Veena Deo. Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India. Editor: Nalini Natarajan, Greenwood Press, 1996.
The term “Dalit” literature has been in use since 1958, the year of the first Conference of the Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangha (i.e., Maharashtra Dalit Literary Society) in Bombay, and is a marker for a numerous and exciting literary production. Its advent and persistent output shook the Marathi mainstream literary tradition to its core by its representation of the lives of the most marginalized—the previous untouchable communities of the Hindu caste system. The Marathi literary reader, scholarly as well as casual, heard a new language; a new, direct, angry, accusatory, and analytic voice; and a literary production that dared to question centuries-old myths, traditions, and practices. Despite some initial defensive critical moves by the literary establishment, Dalit writing has found its readers and supporters in Maharashtra and is now commonly used in school textbooks and college curricula in Marathi literature departments.
This brief survey of Dalit Marathi literature attempts to understand and outline interconnections of liberal humanism, Marxism, and Hindu reform/Buddhism in Dalit writing’s advent and proliferation as an integral part of the tensions of modernity.
Phule and Ambedkar: The Two Visionary Anchors
Even a brief attempt to situate Dalit writing in its historical context necessitates the mention of two very forceful thinkers from Maharashtra’s past—Ma-hatma Jyotiba Phule (1828-90) and Bheemrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956). We need to remind ourselves here to consider the importance of struggles for social reform and individual rights in the complex and changing context of colonial rule, struggles for home rule, nationalist movements, and the establishment of a new independent India in the midst of several interests contesting for power.
Mahatma Jyotiba Phule—reformist, activist, critic of the Hindu caste system, advocate of individual rights for men and women, and writer—is important to Dalit activism and writing, even if his work and its influence were obscured for a while in the early part of the twentieth century. His own life and work are testimony to his considerable passion for reform of Hindu society during colonial times. Influenced by the ideas of Thomas Penn and others, he advocated equal rights and education for women and the untouchable communities and critiqued the caste Hindus and their penchant for exploitative policies long before other reformers did in the twentieth century. As a writer, his poetry; his play Tritiya Netra (The Third Eye); and his interpretation of the myths of the 10 incarnations of Vishnu (as historical evidence of the Aryan rewriting of indigenous history and demonization of indigenous peoples and their struggles) in Gulamgiri (Slavery) are treasured volumes that became available to Dalit writers only after 1969. His followers carefully steered his organization, Sa-tyashodhak Samaj (Society of Truth Seekers), away from the untouchable communities for which Phule himself had fought. As a result, his influence was somewhat hidden from view in a wider arena, although Ambedkar acknowledged and respected it. More recently, his work has been rehistoricized. If Mahatma Phule’s direct influence on Dalit writing was somewhat limited, Ambedkar’s has been quite extensive.
Most Dalit writers understand Bheemrao Ramji Ambedkar to be the primary impetus for their self-conscious, socially critical, political art. Ambedkar provided a vision of an egalitarian society where birth/caste determinants would become obsolete. He did this by inspiring outcaste communities to struggle for their own human and civil rights. As an important leader—a brilliant legal mind, a shrewd social critic, and political activist for Dalits before India’s independence—Ambedkar also played a major role as chairperson of the drafting committee in the writing of the Indian Constitution, in which he initiated, negotiated, and supervised a reserved quota system for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes of India. Thus, opportunities for advancement and participation in all spheres of life, ranging from the educational to the political, were ensured and became available to Dalit and adivasi (indigenous tribal) communities. Reconstruction of a modern, postcolonial India dedicated to secular and democratic principles of equality was his primary goal.
Both Phule and Ambedkar understood the role of Hindu religious emphasis on karma and moksha (salvation) in the perpetuation of the caste system, so they fought to eradicate its influence. Disappointed by the actual implementation of constitutional rights, however, Ambedkar modified his secular position and led more than 4 million Indians (most of them from his Mahar caste) into Buddhism in a mass conversion ceremony in Nagpur in 1956. He reinterpreted Buddhism as a religion to emphasize its investment in improving life on earth, in the here and now of the social world. Religious conversion seemed to him significant for Dalits to sever ties from the pressures of Hindu traditions, to forge social and cultural cohesion, and to foster a sense of pride and identity. On one hand, this was a clear rejection of the Hindu social structure based on caste, religious texts, and traditions; on the other, it was an articulation of a nationalist position for a new India based on a reinterpretation of indigenous ideas from India’s past. A significant number of Dalit writers are also Buddhists. Even though their literary output cannot be dubbed Buddhist literature, references to Buddhism emerge in the subject matter and may provide an impetus in the future for a different sort of self-representation (see Zelliot 1992).
