Back in the early 1800s, both men and women of the marginalised caste – primarily the Nadar and Ezhava communities – were forbidden to cover their chests/breasts in front of members of the dominant caste; this was regarded as a sign of modesty, and it was essential that they complied. Clothing was regarded as a symbol of wealth and prosperity, and thus the poor and marginalised castes were simply denied access to it. At the time, Kerala’s caste system was at its most oppressive, ensuring that the marginalised castes remained trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty while the dominant caste of Brahmins and Nairs thrived. It is worth noting that, while Nair women did not belong to the dominant caste, they were not exempt from the clutches of this oppressive system either, as they were not permitted to cover their chests in front of Brahmins or enter temples in order to induce modesty.
To overthrow this oppressive system, the Channar Mutiny (or revolt) was born, marking the beginning of the one of Kerala’s first struggles for female liberation. This revolution was sparked by Nangeli, an Ezhava woman who lived in the Travancore Kingdom with her husband Chirukundan in the early nineteenth century. It is said that when a tax collector came to her house to inspect her breasts, Nangeli revolted by cutting off her breasts and offering them to the tax collector on a banana leaf. She died as a result of blood loss, and her husband, full of remorse, jumped into her pyre – an interesting reversal of the Sati tradition, which expected women to do the same. Her sacrifice ignited a revolution in which women from marginalised and dominant castes gained the right to cover their breasts, a right that all women in India now have.
The story of Nangeli is little known or heard, as is typical of the Dalit community’s revolutions. The Dalit community has played an important role in our country’s fight against oppression, but it is one of the least discussed. Dr. Ambedkar, one of the most prominent leaders of the Dalit community, was born on April 14, 1891. Dr. Ambedkar was the primary influencer in breaking the Indian caste system. His radical ideas shook leaders across the country and even influenced the British government. Every year in April, the Ambedkarites commemorate Dalit History Month in his honour. It is also observed to remember other influential leaders, writers, and individuals.
Dalit women especially have had the most crucial role in the women’s fight to attain equal rights to that of men, and the fight have legal protections been granted for women. It is also crucial to remember that the matter of Vishakha and other vs. State of Rajasthan, a case through which the guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual harassment of women at workplace, was borne from Bhanwari Devi, who was a woman belonging to the marginalised community, and had been raped by men belonging to the dominant caste for having objected to a child marriage. While this case is taught as a part of the landmark judgements, the caste identity of Bhanwari Devi is rarely mention. Hence, while there are clear attempts to erase the aspect of caste from the Indian History, it is crucial to educate ourselves and dig deeper. And this is why, Dalit literature has been instrumental in bringing forth the experiences of Dalits, their marginalisation and oppression, but also their resistance.
Dalit literature, also known as Dalit Sahitya, refers to literary works written by members of the Dalit community in India. Reading the said literature is also essential so as to not fall for the narrative presented by the society that frames caste as an anachronism that no longer exists, where caste-based discrimination does not exist and caste-based atrocities do not happen. This literature challenges the dominant narratives and structures that perpetuate casteism and highlights the struggles of Dalits in their quest for dignity and equality. In this post, I share with you some radical fiction and non-fiction literature either written by Dalits or about their lives, and struggles that may give you a glimpse of their hardships to gain even basic needs of living, and the resistance shown by them every step of the way. Castes no matter how the Gandhian Project had chosen to view it in the light of a ‘united India’, had only divided India further.
Women authors from the Dalit community have been instrumental in bringing forth the intersectionality of caste and gender oppression. These writers have used their voices to highlight the experiences of women from marginalised communities and to challenge the patriarchy that perpetuates their oppression. Here are some of the best women Dalit authors and their works:
- “Ants among Elephants” by Sujatha Gidla: “Ants among Elephants” is a memoir by Sujatha Gidla that tells the story of her family’s struggle against caste oppression in Andhra Pradesh. It is an extensive and extremely engaging read as enables the reader to place oppression and locate patriarchy in the most unthinkable of context and spaces. While at places it talks about possibilities of a powerful solidarity, yet in others it kindles in one, a sense of shame and retreat; retreating is important in an intersectional feminist project. Gidla doesn’t merely talk about important recorded events that uncover the banality of nation building, but she sets them against the background of everyday caste violence that are nothing short of caste wars, lived and channelised through the Dalit person.
