A new horizon in Dalit writing
In the summer of 1976, the rape and murder of a young woman in Karnataka’s Kolar district sent shockwaves through the state. The victim hailed from the impoverished kumbhara community of potters classified as OBC (Other Backward Class) in the state, and the family had little resources to survive, let alone fight for justice.
But in the gloom was sown the seeds of a new movement. A poem penned by the Kannada poet Kotiganahalli Ramaiah started galvanizing Dalit and OBC communities against the crime, and in demanding dignity for women from marginalised communities. His poem, which extolled the struggle of these groups and epitomised both the mourning and the resistance, travelled orally from village to village as women threaded the verses into a tune. The dirge became a part of the community’s cultural history and sparked a statewide struggle.
For centuries, Dalit writing has occupied a wide expanse, stretching from oral histories, verses in little-known languages, songs that were never written down but passed down generations, to couplets, and what we today understand as canonical literature. But as society and experiences of caste rapidly mould themselves into new forms, newer and exciting writers are taking centre stage, challenging the collective understanding of the normative gaze in literature.
Five such writers came together on July 17 at the Sahitya Akademi in Delhi for the body’s first-ever event featuring Dalit poets writing in English. Between them, Chandramohan S, Aruna Gogulamanda, Cynthia Stephen, Aparna Lanjewar Bose and Yogesh Maitreya displayed not just diversity of themes but also of locations and style – and embodied a new generation of Dalit writing in India.
“There has been a paradigm shift in the newer generation of poets, and this is because of the changes in politics and social situation. A growing number of young and educated people from our communities have entered universities, literary and art spheres, and have been subjected to newer and varying forms of discrimination and bias. Their experience of social exclusion is unique,” explained Stephen, who has also been associated with social movements in Karnataka for 20 years.
Dalit narratives have, over the years, unearthed accounts of exclusion, resistance and victory. Writers from the community have rejected homogenized accounts of Indian society, using their lived experiences to pen down tales of great diversity, anger, sorrow and joy.
But as novelist Ajay Navaria told me recently, the times are changing and Dalit writers are increasingly foraying into hitherto uncharted waters, letting go of themes such as anger, and embracing newer forms and subjects – beauty, nationalism, urban discrimination, mob violence, communalism, Islamophobia.
Gogulamanda, for example, says her writing feels inspired by Dalit women, who often find themselves erased from history and the canon. Growing up, she faced the banal, everyday discrimination that hobbles the life of a young woman in India, and once married, battled abuse and domestic violence for over a decade.
“I feel patriarchy is the biggest evil Dalit women face, and is the base even for caste discrimination. The torture I faced made me understand the vulnerability of Dalit women, and that’s what I write.”
Chandramohan, on the other hand, starting writing poetry during the nationwide churn that followed the December 16, 2012 gang rape in Delhi. “I was trained as an engineer and though I read voraciously, I never imagined myself to be a writer. But in 2012, I was writing placards and posters for protests. My first poem evolved out of this exercise,” says the poet from Kerala, who is now a part of the prestigious International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa.
For Chandramohan, who counts Marathi poet Namdeo Dhasal as his inspiration, politics is entwined in his work. “Being Ambedkarite, one politicizes onself, and the literature we produce prevents anyone from reverting to the Brahmanical status quo. There is writing in English on caste themes but the writers are from the privileged communities and it’s their take on it.”
Dalit writing in India has often thrived away from the focus of the so-called mainstream industry in metropolises – the hundreds of small publishers and stalls that throng every celebration of Ambedkar’s birth or death anniversary stand testimony to the resilience and reach of small booklets and novels of anti-caste literature. These new writers are aware of this legacy and are intent on taking this forward – in English.
“Connections are being made across cultures and continents. Young people from the community have access to critique and language that we earlier didn’t have. No more will we tolerate the upper caste’s patronizing gaze. We will articulate oppression and defiance, but through hope and humanity,” says Stephen.
But what of the charge that Dalit writing is pigeonholed and not aesthetic? Bose, an associate professor at the English and Foreign Languages University, likens this charge to the male gaze that often belittles poetry by women.
“This narrow parochial perception stems from prejudiced notions that instantly sets to create binaries of superior/ inferior; pure /impure; acceptable/ unacceptable. Such dismissal also attempts to delegitimize the creation of newer literary paradigms,” she says.
To write about Dalit literature is a paradox in itself – the marking of an author as Dalit is simultaneously assertion and exclusion. The other contradiction is English, which as Maitreya acknowledged, is often used by genteel, urban, dominant communities to mark what is “intelligent”, “well written” or “aesthetic”, thereby excluding marginalised voices as “local”, “vernacular” or “coarse”.
“We know which communities control English publication in India, and favour writing that meets their sensibilities. But when we write in English, our expression is the same but our language is different, just like Dhasal changed Marathi from a Brahmanical language through his poems,” he says.
Maitreya admits to the contradictions but argues that engagement with English and the urban audience is necessary. “We are in the city, our realities are different. But wherever you go, caste goes with you. I say I am a poet writing in English. But people say I am a Dalit poet.”
This is why, he adds, Dalit communities need to mould language. As Chandramohan says, poetry is a possibility to build a new world.
A poem by Chandramohan S, which encapsulates the direction of new Dalit writing in English
RAPE AND MURDER OF A DALIT GIRL
‘No newspaper carried a headline or a photo feature,
No youth were roused to protests,
No city’s life came to a standstill,
No furore in the parliament,
No nation’s conscience was haunted,
No Prime Minister addressed the nation,
No TV channel discussions,
No police officials were transferred or suspended,
No candlelight marches,
No billion women rising,
A Dalit girl was raped and murdered!’