Although Mahatma Gandhi was a well-known critic of untouchability in the Hindu caste system, and he saw a need for reform before people could be united in the struggle for Indian independence, he was often at odds with Ambedkar’s ideas for Dalit struggle for human and civil rights. The very term harijan (people of God) that he used in reference to Dalits was considered patronizing rather than respectful. Ambedkar considered his alliances with capital and upper-caste interests with suspicion as well. There is, therefore, a greater sense of reverence for Ambedkar and his clearly envisioned social and political work for Dalits among Maharashtrian communities, but especially among those whose lives were touched and forever transformed by his activism and vision.
Marxism provides yet another very strong rubric for Dalit literary production and has been favored for systemic analysis as well as political alliances. However, it has often split members in their attempt to define the goals and thrust of Dalit writing and activism. Who this struggle is for, who should be considered Dalit, whether the Hindu caste system should be the primary target, what methods suit best for whom, whether differences and degrees of differences among various oppressed groups should be addressed under the same headings, whether revolutionary violence is acceptable—these are some of the difficult questions that make for disagreements and mark the internal politics of the organization.
Hence, philosophical discussions regarding Buddhism, Marxism, and democracy as values guiding lives and social, economic, and cultural policies are continuously conducted in Dalit writing. The trust that Ambedkar’s writings evoke invariably affects the outcome of these discussions in his favor.
“Dalit”: Defining the Term
Before we consider some representative Dalit writers and their works, however, it is important to define what constitutes “Dalit” literature and understand some of the issues that are debated around the term itself. One of the primary aspects that most Dalit writers would agree on is that this is a literary movement emerging from struggles for social change. The connection between the struggle of Dalits for their rights and their literary output is seen by many Dalit writers as a parallel struggle to that of the black communities in the United States. Black literature and the work of Martin Luther King are vastly respected and emulated. The word “Dalit” as a general word comes from the word padadalit (slave at one’s feet) and refers to people in the underclasses—the ex-untouchables of the Hindu caste system as well as other oppressed communities, including the adivasis, the poor, the laborers, and so on, as Datta Bhagat explains it (1992). He further clarifies that such a broad definition, however, is not applicable to the word “Dalit,” as in Dalit literature. The term is more limited in this case to refer to the outcaste communities of India that were discriminated against on the basis of birth. This literature registers protest; uncovers hypocritical double standards of behavior among caste Maharashtrians; acquaints readers with, and expresses anger at, the inhuman treatment experienced by such communities; and is committed to an incisive critique of the social, cultural, and political world the writers experience with a view to raise a voice for justice and equality. It does not automatically follow, Bhagat says, that only certain communities (defined Dalit by birth) can write Dalit literature, nor should it suggest that Dalit literature will become obsolete if/when experiences of Dalits change (Bhagat 1992, 40-46). Some non-Dalit writers’ works are acclaimed and found acceptable because the Dalit writers trust their intellectual integrity and admire their critical positions and commitment to social change—here the names of well-known non-Dalit poets like Narayan Surve, Sharatchandra Muktibodh, and Keshavsut come to mind.
Any writing, literary or critical, that comes out of formulaic Marxist ideologies, sentimentality, and/or a patronizing attitude is immediately critiqued and roundly denounced. Dalit readership is expected to be inspired for activism by this writing, while non-Dalit readership is expected to be informed, educated, warned, and/or encouraged to change and critically examine its perspective. Dalit writers who have moved up the social ladder and are interested in dissociating themselves from the label “Dalit” and prefer a more universal title of writer are dismissed as “Dalit Brahmins.” One of the inherent contradictions that Dalit intellectuals wrestle with is a well-meaning policy of reserved quotas, on one hand, that continues to encourage people, for practical reasons, to invest energy in identity politics and caste self-definitions, while, on the other, aspiring for a more egalitarian social and political system where such divisions would be permanently broken down.
