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Author Urmila Pawar. Photo: Pradip Das/The Indian Express Archive
Author Urmila Pawar. Photo: Pradip Das/The Indian Express Archive

A brief history of the Dalit memoir

The memoir has been a vehicle for Dalits to challenge the social order for years now. Has it evolved in the post-Ambedkar and digital age?

Their names marked them out. Kachrya (dirt), Dhondya (stones), Bhikya (beggar), among others. They sounded like invectives, not names. They left no doubt about where the bearers belonged in the hierarchy of caste.

Dagdu (stone) Maruti Pawar rebelled against this, in his path-breaking autobiography, Baluta, which shook the world of Marathi literature in 1978 with its thematic brazenness and linguistic impudence. “The Manusmriti has a list of names for Shudras. It requires that our names should reflect society’s contempt," he wrote. He had become Daya Pawar. The title Baluta, too, was symbolic. It meant the share thrown the way of lower castes by those higher up the order.

The autobiography or the memoir, in the hands of Pawar and other Dalit writers of that era, went beyond self-expression and historical record. It was a vehicle for Dalits to assert their identity, challenge the social order and protest against the oppression of centuries. Before them, Annabhau Sathe and Baburao Bagul, among others, had tested the waters with memoirs and other forms to signal the wretchedness of Dalit life, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Dalit writing turned into a compelling socio-political tool.

Poetry also served the same end. Searing and sharp in tone, stripping social niceties to shreds, hurling words as if they were weapons of the wronged and the vengeful. Namdeo Dhasal was but one example. “All my poetry is political poetry," he once said. His Golpitha (1978) shocked the quiet charm of classical and romantic Marathi poetry.

The cover of Baluta
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The cover of Baluta

The voice amplified as more and more Marathi writers told their stories. No less than 40 writers, men and women, penned their life stories; among them, Laxman Mane, Raja Dhale, Arjun Dangle, Shankarrao Kharat, Yashwant Manohar, Keshav Meshram, Hira Bansode, Urmila Pawar, Babytai Kamble, Jyoti Lanjewar and Narendra Jadhav. Dalit writers in other languages wrote their stories, often as autobiographical poetry—Omprakash Valmiki in Hindi, Siddalingaiah in Kannada, Bama in Tamil, and others.

Ambedkar and after

Has the Dalit personal chronicle transformed over the years? Has the information revolution and the more democratic social media reshaped it in any way? Is a more nuanced form of memoir that places the modern Dalit in a globalizing/globalized economy taking shape?

Many Dalit writers trace their social and literary audacity to B.R. Ambedkar’s mantra for the community: educate, organize, agitate. As Ambedkar, the lawyer, social reformer and writer, gets appropriated by the Hindutva-espousing, upper-caste Hindu groups that he was firmly against in his lifetime, the need to recapture and re-amplify that Dalit voice is greater than ever before.

“The Dalit autobiographies or memoirs served two purposes," says Pradnya Daya Pawar, Dalit and feminist poet and daughter of Daya Pawar. “It brought to life a Dalit hero and bestowed upon him validity. At the same time, it established Dalit history and Dalits as dignified…. No one was such a fool as to believe that the writing would liberate the Dalits but it was capable of giving an ethical underpinning to our socio-political movement."

There is academic concurrence. “Dalit autobiography emerged as a category in the 1970s, along with a new kind of protest poetry.... Many of these writings foregrounded the vicious history of (vernacular, visible) caste prejudice…. (It) was resistance literature, emerging out of and building on recognized traditions of political and intellectual resistance. The very titles of numerous Dalit life-writings indicate the history of stigmatization, oppression, and poverty," writes historian Gyanendra Pandey in a chapter on Dalit memoirs in A History Of Prejudice (2013).

B.R. Ambedkar’s table at his Mumbai home. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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B.R. Ambedkar’s table at his Mumbai home. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

The trends

It is possible to delineate at least two contemporary trends in the Dalit memoir: First, a growing realization that the self-story can be a relatively positive one too, and second, that Dalit women have their own stories that speak of twin oppressions of caste and gender, stories which lie at the intersection of Ambedkarite persuasions and feminist thought.

Narendra Jadhav, a former chief economist of the Reserve Bank of India, now on the boards of conglomerates, is a fierce advocate of the positive memoir. His autobiography, Aamcha Baap Ani Amhi (Our Father And We), published in 1993, had created quite a stir. Baluta was a jolt to the world, he says, but Dalit writing could not have continued on that path alone.

“I underplayed the injustice part because, by then, the stories of oppression had been told and retold, they had become shrill, a blame game going on with upper-caste people held responsible for acts committed by their forefathers," says Jadhav. “So, my story was about how I made it in this world despite the oppression."

