Wednesday, July 6, 2011

[ZESTCaste] No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India Dossier 1: Tamil and Malayalam; Ed. K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu

July 4, 2011
An alternative history

No Alphabet in Sight
Special Arrangement No Alphabet in Sight

This volume's significance lies in its potential to change the way we
read Indian cultural history.

Satyanarayana and Tharu's 'dossier' maps the radicalisation of Dalit
consciousness even as it traces the contours of an energized Indian
literary scene and a history of publishing that has never received due
attention. An archive of fiction, poetry, memoirs, polemical tracts
sourced from magazines, newspapers, literary society newsletters,
activist writings, No Alphabet in Sight might well be the alternative
history of Indian literature we have been waiting for.

Different contexts

The detailed introduction sets out the social, economic and political
contexts of Dalit activism, writings and literature. It takes into
account the histories of land debates (and land grabbing by upper
castes, classes and not-so-faceless corporate houses), the dynamics of
political organisation and electoral politics, and the persistent,
caste-based inequities that haunt the corridors of academia in (even?
especially?) elite institutions (that the editors carefully castigate
the University of Hyderabad, ignoring EFL-U, to which they belong, is
an interesting statement in institutional politics!). It also makes a
strong case for contemporary Dalit writing as both literature and
critique that would 'invent an alphabet that will enable a Dalit
tongue to speak', as they put it.

However, the multiple folds of these modes are not something the
editors have found time to unravel and by calling it a ' dossier' —
with all its connotations of officialese, archivism and potentially
explosive material — they avoid isolating, unfairly, the literary
merits of the selections thereby running the risk of ghettoising them
as more 'protest literature'.

The selections are eclectic in style, tone and, of course, content.
Ayyappan's "Branthu", Paul Chirakkarodu's "Eli, Eli, La'ma, Sabach
Tha'ni", Joseph's poems "Identity Card" and "My Sister's Bible",
Periyavan's "Stench", Rajkumar and Renukumar's poems, among others,
deal with the excruciating daily life of Dalits. Bama, arguably the
better known of these authors by virtue of Mini Krishnan's pioneering
project, also figures here, along with Sivakami.

What is fascinating is the urgent and strident note seeking dignity in
each of these tales. Firmly grounded in local myth, politics and
economy, the literary texts refuse to be tagged merely as 'victim

While victimage is, understandably, the scaffolding of the cultural
imaginary of all Dalit writings, the selection here ensures that we
also get a glimpse of the proverbial 'fire-in-the-belly' revolutionary
potential in these writers. Critique is implicit in many texts, even
when many authors refuse to cast their work as 'political writing'.

Many of the selections pull out materials from hitherto unknown and
unseen (to the mainstream) archives. T. Dharmaraj's essay retrieves
figures of Dalit cultural nationalism such as Iyothee Dass. Texts that
emerge as histories of various societies and organisations like the
Cheramar Mahajana Sabha and Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham in THP
Chentharassery's essays enable us to move beyond just Periyar and
Phule to see how 19th century and early 20th India had witnessed major
social reform, Dalit and other emancipatory movements, and thus offer
a whole new cultural history of Indian modernities.

Social analyses in Ravikumar, Pampirikunnu, Raj Gauthaman, Sunny
Kapikkad and Kunhaman focus on multiple domains: media, development,
cultural history and practices. These offer detailed, polemical
criticism, often Marxian in tone, of contemporary India, and in the
process call the bluff of various clichés like equality, development
and rights that have served as shorthand to mask more invidious
inequities and injustice.

TM Yesudasan's powerful essay on Dalit studies is a fitting concluding
piece (and it is titled 'Prologue', thus effectively breaking the
structural tyranny of narrative and publishing) where he outlines the
key components of such a project: retrieving Dalit traditions and
forms of knowledge, examining the causes of Dalit 'backwardness', to
develop Dalit ways of seeing past and present and to formulate Dalit
critical frameworks of understanding and interpreting, and actively
champions, for this enterprise, methodologies from the social sciences
and cultural studies.

Powerful voices

Translators Ansari, Madhava Prasad, Meena Kandasamy,
Venkatachalapathy, Geetha, Azhagarasan, Udaya Kumar (inventorying like
this means risking consigning some to alphabetical black holes, so I
shall stop here) do a fine job with their texts. There are some
inaccurate translations — it would have been useful if the editors had
cross-checked some of these — but the bulk of the volume reads well.

The significance of this volume lies in its potential to change the
way we read Indian cultural history. It reveals so many speaking
subjects, and voices that are powerful but rarely petulant, poignant
yet polemical. It places upon us, the readers, an ethical demand, to
respond in certain ways, for there are no neutral ways of reading
these texts (just as there are no neutral ways of reading Holocaust

No Alphabet in Sight is an archive, indisputably. It is for us to
understand what this archive truly means: it is not simply about the
past, it is always aspirational.

The volume-as-archive forces us to ponder about how this set of
documents will be read in the future. This ethical reading must embody
the aspirations for the future, encoded within these enormously rich
and powerful texts.

No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India Dossier 1:
Tamil and Malayalam; Ed. K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu, Penguin,
Rs. 599.


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