Dalit Literary Production
Dalit literary production has gained ground steadily over the years from the turn of the twentieth century onward, more particularly, since India’s independence. The period of the 1960s and thereafter has seen considerable outpouring of works. Among many genres, poetry seems to be a more favored vehicle used by Dalit writers. However, prose fiction—novels and short stories—has also been influential. Essays of social and literary criticism are steadily produced in order to define and redefine Dalit writing and/or critique literary production, as well as critical reception of Dalit writing. Considerable talent is also invested in autobiographical writing, drama, and feminist writing with specific focus on Dalit women’s issues.
The Role of Magazines
As in any movement, magazines and journals have played a significant role in Dalit writing, although some have had a very short life. Such magazines and journals as Prabuddha Bharat, Asmitadarsha, Magova, Amhi, Satyakatha, and Vidroha (to mention a few, with Asmitadarsha still being distributed and read widely) have been vital to the publication and dissemination of Dalit writing among Maharashtrian readers. Among some others, Maitarani should be mentioned as a new venture by Dalit and Buddhist women who started their quarterly publication in Bombay in 1992 with a special issue dedicated to Phule and Ambedkar, celebrating Ambedkar’s birth centenary year (1990-91). Attempts to invigorate conversations among Dalit writers and scholars of Dalit writing across regions and countries are also made by a more current journal edited by Kash-inath Ranveer, The Downtrodden India: Journal of Dalit and Bahujan Studies, published at Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad, in English (its first volume was published in January 1994).
Raising Issues of Classification
Dalit writing, with its multivalent emphasis on journalism, history, critical essays, literature, and literary criticism, brings to the forefront the idea that any social change involving groups of individuals would have to address all necessary issues at once through all available means. If journalistic writing helps disseminate ideas and mobilize support for social change to a wide audience within and without the Dalit groups, literary production and its success ensure cultural value and facilitate social mobility. What is significant, however, is that Dalit writing, which is part of a massive struggle for social and political change, consistently blurs boundaries between established genres in its attempts to clarify and critique social realities of the Dalits.
Hence, for the purposes of this short survey chapter, the Dalit Panther movement (1972) and women’s movements in India are considered significant markers that provided and continue to provide momentum to Dalit writing rather than specific periods or genres. Dalit writing is considered here under three broad headings: Pre-Panther Dalit Writing; Dalit Panther Movement and After; and Dalit and Buddhist Women’s Writing. Instead of compiling a long list of names and dates for this survey, I highlight a few representative works in order to look at texts more closely. Two important issues for Dalit writers are addressed primarily in this survey of Dalit writing: negotiations with language and identity, although these issues are only a part, albeit important, of many others, as mentioned before. The selected bibliography that follows this chapter attempts to cover more writers and their works than this brief survey can address with deserved care.
Pre-Panther Dalit Writing
Whether one wishes to trace Dalit writing back to the Buddhist period; to the saint-poet of the Bhakti movement, Chokhamela (fourteenth century); or to Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, critical writing against the Hindu caste system with reference to the plight of those marginalized and oppressed by Brahminical traditions is not entirely new to India. Not until the twentieth century, however, is a concerted effort made to define a separate Dalit identity and a Dalit literary movement within the context of social change and modernity as India takes its place among modern nations. Among the outstanding early twentieth-century Dalit writers were Gopalbaba Valangkar, Kisan Phagoji Bansod, Ghanashyam Talwatkar and Shankarrao Kharat. The mainstream literary scene was dominated by middle-class, Brahmin writers such as N. S. Phadake and V. S. Khandekar. A prominent and prolific Dalit fiction writer like Annabhau Sathe wrote under the influence of Marxism. His novels Phakira and Varanecha Vagha are very well known as sensitive portraits of individual Dalit heroism within conflictual and complex social realities of their village communities.
Issues of Language and Representation
Baburao Bagul is a significant name among this early group of writers who propelled Dalit writing to a different height. As a senior writer who gave impetus to the younger generation led by Dhasal, his work first stood out in a collection of Dalit poems titled Akar (Shape, 1967).