- “Karukku” by Bama: This is a classic subaltern work and the first autobiography by a Dalit woman writer, telling a daring and moving story of life outside of mainstream Indian thought and function. It depicts the tension between the self and the community, and presents Bama’s life as a process of introspection and rehabilitation from social and institutional deception, revolving around the main theme of caste oppression within the Catholic Church. The word Karukku refers to Palmyra leaves, which have jagged edges on both sides and resemble double-edged swords. This is an unusual autobiography that grew out of a specific moment in the author’s life: a personal crisis and watershed in her life that drives her to make sense of her life as a woman, a Christian, and a Dalit.
- “Coming Out as a Dalit” by Yashica Dutt: Coming Out as a Dalit is a one-of-a-kind autobiography of a woman who is no longer afraid of taking up space she has historically been denied, space to be her true self. Yashica Dutt’s powerful prose, which frequently ventures into social commentary and historical analysis alongside the main narrative of the author’s life, is successful in elevating the book from being an individualised account of a life lived to a much more universal message about rejecting archetypical constructions of what living on the margins as a woman, especially a Dalit woman, entails.
- “The Gypsy Goddess” by Meena Kandasamy: Meena Kandasamy’s powerful debut casts a spotlight on the plight of Dalit agricultural workers in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, who are murdered by oppressive upper-caste landlords. In the author’s fictionalised version of this tragedy, which draws on historical documents and survivor interviews, farm workers are on strike after landlords murder a popular communist leader. The landlords try to bully them back to work: they impose debilitating fines, use the police to intimidate them, and savagely assault Dalit women.
- “The Prisons We Broke” by Babytai Kamble: Babytai Kamble’s autobiographical work The Prisons We Broke was originally written in Marathi as Jina Amucha and was later translated into English by Maya Pandit. In this book, she pursues a broad thematic portrayal of the otherness of Dalit women within their own community. In addition to this, she extols the role played by fellow women in following in the footsteps of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar to dream of equality with upper-caste Hindus in the social order. In this book, Babytai Kamble uses her life as a source to identify Dalit oppression painting a raw imagery of the crude realities of their world.
- “Aaydan” by Urmila Pawar: Aaydan is the name for a cane basket in a Konkani dialect that Urmila, her mother and others in the village would weave to make a living. Pawar writes about her childhood, her mother’s constant struggle to make ends meet, and how she took up writing. The writer and activist wove her story into the narration of the life of every Dalit woman, and how she faced up to caste and gender prejudice.
- “Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha” by Shantabai Kamble: Shantabai Kamble is the protagonist of this book, which could be interpreted as an autobiography depicting the brunt of class, caste, and oppression as seen through her eyes. It follows Naja through her childhood, marriage, hunger, and labor. This book was later adapted into a serial called ‘Najuka’ in 1986, which is how it is now known. The book is now part of the curriculum at the University of Mumbai.
Here are some of the best Dalit historical literature works that have had a significant impact on Indian literature and society:
- “Annihilation of Caste” by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: “Annihilation of Caste” is a seminal work by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar that challenges the caste system and its inherent inequalities. Annihilation of Caste is one of the most important, yet neglected, works of political writing from India. Written in 1936, it is an audacious denunciation of Hinduism and its caste system. It offers a scholarly critique of Hindu scriptures, scriptures that sanction a rigidly hierarchical and iniquitous social system.
- “Why I Am Not a Hindu” by Kancha Ilaiah: “Why I Am Not a Hindu” is a thought-provoking book that provides a systemic critique of Hindutva hegemony and Brahminical practices inherent in the Indian society, which made the “Dalitbahujans” easy victims of social oppression. The political, social, economic and religious aspects of both the Dalitbahujan and Hindu ways of life have been minutely observed by the author. Having a Dalitbahujan background, he has been able to provide first-hand testimony to the contrasts these two communities have historically put forward.
