Lighting Out for the Territory

The arduous journey of modern Dalit literature

A bookstall in Pune on 14 April, the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar. ANIL SAINI FOR THE CARAVAN
01 February, 2011

IN MANU JOSEPH’S DEBUT NOVELSerious Men—praised by one critic as “one of the very best novels ever to come out of South Asia” and the winner of The Hindu’s inaugural Best Fiction award in 2010—the protagonist, Ayyan Mani, is a manipulative, sly, scheming Dalit-Buddhist who almost gets away with passing off his partially deaf son, Adi, as a prodigy, a genius who can recite the first 1,000 prime numbers. The garb of satire—where almost every character cuts a sorry figure—gives the author the license to offer one of the most bleak and pessimistic portrayals of urban Dalits.

Ayyan Mani works as secretary to the Brahmin astrophysicist Arvind Acharya at the ‘Institute of Theory and Research,’ where he bestows on himself the subversive power of inserting anti-Brahmin statements into the “Thought of the Day.” While the novel’s bumbling scientists are at least earnest in their pursuit of ostensibly higher truths, Mani is an open fraud—a conman. The novel’s female characters hardly fare better: the astrobiologist Oparna Goshmaulik is purely a ‘sex item,’ described each time she makes an appearance, in Mani’s gaze, as “always a sight,” “a commotion” and “an event”; the wife of Ayyan Mani, with the unlikely Tamil name Oja, is draped in naiveté bordering on dumbness.

An undisguised contempt for women and Dalits goes hand in hand with the ancient Brahminical book of social codes, the Manusmriti, and Joseph decidedly lives up to his first name. Despite his savage portrayal of female and Dalit characters—or perhaps because of it?—Serious Men has won critical appreciation from a cross-section of readers and critics, including some upper-class feminists (“dodgy sexual politics but, basically, I had such fun reading it!”). As a friend remarked, even though India has never had a regime of political correctness, a section of the elite has decided it’s okay to enjoy jokes at such correctness.

At a time when a formidable body of Dalit literature—writing by Dalits about Dalit lives—has created a distinct space for itself, how and why is it that a novel such as Serious Men, with its gleefully skewed portrayal of an angry Dalit man, manages to win such accolades? In American literature—and particularly in the case of African-American authors and characters—these issues of representation have been debated (and, to some degree, resolved) for decades. But in India, the sustained refusal to address issues related to caste in everyday life—and the continued and unquestioned predominance of a Brahminical stranglehold over cultural production—have led us to a place where non-Dalit portrayal of Dalits in literature, cinema and art remains the norm.

The journey of modern Dalit literature has been a difficult one. But even though it has not necessarily enjoyed the support of numbers (in what has come to be the trade publishing market) we must engage with what Dalits are writing—not simply for reasons of authenticity, or as a concession to identity politics, but simply because of the aesthetic value of this body of writing, and for the insights it offers into the human condition. In a society that is still largely unwilling to recognise Dalits as equal, rights-bearing human beings, in a society that is inherently indifferent to the everyday violence against Dalits and their near-total ghettoisation in various spheres of social and cultural activity, in a society unwilling to share social and cultural resources equitably with Dalits unless mandated by law (as seen in the anti-reservation discourse), Dalit literature has the potential to humanise non-Dalits and sensitise them to a world into which they have no insight. But before we can understand what Dalit literature is seeking to accomplish, we need first to come to terms with the stranglehold of non-Dalit representations of Dalits.

ROHINTON MISTRY’SA Fine Balance, published 15 years ago, chronicles the travails of a Chamar family in a north Indian village and follows two characters—uncle Ishvar and nephew Omprakash—who migrate to Bombay and yet cannot escape brutality. While the present of the novel is set at the time of the Emergency, Ishvar’s father Dukhi (an homage to the equally pitiable Dukhi in Premchand’s famous short story ‘Sadgati’) belongs to the era of the anti-colonial nationalist movement. During one of Dukhi’s visits to the town, he chances upon a meeting of the Indian National Congress, where speakers spread the “Mahatma’s message regarding the freedom struggle, the struggle for justice”, but add that this is not a realisable goal unless “the disease of untouchability, ravaging us for centuries, denying dignity to our fellow human beings” is wiped out.

Neither in the 1940s, where the novel’s past is set, nor in the Emergency period of the 1970s—when the minds and bodies of the two Dalits, Ishvar and Omprakash, are savaged by the state—do we find any mention of a figure like BR Ambedkar or of Dalit movements. In his ‘nationalist’ understanding of modern Indian history, Mistry seems to have not veered too far from the road charted by predecessors like Raja Rao (Kanthapura) and Mulk Raj Anand (Untouchable) or, in Hindi, by the likes of Premchand. Sixty years after Premchand, Mistry’s literary imagination seems stuck in the empathy-realism mode, trapping Dalits in abjection. Mistry happily continues the broad stereotype of the Dalit as a passive sufferer, without consciousness of caste politics.

