Mainstreaming the subaltern
The roots of Dalit literature in Kerala and Tamil Nadu lie in the strong corpus of oral and ritualistic literature that interrogated the caste system and the practice of untouchability.
Dalit literature began to be mainstreamed in India with the appearance of the English translations of Marathi Dalit writing. An Anthology of Dalit Literature, edited by Mulk Raj Anand and Eleanor Zelliot, and Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature, originally published in three volumes and later collected in a single volume, edited by Arjun Dangle (both published in 1992, the latter reissued recently in a new edition by Orient BlackSwan), were perhaps the first books that popularised the genre throughout India.
Not that there was no Dalit writing earlier: the origins of Dalit writing can be traced back to Buddhist literature; Dalit Bhakti poets like Gora, Raidas, Chokha Mela and Karmamela; and the Tamil Siddhas, or Chittars (6th to 13th centuries C.E.), many of whom must have been Dalits going by hagiographical accounts like Periyapuranam (12th century). But it was after the democratic and egalitarian thinkers such as Sree Narayana Guru, Jyotiba Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, Iyothee Thass, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Ayyankali, Poykayil Appachan and others cogently articulated the sources and modes of caste oppression that modern Dalit writing as a distinct genre began to emerge in Indian languages.
The Dalit Panthers of Maharashtra (formed in 1972) and the writers like Baburao Bagul and Namdeo Dhasal who spearheaded the movement gave an impetus to Dalit writing in Marathi following Ambedkar’s famous statement addressed to Gandhi, “Mahatma, I have no country.” The rest of the story, from the publication of Dhasal’s Golpitha (1972) onwards, is history. Now we have a significant corpus of Dalit literature in several of the Indian languages like Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Odiya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, and representative works from these are getting translated into other languages, including English.
Over the past one decade or so, more than five anthologies and quite a few autobiographies and works of fiction besides theoretical works and works by individuals, including Dhasal, have been published in English by various mainstream and alternative publishing houses in India. While I hope to discuss some of these in future, let me confine myself here to the two volumes of writings from South India published recently: The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing, edited by M. Dasan, V. Pratibha, Pradeepan Pampirikunnu and C.S. Chandrika, and The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing, edited by Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan (OUP, 2012), the first two volumes in a whole series of similar anthologies under preparation. (Let me not fail to mention here No Alphabet in Sight, another anthology of new Dalit writing from South India, edited by K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu and published by Penguin Books in 2011 whose first dossier too had carried translations from Tamil and Malayalam. The Penguin and OUP anthologies complement each other.)
The editors of The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing have an important message for readers in their prefatory note: “Readers will discover the limitations of their reading practices as they encounter the emotional, intellectual and aesthetic demands of this collection and might feel uncomfortable at the challenge it poses as they realise their complicity with the status quo. These selections will also bring the mainstream critics and reviewers face to face with their own prejudices, who, insufficiently equipped to understand or accept the truth of Dalit experiences and perspectives, often label this body of writings ‘bitter’, ‘biased’, ‘militant,’ ‘angry’, etc., and might, therefore, have dismissed it as not serious literary writing.”
Dalit literature has indeed created its own alternative aesthetic by redrawing the map of literature, by discovering and exploring a whole new continent of experience that had so far been left to darkness and silence, by helping literature overcome stagnation through a cleansing renewal, by disturbing the sterile complacency of the dominant social groups, and by challenging their set mores and fixed modes of looking at reality, their stale habits of ordering knowledge, beauty and power and their established literary canons, bringing to focus neglected, suppressed or marginalised aspects of experience, vision, language and reality and forcing the community to refashion its tools and observe itself critically from fresh and different angles.
Dalit poetry, for example, challenges the assumptions and injunctions of classical poetics by breaking its rules of “propriety”, “balance”, “restraint” and “understatement”. Dalit literature also questions the middle-class notions of linguistic “decency” by using words that classical aesthetics would consider “uncouth” ( chyutasamskara ), “rustic” ( gramya) or “obscene” ( asleela).
Both the anthologies carry exhaustive introductions that trace the origins of Dalit writing in the respective languages and put this non-canonical body of writing in its social, historical and cultural contexts and provide readers with a conceptual framework that is sure to help them appreciate the discourse better. They contain selections from both creative and critical genres and reveal the range of concerns, forms, styles and perspectives encompassed by the standardising term “Dalit writing” that often conceals its thematic and idiomatic diversity.
The term “Dalit” began to be used in Kerala only in the 1970s chiefly as the hegemonic discourse of the Kerala renaissance, despite its reformative zeal, succeeded in camouflaging the specificity of Dalit discourse and its difference from the dominant discourse of the time. It is to be noted here that the gaps and silences of the discourse of the Kerala renaissance began to be discovered and critiqued by subaltern intellectuals only in the last one decade or two when the famous “Kerala Model” of development also found its astute critics.