- “Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History” by JV Pawar: this book is a first-hand historical account of the Dalit Panther movement of the 1970s by J.V. Pawar, one of the founders of the movement. The book essentially is the story of how the movement swept Maharashtra. The book is a must-read not only for those interested in the Dalit movement (it’s past and present) but also for activists and academics who are interested in the dynamics of social movements.
Here are some recommendations for the Dalit literature works that been written by non-women, and have had a significant impact on Indian literature and society:
- “Flowers on the grave of caste” by Yogesh Maitreya: Flowers on the Grave of Caste is an important work of literature not only for those who want to see Dalit writers fleshed out, humanised, and moved to the centre of literary discourse, but also for those who want to see a young visionary of the short story form embark on a promising career. Through this collection of stories, Maitreya has carried forward the Kosambian concept of looking at history from the bottom by retelling it ‘from below’ while magnifying Ambedkar’s ideas about gender, caste, and class in this collection.
- “Joothan” by Omprakash Valmiki: According to Om Prakash Valmiki’s autobiographical account Joothan, untouchability was practiced by educators, educated, like-minded dominant caste people, and even his relatives belonging to the same community, despite it being legally abolished in the year 1950. The author reveals instances of violence caused by the caste system through Joothan, which remains etched around one’s life. In this book, he provides a chilling account of caste oppression in the newly independent state and brings to light one of those rare, detailed, and lived accounts of Dalit lives.
- “Untouchable” by Mulk Raj Anand: The novel will simply shake your moral compass. In his book Untouchables, the author uses powerful words to criticise social injustice, tearing apart the hypocrisy of the ones with the power. The book was inspired by the author’s aunt’s experience, when she had a meal with a Muslim woman and was treated as an outcast by her family. The plot of this book, Anand’s first, revolves around the argument for eradicating the caste system. It depicts a day in the life of Bakha, a young “sweeper”, who is “untouchable” due to his work of cleaning latrines.
- “Caste Matters” by Suraj Yengde: This work by a Dalit scholar and activist examines the caste system and its effects on contemporary Indian society. With its emphasis on symbolic elements in the house and surroundings, this book does not fail to bring out the everyday experiences of caste. Descriptions of his experiences, such as his mother’s hope for government-subsidised housing and the glaring poverty that is an everyday story of Dalit bastis, are particularly moving. Yengde also discusses the dominant-caste gaze and shame as symbols of imposed inferiority. Untouchability in India obscures caste, but Yengde’s catalogue of incidents makes caste clear and a matter of urgent concern not just for Dalits, but for the entire human race.
- “Pyre” by Perumal Murugan: Pyre is a story of every inter-caste married couple in rural India. The book keeps the readers stuck to the story by talking about the harsh realities of the society. The book also captures the internalised misogyny of rural women when it comes to maintaining the existing social order. The book paints a very disheartening and painful truth about life in small-town India. Casteism – the cruelty, violence, and helplessness of the people involved could not have been shown any better through any other fictional story.
- “Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of Dalit” by Manoranjan Byapari: This book is a memoir written by Manoranjan Byapari, based on his social and personal experiences as a refugee and his social position as a Dalit. Each of the 17 chapters in the book are consistent with explanations, arguments and peculiar social realities and provides a chronological account of incidents in Byapari’s life which led him to experience further humiliation and marginalisation. Both man-made disasters not only brought pain and sorrow throughout his life, but also denied a dignified human life.
- “I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS” by Bhanwar Meghwanshi: This book is a story of this journey that the author takes from opposing religious minorities to supporting the secular ideals of equality. This autobiography tells us about his family’s political, intellectual, and spiritual inclinations. It delves into how his father always opposed Meghwanshi’s decision to associate with dominant caste Hindu men, his passive acceptance of everyday forms of untouchability both within and outside shakhas, his acceptance that Dalits and Adivasis are also Hindus, that Hindus will be reduced to a minority in coming decades, that Muslims and Christians are not Indians and that progressive Hindus are the biggest enemies of traditionalist Hindus.