Caste no bar

Dalit literature has emerged as a powerful force against the exploitation of lower castes in India. But the revolutionary transformation that it seeks to enact can only occur through a plurality of voices, engaged in meaningful dialogue.

Abhilasha Kumar
1 February 2015
Forced evictions of Delhi’s Dalit community, 2012. Demotix/Andy Ash. All rights reserved.

Forced evictions of Delhi’s Dalit community, 2012. Demotix/Andy Ash. All rights reserved.“One need not have been Caesar, to understand Caesar”, sociologist Max Weber categorically stated, when he defined the foundations of sociology. The implications of such a statement are manifold, for it attempts to blur the boundaries between the known and unknown. Literature, in particular, constantly grapples with problems that arise when a writer tackles issues that are beyond the scope of his or her experience. Protests are mounted when white authors create black characters or when non-Dalits write about Dalits. But if language is not permitted to transcend the barriers of race, caste and gender, then how can dialogue prevail? What is to be done, if it is indeed impossible to be Caesar?

Dalit literature has emerged as a powerful voice against the exploitation of lower castes in India. It was first defined as “the literature written by the Dalits and that written by others about the Dalits in Marathi” by Annabhau Sathe in 1958. This was redefined in 2004 by Sharankumar Limbale to “writing about Dalits by Dalit writers with a Dalit consciousness”. The introduction of the term ‘Dalit consciousness’ has led to a general body of opinion pertaining to what constitutes Dalit literature and more importantly, what does not. There now exists a view that non-Dalit writers cannot and should not write about Dalits. In March 2014, Arundhati Roy wrote an introduction, The Doctor and the Saint, to an annotated edition of B.R. Ambedkar’s epic Annihilation of Caste, published by the anti-caste press Navayana. Her piece created a furore in the Dalit community. Dalit intellectuals were enraged, “not because of any error or deficiency, but merely because she was not a Dalit”.

A clamour of voices

The reaction to Roy’s piece is not an exception but the norm. Mulk Raj Anand, who wrote Untouchable, and Sivasankara Pillai, who penned Scavenger’s Son, both upper-caste novelists, have also been criticised for their superficial prose, alienating to the Dalit reader. Dalits claim that non-Dalit writers not only lack the ability to accurately represent the angst experienced by Dalits in their writings, but also miss the revolutionary agenda behind Dalit literature. This belief directly revolves around the notion of ‘Dalit consciousness’, which needs to be examined in non-Dalit writings.

Mulk Raj Anand published his debut novel, Untouchable, in 1935. Through vivid descriptions of the caste-based injustices committed against a scavenger, Bakha, Anand brought the gruesome reality of untouchability to the attention of a large audience, albeit a largely English-speaking, upper-caste and possibly western one. Despite his attempt to shed light on the predicament of the “lowest dregs of humanity”, Anand has been criticised by Dalits for romanticising scavenging. When describing Bakha’s job of cleaning the latrines, Anand writes: “to him work was a sort of intoxication which gave him a glowing health and plenty of easy sleep”. Having written the first draft of his novel, Anand visited Gandhi at his ashram in Sabarmati. Through cleaning latrines himself, he realised that he could portray the act in his novel to appear “no better and no worse than any other work”. Anand failed to realise that in his experience of cleaning the latrines, there existed an element of choice. It is the freedom of choice that differentiates a ‘lived experience’ from a vicarious one. An untouchable’s existence is marked by forced labour conditions, and it is here that Anand’s fiction falls short by glorifying such work.

Apart from the lack of authenticity, Anand’s Bakha also suffers from one-dimensionality. The sympathetic portrayal of Bakha, wherein he is passive and resigned to accepting abuse at the hands of upper-castes is indicative of a superficial and external understanding of the emotional capacities of an untouchable. Bakha’s helpless silence upon being slapped by an upper-caste man is in direct contrast with the revolutionary sentiments that leap out from the works of Dalit writers. Dalit writers do not see Dalits as incapacitated victims of oppression – they see them as strong and able participants in a movement against a historical injustice. Dalit poetry best exemplifies this intensity of revolt. Annabhau Sathe’s poem, Take a Hammer to Change the World, is a violent call to the Dalits for unity, who he considers “jewels” against the priests and upper-castes. The aggression and anguish that defines Dalit literature is completely lost in non-Dalit works.

“On a path they struck for themselves 

March the Dalits in procession,

burning torches in their hands,

sparks of revolution in their eyes

exploding like balls of fire.”

- from Siddalingaiah, The Dalits are Coming

In 2010, the upper-caste journalist Manu Joseph published his debut novel Serious Men, whose central protagonist was a Dalit. Serious Men marked a paradigm shift in Dalit representation. The protagonist, Ayyan Mani, was not mute or helpless; but in fact scheming and devilish. Ayyan worked as a peon at a research institute and hatched a plan to falsely pass his son off as a genius. Joseph achieved something unprecedented, because his Dalit not only orchestrated an entire conspiracy, but was also fearless and brazen enough to cause a rampage against the narrow-minded upper-caste scientists who employed him. In some sense, Ayyan is vindicated as the book concludes.

While such a shift in Dalit representation must not go unnoticed, Joseph nevertheless perpetuates certain stereotypes about Dalits.  Ayyan’s son is unintelligent and has to resort to illegal means in order to ace exams. The furious Dalit crowd that attacks the institute upon learning of the prejudices that the upper-caste scientists maintain is essentially a “marauding mob”. That Dalits cannot compete on an intellectual level and must use might or trickery as weapons are premises that must be seriously challenged by Dalits and non-Dalits alike. Through his writing, Joseph reinforces and validates the contemporary stereotype that Dalits are mindless, unruly and therefore uncivilised. By doing so, he in fact reduces the Dalit revolution to a meaningless clamour of voices.