Dalits and tribal people had been excluded from the idea of Malayali identity as even the historic Malayali Memorial, the mass petition submitted to the Maharaja of Travancore in 1891, did not demand jobs only for these sections. The class discourse too was used to render invisible the “cultural, symbolic and social capital” that their elite caste status had conferred on them. Many of the upper-caste reformers who pioneered the renaissance were progressive within their community but reactionary outside it.
Their idea of emancipation was confined to their own respective communities. It was this context that forced Dalit organisations like the Sadhujana Paripalana Yogam to claim a distinct political space within the scenario of the emerging colonial modernity, leading to the struggles for the rights to education, hygiene, land and modern citizenship itself. Ayyankali, who wore clean clothes and a turban like the aristocrats and followed their physical postures, provided historical agency to the Dalits and turned the Dalit body into a site of resistance to feudal servitude and the Dalits’ labour and identity into negotiating signifiers. His anti-caste approach displeased the leaders of post-Independence parliamentary politics, but he would be the last to collaborate.
Other movements followed, throwing up leaders like Poikayil Appachan, Pampadi John Joseph, K.P. Vallon and organisations, including the radical SEEDIAN (Socially, Educationally and Economically Depressed Indian Ancient Natives) of the 1970s and the current DHRM (Dalit Human Rights Movement). The most important struggles in Kerala, like those in Muthanga and Chengara in the last decades, were led by Dalits and Adivasis who found that they had no seats in the international socialist feast and that the Marxist scheme of the class struggle might never fully grasp the complex cultural issues of anti-caste struggles.
The roots of Dalit literature in Kerala as in Tamil Nadu lie in the strong corpus of oral and ritualistic literature that interrogated the caste system and the practice of untouchability and suggested an egalitarian spirituality and an organic humanism that encompassed the whole of creation. Both Poykayil Kumaragurudevan and Potheri Kunjambu, two of the pioneers of Dalit literature, reveal this tendency. The paradigm, however, undergoes a change in contemporary Dalit writers who share a modern literary sensibility and a great sensitivity towards language.
Poets such as S. Joseph, M.B. Manoj, M.R. Renukumar, Vijila, Binu M. Pallippad and S. Kalesh and fiction writers such as T.K.C. Vaduthala, C. Ayyappan, Raghavan Atholi and P.A. Uthaman create a language of their own, often retrieving from oblivion words and phrases seldom used in mainstream Malayalam literature, though these stylistic nuances are difficult to capture in English. The anthology also carries examples of autobiographical writing by Kallen Pokkudan, an environmentalist, and critical interventions by thinkers such as K.K. Kochu, K.K. Baburaj, Kaviyoor Murali, Sanal Mohan, Sunny Kapikkad and Rekha Raj, among others.
Tamil Dalit discourse follows a different trajectory. According to Ravikumar, who has written the introduction to the Tamil anthology, Vedic Brahminism gained ascendancy in Tamil Nadu only after the retreat of the relatively egalitarian Buddhist and Jain religions. Caste formation seems to have taken place some time in the 12th and 13th centuries C.E. though it had been preceded by some form of social stratification. But the Brahmins were a minority and were prevented from entering Dalit residential areas; hence, the oppression they could inflict was rather minimal.
It was with the formation of the South India Welfare Association in 1906 and the launch of the “Non-Brahmin Manifesto” in 1916 that Dalits began to face isolation and torture more than ever before as the non-Brahmin space was entirely captured by high non-Brahmin castes, who were far larger in number than the Brahmins. Their Justice Party was clearly in favour of these castes, so much so that M.C. Rajah, a Dalit leader, had to lead a delegation to the Governor to complain about the injustices committed by the Justice Party on Dalits.
The movements of certain backward castes like the Vanniyars only helped non-Dalits as some of these castes came to be designated as the Most Backward Castes (MBCs). The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam politics also gained from such movements. The implementation of the Mandal Commission report, too, benefited these sections, further marginalising Dalits. In the 1980s, small-scale Dalit movements began to emerge, producing in their wake a body of Dalit writing inspired to some extent by the African, Afro-American and Latin American literatures of resistance. However, they failed to link it up with the Buddhist past of the Tamil people. For the Marxists it was an expression of class oppression and for the followers of ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy, a new flowering of non-Brahmin literature. One can go beyond these stereotypes only if one understands thinkers like Lakshmi Narasu—who inspired Ambedkar —and Iyothee Thass, who read Tamil literature from a Buddhist point of view. This was a new kind of critique of Brahminism, different from the anti-Brahminism of the non-Brahmin leaders rooted in Hinduism.
