Monday, August 16, 2010

The Rise of Dalit Literature



Via The Independent
Ajay Navaria, a writer of novels and short stories, cannot help but laugh as he reflects on the nature of his "other" job teaching Hindu ethics and scripture at a leading university in Delhi. The 39-year-old is a Dalit, a so-called "untouchable", and little more than a generation ago, for him to have even been discussing Hindu texts would have been an offence that could have cost him his life. The fact that he now teaches them brings a smile to his face.

In his own way, Navaria is at the spearhead of a quiet cultural revolution sweeping India's literary establishment. Having long been confined to writing only in their own, local languages and largely ignored by the literary mainstream, Dalit authors are now being swooped on by some of the country's biggest publishers, such as Radhakrishna Prakashan which is translating their work into Hindi, the lingua franca of northern India and beyond. Novelists, poets and writers of short stories are receiving both exposure and opportunity in the market-place that they have never before received. There are Dalit magazines, Dalit literary forums (there are two competing groups in Delhi alone) and Dalit workshops.

A key figure in the emergence of low-caste writing is Ramnika Gupta. She is not a Dalit but she produces a quarterly magazine, Yuddhrat Aam Aadmi, devoted to previously marginalised writers. She estimates that she and her team of just three full-time assistants have published around 1,500 Dalit writers from across India over the last two decades. Large publishers regularly go to her for information about new talent. She helps on the condition that the publishers agree to produce a paperback edition that is affordable for ordinary people, in addition to the standard hardback run.

Dalit writers say the emergence of low-caste literature has taken place alongside a broader growth of consciousness and activism, particularly in urban India. While in rural India, caste remains all-pervading, in cities many of the signs and signals that identify a person's caste have vanished. In cities, too, Dalits are better organised to stand up for their rights.

"There is a growing consciousness that is emerging. People are now better educated and they all get to know about their rights," said Anita Bharti, a long-time writer and activist who heads a Dalit literary forum that meets every month in Delhi.

Literature, said Ms Bharti, has an important role to play in the ongoing struggle by Dalits to end discrimination. While abuse of low-caste people still happens, "they can now write about it. Also, people realise that Dalits have been mistreated in the past and that there is a need to bring Dalit literature to other people."

Read the entire article here.

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