His collection of short stories Maran Swasta Hot Ahe (Death Is Getting Cheaper, 1968) is considered a significant landmark in Dalit writing. This book is dedicated to Martin Luther King and his civil rights struggle for African Americans. The seventh story in this collection with the same title as that of the book provides a good example of its import. The story emerges through a conversation between two literary friends, a fiction writer and a poet, who are struggling to forge a new kind of writing. They find it difficult to capture precisely their ideas or find a shape and form for them. In frustration, they walk out of the apartment of the narrator, who seems to know stories of every slum dweller he is greeted by as they walk. The narrator/writer and poet are thus presented as being sympathetic observers of life in Bombay slums and as also closely connected to those experiences. The narrator has clearly conversed with the people whose stories he narrates and is familiar with their environment. Therefore, he can be a reliable and convincing narrator. He is, at once, a part of that world and apart from it. The world that emerges from the narrator/writer’s narrations is a world of brutality and dubious survival—of humans preying upon humans; of fathers prostituting their own daughters; of the young competing for work with older folks without any qualms; of children without childhood who are aged beyond years; of wives being raped in the presence of their husbands; of broken hearts, aspirations, and hopelessness; of casual and senseless violence. The narrator’s poet friend, who is attempting to compose a poem about Bombay, freedom, modernity, and so on at the beginning of this story, is so shaken by these experiences/narratives that he decides to throw all his words out and keep only one line—“This is Bombay. Humans eat humans here, and death gets cheaper …!” (Bagul 1980, 88; translation mine).
The literary issues raised in Bagul’s short story illustrate a Dalit writer’s struggle with form and language. All human experience is clearly considered appropriate subject matter for poetry. No concession is made to the Marathi literary mainstream on that issue. But the difficulty that a Dalit writer/poet faces with language use is clearly emphasized. An insider as well as an outsider (unaffected by the brutalizing effects of this world he lives in and writes about), the writer or poet and his consciousness become central to the way the story gets written. Photographic realism is necessary to show readers (probably middle-class) an unfamiliar world. Yet, as insiders, these writers are also affected by a strong mix of emotions—anger, compassion, hatred—that have to be kept at bay for the writing to take “acceptable” shape. The story needs to be told without polemics, but with unmistakable social criticism and a clear political agenda. The writer and poet are, thus, as much observers as they become characters whose creative process is itself under observation and made part of the subject of the story itself. Effecting appropriate intellectual distance and control in order to create a desired effect on the reader is a continuous challenge. The strength of the writing in Bagul’s collection, its stark reality, its reflectiveness, its compassion make his collection very valuable. Bagul’s work exemplifies a Dalit writer’s effort to challenge and collapse boundaries between the old-fashioned imaginary world of literature and the everyday “reality” of the dispossessed, which was even further beyond the bounds of literary realism marked by the genre of the novel and the short story in the mainstream.
These issues are consciously explored by several other poets and novelists as well. Particular mention among early significant works should be made here of Daya Pawar’s collection of poems Kondvada and Keshav Meshram’s works Hakikat Ani Jatayu (1972), a novel, Chayaban (1973), a collection of short stories, and his volume of poems Utkhanan (1977).
Experiment with Form
Yeshwant Manohar, in his volume of poems titled Utthangumpha (1977), experiments with a parody of the classic verse form of ovi used in Marathi poetry by saint-poets of the Bhakti movement. One of the poems, “Chorpuru-shano,” is a challenge to translate into English, but even a brief mention helps to illustrate one Dalit writer’s various experiments with language use. An attempt to explain the title should reveal its complexity and difficulty. The title is addressed to thieves and/or hypocrites by the use of one word that rhymes by association with thorpurushano (great/good men) by simply substituting “thor” with “chor.” The poem is addressed with mock respect to great thieves or hypocrites who claim patriotism, godliness, and respectability while scape-goating and demeaning Dalits permanently in social roles, such as that of cleaning latrines. Indirection works here at many levels. The use of the ovi form allows for a tone of respect, while the references and words themselves allow for severe mockery and provide an undertone of anger and disgust. Beyond that, the reader is quite taken by the clever reversal of the form—clearly, a Calibanlike move, that is, turning the language of the master against him—thereby also showing one’s own control and mastery of it.
Arjun Dangle’s volume of poems Chavani Halte Ahe (1977), Tryambak Sap-kale’s poetry in his volume titled Surung (1976), and Pralahd Chedvankar’s poetry volume Audit (1976) are some other examples of works that experiment with form.