The poet Namdeo Dhasal, a founder of the Dalit Panther movement, at his village Pur-Kanersar in 2004. HENNING STEGMÜLLER. COURTESY OF NAVAYANA PUBLISHING

It is not as if Dalit movements were not active during the periods that form A Fine Balance’s backdrop. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary was being celebrated in faraway Hyderabad in the 1930s, as the Dalit historian PR Venkataswamy notes in Our Struggle for Emancipation, published in 1955. In the northern belt, Swami Achutanand of Kanpur, who ran the newspaper Achut in the early 20th century, was considered an architect of Dalit consciousness. Around the same time, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu, a Lucknow Chamar, was reconstructing Ravidas, a revered ascetic born in the Chamar caste. By the turn of the 20th century, in other words, Dalits and lower-order shudras in much of northern, southern, eastern and western India were in protest mode, resisting the overtures of the Congress-led nationalist/anti-colonial movement and waging struggles more pertinent to their own liberation. In fact, such challenges began emerging in the mid-19th century across the subcontinent. Jotirao Phule (1827-90) was a pioneer in western India who viciously attacked the Congress’ Brahminical nationalism and established the Satyashodhak Samaj (Truth-Seekers’ Society).

For Mistry, even in 1995, it is the same, worn script which combines the fatalism of Thomas Hardy and the compassion and good intentions of Premchand. Despite the fact that the novel is set in Bombay during the time of the Dalit Panther movement, and despite the constant authorial references to the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, the Chamars, Ishvar and Omprakash, who struggle as tailors, remain oblivious to an unmissable figure like Ambedkar and the larger context of Dalit politics. While in 2010 Joseph seems to use the sleight of evenhandedness to nail all his characters with comedy and satire and thus gets away with giving the worst end of his stick to Dalits, Mistry uses the heavy hand of tragedy and melodrama to deal devastating blows to all his characters: his Dalit protagonists, whose entire families are wiped out in the unnamed village, are vasectomised, rendered legless (Ishvar) and castrated (Om) during the Emergency. As the novel ends, they are reduced to pathetic beggars; their dignity, dreams and desires are seriously compromised to service gritty realism.

The concern with what non-Dalit writers do with their Dalit characters also brings us to Arundhati Roy’s Velutha in The God of Small Things, Amitav Ghosh’s Fokir in The Hungry Tide and, more recently, his Kalua in Sea of Poppies. Here, the writers seek to bestow agency on their Dalit characters, but again their portrayals do not keep pace with an awareness of the history of the evolving realities of Dalit politics—specifically, the assertion of Dalit identity and the consciousness of caste oppression. If from Premchand to Mistry we have empathy sans agency, in Roy and Ghosh we see that the Dalit characters lack distinct subjecthood prior to their involvement with high-caste characters.

In The Hungry Tide, Fokir, a survivor of the 1979 Morichjhanpi massacre, is an unspeaking, noble but informed savage who guides the American ethnographer Piyali Roy. Under Piyali’s loving gaze, Fokir’s beauty and deep knowledge of the backwaters unfold; there’s unconsummated passion between the two. Roy makes bold to have the mostly silent Velutha, with his attractive, muscular Dalit body—honed by the labour of carpentry, not in a gymnasium, as Roy says in an interview—love and be loved by the Syrian Christian Ammu; but there’s still the worry over his speechless suffering and inevitable death for transgressing the Love Laws. Velutha’s beautiful body is offset by those of his father, with one glass eye, and his brother, with a broken spine.

In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh bestows agency on Kalua, a Chamar, who saves Deeti, an upper-caste woman about to be consigned to sati, and goes on to make a life with her. Ghosh, however, slips when he shows Kalua reductively as all brawn, “a man of unusual height and powerful build” who can trump anybody in a wrestling bout—which comes in handy as a plot device to enable Kalua to steer Deeti to safety. Towards the end of the novel, we see that Kalua has superhuman strength whereas Kalua’s lover, Deeti, the protagonist, is the one with the mind. Ghosh, even as he gives story-altering agency to Kalua, seems happy to depict a mind-body binary between Deeti and Kalua—a division of labour that plays into both caste and gender stereotypes.

“Attempts to incorporate Dalits into the discourse of a novel are presumably preceded by some crisis in the dominant social groups,” says TM Yesudasan, a retired English professor from a small town in Kerala, referring to the limited representation of Dalits in fiction set in the state. Dalits, Yesudasan says, are invariably “the Mute”: “Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, making them Mutes.”

