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Dalit literature that reflects a grotesque reality surviving in India

(From The Wire. Link to the complete article given below)

The recent assertion of Dalit identity in the Indian public sphere is not only the product of a political process but also the result of a silent revolution taking place in Dalit society through education and literature. For a long time, mainstream media and literary critics tried to ignore and dismiss the Dalit discourse as something trivial or frivolous. But today, Dalit literature is a reality and Dalit autobiographies are showing new pictures of life which were until recently invisible on the literary canvas.

My Childhood on My Shoulders, the English translation of Sheoraj Singh Bechain’s autobiography, is a chilling testimony of the life Indian society has given to the people at the lowest strata. Originally written in Hindi, the book has been very subtly translated into English by Deeba Zafir and Tapan Basu. It provokes us to see the world with a new approach. Sheoraj Singh Bechain was born in a village in Chandausi, Uttar Pradesh, to a Dalit family. The family is in the trade of dead cattle. It skins the carcasses, dries the leather and sells it in market. Poverty and crisis are part of this life. But poverty is not only an economic issue. It has social roots and dimensions also. These people are kept out of the village, deprived of basic amenities, are vulnerable to all sorts of illnesses and in the absence of treatment, succumb at an early age. It is a subhuman life which millions of people are compelled to live.

The details of the book leave you in shock. When Sheoraj was five, he lost his father. His father’s was not a natural death. Nor did he die of illness. It was a brutal murder, although no one intended it. Radheshyam, Sheoraj’s father, was fulfilling the commitments of a wedding ceremony at his sister’s home. Radheyshyam and reached the wedding home after a long journey. Here, Radheshyam fell ill. For next three days, he was not provided any kind of medical assistance in spite of repeated requests. Instead, he was left to the mercy of some exorcists who claimed that he had been possessed by some evil spirit. They kept on slapping and whipping him in front of five-year-old Sheoraj.

To read the complete article, go to this link

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Rickshaw puller from Kolkata steals show at 11th Jaipur Literature Festival

At the end of the journey, the passenger asked Byapari if he would be interested in writing his story, giving him a piece of paper with her name and address. The name on that piece of paper was Mahasweta Devi.

A word changed the life of Manoranjan Byapari. A rickshaw-puller in the chaotic streets of Kolkata, Byapari one day asked a passenger the meaning of the Bengali word jijibisha. He thought the sari-clad passenger, who hailed his rickshaw near a college, must be a professor. “It means ‘the will to live’,” said the bemused passenger, beginning a conversation in the carriage. “Where did you get the word from?” the passenger asked. “From a book,” the rickshaw-puller replied, prompting the passenger to know how far he had studied. Byapari didn’t hide the fact that he hadn’t gone to school and was self-taught. At the end of the journey, the passenger asked Byapari if he would be interested in writing his story, giving him a piece of paper with her name and address. The name on that piece of paper was Mahasweta Devi. “I was shocked to learn that my passenger was one of the most famous writers in Kolkata,” recounts Byapari about the incident nearly four decades ago that changed his life. Adding to the quirk of fate on that day was a book of Devi, a collection of short stories titled Agnigarbha, which was kept under the seat of the rickshaw. “She was happy that I was reading her book,” says Byapari, who spent the next few weeks struggling to write his story. He finally wrote 20 pages and handed them over to Devi. Byapari’s story appeared in early 1981 in Bartika, a Bengali magazine published by Devi. It was titled I Drive a Rickshaw. On January 25, the opening day of this year’s ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival, Byapari’s journey, from being a rickshaw-puller to a writer, added great freshness to the event’s fabled narrative. Now an author of nine novels and several short stories, Byapari talked to a packed audience at the gilded Durbar Hall venue of the festival about his autobiographical novel, Itibritte Chandal Jiban, now available in English as Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit. “It’s not literature,” Byapari told his audience. “It’s truth.” Author Namita Gokhale, one of the directors of the festival responsible for selecting Indian writers for the event, describes Byapari’s life as an ‘incredible’ story. “It’s incredible how he met Mahasweta Devi while pulling a rickshaw in Kolkata,” Gokhale says. Born in Barisal district of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1950, Byapari lived in a refugee camp in West Bengal as a young boy after his parents decided to migrate to India three years later. He worked in dhabas, washed plates and became a revolutionary, something that landed him in jail. It was in a prison in Kolkata where he learned to read, which would prove to be a life-changing decision.

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On a wing and a prayer: Tamil Dalit writer Bama on 25 years of Karukku

December 2017 marked 25 years of the publication of Karukku, the first autobiography in Tamil by a Dalit. Do you remember the person you were when you wrote it?
When I wrote Karukku, I was completely broken. After seven years of being in a convent as a nun, I had quit. I found that I had lost everything — a job as a teacher, a house, enough to eat and drink. I had lost my confidence, I shrank from meeting people. In that state, I began to think of my childhood, and the things that I had lost. A friend advised me to write, and I did. I wasn’t thinking of writing a book at all.
Looking back, in these 25 years, I have grown tremendously, I have become so free…25 years of Karukku has also meant learning to live alone, as a single woman. I ended Karukku by saying that I was a bird with broken wings. Now, as I have said before, I am a falcon, flying high in the sky.

You wrote in a Tamil that was different from the literary language of the time. What was the reaction?
In Tamil literary circles, they questioned me a lot about the language. They said, ‘She is an educated lady. Why has she written in dialect? Why do her characters speak in abusive, filthy language?’ That made me furious. Because who are they to judge my language? The Brahminical language is used everywhere — they accept it. They are proud to speak in their language. Then why not I then? My language and that of my people is beautiful to me. So I deliberately used it in all my novels after that.

