Beyond “Untouchability”: Dalit Literature in Hindi

Dalit literature has emerged as an integral part of a larger political movement that offers substantive and detailed protest against the entrenched system of untouchability, or the socially institutionalized system of caste-based hierarchy and discrimination, in contemporary India. It traces its modern history to the early 1970s with the foundation of a literary-activist collective called the Dalit Panthers, whose members wrote primarily in Marathi—the language of Maharashtra, the home state of nationalist leader and foundational Dalit activist B. R. Ambedkar. Dalit literature has in recent years become a powerful and influential vehicle for the articulation of the voices of India’s most oppressed classes in a number of languages, Hindi prominent among them.

Dalit writers use fiction, autobiography, and literary criticism to actively rethink constructions of caste, race, religion, and gender, constructions that extend backward in Indian history but that have all been distinctively refigured in the postcolonial political context and that continue to shape day-to-day social and political identities. In the process, they reshape the very literary genres and interpretive procedures used to evaluate those same literary texts. In the past fifteen years, the national language of Hindi has become the site of increasing vibrancy as prominent writers and activists conversant in a number of languages compose their narratives and critical writing in Hindi, in conversation with other Dalit work directly in languages such as Marathi, or through translation, including from and into English.

Kausalya Baisantry, for instance, has written her autobiographical account excerpted here in Hindi even though she grew up speaking a local dialect of Marathi. She announces at the start of Doubly Cursed that she chose to write in Hindi in order to be the first Dalit woman to write her life story in the national language. As the title suggests, her account details the life of a political activist working against the twin injustices of caste-based discrimination and misogynistic patriarchy, a perspective even more insightful given that she came into consciousness in the early years of the social reformer B. R. Ambedkar’s campaign for both Dalit and women’s rights leading up to Independence in 1947. The scene included here offers a humorous glimpse into the new technologies of playback sound made available to Indian citizens in the 1930s both in the cinema hall and at home. In Hindi, Baisantry conveys a knowing but wry ambivalence over her family’s attempts to modernize, an ironic stance translator Christi Merrill decided to signal by italicizing key terms that in the Hindi are transliterated directly from English—“phonograph record,” for example. (Baisantry’s piece also incluldes a number of Hindi terms; these and others from elsewhere in the issue are defined in the glossary that follows this introduction.)

Several of the short stories featured here similarly reflect on the uneven promises of Western-style progress made to the Dalit community in the years following independence. Mohan Das Namishray’s story “Our Village” begins at its tragic and dramatic height when a young Dalit woman is paraded naked through the village center by the son of the local thakur, ostensibly as punishment for her husband’s failure to repay his debt of 500 rupees. In the story that follows, we see members of the Dalit community filing police “reports” and attempting to use the judicial system inherited from the British to petition for their rights against the entrenched feudal code upheld by local authorities. We also watch as a pair of idealistic journalists come from the city to report on this tragedy, dropping in stray phrases in English—again, transliterated into Hindi—to sound sophisticated and upper-class. Likewise, Anita Bharti’s story “The Case of the Quota Candidate” plays on the expectations a group of teachers have of a new colleague, guessing whether she is upper-caste like many of them or a “kotewali” who fulfills a mandate from the federal government reserving a percentage—the English term “quota” becomes “kote” in Hindi—of positions for “backward” castes. Suraj Badtiya’s short story “Gujji” tells of a young man from an untouchable family tagged with an unfortunate, caste-tinged epithet: “Gujji” refers to a traditional recipe for preparing sausages, sold at his family’s pork shop. He decides to throw off this casteist slur by pursuing an MBA and the post of marketing manager at McDonald’s, where the very same terms considered so polluting in traditional society are deemed sophisticated and forward-thinking when rough equivalents are uttered in English.

Certainly English maintains a curious, much debated position in the Indian literary scene more generally given its historical association with British colonial power. As a global lingua franca, it serves as a link language both within India and internationally, and in the case of Dalit literature has occasioned transnational conversations both within elite circles in India and abroad about work written originally in vernaculars like Hindi, Marathi, or Tamil. The prominent Indian travel writer and literary reviewer Pankaj Mishra lists Laura Brueck’s English translation of Ajay Navaria’s short story collection, Unclaimed Terrain (Navayana, 2013), among the “best books” of 2013 in The Guardian (November 23, 2013) for the way it hints “at the as-yet unrevealed depth and diversity of Indian literatures,” his review giving the English-language version a wider audience than it enjoyed in Hindi.

In this special issue we have included the recently published, semi-autobiographical story “Fragmentation” that Ajay Navaria based on his first trip out of India—to Greece—which itself was occasioned by the international circulation of this translated short story collection. “Fragmentation” is exemplary of the existential unease of Navaria’s protagonists that runs throughout almost all of his fiction, and also presents important perspectives on the Dalit author, translated in a world beyond caste, but not, as he discovers, beyond other forms of hierarchical ordering. This self-reflexivity is very much in conversation with other works of Dalit literature becoming increasingly popular in the West, including those mentioned by Mishra in a recent review in the New York Review of Books (December 21, 2017) of Sujata Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017):

The range and intricacy of Dalit experience can be grasped by English-language readers through the works of scholars and critics such as Anand Teltumbde, Gopal Guru, and D. R. Nagaraj. Daya Pawar’s pioneering autobiography Baluta, which describes caste violence in Mumbai in the 1940s and 1950s, appeared in a fine English translation in 2015. Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan and Vasant Moon’s Growing Up Untouchable in India: A Dalit Autobiography are eye-opening memoirs of impoverished Dalit childhoods in the mid-twentieth century, while Ajay Navaria’s stories in Unclaimed Terrain turn an ironic gaze on the recent emergence of a Dalit middle class through affirmative action and economic liberalization.