In Roy’s novel, it is the divorced Ammu’s crisis that sucks in Velutha (quite like Deeti’s crisis sucks in an almost orphaned, community-less Kalua in Sea of Poppies). Velutha is perhaps the first Dalit character in contemporary non-Dalit fiction who is overtly political, a former Naxalite who takes part in a communist protest march, and has sex with an upper class woman. However, Yesudasan, situating The God of Small Things among other classic ‘Malayali Enlightenment’ novels such as Potheri Kunjambu’s Saraswativijayam (1892), Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Randidangazhi (1948), and Sara Thomas’ Deivamakkal (1982) argues:

The fictioning of pratiloma [a lower caste man in a relationship with an upper caste woman] is motivated by… the savarna desire to become more hegemonic, represented by a savarna woman in distress who seeks/finds a Dalit paramour, reversing the traditional boy-meets-girl formula and committing an act of sacrilege. She crosses the boundary on a cultural mission of hegemony and consecrates the sacrilege in order to close in on Dalits. This is like “primitivism” in Western modern art, turning for creative rejuvenation to the so-called “primitive” cultures of others.

It is not that non-Dalit writers do not have the enlightened right to portray Dalits; there cannot be any literary policing on such a subject. But, as K Satyanarayana, who pioneered the teaching of a Dalit Studies course in the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, observed, “Despite their serious commitment, non-Dalit writers miss the dreams, desires and visions of Dalits and objectify them as either victims or romanticise them as great people. This continues to be a serious problem.”

To come back to the author we began with: Manu Joseph manages to inaugurate a new template—he identifies his characters specifically as Dalits (not as untouchable Chamars or Pulayas) and depicts them as fully conscious of (but enraged by) caste oppression. Joseph’s rationale for making Ayyan Mani a Dalit makes for interesting reading. In an interview with, he says:

When Ayyan first formed in my head he was just the same but he was not a Dalit. He had this anger and a comical interpretation of the modern world and modern women and science and everything around him. But he was not a Dalit. Then I asked myself, why is he so angry, can I give him a justification? And the idea of a Dalit male who is trying to create from thin air the first Dalit boy genius just fascinated me.

Consider what kind of social reality leads a writer like Joseph to decide that Ayyan Mani ought to be a Dalit because he is “so angry.” Mani’s specific kind of imagined ‘Dalitness’ is clearly a by-product of the post-Mandal anti-reservation rage of the upper classes of India, represented with deep sympathy by the Brahmin-controlled media. Such a portrayal of a scheming Dalit—who is merely a prop in the novel—would perhaps not have been possible in the period before the 1980s or the 1990s.

It is not that a Dalit character ought not to be dark and devious, especially in a dark comedy. It is not as if one is looking for a portrayal of triumph shorn of the complexities of human nature. What’s worrisome is how Mani’s son Adi has to be a congenitally poor, underperforming student with a hearing disability (to compound matters), who has to cheat his way through tests and quiz shows—lacking inherently in “merit.”

Towards the end of Serious Men, a mindless Dalit mob with stones, metals rods and sticks is on a rampage—breaking limbs and furniture and everything in sight at the Institute of Theory and Research—because the vile, anti-Dalit comments of the Brahmin scientists there have been exposed. The marauding mob can hardly engage in an intelligent battle—it has to use brawn. Earlier on, Joseph does indicate how violent the angry Dalits of Bombay can be when their sensibilities are offended. Either a Dalit-Buddhist can be a conman whose aspirations are disproportionate to his talents, or Dalits are congenitally disabled, or plain lumpen. In the West, such a depiction of, say, blacks, would invite the charge of racism—a close cousin of homegrown casteism. Here, such ‘wit’ may be legitimised with endorsements in the form of awards and good sales figures.

What is worrying is that the majority of readers—most of them presumably non-Dalits—seem undisturbed by the way Dalits have been presented in fiction, whether by Premchand and Mulk Raj Anand or contemporary writers like Ghosh, Roy, Mistry and Joseph. This situation might have been more understandable—if no less unacceptable—in a much earlier era. But there are no excuses today, after a half-century that has witnessed the emergence of modern Dalit writing, starting in Marathi in the post-Ambedkar period.

Ambedkar himself is said to have used the term Dalit only a few times in his Marathi speeches, but the term

really caught on only after the emergence of the literature of the 1960s and the 1970s in Marathi. The word ‘Dalit’ originates in Pali, where it means ‘ground down’ or ‘broken’, as in broken dal (lentils). In Pali Buddhist literature, the term dalidda (daridra in Sanskrit) is used for the property-less poor in contrast to the gahapati class of the rich.