Dalit Panther Movement and After
The changing economic scene in Maharashtra in postindependent India with land development, modernization of agriculture, sugar factories, cooperatives, and so on continued to oppress the outcaste communities, even further increasing conflicts in rural Maharashtra as well as urban centers, where droves from villages came looking for better working conditions. Baburao Bagul, the senior writer and activist involved with labor issues in urban Maharashtra, influenced many young Dalit writers, such as Daya Pawar, Arjun Dangle, Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, J. V. Pawar, and others who felt a need for a new militant and radical momentum for Dalit activism and writing. Influenced by radical leftist ideologies and emulating the Black Panthers of the United States, the Dalit Panthers established themselves as a group on July 9, 1972. Frustration with inaction of earlier attempts at social change was expressed through black flag demonstrations to mark the 25th anniversary of India’s independence in 1972. Provocative poetry and incendiary writing were to be coupled with radical activism. Poetry was to be written in the service of society. Namdeo Dhasal, one of the more provocative and most famous of the Panthers, had said in an interview with Sudhir Sonalkar in The Sunday Observer of August 8, 1982 that if the aim of social struggles was the removal of unhappiness, then poetry was necessary because it expressed that unhappiness vividly and powerfully (Hovell 1991, 77). By 1982, the Dalit Panthers had split over ideological differences trying to negotiate Dalit identity between Ambedkarism and Marxist ideas that insisted on allegiances across caste for philosophical and practical purposes. Yet, the effect of their radical stance was very powerful.
The challenge Dalit writing offered the established literary traditions in subject matter and language use was further sharpened and made even more militant. Namdeo Dhasal shocked the literary scene in 1973 with his collection of poems Golpitha. Here he wrote about his experiences of Bombay’s brothels and, slums shocking the middle-class reader. Baburao Bagul’s generation challenged many literary conventions, but they also saw themselves as writers who were dedicated to “good” writing, that is, writing that followed the conventions of genre and literary language. Dhasal, on the other hand, was self-consciously iconoclastic and known to use vocabulary deliberately to violate literary tastes and to force the reader to acknowledge that literary language would not be allowed to distance readers from horrific human experiences and man’s inhumanity to man. Literary language went places where it had never been before. Murkh Mhataryane Dongar Halavila (1975) and Tuhi Iyatta Kanchi (1981) are Dhasal’s other well-known collections of poetry. He also has a novel, Hadki Hadwal, to his credit. Dhasal’s poems are written with great force. He never minces words and was often critiqued for his use of vulgarisms. Sexuality, for instance, is not romanticized but is starkly related to power and domination in the area of intimate human experiences. His title poem of Tuhi Iyatta Kanchi (1981) displays all of the taboo subjects for the prudish caste Hindus—explicit sexual references, intercourse with a menstruating woman, dragging dead cattle and eating their beef—for whom ideas of pollution and impurity organize their world of experience, and the question is asked mockingly, “What grade are you in?”—in other words, What use is your education if some parts of human experience are unknown to you? A Brahmin’s claim to superiority based on knowledge and birth is repeatedly called to question by mocking at traditions that restrict and oppress expressions of basic humanity. Even personally, he would do unconventional things such as use his mother’s name as his middle name rather than his father’s, as is the tradition in Maharashtra. Thus, he called himself Namdeo Salubai Dhasal (since knowledge of one’s mother is a greater certainty, in general, and Dhasal did not know his father), implying also that he was not afraid to overturn traditions nor to question and examine rigorously any idea that is considered ordinary and normal. Dhasal’s political views have never been tied down to a single perspective. He has explored different leftist ideologies as well as Buddhism and Ambedkarism. In all, he has struggled with the issue of Dalit identity and what exactly it means and how it can be represented.
A sociocultural study done by G. M. Kulkarni and Vidyadhar Pundalik titled Dalit Sahitya: Ek Samajik-Sanskritik Abhyas (Dalit Literature: A Sociocultural Study, 1992), based on responses to an elaborate questionnaire answered by 62- 65 Dalit writers, shows that, although the Dalit Panther movement did not last very long, 69.3 percent of the respondents answering a series of questions in the section about their political views said that they considered the movement to be significant. The authors of this study ascribe such a response to the strong impact of the Panther movement on literary style and language use.