The further irony is that Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain, like Valmiki’s Joothan, and all the work in this special issue are themselves translated by scholars invigorated by the daring literary experimentation and anti-caste critiques. In her translator’s preface to Joothan, the University of Toronto English professor Arun Mukherjee writes movingly of the ways Valmiki’s account made her rethink her own upper-caste privilege and also forced her to reconsider the colonizer/colonized binaries that reigned in the field of postcolonial studies.

Dalit activists too understand the importance of translation in providing an opportunity for their work to circulate more widely. In forming an alliance with English-language readers, Dalit writers are able to call into question some of the dubious moral stances guarded by the indigenous elite in the name of preserving tradition. This strategy follows in the footsteps of   Ambedkar who, in the decades leading up to independence in 1947, began writing appeals aimed specifically to foreign readers, in such a way that called into question the elitism of the Congress Party, especially its claim to speak for all Indian subjects in demanding independence from British rule. In “A Plea to a Foreigner,” Ambedkar argued explicitly that “what the foreigner who chooses to side with the Congress should ask is not whether the Congress is fighting for freedom. He should ask: For whose freedom is the Congress fighting?” All the Dalit writers featured here follow in this Ambedkarite tradition and use their writing as a tool for reflecting openly on how crucial terms such as “rights” and “freedom” might translate into daily action. Like the work of English-language critics listed by Mishra, this approach situates these literary translations in a broader activist context that all the writers featured here engage in.

We draw from an exciting and extensive list of important works, and have generally focused on pieces written in Hindi that supplement what is already available in English translation. We have purposely chosen work that represents a range of political perspectives and genres, from writers who themselves are known for their range. Among the work that Mohan Das Namishray is known for is a four-volume history written in Hindi on the Indian Dalit Movement (Radhakrishna, 2013). Kausalya Baisantry is one of the activists interviewed by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon in their history of the Ambedkarite movement focusing on women, published first in Marathi (Stree Uchav, 1989) and in Wandana Sonalkar’s English translation as We Also Made History (Zubaan, 2008).

Dalit literature represents some of the most meaningful, socially engaged narrative voices in India today, and its international appeal is growing as well. Each of these writers has a keenness of vision we are excited to share with this English-speaking readership.


Glossary for the Issue

Note on italicization: We use Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s strategy of italicization for words that appear in English in the original texts to show the long-standing imbrication of the colonial language of English and Bengali. In the stories in the issue, this approach also shows how these colonial instruments of power are used by the local indigenous elite.

Arey: An expression of mild disbelief: “Seriously!” or “Come on!”

Ashtami: A Sanskrit term for the eighth day of the lunar fortnight, which is considered auspicious in Brahmanic Hinduism.

Basti: A settlement; often tightly-packed areas where the poor and disenfranchised live.

Bhaiya: Brother, a common term of friendly address.

Bhajans: HIndu spiritual songs.

Brahmins: Those who rank highest in the caste system (according to the Brahmins themselves).

Dalit: Once an insulting term literally meaning ground down into dust, “Dalit” has been reclaimed by the lowest castes as an empowering alternative to “untouchable.” We have left it lowercase when it is used as a description by a non-Dalit, and uppercase when used by a speaker self-referentially.

Darshan: Sight, most often used in a ritual sense of taking in the vision of a deity (and conversely, the deity taking in the vision of the devotee).

DhedhChamar: Leather-worker caste names. The invocation of these terms reveals much about the ongoing idiom of untouchability. Because working with dead animals is considered polluting, anyone in the leather-working caste is c.onsidered polluted.

Dhol and mridanga: Double-sided drums played by musicians in “folk” traditions, and sometimes also by those with classical training in one or more traditions.

Harijan bai: Gandhi suggested that all untouchables be called Harijan—literally, people of Lord Hari and therefore God—but B. R. Ambedkar and his followers rejected the term for sounding decidedly patronizing. “Bai” is often a respectful term in Marathi and Rajasthani used when referring to a woman, but is sometimes added to a title to clarify that a person is female.

Haveli: Often referred to as a “mansion” since it is built of solid materials such as stone and is home to the most elite family or families in the village. Because it is usually a multi-room, imposing structure that houses multiple generations, the women segregate themselves in the inner sanctum while the men occupy the outer rooms where they entertain visitors and conduct business.

Kambakht: A mild curse word usually used as an adjective, for someone deemed unfortunate or wretched.

Kardhi with seviyan: Kardhi is usually made from a heated yogurt sauce with spices and thickened with chickpea flour; seviyan are noodles, also made from chickpea flour.

Khadi: Homespun cotton fabric, popularized by Gandhi as a symbol of nationalism in the late colonial period.

Lathi: Literally a bamboo cane used to drive oxen and punish enemies, but symbolically considered a sign of power. Used in English-language newspapers in India.

Ovi: Metrical Marathi poetry traditionally sung by women.

Panchayat: Traditional village council consisting of five voting members.

Puja, Naagpuja: Common term for Hindu worshippers venerating a deity, in this case the divine form of the cobra.

Sadhu: A Hindu holy man who takes a vow of asceticism and renounces worldly concerns.

Sala: Standard Hindi for a sister’s husband, and so by implication a person who sleeps with one’s sister. Used quite commonly as a form of abuse. The variation Salo is even more colloquial.

Samadhi: The place where a corpse is cremated or buried; also, the state of passing into the next realm

Sasur: A respectful term of address for a father in law, that can also used as a form of abuse for an old man. In this case, the variation Sasuro is even more colloquial and disrespectful.

Savarna: With caste, i.e., the opposite of “outcaste” or untouchable.

Thakur: Both a title and a caste name; refers to the lord of the village. Sometimes considered a petty king.

© 2018 by Laura Brueck and Christi A. Merrill. All rights reserved.

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