Dalit women's writing is not only their expression but also a medium to take forward their fight against exploitation
When Baby Kamble, a Dalit woman, wrote Prisons We Broke it turned out to be the first autobiography of a Dalit woman in this genre of literature. It was through this book that we witnessed the intensity of the “oppressed of the oppressed”, as quoted by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar in his profound essay Annihilation of Caste. Then, there was no stopping. There was Urmila Pawar’s Weave Of My Life, Kumud Pawade’s Thoughtful Outburst, and Shantabai Kamble’s picture-story The Kaleidoscopic Story Of My Life to heart-wrenching writing on sites like roundtable.org and Savari.
Caste and gender are the two most complex terrains in Indian society. When they intersect, the complexity and oppressiveness becomes manifold. This has been traced back to Manu Smriti, the book most often referred to as traditional Hinduism's coda on caste and gender. This was explained in the book Against the madness of Manu written by the late Sharmila Rege, a socialist and feminist. Rege did extensive and in-depth work on caste and gender in Indian society. Her book is a compilation of Dr Ambedkar’s writings on women and the atrocities that they face.
Over the years, there have been many writings, novels, biographies, and testimonies of Dalit women, in their own voice or penned by others who are non-Dalit. Most of this ouevre narrates the exploitation that Dalit women face because of the caste and gender dynamic in the society we live in. In doing so, they give expression to a facet of life which might look mundane to many but sears them at the physical, mental, emotional level.
Throughout this writing, Dr Ambedkar’s ideologies, constructs and words have played a major role. His work, both organisational and written, inspires most of these narratives. This is one reason why Dalit feminists often identify themselves as Ambedkarites. Sharmila Rege, despite being born a Brahmin identified herself as an Ambedkarite, and would end all her writings with a quote of Dr Ambedkar.
The other inspiration or motivation for Dalit feminist writers is the urgency to tell and share their own gut-wrenching narratives from their lived lives, and through them be able to create conversations and space for Dalit women in the larger arc of feminism. Urmila Pawar, a prominent Dalit feminist and writer says, “I always tell women that they are today caught up in the mundane of the daily living and serving family, friends, and society. Such a life is just like that of the cattle who functions only by the order of its master. There are so many windows around you, why not open them? And the key to open these windows is only education.”
The issue is always more critical when the reader or listener is blissfully unaware of the injustice and exploitation of Dalits or does not care enough about them. “We started writing about Dalit women and their stories because unless the world knows all this we cannot expect change. We have to tell our stories, both to free ourselves and start a fight against the injustice done to us," adds Pawar. In that sense, their writing becomes their activism. And Dalit literature then is not mere literature, it becomes literature with a purpose. The Indian-American author Sujatha Gidla's book Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India detailed the hardships that even educated Dalits, including of course women, faced in the last few decades.
When Tejaswini Tabhane, 18 and a student, now writes an article on why politician and writer Shashi Tharoor’s statement on caste is problematic, it is evident that the earliest words of Dalit feminists have seeped in to the community and expression comes naturally to young Dalit women. In fact, now, decades after Bama's Sangati and Sivakami's The Grip of Change, Urmila Pawar's Aaydan among other books, rocked the world, younger Dalit women are not only writing about the exploitation in their lives but taking on the established social and political system using a number of new media through their writing and films. There are a number of websites and social media pages devoted to these voices and debates, articulating the concerns and opinions of Dalits and Dalit women beyond exploitation.
However, though there are books and sites which bring us the voices of Dalit women, the percentage among them who are well versed with English, which is the dominant language of the digital domain, is small. This impacts their ability to reach far and have the impact they desire. Translations from regional language Dalit writing to English is gathering momentum but it is nearly not enough. Translators tend to be upper caste and English educated, which brings in a certain different sensibility to the voices of Dalit women.
The more important factor is the nature of publishing industry in India. Most major publishing houses tend to veer towards the established genres picking up translated literature of Dalit women only if the author or translator has caught public imagination. In such a scenario, smaller indie publishing houses like Navyana, Zubaan, and Stree Samya, to name only three, come as a relief to Dalit women and translators working in this genre. They have been publishing books and translations of Dalit women's literature.
“We were interested in women and their work, what the family situation was for them, kinship, gender, patriarchy, religion, marriage, health, in all aspects of their lives. The authors tend to be from the middle class, presumably from many castes but not necessarily Dalits. This is academic women tend to come from those backgrounds. In this severely hierarchical and unequal society, the lower castes and Dalits still have very poor levels of literacy," says Mandira Sen, director of Stree Samya.
In the dearth of writers and publishers both, we come to understand how little attention this aspect and the toxic element of caste in society has got. This has made it difficult at many levels to create a dialogue between communities and help each other. Besides, language plays a role in the discrimination that upper caste people knowingly or unknowingly practise and Dalits suffer. Therefore, the question that if all the writing and debate on exploitation of Dalit women are not enough, then why isn't there more of it and how do we create more of it?
“There does not seem enough cooperation and common ground amongst all Indian women. The stronger the movement for Dalit women, the more writing we shall see. A strong movement for Dalit women would help them fight Dalit exploitation as well as patriarchy within society and among Dalits too. The social oppression by upper castes has been compounded by the lack of support of Dalit men towards their women in general," explains Mandira Sen.
'Kali For Women' was the first alternative publishing house dedicated to women in the 1980s, women who needed their stories to be told and heard. Since then, there have been many publishing houses like Navayana, Zubaan (an imprint of Kali for Women), Women Unlimited and Stree Samya, and digital websites and online publishing. These must work within the large eco-system of book publishing and distribution determined by the market.
As Mandira Sen says, “Publishing cannot be separated from the market. The book must be made available, it must sell. Publishers have to survive too. Books sell on credit and on discount, and can come back unsold. So the margins are small and uncertain. It is surely different for the large multinationals who are coming into publishing with large margins. As the market for Dalit writing and translation gets established, more books may get published. In Jan 2019, our book by Manoranjan Byapari, the English translation of this Bengali book Itibritte Chandal Jeebon as Interrogating My Chandal Life, translated by Sipra Mukherjee, won the first non-fiction award of the Hindu Literary Festival. People are aware of Dalit writings and want to read them”.
Author and translator Jerry Pinto's Cobalt Blue, English translation of Sachin Kundalkar's debut novel was shortlisted for the Crossword Award for Translation in 2013-14. He has since translated the iconic Dalit autobiography Baluta by Daya Pawar and I Want to Destroy Myself written by Mallika Amar Sheikh who was married to the Dalit poet and politician Namdeo Dhasal.
Urmila Pawar places all translations from Dalit literature but especially those of Dalit women authors in context. “Translations are important because dialogue between different sections of the society is important, and above all the understanding of the alarming necessity to help Dalit women get their rights is the most important," she says.
All said, most publishers and translators today are still upper caste, and mostly men. No matter how conscious and sensitive they are, we are, can an upper caste person fully understand and absorb the pain of the atrocities, utter humiliation, and exploitation that Dalit women go through. The answer is debatable. The bias that we develop from our childhood plays an important role in our choice of words and expression. Isn’t it important to first challenge our social nurturing and only then one can do justice to this sensitive issue? But then some of India's greatest reformers belonged to the upper caste and English educated section.
The complexities that caste and gender beholds, which finds its origin in Manu Smriti cannot disappear by simply burning it. The devil needs no attire to survive. Reforms take time and so will this one. Becoming aware and conscious may the first fire ignited in the annihilation of caste and caste patriarchy.