The 1972 Dalit Panther manifesto defined Dalit in an all-encompassing way: “A member of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, neo-Buddhist, the working class, the landless and poor peasants, women, and all those who are being exploited politically, economically, and in the name of religion.” As Gangadhar Pantawane, a Marathi Dalit ideologue, says: “Dalit is not a caste; Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution. The Dalit believes in humanism. He rejects existence of god, rebirth, soul, sacred books that teach discrimination, fate, and heaven because these make him a slave.”

In popular and academic usage, ‘Dalit’ has come to function as a politically correct substitute for terms like Scheduled Caste, harijan, untouchable, or the Depressed Classes. But Dalit has an emancipatory potential which caste and jati categories like Chamar and Brahmin do not; Dalit is not a caste, but an anti-caste subjectivity that someone born into untouchability occupies by rejecting caste.

The political and literary ferment of the 1970s remained confined to the Marathi context—throwing up names like Namdeo Dhasal, Narayan Surve, Baburao Bagul, Hira Bansode and Daya Pawar. It was only after the 1990 Ambedkar centenary and the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations that a Dalit literary upsurge began in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Punjabi and Malayalam. This coincided with the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party, founded by Kanshi Ram and now led by Mayawati, which gave nationwide currency to the term ‘Dalit.’

It is not as if Dalits were not writing previously, but literature by Dalits with an anti-caste consciousness seemed to need the charged atmosphere of the 1990s. In its early phase, poetry, the short story and autobiography remained the chosen modes of expression. But in the past five to ten years, Dalit literature appears to have taken a new turn, veering away from the first-generation writing that over-emphasised politics and protest. The work of this new generation, however, is not easily or frequently translated into English—and sometimes even resists the process. It is the journey of these writers that needs our attention today.

AT THE JALANDHAR BUS STOP, I call Des Raj Kali and tell him I am waiting at platform 23. It’s dark, we can’t find each other, and he suggests I look for the nearby statue of Bhagat Singh and find him there. When I ask a few random people for directions to the statue, they reply, “Who is Bhagat Singh?” I report this to Kali when I finally find him at the statue, and he says, “At this rate, when will people know who I am?”

Kali walks me across the road to an ahatta, an open-air all-male drinking place where Old Monk rum and tandoori chicken await, along with the short-story writer Bhagwant Rasoolpuri, a half moon and a few stray pups. I had first met Kali in January 2010 at the Jaipur Literature Festival, where for the first time in five years a platform was given to Dalit writers. Kali, 39, works during the day at the daily Dainik Bhaskar, editing its various Punjabi magazine sections. But his real passion is writing fiction, and he has been prolific, publishing four collections of short stories and five novels, while editing a premier literary journal, Lakeer. He says he likes to play with form. “In Shanti Parv, I have used the hyperlink technique. There’s a parallel text that unfolds at the bottom of the page. The imprint page says if you find any character resembling anyone real, it is intentional. So I have Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appearing as himself. In the novel Pratham Pauran some mythological and historical characters come alive.”

Dalit literature in Punjabi, Kali declares, has to engage with history. “I trace my legacy to the Sufi and Nath saints and the radical woman poet Peero Preman of the 19th century,” he says. “A critical engagement with Sikhism becomes necessary; the myth that it is anti-caste has to be confronted. Why is it that we find in the Guru Granth Sahib a line that says: Labh kutta koodh choohra thug khada murdar—‘Like a dog is greedy, lies become a choohra and eating carrion behoves a thug.’ Why these similes? Punjab, with a population of nearly 30 percent choohra-Chamars, has had to put up with such a governing ideology.”

In his third novel, Parneshwari, Kali reclaims for Dalits the legacies of Buddhism, the Nath tradition and Sufism to challenge the hegemony of Jat-dominated Sikhism. Set in the 1980s and the 1990s, Parneshwari’s protagonist Parha comes from a typical Dalit vehra (ghetto), goes to college and finds a mentor in a famous poet—modelled on Lal Singh Dil (1943–2007), one of the foremost Punjabi poets, a Dalit who was drawn to Naxalism. Clearly, Parha is Kali’s alter ego. Parha also learns that his own father’s guru was a Sufi saint; and through the father’s character, we learn of the influences of Sufism and Nath-Siddha-Buddhist traditions on Dalits. The novel’s title derives from the name of a deity who is worshipped by farmers and herders, Parneshwari, who, it is believed, broke the Hindu god Ganesh’s tusk in a war. Says Kali, “Parneshwari clearly has tribal origins, for she is clad in leaves. Towards the end of the novel, Parha brings a figure of Parneshwari into his house, into his life, thus reclaiming a tradition that even Dalits are made to forget. Parha’s journey of self-discovery is also a journey into the pre-Sikhism cultural history of Punjab’s Dalits.”