Use of Spoken Dialects
Another area of negotiation for Dalit writers has been the use of spoken dialects in written form, challenging notions of “aesthetics” among the mainstream writers. Careful distinction is made between writers who use local dialects as pastoral romanticists, who have very little respect for village folk they write about, and those who have lived experiences that make the use of dialect part of the aesthetics of their storytelling.
Lakshman Mane’s autobiographical narrative Upara (Outsider, 1980), among many others, illustrates this issue well. He speaks of his first experiences at school. His family speaks the Kaikadi language, which he transcribes and translates for Marathi readers. The entire narrative uses kaikadi, spoken Marathi dialect from his village, as well as standard written Marathi in a seamless weave. The narrator/speaker/character emerging from this text explains the particular problems of his situation as a Dalit in an alien environment in an educational institution in two separate ways. First, he is the first one from his family to go to school; hence, he is new to the culture of book learning; second, he is a bilingual who is forced into written Marathi as a third language because the spoken version he knows as a second language is different from the one he is later educated to use. The narrative documents the irony of a society that thrusts egalitarian values through its educational and progressive uplift programs but also perpetuates, through family and village structures, caste identity that discourages social change. Ambedkar had mentioned in his work intercaste marriage as perhaps the only sure solution for dismantling the rigid Hindu caste system. When Mane marries out of his caste (in accordance with his newly learned values), all of his family and his wife’s family refuse to accept his intercaste marriage, forcing activism on individuals who may not want to be so heroic in everyday life. It comes as a surprise that the upper castes are not the only castes that are fearful of collapsing caste boundaries. Consolidation of groups at all levels of the social strata makes individual activism that much more difficult. This insider knowledge of the writer makes the narrative come alive in all three languages with which he works. Literary Marathi is thus enriched and extended. This language also exercises some power over its middle-class and caste Hindu reading public by effectively alienating it from the narrative perspective through a variety of language use and forcing the reader to stay in that role of the outsider where control of the narrative as a reader would become difficult. The effect of literary writing on readers thus gets politicized.
Narratives of Self-Fashioning
The 1980s have seen a considerable development of autobiographical works by Dalit men and women that capture the nuances of their struggles through a wide variety of regional, experiential, and linguistic means. There is considerable discussion among the critical community about whether to label these narratives autobiographies or narratives of self. Kusare-Kulkarni notes in these narratives a distinction between testimony and something of deeper personal and cultural import. These narratives are more than an account of, or a testimony to, achievements in one’s individual life; instead they help articulate for the writer a social, as well as a personal, identity. To that extent, they fashion a self in the articulation as much as they situate this self within a larger social and cultural context. They speak not merely to an individual identity, but to a collective identity. The struggles in that articulation are as much those of an individual as of a group.
The narratives themselves experiment with form and language use in a variety of ways. Daya Pawar’s Balut (1989), for instance, is told as a story by Dagdu Pawar to the more literate Daya Pawar, both Dagdu and Daya being the same person in different situations. P. E. Sonkamble’s Athvaninche Pakshi (Birds of Memory, 1979) documents vignettes of experiences, as if they were short stories, rather than a continuous narrative. The second edition of this text has almost twice the number of vignettes as the first and suggests a continuum along which this narrative could keep moving in its articulation of self. Madhav Kondvilkar’s Mukkam Post Devache Gothane (Postal Residence Devache Gothane) is recorded as a diary from the years 1969-77. Lakshaman Mane’s Upara, discussed earlier, reads like fiction. These writers use particular spoken dialects connected to the region, locality, and caste from which they narrate. Moving between dialect and standard Marathi, these accounts of self create unique opportunities for these writers for self-fashioning.
Gaze Turned Within
The critical gaze of the Dalit writer has always been sharply attentive to traditions, myths, and practices—social, political, cultural, and literary. It often turns inward as well in self-criticism. A more recent poet, Loknath Yeshwant, in his Teen Kavita (Three Poems), published in the 1992 Diwali issue of As-mitadarsha, critiques with bitterness three different groups important to Dalit activism—members of Ambedkar’s Republican Party; a political leader whose image as leader is only that of a crowd pleaser and different from what it was when he was a young idealist; and a soliloquist. The speaker/poet identifies with all three very closely. Ambedkar asks the Republican why he cannot carry on the struggle for which Ambedkar gave him powerful weapons of knowledge. The young Republican has no answers and only keeps standing like a question mark. In the second poem, a tired brother asks the political leader what has happened to the struggle. The leader shoots this brother in anger and finds he has only shot the mirror image in the glass in front of him. In the third poem, the soliloquist lashes out at himself because he participates in locating people by their caste, even though he knows that to be wrong. Each of the sections, titled “Republican,” “Leader,” “Soliloquy,” shows a split within generations and within the individual and acutely captures the frustration, anger, and sense of hopelessness and inaction a young Dalit writer and activist experiences today.