A common history

Dalit activists at the Indian parliament, 2013. Demotix/Rajeev Singh. All rights reserved.

Dalit activists at the Indian parliament, 2013. Demotix/Rajeev Singh. All rights reserved.These readings of Untouchable and Serious Men suggest that lived experience or the lack thereof deeply impacts the act of writing about Dalits. When a Dalit experiences atrocities, he owns that experience. But does he or she automatically become the author of that experience? Sundar Sarukkai further reflects on this: “The Dalit who experiences oppression legitimately owns that experience of oppression. However the experience of oppression also involves an oppressor, either as an individual or a system, and the Dalit has no control or ownership over this oppressor.”

Such a concept of a lived experience necessitates the inclusion of an oppressor within the narrative of oppression. This marks an important divergence from the prevailing view that only a Dalit can understand and therefore write about his or her condition by introducing a separate entity which forms an equal part of the same condition. It follows therefore that an oppressor is entitled to an equal ownership of the Dalit experience. However, whether ownership grants a right to theorise about an experience has been a subject of interest even outside the ambit of Dalit literature.

The Dalit movement in India derives many of its themes and principles from the anti-slavery revolution in America. American literature is splattered with examples of white authors like Herman Melville, Harriet Stowe and Harper Lee, who have crafted black characters. However, the 1960s saw the rise of the Black Power movement, which recognised the exclusion of black voices in the American narrative and criticised white authors like Stowe and Lee for creating and perpetuating stereotypes about blacks. This led to a period when white authors who might have wanted to write about blacks “stayed home, playing it safe”.

Michael Chabon’s 2012 Telegraph Avenue is one of the few novels which are part of a recent phenomenon that Tanner Colby, writing in Slate, sees as the “thawing of cultural ownership”. Chabon’s work, Colby argues, does not stem from any white guilt, but from the “realization that the story of race is their story, too”. Chabon agrees: “Being taught by black teachers during black history month, surrounded by my black classmates, I didn’t even question it...all of those people, they were my forebears, too. That was my history. It was just American history”. If black history is beginning to slowly merge with American history, it is perhaps time for the Dalit movement to find itself within a larger Indian narrative.

The idea of sharing a common history thus becomes important in the context of Dalit literature. It has been established that the work of non-Dalit writers cannot speak for the Dalits, which raises the question: what purpose does non-Dalit writing serve? But it is perhaps worthwhile to reconsider the purpose of Dalit literature itself. The literature that Dalits call their own is meant to initiate a social revolution. If Dalit literature represents a sociological viewpoint, then how can it possibly ignore the existence, and more importantly, the perspective of the ‘other’? If Dalit literature is a window that allows non-Dalits to access the Dalit ‘other’, then non-Dalit writing can become a similar window for Dalits to understand the otherwise inaccessible non-Dalit ‘other’.

Unravelling the unknown

Dalit protests, New Delhi, 2013. Demotix/Louis Dowse. All rights reserved.

Dalit protests, New Delhi, 2013. Demotix/Louis Dowse. All rights reserved.When Mulk Raj Anand wrote Untouchable, he had hoped that he would come clean, after he “had been through the sewer”. Such a confession is directly in line with Jurgen Habermas’ sentiments about the Holocaust.  Both believed that “rational communication was potentially one way to stop such acts from happening”. Contemporary non-Dalit writers like Manu Joseph and Aravind Adiga have certainly wriggled out of the guilt chambers that confined their predecessors, but what has survived is their attempt to communicate and engage with the other half of the common caste experience. The resentment of Dalits towards these upper-caste writers, although understandable, is hardly productive.

While it is absolutely necessary to break the “Brahminical stranglehold over cultural production”, an outright rejection of any non-Dalit writing will lead to a mirroring of the aftermath of the Black Power movement in the United States. Non-Dalits will stop writing about Dalits and subsequently stop engaging with the issue of caste. The need of the hour is in fact the opposite. It is necessary that the two historically separated and hostile groups, and therefore their literature, engage and communicate with each other to the extent that they deeply criticise each other. The Hegelian dialectic demands that the thesis and antithesis coexist, so that a synthesis can emerge. The coexistence of Dalit and non-Dalit literature is therefore absolutely imperative for the issue of caste to be resolved.

Non-Dalit writing serves a greater purpose than simply being a work of literature, because its implications are far greater in the context of the anti-caste movement in India. The fact that Joseph’s Ayyan is drastically more empowered than Anand’s Bakha signifies that over a span of 76 years, the oppressors have recognised a change in the voice of the oppressed, which is a positive sign. Their attempt needs to be criticised and corrected, but firstly recognised. Literature, after all, is an attempt to unravel the unknown. Chabon muses: “If I can’t write from the point of view of a black woman nurse-midwife, then I can’t write from anybody’s point of view. That’s why I do this. I use my imagination to imagine myself living lives I don’t live and being people who I’m not.”

At the core of non-Dalit writers crafting Dalit characters is a similar endeavour to empathise and experience what they otherwise cannot do in their lived reality. The power and onus of Dalit literature thus lies in not only obliterating the stereotypes about Dalits through their own works, but also debating, arguing and battling against the ones found in the works of non-Dalits. The battle that the Dalits are fighting is a difficult one because their enemy must eventually become their comrade. A transformation of this magnitude can only occur through meaningful dialogue – one that literature has the potential to facilitate. One needs to grant Caesar a chance to understand he who is not Caesar.  

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