Kali’s work is indeed a departure from what has come to be normative for Dalit prose: the autobiographical mode. Since its emergence in the 1970s in Maharashtra, modern Dalit writing, nurtured by short-lived, energetic, self-financed little magazines, has excelled in three genres: poetry, short story and autobiography. And among these, it is the autobiography that has come to be seen as the default mode of Dalit literary articulation, especially since this genre found favour with publishers and translators.

The Hindi writer Ajay Navaria, whose 2003 short story ‘Cheekh’ (‘The Scream’) attracted considerable notoreity. COURTESY OF S ANAND

According to Ajay Navaria, 38, who has emerged as one of the most exciting contemporary Hindi writers, this is understandable. “The first wave of Hindi Dalit writers in the 1990s was doing dard bayaan—offering testimonies of their suffering. They were the first generation to get out of villages and have urban exposure; many of them were educated but they rarely went to fine colleges or moved in literary circles. At best, they had day jobs as clerks. In their writings, the emphasis was more on bhav (emotion) than bhasha (language/artifice). Their experience was their identity. Their writing was communitarian—the story of one person became the story of the community which had never been told.” The titles of the autobiographies were suggestive of their content: Tiraskrit (‘Rejected’) by Surajpal Chauhan, Joothan (‘Leftovers’) by Omprakash Valmiki, or Ghutan (‘Suffocation’) by Ramashankar Arya. Kali describes a similar trend in Punjabi and says these works were like foundation stones. “Our sources of knowledge had been annihilated,” he says, “our thinking traditions had been burnt down. Therefore, experience becomes a framework, a source of storytelling; hence autobiography.”

Mini Krishnan of the Oxford University Press, which published the translation of Bama’s testimonio, Karukku, in 1998, says autobiographical narratives still have their place. “The real-life accounts of Dalits are so important to the politics of the movement and the truth about the country that it stirs the Dalit in all of us. We need to hear those stories. For that section of Dalits who have gone beyond the pain of psychological damage and sense of grievance, perhaps these autobiographical accounts are even something of an embarrassment, but most publishers (and all of them are upper-caste and nearly all of them women) instinctively feel that that is where they must begin.” According to K Satyanarayana, “Dalit autobiography is one of the most important forms Dalits have used in a creative manner to address issues that the social sciences and humanities failed to address. The selective recognition of this form by the publishers should not blind us to the fact that Dalit autobiography is one of the great contributions of Dalits to the literary world. A short text of 150 pages makes an ordinary Dalit a creative writer as well as a social activist.”

But Dalits are moving beyond narrating their lives, says Krishnan, who later in 2011 will publish two anthologies of Dalit writings, in Tamil and Malayalam. “With mostly Dalit editors, I’ve prepared 96 selections from Tamil Dalit writing and 60 from Malayalam Dalit writing [in English translation] and autobiography forms only a section in these collections.” Satyanarayana, who with Susie Tharu has put together another anthology of Dalit writings from Malayalam and Tamil (forthcoming in 2011 from Penguin as No Alphabet in Sight: A Dossier of South Indian Dalit Writing), says, “Dalits now are writing in new modes: allegorical, mythic and fantastic.”

AJAY NAVARIA, who has a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University and teaches Hindu religious scriptures in Jamia Milia Islamia University’s Hindi department, offers proof with his two collections of short stories and a novel, Udhar Ke Log. He became a little notorious after his much-debated short story ‘Cheekh’ (‘The Scream’) was published in 2003 in Hans, the premier Hindi literary journal. ‘Cheekh’—which begins with the line, “Crime is very enticing, and revenge shape-shifting”—tells the story of an unnamed narrator who hails from a remote village that shares borders with Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, the Maoist belt. A padre helps him get an education; the church-run school even provides him with clothes. One day, while returning from school, some Patel youth led by a boy named Vinayak corner him alone, heckle him and make him strip his pants (a gift from the padre), even though he says he is not wearing any underwear. The Patel boys are astounded by the size of his penis, even in its docile state. They fling him to the ground and take turns abusing him.

The traumatised Dalit youth cannot focus on studies any longer and so the padre sends him to Nagpur to pursue a BA. He goes on to do an MA in Mumbai, clears the “civil services prelims” and is set to appear for the “mains” when he meets three bar-dancer girls—all Brahmins, living in the same chawl—who befriend our tall and dark but not beautiful narrator, now fluent in English. The girls get him a job as an assistant in a massage parlour, where one day a Malayali dancer named Pillai makes a sexual overture towards him. When the narrator refuses, Pillai offers him bundles of money (“like he has seen only in Hindi films”) to have sex: the narrator thinks of how he could use this money to avenge his humiliation at the hands of Vinayak, repay his debts to the padre, help his labouring father, and buy a dress for his sister. Pillai also gives him the card of one Mrs Vela Deshmukh, who is married to a vegetating Kulkarni Brahmin, 24 years her senior. The Dalit protagonist, meanwhile, with his humongous penis as his business card, turns into a sought-after gigolo through Mrs Deshmukh’s network; but she eventually pays him a salary and ‘keeps’ him for herself—an enslavement he resents, not much different from his farmhand father’s to the village Patel. However, at one of Vela’s parties, the gigolo falls for Suchita, the wife of Deputy Commissioner of Police Varun. He fucks Suchita for love and Mrs Deshmukh for the money.

