“I am a Dalit with no one’s support,” sings former governor and seven-time MLA Mata Prasad (84). “How do I live? I eat mice and go squirrel-hunting.”
It’s an old folk song Prasad sings while touring Lucknow in a cycle rickshaw, telling Dalit folk tales.
With 24 books to his name, Prasad is part of a silent literary revolution sweeping one of India’s most backward states.
And it’s being led by learned Dalits — from former bureaucrats to professionals and schoolmasters.
“Books by Dalits are getting demands for multiple editions, and selling for up to Rs 500,” says Allahabad activist Madan Das. “Until about 10 years ago, they were sold for about Rs 5.”
The literary boom has created a cycle of positivity — Mayawati’s ascent is credited to the greater awareness of social and political rights, her meteoric rise in turn giving the state’s 3.51 crore Dalits a new identity.
Eager until recently to shed the tag of the Hindu social hierarchy’s lowest caste, even the wealthier Dalits are now buying books about their culture, their history and the painstaking journey from Untouchable to Harijan (a term meaning ‘people of God, coined by Mahatma Gandhi).
The growing sales are also a sign of the spread of literacy, and relative prosperity, among a people once considered unfit to drink from the village well.
The Dalit literacy rate has risen to 45 per cent — from less than 30 per cent two decades ago.
The awareness movement began before Independence, an attempt to ensure that the caste system did not carry forward into the new India.
Back then, the message was spread through skits and street plays performed in the villages. Most Dalits could not read, so literature was scarce.
It was an oral history, one that continues today.
Former Governor Prasad still travels from village to village, talking to Dalits through his folk songs, skits and books.
Of his 24 literary works, half are plays “because they’re easier to read, and read out”.
“In the old days, folk songs and drama were the most popular and powerful means of awakening Dalits,” says Prasad. “Now, as education spreads, prose and serious books have replaced folk songs and plays.”
The style of this writing is powerful and passionate, easily comprehensible by the masses.
Unabashedly direct, the literature often faces the charge of verging on the obscene.
“But our literature manifests what we were called and how we were treated,” says Prasad. “Those are not our words. They are the words that were used on us.”
At the Dalit Resource Centre in Allahabad, the US-based Ford Foundation is helping archive this literature.
“There has been a huge jump in the number of writers over the last two generations,” says Badri Narain, head of the centre. “We have archived publications of 1,500 Dalit writers from UP so far. We have located works of another 500. Most are aged 30 to 70.”
It’s hard to do a headcount, Narain says, because most of these works are distributed quietly within the community.
“We have to send people into the villages to find them,” says Narain.
The current boom started way back in 1918.
But as the Mandal Commission deliberated over reservations for lower castes in colleges, universities and government jobs, Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj Party began remoulding his followers’ identities.
They started asking, ‘Why can’t we rule? Why can’t we be more than we were?’
Today, almost every district in the state has its own publisher. And Mayawati is doing her bit to keep the legacy alive.
Every public meeting held by the BSP chief begins with a performance by a Dalit folk singer.
They sing about Dalit oppression, as UP’s first Dalit chief minister looks on.