It is this kind of impasse that critics talk about when they comment on the direction Dalit writing is taking. Datta Bhagat in Dalit Sahitya: Disha Ani Dishantar; Arun Kamble in his preface to his mother’s autobiography, Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha (Moving Pictures of My Life); as well as Arjun Dangle in Poisoned Bread, among others, record a concern expressed by some critics that Dalit writing is losing its edge or that it is losing its dynamism and becoming static. These writers indicate their strong belief that the work started by Dalit writers will continue as long as people are fighting battles for social change. Arun Kamble even suggests that the readership that complains does not show the necessary insight into nuanced use of language. Considerable impact can be seen in a variety of areas of research, dramatic forms, women’s writing, and so on that readers need to notice.
Writing by Dalit and Buddhist Women
Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar had both involved women closely in their struggle for individual rights and social reform. Dalit women acknowledge their contributions with respect. Meenakshi Mun and Urmila Pawar’s joint writing of the history of women in the Ambedkar movement, titled Amhihi Itihas Gha-davala (We Too Made History, 1989), should be mentioned here particularly for that reason. Educational opportunities for all women in postindependent India have had an impact in the concerted efforts being made by women and women’s organizations to define their roles and issues. Particular efforts by Dalit women can be seen as well. Shantabai Kamble’s Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha, published as a complete book in 1986 but presented to readers and television audiences in serial form through the early 1980s, is considered the first autobiographical narrative by a Dalit woman writer. Autobiographical writing has since become an important genre for women writers. Dalit women have written poems for a longer time. Meena Gajbhiye, Surekha Bhagat, Hira Bansode, and Jyoti Lanjewar are some names that must be mentioned in this context.
Dalit women writers’ late coming to the written world of literature can be understood in many ways. Women have always occupied a lower step in the social ladder in all patriarchal societies. Nineteenth-century reform movements for women (Mahatma Phule’s efforts, for instance) in Maharashtra affected middle-class women, to some extent leaving Dalit women out, for the most part. In addition, for Dalit women, work responsibilities for family support added another hurdle to overcome. Even with educational opportunities in place now, situations among Dalit women vary widely from village to urban communities. Dalit struggle for civil and human rights became a priority for many women who first affected a change for the younger generations and more particularly for their sons before the daughters also got a chance. Many Dalit writers in their autobiographies speak of the hardships their mothers undertook to provide them with opportunities.
Dalit Women: Orality and Literacy
Asha Mundale in her discussion/article “Dalit Streecha Va Tichya Baddalcha Bhashavyavahar” (The Language of and about Dalit Women [Bhagwat 1987,161-174]) makes some important observations. She cites several reasons to explain how a Dalit woman’s personality is shaped by her environment. She is exploited sexually by any number of caste men and has never been able to voice her complaints about that. This has made her relationship with her husband somewhat ambivalent, and she becomes a target of his abuse and/or frustrations. Her children revere her and have compassion for her because they see her always working hard to keep the family fed. Mundale clearly recounts a Dalit woman’s social history to explain what her expressive language is like. A Dalit woman is not afraid to express herself; she can be very sharp and quick-witted with her words. She is open about her sexuality, expressed in song and dance forms such as the lavani or the tamasha. Mundale’s primary argument is that the written tradition is not the appropriate yardstick to measure Dalit women’s expressive forms. So one should not speak about the Dalit woman’s silence in the same way as one speaks about middle-class women’s silence. A Dalit woman is articulate and forceful, even though written literary expression is a relatively new avenue for her (Bhagwat 1987, 161-74).
Several important poets and writers have emerged in the past few years. Meena Gajbhiye, Surekha Bhagat, Babytai Kamble, Mallika Amarshekh, Kumud Pawade, Mukta Sarvagod, Meenakshi Mun, Urmila Pawar, and Hira Bansode are names that immediately suggest a growing concert of voices.