After some time, he defies Mrs Deshmukh and runs away with Suchita. In a faraway hotel, there’s a knock on the door and a veiled person shoots at the narrator. The shooter then kicks the narrator hard on his penis—it amuses me that throughout the story, the penis is referred to as guptaang (private part) or hathyar (weapon/organ), never as the more colloquial lauda or landh. Who was the shooter: Vinayak, Vela or Varun? The narrator does not know. The words of a baba in the village ring in his ears now: “Come back, son! However hungry, you don’t eat poison.”

With nonchalance, Navaria says that after this story appeared, the number of women who wished to socialise with him increased five-fold. Did they begin to associate you with the gigolo character, I ask. “Not just that,” he says. “In literary circles, they started peddling the rumour that I lead such a life!”

But as the new generation of Dalit writers seeks to push the frontiers of form, content, idiom and language, the old guard is sometimes not amused. At a Dalit Studies conference in July 2010 at Shimla’s Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Omprakash Valmiki and the Gujarati poet Neerav Patel sought to define Dalit literature as having a distinctly political mandate: “It has to be protest literature and be linked to the Dalit movement. Just because a Dalit writes about any subject, it does not become Dalit literature.” At moments such as this, it seems that some Dalit writers would fall into the trap of self-ghettoisation that identity politics can create. The subversion inherent in Navaria’s gigolo character seems lost on Valmiki and Patel.

Meena Kandasamy reads from her work at the 14th Poetry Africa Festival, in Durban, South Africa, October 2010. COURTESY OF S ANAND

According to Meena Kandasamy, 26, who writes in English and translates widely from Tamil, it is easy to fall into the trap of imagining the Dalit writer as occupying the same social position in the literary hierarchy as the Dalit occupies in the social hierarchy. However, unlike the lay Dalit, the Dalit writer has a voice, and the Dalit writer is capable of transgression. “This makes the Dalit writer essentially a rebel and empowers her to speak about the fault-lines in the system,” she says.

While the old school seems to have fixed ideas about the overtly political nature of Dalit literature, the younger generation is wary of the fact that the Dalit tag can both empower and turn into a trap. As Kandasamy tells me, “It is something that happens not only to Dalit writers, but to activists as well. Ruth Manorama once complained to me how she was never allowed to talk about the Big Things: Nuclear Weapons, Global Warming, suchlike. How she was always ghettoised to talk about the Dalit women’s issues alone. Not that she didn’t want to.... For a writer, it is limiting in many senses. As a writer, I wouldn’t forfeit my right to be a cultural commentator or literary critic merely because I happen to be a Dalit.

“It is interesting that I get asked this question ‘Why do you write in English?’ Do they ever pose this question to a non-Dalit writer? It is assumed that English, being a language of privilege and (within India) a status symbol, is theirs,” she says.

In her choice of subjects, Kandasamy offers a freshness—the sheer anger of the earlier poets has given way to mellowed wit and satire. As the poet K Satchidanandan has noted, “Irony and black humour have taken the place of sheer rage. In earlier writings, humour was rare and less graceful. I do not think there is a necessary link any more between Dalit movements and Dalit writing; writing has now come to stand on its own.” This, indeed, is a departure. Satchidanandan, the former editor of the Sahitya Akademi journal Indian Literature, sees a greater freedom in second- and third-generation Dalit writing; the bitterness and anger have come down, there are both a more positive view of life and the boldness to experiment with form and language. Consider Kandasamy’s reworking of a mythological figure in the cheekily titled ‘Random Access Man’:

His voice-balloons always came out

Empty as hiccups—He was not a husband

who shared his secrets. He was not a husband

who shared his spoonful either—on

cold nights he played Gandhi

to her waiting wife’s body.

Denial aroused desire and

lust rolled on her breasts,

lust rode her hips.

Sure that he would never come

she sent her dickhead husband

on a wild-goose chase—Get me

the testicle of a golden deer,

she said, get me its musk

so we can rouse your manhood.

She picked herself a random man

for that first night of fervour.

This one was all hands and

all heads and he spoke only

in whispers. He taught her

her tongue. First he named

the word for her womb and

the word for her waters and

she devoured every word and

within her another woman

arose, hot and forever


By the time she left

this stranger’s lap

she had learnt

all about love.

