Made more accessible through translation and anthologies, literature by Dalit writers from across the southern states and Odisha is adding a new note to our national conversation
HYDERABAD: In February this year, a young scholar named Rohith Vemula killed himself on campus at the University of Hyderabad. “...The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust,” he wrote in his searing suicide note.
Academic and writer K Satyanarayana says Rohith’s death put the Dalit question on the national agenda, changing the perception of Dalit issues from being about rural victimhood to an understanding of the new forms that caste and caste power take in the urban modern context.
“Rohith himself was part of the generation that grew up reading Dalit writing which has had a huge impact on student politics,” he says. By July, following the public flogging of a group of Dalits in Una, Gujarat, when Dalits took to protesting by leaving cow carcasses in front of government buildings, it was Vemula and his death that acted as a cross-country unifier.
Rohith Vemula’s death put the Dalit question on the national agenda, changing the perception of Dalit issues from being about rural victimhood to an understanding of the new forms that caste and caste power take in the urban modern context.
The Dalit struggle appears to have taken centrestage in India in the 125th year since the birth of Dr B R Ambedkar and 60 years since his death.The framer of the Constitution himself, a brilliant scholar and writer, has, according to writer and former Tamil Nadu MLA Ravikumar, come to occupy significant space in mainstream discourse this year.
In this context of significant political churning, Express takes a look at the literature produced by Dalit writers from across the southern states and Odisha.
Humorous, scathing, evocative and fierce, these pieces now accessible to ‘mainstream’ readers — and Dalits — through translation into English showcase the aspirations of a people too often viewed solely through the lens of victimhood and oppression.
“Writing by Dalits has been in existence in the regional languages for a very long time but not taken seriously by academics and canon-oriented critics,” says Mini Krishnan, editor (Translations) at Oxford University Press, which has published these works in anthologies.
However, the works have become more accessible in the past five years or so, she adds. Satyanarayana, who studied at the University of Hyderabad, speaks of how the works, which started becoming accessible in the 1990s, influenced the formation of Dalit student groups.However, Ravikumar believes that the literary and political movements of Dalits have not always complemented each other.
While they have in Maharashtra and Karnataka where writers have also been activists, they have done so less in states like Tamil Nadu. Further, the Dalit writing of different regions — which came to the fore in Maharashtra in the 1960s, the South in the 1990s and now in Hindi — is grounded firmly in the politics and history of the region itself, even as some experiences transcend them.
So while Satyanarayana observes that Rohith’s suicide inspired a huge amount of literary and cultural work across several parts of India, Ravikumar believes there is still a long way to go in the coming together of writers and political experiences.In this context, by presenting selections of Dalit writing, Express seeks to add more voices and dimension to a conversation that is finally beginning to be had on a national level.