How do you conceive of Dalit feminism?
I have talked more about Dalit feminism in my novels, Sangati, and Manushi, which is the second part of Karukku in some sense. I have written five-six stories about feminism. There is one story, called ‘Konnu Tai’. It was a very controversial story, even women did not like it. It was about a woman, a mother of four children, who leaves her drunkard husband and goes to her mother’s place. She also leaves behind an infant, who she was breastfeeding. Everybody condemned her. But she was stubborn. She said, ‘Let him know what it is to have a child. They are his children too.’ Her mother says, ‘If your husband remarries, your life is finished.’ She says, ‘No my life starts then’. She takes off her thali, sells it and starts a shop on the street. One famous male writer wrote a letter to me. ‘As a woman writer, you should have feeling for a mother. You should have ended the story like this: At night, she thought of her youngest child and wept.’ (laughs)
I have written stories about how men abandon their wives only to remarry, about a woman who, after a hard day’s work, would pretend that she has been possessed by a goddess so that the husband would stop bothering her for sex. In these very small ways, I have expressed the feelings of women in general, not just Dalit women.

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11 Books to Read if You Want to Understand Caste in India

In Lithub, S. Shankar, author of ‘Ghost in the Tamarind’ lists 11 representative books that “serve as an introduction to caste”, that explore the intricacies and the indignities of caste in India.

Caste is not unique to India, and no country should be reduced to a single social category, no matter how intrinsic a part of its reality. Nevertheless, to understand India you have to understand caste, whose intricacies are unarguably difficult. It is not just one of the most prominent social features of India; it is at the heart of many of the past and present fissures of the country.

I grew up in India living the reality of caste every day. Even so I had to learn, and unlearn, many things about caste while completing my two most recent books: the novel Ghost in the Tamarind, which narrates an inter-caste romance between a Brahmin man and a Dalit woman against the backdrop of powerful anti-caste movements in southern India; and a co-edited collection of academic essays on caste and life narratives.

What exactly is caste? You might have heard somewhere (perhaps in a high school or college classroom) that there are four ancient and unchanging castes in India ranging from Brahmins at the top, through Kshatriyas and Vaishyas in the middle, to Shudras at the bottom, with a fifth group of so-called Untouchables—the preferred term now is Dalits—even further below. These, though, are only partial truths, for history is replete with examples of the changeability of caste, and in practice there are thousands of castes. One truth about caste, however, is undeniable: in all its manifestations through history it has been the name for a monstrous and irredeemable system of social hierarchy and oppression based on horrific notions of ritual pollution and exclusion.

The various social groups collected most recently under the name Dalit have felt the power of this irredeemable system with the greatest force. The Indian constitution, adopted in 1950, acknowledged in an enlightened moment that the historically disadvantaged Dalits needed special support to advance socially and economically, and then set out to provide it. Since then, India has had a Dalit President and a powerful woman Dalit Chief Minister of a state. Nevertheless, the oppression of Dalits, ranging from daily humiliation (such as the maintenance of separate glasses for Dalits in some village tea shops) through sexual violence to outright massacre (alas, so many that the name of Khairlanji, where in 2006 four members of the Bhotmange family were brutally murdered, must suffice as stand in) continues till today. Reality is never neat or singular.

This is one reason “the Boom in Dalit literature”—as some have called it—of the last few decades is so important. The Boom represents the entrance of new and vital voices onto India’s literary stage—that is into forms of artistic production from which they had formerly been excluded (of course, Dalits, often musicians and performers, have had their own powerful expressive forms going back centuries). Many trace the origins of the Boom back to Dalit writing in Marathi, which began to gather force in the Seventies. From there, the Boom spread to other languages, and now there are significant bodies of work in Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and other languages.

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India: ‘A non-dalit writer can also portray dalits’ agony’

Rejecting the general notion that only born dalits can write good literature on their community due to their personal experience, senior bureaucrat and litterateur Subhash Sharma on Sunday said even non-dalit writers have been eloquently presenting the agony and exploitation of dalits because of their empathy for downtrodden and overall experience about society.

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Straight from the heart

Poet and author Meena Kandasamy draws inspiration from the sights and sounds around her

Meena Kandasamy’s petite frame and youth belie the power in her words. Her poetry spits fire, even when it speaks about love. Elle recently named her among the best Indian writers under 40. Her first volume of poetry, Touch, published in 2006 won accolades from critics. Meena went on to release another volume of poetry, Ms. Militancy in 2010, and has been the darling of world poetry festivals. A Malayalam translation of Touch (translated by V.S. Bindu) is being released next week.

Also a known translator of between Tamil to and English, and a celebrated new voice of Dalit writing in English in India Meena’s is also a known activist for Dalit rights and her writing follows the Tamil tradition of articulating what happens in society. She has a distinct gift for words that light fires in others, Meena’s turning point was when, just after school, her essay on Naipaul , who, she feels, got the Nobel Prize post 9/11 mainly for his anti-Islamic stances, got noticed. She holds a doctorate in socio-linguistics, was a Charles Wallace scholar, a writer-in-residence at the prestigious International Writing Program at the University of IOWA, United States, in 2009 and a Visiting Fellow at the School of Literature, Language & Linguistics, Newcastle University, United Kingdom in 2011.

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