First to last.


Describing Kandasamy’s recent volume of poetry, Ms Militancy (released by Navayana, which I co-founded), Satchidanandan says that her “full-blooded and highly experimental poems challenge the dominant mode in contemporary Indian poetry in English: status-quoist, de-politicised, neatly sterilised.”

Kandasamy, Kali and Navaria seem to adopt quite the same pitch and reinforce Satchidanandan’s view. As Kandasamy says, “I am sure that Dalit writing is ‘situated’ within the larger Dalit reality, but it is not necessary for Dalit writing to be associated with larger Dalit movements, because association could turn into patronage/endorsement, and then all aspects of introspection, or critical self-appraisal might fail to take place.”

P Sivakami, the author of Pazhaizhana Kazhidalum (1989, self-translated and available in English from Orient Blackswan as The Grip of Change), the first novel written in Tamil by a Dalit woman, says Dalit writing preceded the emergence of autonomous Dalit political movements in Tamil Nadu, unlike in Maharashtra where Marathi Dalit writing responded to Ambedkarite politics. “It was literature that set the agenda for politics here,” she says, having walked that path herself. Sivakami, whose acclaimed second novel Anandayi is being published by Penguin this year, quit her service in the bureaucracy more than a year ago to start a political party, Forum for Social Equality. “One has to change the world. Mere writing is not enough. My interface with activism enhances my writing. As a politician, I have a larger canvas.”

THIS IS WHAT WRITERS in Maharashtra assumed, and many in the Dalit Panther movement, like Namdeo Dhasal, are today in the embrace of right-wing parties like the Shiv Sena, if not in one of the several factions of the Republican Party of India. Their writing, clearly, has suffered. “Though it was once a role model for us, there’s nothing new coming from Marathi Dalit writing,” Navaria says. Gail Omvedt, the chronicler of anti-caste movements in western India and translator of Vasant Moon’s autobiography Vasti, says, “Dalit literature is in a crisis, at least in Marathi. After the initial effervescence in the 1970s, we have not yet seen one good novel by a Dalit writer.”

The problem is there’s much that remains unavailable—sometimes unviable—in English, and hence is deemed non-existent. Devanur Mahadeva’s 1990 classic Kannada novel Kusuma Bale may finally see the light of the day only next year from Oxford University Press. Krishnan, the Oxford editor, says the book “was originally written in a colloquial, rural form of Kannada used in Chamarajanagar district, a dialect so localised that other Kannada speakers found it a challenge to absorb in a single reading. Nevertheless—given its vitality, inventiveness and grace of language—Kusuma Bale won the Sahitya Akademi award for Kannada in 1991 and sold out successive editions.” Again, Kusuma Bale does not have a conventional, realistic flow. Interweaving elements of folklore with a recognisable version of realism, it includes a wide range of the contextual material of Dalit life. The novel also moves between poetry and prose; lyricism and straightforward speech; dialogue and narrative.

Many Dalit writers are consciously not attempting to produce market-friendly crossover novels, or stories that translate or travel easily and can be turned into consumable commodities in the wider Anglophone market. In 2000, Vemula Yellaiah wrote Kakka in a distinct Telangana-style Telugu, especially as it is spoken in rural Madiga-Dalit households. Many speakers of dominant varieties of Telugu found it hard to grasp the language of the self-published novel, which tells the story of its eponymous protagonist who discovers after his grandpa’s death that the unlettered man was actually the sarpanch of the village (“a dummy put up by the Reddy”). K Purushottam, who is translating the novel (for Navayana), says Kakka is an “attempt to narrate the un-narratable”, and explains that one of the book’s striking features is Yellaiah’s diligent avoidance of certain letters that are characteristic of “standard” written Telugu in order to emphasise the need to overcome the non-Dalit features of the language.

Yellaiah, who worked as an ‘ancillary labourer’ in a Food Corporation of India warehouse in Nalgonda district when he wrote Kakka, is now completing his PhD in Telugu at Osmania University. Just 37, he has already suffered a cardiac arrest. Depressingly, his medical report is the first subject of discussion when we meet on the lawns of OU’s Arts College. “I was a chain smoker and drank too much,” he says. “I have stopped now. I have no choice. It’s a curse. Telugu Dalit literature has already lost iconoclasts like Nagappa Gari Sundararaju and Madduri Nagesh Babu in their prime because their love of literature matched their love of alcohol. My friend Kalekuri Prasad, a brilliant poet, is on the brink.” Yellaiah’s admirers hope he won’t take that road.