The narrative of “I, The Victim" has progressed to “I, The Achiever" in the hands of many contemporary writers, in memoirs, poetry and autobiographical fiction. Loknath Yashwant, Kumar Anil, G.K. Ainapure, Avinash Gaikwad and Santosh Padmakar Pawar are some such authors.

The dilemma between Dalit solidarity and feminist thought is an area that Dalit women writers have explored. Pradnya Daya Pawar herself is an example. Urmila Pawar, well-known author and reformist, has outlined this in much of her work, including her autobiography Aaydan (The Bamboo Basket, 2003), translated into English as The Weave Of My Life (2009). Considered among the more influential new autobiographies, it draws out the contradictions between caste and gender as Urmila Pawar marries and comes to Mumbai in 1976, starts writing in the late 1980s, and questions the basis of who is a good wife.

Throughout, she explores the double discrimination. At one point, she reminisces that her mother had banished her to a corner when she started menstruating, with instructions to not touch anything lest it “become impure". The young Urmila wondered at this concept of purity and rues: “As if I wasn’t discriminated enough by others outside, now family too, has set rules for me." Playwright Sushama Deshpande adapted Urmila Pawar’s autobiography for the Marathi stage last year.

The forerunner was Shantabai Kamble’s Mazhya Jalmachi Chittarkatha (The Kaleidoscopic Story Of My Life), first serialized in the 1980s. “It brought to the social consciousness that Dalit women suffer an additional burden of gender discrimination, besides that of caste," points out Pradnya Daya Pawar. The genre of Dalit women’s literature has grown stronger with Ushakiran Atram, Ashalata Kamble, Sandhya Rangari, Kavita Morwankar, Chayya Koregaonkar and others.

So the memoir grows in character. ​In the hands of new Dalit writers, the memoir stands transformed in substance, style and slant. It does not only scream with raw anger. It records new dilemmas and touches upon newer​ and subtle forms of violence against Dalits in a rapidly liberalizing economy. But as the politics of identity takes centre stage, new writing threatens to distil all Dalit experiences into Ambedkarite thought, excluding other variants.

The churn goes on. But it has not dimmed the popularity of the old memoirs. “(Baburao) Bagul’s autobiography sells twice as much as the books of famous personalities such as Sachin Tendulkar and Dilip Prabhavalkar that we published," says Meena Karnik of the publishing house Akshar Prakashan.

The digital thrust

New media has not given the memoir wings yet. Jadhav points out that while democratic forms of expression open up, Dalit themes retract to the past. “Young Dalits are consuming the social media and Web, but there’s a strange Ambedkar bhakti happening out there," he says. There are all kinds of contested and contestable material floating around on the Net.

Raj Gruha. Photo: The Indian Express Archive
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Raj Gruha. Photo: The Indian Express Archive

But thanks to new media, it is possible for a group of young people to rally around a Dalit History Month this April, like the Black History Month in February, with a dedicated website and Facebook page. “What was very transforming for us was the realization that the history we as Dalits have is not just one of victimhood and survival, but of relentless resistance and unshakeable resilience," says Christina Dhanaraj of the Dalit History Month Collective.

The young are crafting stories relevant to them in new languages —and not necessarily as memoirs or autobiographies.

IN THE GENRE

The essential reading list of Dalit memoirs in Marathi and other languages:

Marathi

u ‘Zhenva Mi Jaat Chorali Hoti (When I Concealed My Caste)’, by Baburao Bagul

u ‘Baluta (The Discarded Share)’, by Daya Pawar

u ‘Upara (The Outsider)’, by Laxman Mane

u ‘Uchalya (The Branded)’, by Laxman Gaikwad

u ‘Jina Amucha (Our Life)’, by Babytai Kamble

u ‘Aaydan (The Bamboo Basket)’, by Urmila Pawar

u ‘Mazhya Jalmachi Chittarkatha (The Kaleidoscopic Story Of My Life)’, by Shantabai Kamble

u ‘Akkarmashi (The Outcaste)’, by Sharankumar Limbale

u ‘Aamcha Baap Ani Amhi (Our Father and We)’, by Narendra Jadhav

Other languages

u ‘Joothan–A Dalit’s Life’, by Omprakash Valmiki (Hindi)

u ‘Dohra Abhishap’, by Kaushalya Baisantari (Hindi)

u ‘Ooru Keri’, by Siddalingaiah (Kannada)

u ‘Karukku’, by Bama (Tamil)

u ‘Sangati’, by Bama (Tamil)

English translations and readings

u ‘Poisoned Bread, Translations From Modern Marathi Dalit Literature’, by Arjun Dangle

u ‘Towards An Aesthetic Of Dalit Literature’, by Sharankumar Limbale

u ‘A History Of Prejudice’, by Gyanendra Pandey

Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on politics, urban studies and culture.

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