BOOKS FEBRUARY 26, 2010
Words That Touch
India's Dalit writers come into their own
By JOHN KRICH
Untouchable, maybe. But no longer unread.
Omprakash Valmiki, born into India's lowest social group, the Dalits
-- known widely as "untouchables" -- says he was the first member of
his family to "ever see the inside of a school building."
For 40 years he has worked for the Ministry of Defense in Dehradun --
but by night the bureaucrat was doggedly composing poems and fiction.
And when Mr. Valmiki came to the 2010 Jaipur Literary Festival to
participate in a series of panels meant to recognize the importance of
so-called Dalit literature, he drew larger crowds than many of the
internationally known authors there. He was mobbed for autographs, and
his works -- which include the Hindi-language autobiographical novel
"Joothan: A Dalit's Life," published in English translation in the
U.S. by Columbia University Press -- were among the first to sell out
at the festival bookshop. (The English translation also appears with
the subtitle "An Untouchable'
"What we're doing is creating a new history of India that's not in the
textbooks," the soft-spoken, bespectacled 60-year-old says of the
growing movement of Dalit writers. "To support their superiority, the
majority invokes so many ancient myths. So we must create myths of our
The results are striking a popular chord -- far beyond a community
that is mostly illiterate -- with readers both in India and abroad.
Recent hits include "Untouchables: My Family's Triumphant Journey Out
of the Caste System in Modern India," by Narendra Jadhav, who rose
from poverty to become vice chancellor of the University of Pune; it
was published in the West by the University of California Press.
"Not only have their books attracted a mass audience, but they are
profoundly impacting the political landscape," says Christophe
Jaffrelot, director of France's Center for International Studies and
Research and an authority on the Dalits. He points to Mayawati Kumar,
a Dalit who has become chief minister of India's most populous state,
Uttar Pradesh, as leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party.
Prof. Jaffrelot says the wide appeal of Dalit works lies in their
being "very personal and intimate, dealing with the inner world of an
individual in conflict with how society views them," while the work of
Brahmin writers can come off as remote and abstract.
"We are drawing on a body of practical experience that we've gained
through all the things we have made, the crafts, the carving, the
carpentry, the textiles," says Mr. Valmiki. "Very little that you see
in India was made by Brahmins -- and everything carries the touch of
those they call untouchable.
Direct protest is the message of much Dalit literature. In one poem,
Mr. Valmiki cries out, "What would you do? /If you/ Have to swim
against the current/ To open the doors of pain/ And do battle with
hunger/ If you/ Are denied in your own land/ Made slave labor/Stripped
of your rights/ The pages of your glorious history/Torn to shreds/And
thrown away/What would you do?"
The most outspoken, and political, of the Dalit writers is Kancha
Ilaiah, whose 1996 manifesto "Why I Am Not A Hindu" made him the
target of death threats. Given to provocative claims like "while the
Greeks were producing Plato and Aristotle, all the Hindus created was
the Kama Sutra -- a book that teaches what the animals already know,"
Mr. Ilaiah argues that a caste system like that of Hinduism is
"spiritual fascism" that can't survive in these global times.
(Millions of Dalits are estimated to have converted, mostly to
Buddhism, but also to Islam and the appeals of Christian
Mr. Ilaiah, 57, credits Dalit creative writers with "building a new
image for ourselves" much as pioneering African-American writers did
for a people so recently enslaved. "In ending our 3,000-year slavery,
the greatest vehicle for our liberation has been the English
Access to English-language schools has been a major advance for
Dalits, though the group continues to suffer severe discrimination --
including in education -- more than 60 years after caste divisions
were outlawed by India's constitution. (That founding document is the
work of B.R. Ambedkar, an untouchable with degrees from Columbia who
is viewed as the group's heroic role model.)
"How can we take the constitution seriously?" asks Mr. Valmiki. "There
are still at least 1.3 million of us condemned to a scavenger class
sent out each day to collect human feces -- and their main employer is
the Indian government."
"Though we may be one-quarter of the population," says P. Sivakami, a
leading feminist voice among Dalits, "we are rarely represented in the
mainstream media, in television or movies. In the past, we've only
carried names like 'baby,' been portrayed as drunks or sexually
lascivious, grateful to get molested by a master."
While she worked for years as a senior civil servant, including a
stretch with the Indian tourist office in Tokyo, Ms. Sivakami says she
always "wanted to be a creative writer...the most noble job, where
words can generate consciousness.
novel, "Grip of Change," which was also the first Dalit novel written
in Tamil. (Translated by the author, it was published in English in
"It's not easy when nothing prepares you for the situation of your own
mother and a father who had only a third-grade education -- but who
rose to become a local legislator. Ms. Sivakami left the civil service
in 2008 to enter politics and last month established the Party for
Social Equity, plumping for everything from tribal to transgender
rights. "The caste system," she says, "is a kind of evil spirit that
has to be fought off."
In the fight, there are new allies such as young S. Anand, who in 2003
founded Navayana, a publishing house whose books deal with "caste from
an anticaste perspective,
Mr. Ilaiah believes there will be more writers to come. "We have
already had our Martin Luther King," he says, referring to Ambedkar,
author of the constitution. "But we've yet to bring forth our Obama."
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