In stark contrast stands the teetotaller Andesri, 51, who has emerged as the unofficial poet laureate of the putative Telangana state. An unlettered farmhand who grew up an orphan in Warangal (“my father died, my mother abandoned me, and I raised myself”), who has never had formal schooling, Andesri performs his songs—but refuses to use colloquial Telugu and rejects the term ‘Dalit’ both for its identitarian and political charges. “I don’t want to be a nail to the calendar of jati,” he says. But ‘Dalit’ is an anti-caste position, I counter, and he admonishes me for trying to slot him. He mocks my ‘literate’ habits, forbids me from taking any notes (“just write from what you can remember”) and breaks into a song he has been composing on the river: ‘Nadi Nadi Ki Pothuneedi’—‘The Walk of the River.’ “Anandhu, will you journey with me in this river-song?” Birds, rivers, forests, trees, rain, grain and fruits are the subjects of his poems. “The palle, village, with its rich nature has taught me words, the path of my life. When I was a shepherd, when I was a farmhand—that’s when I learnt my lessons. The world is my canvas.” Gita Ramaswamy of the Hyderabad Book Trust, whom he disallowed from featuring him in an anthology of Telugu Dalit literature, tells me I must consider myself lucky since Andesri does not usually give interviews. He even let me photograph him.

Andesri is quite happy being within the fold (“I was initiated into religion with a mantropadesam by Swami Shankar Maharaj of the Sringeri Peeth; he gave me the name Andesri”), and recalls with equal fondness the honours bestowed on him by the Telangana movement, the doctorate conferred by Kakatiya University last year and the ‘blessings’ of a Hindu spiritual guru like Ganapathy Sachchidananda Swami. Unabashedly celebrating the orality of the janapada (‘folk’) tradition, he refuses to allow his admirers to imprison his songs in book form. “A poet has to be heard,” he says. “You have to hear me singing, or memorise my songs. The written word is rubbish.” However, his song ‘Mayamai Pothunnadamma Manishannavaadu’ (‘O Mother, Man is soon becoming extinct!’) for the film Erra Samudram (‘Red Ocean’) has been included by Andhra University in its graduation syllabus. One of its dirge-like lines goes: “He lights a 25-paisa incense and seeks boons worth 65-crore.” Despite his conservative Arya Samaj worldview (“I am a Brahmin by karma”), his claiming the Vedic-Upanishadic tradition and his dismissal of a figure like Ambedkar—he eats a vegetarian meal as Gita Ramaswamy and I tuck into spicy goat-head curry and country chicken at Hyderabad’s Rayalaseema Ruchulu, to which he says, “You Brahmins have a point to prove, so have I”—even the most political Dalits admire his prodigious dexterity with words.

The radical Marxist writer G Kalyana Rao, also from Telugu country, published Antarani Vasantham in 2000; it appeared in English as Untouchable Spring last year. Unlike Kakka, it uses the more ‘standardised’ Andhra idiom. It has been compared to Alex Haley’s Roots, and offers a historical and philosophical journey that spans seven generations with the narrator Ruth. Yet, the novel’s uninspired English version has seen few reviews. Mini Krishnan recalls how it was impossible to get Karukku reviewed when it appeared in 1999. “Both India Today and Outlook ignored it. But for a notice in The Week, you will not see reviews of it in the archives of The Book Review or Biblio either. After Karukku won the Crossword translation award in 2000, things turned. But, today, any translation of Dalit writing receives almost instantaneous attention and it has become worth a translator’s time and effort (even if they have never spent a single hour with a Dalit) to translate writings by Dalits. Both Sharankumar Limbale’s Akkarmashi and Joseph Macwan’s Angaliyat were reviewed in nearly all the review journals and newspaper sections devoted to books. That is the difference Karukku wrought.”

Over a decade, K Satyanarayana says he has witnessed a sea-change in the way Dalit literature is received in a classroom context. In 2000, he had few takers for his course and they were mostly Dalits. “Now, we have a new generation of students who know something about Ambedkar and Dalits after the 1990s. I assess the reception of Dalit texts in terms of how they change the [non-Dalit] students’ attitude to Dalits in everyday life situations. I notice a remarkable change in most of my upper-caste as well as Dalit students in their informed understanding of caste issues and in their warm interpersonal relationships. To my surprise, some new students keep asking me to repeat my course on Dalit literature.”

In the 1970s, the Marathi writer Baburao Bagul declared, “Dalit literature is but human literature.” Today, the transformative power of Dalit literature seems to primarily lie in its ability to humanise non-Dalits. The time has come when readers can choose how they wish to know Dalits: as Joseph’s conman Ayyan Mani and his dim son Adi, as Mistry’s pitiable Dukhi and Omprakash—or as Rao’s Ruth, Yellaiah’s Kakka or Kali’s Parha. The choice exists.