This difference is what made possible a novel like Poomani’s Piragu (1971) or the works of Imayam, P. Sivakami and Bama. This is also why the stories of, say, Cho. Dharuman, J.B. Sanakya or S. Thenmozhi and the poems of Ravikumar, N.D. Rajkumar or S. Sukirtharani go beyond the discourse of victimisation and celebrate the Dalit past and cultural identity. It is also complex as it tries to discuss the question of the differences of caste and gender within the Dalit discourse as in Bama’s Sangati (1994) or Vanmam (2002). Thenmozhi’s essay “Power that transcends: Physical Body, Social Body, Dalit Body” in the anthology looks deep into the problems of the construction of Dalit subjectivity within the discourse of power and resistance. Bama’s Karukku (1992) was a significant exercise in autobiographical fiction though it did not lead to a flood of self-writing in Tamil as it happened in Marathi. It was mainly in the 1990s that modern Dalit literature established itself as a special genre of writing in the history of Tamil cultural expression.
The best of writing in these anthologies is highly nuanced and uses invective, sarcasm and irony in articulating the Dalit dilemma. C. Ayyappan’s Malayalam story, “Madness” (translator: Abhirami Sriram) is a good example. It is the monologue of a Dalit teacher, Krishnankutty, who refuses to accompany his sister when she is taken to the mental hospital or visit her in the asylum. In the course of the monologue, he explains to his friend why he had pretended not to see his sister when she was being thus taken by his neighbours and friends.
As a teacher he now belongs to the middle class; his wife, though a Dalit, is fair-skinned and comes from a higher-class background and their daughter shares the mother’s features as well as attitudes, refusing even to meet her dark grandmother in her unclean clothes. Not only that, none of them would visit his sister and they would certainly resent his visiting her as it would mean owning up that she was his sister and supporting her. If he accompanies or follows her, the neighbours would come to know that his sister is mad and that he is “low” caste. He would also have to confront his poor, dark-skinned, ill-clad relatives in the hospital, who would claim him as their kin. So he decides to disown her with little remorse in order to save his social standing and himself from the ire of his wife and daughter.
Let me close this discussion by referring to some of the poems in the two collections. Ravikumar tells his childhood friend how they belonged to the same village and the same street and shared the same interests as children, but now she, the companion, has turned a stranger to him and he does not seem to belong to the same place. He invites the friend in a language reminiscent of Sangam poetry: “Where fragrant screw-pine reeds/ lean against the canal slope/ at our bathing ghat,/ is a black rock rubbed yellow with the holy root of turmeric/ the sign of home/ to bear witness/ as we slip off our clothes/ without letting them/ touch the water,/ pile them on our heads,/ and wade across/ to a pool between the fields/ thick with a tangle of lilies that I’ll pick/ for you./ Come” (translator: Vasantha Surya). The poet tells readers if they have not listened to the cry of the rain, to the wailing of the wind and the prayer of the abandoned woman at least not to pass blindly by the outspread hands of begging children: “For what the ears have missed/ the eyes can hear,/ sometimes” (“Have You Heard the Rain Crying?”, translator: Vasantha Surya).
These poets realise that “a stiff stance of mere bravado/ just will not match/ the sheer daring of a rod/ that’s been bent/ many times” (“A Lesson in Action and Reaction”, Thai Kandasamy, translator: Vasantha Surya). There is perceptible anguish in Sukirtharani’s lines: “Our bare feet are drenched/ by the pain of caste that drips from our lips/ as we drink tea from palm-leaf cups/ standing at an untouchable distance,/ while the portrait of our village/ frames itself at a place of double existence,/ always vigilant” (“Portrait of My Village”, translator: Lakshmi Holmstrom). S. Joseph’s “Group Photo” and M.R. Renukumar’s “Silent Beast”—both Malayalam poems—echo similar sentiments in very different ways. The old woman in Thenmozhi’s poem “Urn” mourns the loss of her childhood along with everything she had loved. Her grandson scares her while she remembers her thatha with fondness. “Rocked by a lullaby/ of memories,/ her head nods,/ non-stop” (translator: Vasantha Surya).
Bama finds her mother’s scent living on in her even though she herself is now a mother (“The Scent of Mother”, translator: Malini Seshadri). Kabilan echoes the hapless rickshaw-puller, the woman-helper in the construction job, and the sad housewife in his poems. M.B. Manoj sums it all up in his Malayalam poem: “Who weighs more,/ an outcaste or a cow?/ Don’t feel afraid:/ A dead cow weighs/ five times a live outcaste./ A live cow’s weight equals/ two hundred and fifty million outcastes” (“Survey of India”, translator: K. Satchidanandan).
On behalf of
Dalits Media Watch Team
(An initiative of “Peoples Media Advocacy & Resource Centre-PMARC”)
Peoples Media Advocacy & Resource Centre- PMARC has been initiated with the support from group of senior journalists, social activists, academics and intellectuals from Dalit and civil society to advocate and facilitate Dalits issues in the mainstream media. To create proper & adequate space with the Dalit perspective in the mainstream media national/ International on Dalit issues is primary objective of the PMARC.