Dalit woman writer Urmila Pawar, in her collection of short stories Sahav Bot (Sixth Finger), highlights the modern, urban, working woman’s problems. In doing so, she gives us a glimpse of women in every age group, but she does not focus on Dalit women only. Women’s relationships with men and other women are of greater interest to her, which she explores in a wide variety of contexts of interpersonal or generational power relationships. Pawar’s short stories collected in Sahav Bot and Chauthi Bhint (Fourth Wall) provide a glimpse into a wide range of women’s experiences across caste, class, and age. Her ear for nuances of language, rural, regional, and urban, and her sense of the dramatic and the humorous make her stories very valuable.
Hira Bansode, primarily a poet, has explored the implications of urban sisterhood in her poem “Sakhi” (Friend—the i at the end of the word makes it feminine) from her collection Phiryad (1984). A girlfriend from work comes to a Dalit woman’s house for the first time—a momentous event that moves the poet to record and celebrate it. The friend has taken a giant step for justice when she agrees to visit a Dalit woman’s home and share her food. But she cannot resist criticizing the way the Dalit woman serves the food. The plate is arranged very differently, the last course of rice is not served with yogurt (a Brahmin custom), and the Brahmin friend remarks that “your caste is never going to learn and improve” (Bansode 1984, 22-23; translation mine). Bansode ironically records the Dalit woman’s sense of shame and her plea for understanding because poverty has never allowed her to know the varieties of food that would make a multicourse meal possible. Anger is not recorded here, but shame is, and the reader is troubled by the responses of the host as well as the visitor. Solidarity and alliances across castes may be a desirable objective but are not devoid of problems.
Bansode also explores in her poems the psyche of legendary or historical women whose voices have not been recorded. Her tribute to Buddha’s wife in the poem titled “Yashodhara” (first published in a women’s popular magazine, Stree, in 1979 and later published in her volume Phiryad [Appeal for Justice]) attempts to understand with great compassion the depth of Yashodhara’s experience after she is abandoned by her more famous husband. Other abandoned women, like Sita from the Hindu epic Ramayana, have been written about in revisionist texts. The poet laments and tries to seek answers for why Yashodhara might be forgotten (Bansode 1984, 5-7). Her offering to Shabari, who tasted every berry, hoping to find her salvation before she offered it to Rama, is a mixed message in her poem “Shabarees” (To Shabari). On one hand, she wants to acknowledge her as a sister and as an outcaste, although a devotee of Rama. On the other hand, she reprimands her for making a mistake by not confronting and upbraiding Rama with the story of the unfortunate Ekalavya or her own outcaste situation.
Hira Bansode offers in her poems a variety of her concerns as a Dalit woman, thereby emphasizing the need of Dalit women writers to articulate their concerns equally as Dalits and as women. She, too, struggles with language as a Dalit poet. Her poem “Shabdanno” (To Words) urges her words to represent adequately the suffering that Dalits have borne for centuries. Beautiful language seems to be a problem. The poet asks a series of questions toward the end of the poem that may be roughly translated as follows: Doesn’t the ocean cross boundaries, swallow and destroy land when his heart is in turmoil? Doesn’t the earth destroy large cities when she cannot bear sins anymore? Doesn’t even a little ant sting back sharply when someone’s foot hurts her? Then our silence about awful acts of inhumanity against us is our mistake, and heinous acts against us continue because our words have forgiven too much. Dear words, dawn will not rise until you become weapons and strike (Bansode 1984, 49).
Under the awareness and impact of Dalit writing, activism, and the women’s movements in Maharashtra, some very interesting research has been undertaken. One such is Roopa Kulkarni’s translation into Marathi and critical discussion of the Sanskrit text Vajrasuchi (1992) by a Buddhist scholar, Ashwaghosh, who is supposed to have lived between A.D. 75 and 150. She argues that Ashwaghosh was the first thorough textual critic of Manusmriti and the Brahminical tradition, whose text, however, was deliberately suppressed. She brings a considerable scholarship to bear on her argument.
Dalit activism and writing continue to provide a challenge and a critical perspective to Marathi readers and are a significant contribution to Marathi language and literature, as well as to the self-formulations of Maharashtrians in the modern world.