to construct a historical context for what they read, and it is excellent that it therefore includes what should be but sadly are not yet classic pieces of writing like B.R. Ambedkar’s Mahad satyagraha speech and the Dalit Panthers’ Manifesto. Editors K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu have drawn from their previous experience editing anthologies of Dalit writing from south India to collate poetry, essays, memoir and fiction into an immersive experience of Dalit literature as both aesthetic and socio-political identity. Similar to the feminist and queer literary spheres, there is a vigorous bustle of activity and activism, ranging from the polemic to the meditative. And while B. Krishnappa may compellingly argue that “refinement cannot be the mainstay of a literature that has revolution and change as its goal”, stories such as Ajay Navaria’s New Custom and poems like S. Joseph’s My Sister’s Bible and Sukirtharani’s Untitled display delicate, nuanced craft and an interiority equal to any literary journal’s contents.
An excellent outcome of the editors’ commitment to feature a range of diverse and sometimes contradictory opinions is that this anthology squashes the idea of the token Dalit voice forever wailing in one-dimensional lament.
There are richer, weightier anthologies in terms of literary merit like the Oxford University Press’ anthologies of Malayalam and Tamil Dalit Writing, or Orient Longman’s Poisoned Bread: Translations From Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. The exclusion of sophisticated writers like Bama, Gogu Shyamala, Urmila Pawar or Baburao Bagul is puzzling. And given that this is a groundbreaking attempt at a pan-Indian spectrum, the complete absence of any writing from Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati or Oriya is also a palpable lacuna. It would also have been interesting to see a writer more concerned with themes of gender and sexuality and experimental literary form like Charu Nivedita juxtaposed against the framework of Krishnappa’s essay “Dalit Literature”, where he argues that writers like Banandoor Kempayya and Paramashiva Nadubetta “may be born Dalits, but they lack a commitment to Dalit literature”.
Navayana also recently issued a translation of the Kannada poet Siddalingaiah’s autobiography A Word With You, World. As a dossier of the Dalit literary movement in Karnataka it is a fascinating archive of anecdotes. The author’s playfully casual references to the variety of writers, politicians, academics and legislators who participate in the shaping of a public Dalit discursive voice provides a strong rebuttal to the fictional images in mainstream media where Dalits exist only as illiterate, destitute villagers.
As a work of literature, it is frustratingly disjointed and unreflexive; there is more animation and voice in the two poems anthologized in The Exercise of Freedom than Siddalingaiah and his translator S.R. Ramakrishna manage to evoke in the entirety of the memoir.
Reading both books together was a reminder of the breadth of tone that marginalized identities can achieve. As Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and W.E.B. Du Bois were for the American Black literary canon, Dalit writing today is magma pouring from a volcano that has still to achieve full blossom. As non-Dalit readers, to stand and bear witness is both a duty and a privilege.