June 30, 2010
The rise of 'Dalit lit' marks a new chapter for India's untouchables
By Andrew Buncombe in Delhi
As caste divides fade, a fresh crop of writers is emerging
Ajay Navaria, a writer of novels and short stories, cannot help but
laugh as he reflects on the nature of his "other" job teaching Hindu
ethics and scripture at a leading university in Delhi. The 39-year-old
is a Dalit, a so-called "untouchable", and little more than a
generation ago, for him to have even been discussing Hindu texts would
have been an offence that could have cost him his life. The fact that
he now teaches them brings a smile to his face.
"Fifty years ago it would have been a crime. I think about this and
think that if I had touched those scriptures I would have been
killed," he says, perched in a booth in a decaying coffee house in
Delhi's once grand Connaught Place. "But democracy has given me power.
It has given power to the depressed classes and helped to make a more
In his own way, Navaria is at the spearhead of a quiet cultural
revolution sweeping India's literary establishment. Having long been
confined to writing only in their own, local languages and largely
ignored by the literary mainstream, Dalit authors are now being
swooped on by some of the country's biggest publishers, such as
Radhakrishna Prakashan which is translating their work into Hindi, the
lingua franca of northern India and beyond.
Novelists, poets and writers of short stories are receiving both
exposure and opportunity in the market-place that they have never
before received. There are Dalit magazines, Dalit literary forums
(there are two competing groups in Delhi alone) and Dalit workshops.
And as further proof of the rising importance and clout of "Dalit
lit", Mr Navaria was this year a guest at the influential Jaipur
literary festival, an annual gathering and networker's paradise of
Indian and international air-kissing types.
Indian society can sometimes seem harsh or even brutal. Nowhere is
this more evident than in its caste system, a centuries-old hierarchy
of categorisation based on ancient Hindu teachings that groups people
into one of four main castes (and thousands of sub-castes).
Traditionally, the caste someone belonged to decided where they would
live, what job they would do and even what they would eat. People
outside of these groups were considered unclean and not true Hindus,
fit only for tasks such as cleaning toilets, making leather and
sweeping the roads.
Dalits have suffered centuries of abuse and even today, despite
legislation to protect them and an increasingly urbanised society,
they are still the victims of widespread prejudice, discrimination and
violence. A recent report by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication
Front, a coalition of human rights groups in southern India, revealed
a bewildering degree of discrimination, both in scale and form.
Among the various abuses detailed by the authors of the report, Dalits
were not allowed to use a mobile phone in the presence of upper-caste
people. They were also prevented from having their clothes washed,
permitted only to drink tea from coconut shells while squatting on the
floor, barred from entering temples, forced to eat faeces, raped and
Yet Dalits total more than 150 million people - around 20 per cent of
India's population - and the realisation has slowly come that with
such critical mass, this community could have considerable leverage.
In India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, low-caste voters have on
three occasions elected a Dalit chief minister, Mayawati Kumari.
The size of the population has also been a factor in the emergence of
Dalit literature as publishers have woken up to the potentially
massive market. As Navaria says: "They are doing their business, they
are not missionaries. If they get a profit, they will do it. If they
do not, then they won't."
A key figure in the emergence of low-caste writing is Ramnika Gupta.
She is not a Dalit but she produces a quarterly magazine, Yuddhrat Aam
Aadmi, devoted to previously marginalised writers. She estimates that
she and her team of just three full-time assistants have published
around 1,500 Dalit writers from across India over the last two
decades. Large publishers regularly go to her for information about
new talent. She helps on the condition that the publishers agree to
produce a paperback edition that is affordable for ordinary people, in
addition to the standard hardback run.
In the first-floor drawing room of her home, which also serves as her
office, she noted that Dalit writers never lacked subject material.
The highly influential writer and Dalit leader, B R Ambedkar, she
explained, had said it was essential that low-caste people had their
own literature and that they wrote about their own lives.
Mrs Gupta, who has herself written dozens of books on Dalit and tribal
people's issues, said of the caste system: "India's culture
discriminates. It's a state of exploitation. Everyone thinks 'He is
lower than me' or 'I'm superior'. What we are trying to say is that we
are all equal and if anyone is weak, we can help them to rise."
Dalit writers say the emergence of low-caste literature has taken
place alongside a broader growth of consciousness and activism,
particularly in urban India. While in rural India, caste remains
all-pervading, in cities many of the signs and signals that identify a
person's caste have vanished. In cities, too, Dalits are better
organised to stand up for their rights.
"There is a growing consciousness that is emerging. People are now
better educated and they all get to know about their rights," said
Anita Bharti, a long-time writer and activist who heads a Dalit
literary forum that meets every month in Delhi.
Literature, said Ms Bharti, has an important role to play in the
ongoing struggle by Dalits to end discrimination. While abuse of
low-caste people still happens, "they can now write about it. Also,
people realise that Dalits have been mistreated in the past and that
there is a need to bring Dalit literature to other people."
Navaria, who is now working on his second novel, agrees. When he wrote
his first novel, Udhar Ke Log (People From That Side), he had no doubt
that the main antagonist would be a middle-class, urban Dalit. The
story tells of the various ways in which his low caste affects his
life, including being rejected by his lover - herself a sex-worker -
when she discovers he is a Dalit. "I chose to write about Dalit
consciousness. I have felt myself treated like this many times," he
One of his most painful, burning experiences was as a schoolboy of 12
or 13 when scholarships were being offered to Dalit pupils. His
teacher walked into the classroom and asked any low-caste pupils to
stand up so that their names could be taken down. "I never stood up. I
went to the head teacher later [to apply for the scholarship]," he
recalls. "You feel so ashamed. One friend said to me 'You don't look
like a Dalit'. I asked him, 'What do you think a Dalit looks like?'"
Navaria rejects the suggestion that by writing about purely Dalit
issues and by knowingly organising themselves as Dalits, this new
generation of writers is actually reinforcing caste divisions, rather
than breaking them down. "If there are divisions in society, how can
there not be divisions in literature? Publishers are not promoting
these divisions but are reflecting them," he says. "Caste is very
important. You cannot imagine India without caste. If a person says
they are a Hindu, then they will have a caste."
One breakthrough these writers have yet to make is getting published
in English. Partly that is because the writers prefer to work in a
medium that their main audience can understand. But Ms Bharti and
others say that getting the attention of the "elite" English-language
media is still a challenge.
Navaria says he sees many obstacles ahead, but that he has the energy
to overcome them. "Writing is not my profession, it's my passion," he
says, as he finishes his coffee, Delhi's warm yellow sun slipping from
the sky. "I cannot even sleep if an idea is in my head. For two or
three nights, I cannot sleep until it's completed. It's a duty to the
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