Autobiographical texts by Dalit writers are now part of courses offered by several American universities. But the impact may go beyond academics, changing the West’s idea of India
For ages, Dalits have had their tales told by upper-caste writers. Premchand wrote of Dukhi, Mulk Raj Anand of Bakha, Arundhati Roy of Velutha and Mahasweta Devi of Doulati. But what if Dukhi, Bakha, Velutha and Doulati take up the pen and decide to tell their own tales? Over the past few decades, a Dalit literary movement has been giving readers a first-hand experience of how the community lives. In doing so, these writers are also re-scripting the conceptions of Indian society and history while challenging prevailing literary conventions.The movement has become so influential that almost every university in India has Dalit texts on its curriculum. And now, the academic interest has gone global with the texts making their way into universities in the US, the UK, Canada and France. Britain’s Nottingham Trent University and Universite Paul-Valery Montpellier, France in June 2014 together started a study that aims to “bring Dalit literature to new audiences“. The ongoing project has been organizing conferences for scholars, writers and trans lators from India, the US, Europe and Canada.

Acclaimed historian Gyanendra Pandey recently started a course at Emory University, US, juxtaposing Dalit history with that of African Americans.Several other American universities including University of Washington, Seattle; University of Texas, Austin; and University of Oregon, offer courses which include Dalit autobiographies.A course in the offing at New York University (NYU) called ` Aesthetics and Politics’ will also include a unit on Dalit writing. English translations like Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan (2003), Narendra Jadhav’s Untouchables (2005) and Baby Kamble’s The Prisons We Broke (2009) have emerged as the most popular texts.

“The circulation of Dalit literature in America is important to deconstruct an idea of India that is pervasive, and one that many diasporic Indians seek to cultivate: India as non-violent, Hinduism as mythological, anti-orthodoxy and benevolent, and both as peace-loving,“ says Toral Gajarawala, an associate professor at NYU. “The knowledge of India that circulates in the West is caste-free. Dalit studies offer a corrective to this `idea of India’ in an important way .“ Different aesthetic Dalit literature first found its voice in Marathi in the 1960s and ’70s, and then soon appeared in other languages like Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. Mostly through autobiographies described as `narratives of pain,’ writers could share personal experiences of caste discrimination, making its existence undeniable for the middle classes. Even genres like fiction, poetry and drama became largely autobiographical in the hands of Dalit writers. Caste was seen as the definitive aspect of Indian society and raising political consciousness (Dalit chetna) turned into a literary goal.

In the ’80s and ’90s, a group of Hindi writers like Om Prakash Valmiki, Mohandas Naimishray and Kanwal Bharti had to fight a hostile literary establishment to carve out a unique space for Dalit literature. Attacked for their lack of “aesthetic sophistication“, these writers argued that the Hindi literary intelligentsia’s aesthetic standards were far from universal and concealed an upper caste bias.

Dalit writers, instead, shocked the readers with crude language and graphic descriptions. In Apne Apne Pinjare, Mohandas Naimishray talked about his experiences living in Delhi’s red-light area GB Road. Surajpal Chauhan in Tiraskrit described the killing of a pig at a Dalit wedding.

But the stress on autobiography is now being questioned by young Dalit writers. And this, in turn, has drawn criticism. “It is one of the things that the Dalit literary movement will have to wrestle with, if it wants to maintain its relevance. The Hindi writer Ajay Navariya, for example, has been accused of being too modernist, or not Dalit enough, for engaging in new and different aesthetic techniques.But I think we have to be sympathetic to the insistence on origin in so far as it is trying to challenge the monopoly of upper-caste people over cultural spaces,“ says Gajarawala.

Both archive and social history

Historians have come to accept Dalit autobiographies as relevant documents of social history .“The point made by all sorts of oppositional histories -feminist, subaltern, Dalit, etc -is that history and the archive it relies on are both tendentious, writtenpreserved in the interests of dominant classes and groups. Dalit autobiography , like much subaltern and feminist writing (including autobiography), serves as both archive and history -in the absence of state sponsored versions of these,“ says Pandey .

The very utterance of the term `Dalit’ is a political statement. The word means `ground’, `crushed’ or `broken to pieces’. Thus, the `Dalit autobiography’ is not just a literary movement, it’s part of a political movement too. “The first generation of Dalit writers questioned the idea of India,“ says Raj Kumar, a professor at Delhi University, “They felt they weren’t a part of it and rejected it. Later writers like Valmiki have a more mature approach. They engage with and explore the possibility of Dalits being a part of India. They see hope in Ambedkar’s goal of annihilation of caste. The contemporary Dalit autobiography is an inclusive exercise.The Dalits are trying to write themselves into the Indian narrative.“

Pandey , too, stresses the need for an inclusive approach. He says, “The chief problem here is one that faces any `minority’ movement, of not becoming too narrowly tied down by a politics of identity . So Dalits need to establish the worth of their identity and history , and yet work to ensure that the movement doesn’t become unduly sectarian and isolated.“

For contemporary Dalit writers, the real challenge lies in creating a fine balance between the idea of inclusion and the necessity of resistance.