Caste continues to play an important in the social fabric of the Indian state. The origins of caste lie in archaic Hindu texts. While there are four main castes, the Untouchables, the lowest in the caste hierarchy are referred to as the Dalits. They are considered racially inferior and are forced to perform unsanitary and undesirable jobs, like manual scavenging. It was believed that they polluted the space they occupied and were hence treated as outcasts and were subjected to social and economic isolation. Dr B. R Ambedkar, one of the founding fathers of the Indian constitution, played an important role in the emancipation of Dalits.
Nevertheless, Dalits continue to face oppression and humiliation in society. Reading and studying Dalit literature helps in highlighting the reality of life as a Dalit in India. There are systemic measures to ensure that caste hierarchy remains, since upper caste people benefit from this structure. However, due to the horrific treatment that Dalits are subjected to, discrimination is rarely acknowledged in public. The Brahmanical privilege is seldom a topic of discussion in any forum.
“I am forced to live in a world as though I am secondary, and the Brahmin and his universality are primary”, writes Suraj Yengde, a scholar-activist, in his book Caste Matters.
While we recommend The Annihilation of Caste by Dr Ambedkar as a foundational text to get a deeper understanding of the caste structure, here are our 4 favourite texts to understand the position of Dalits in the Indian society.
The weave of my Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs,
Urmila Pawar; translated by Maya Pandit
Written by the award-winning author and activist, Urmila Pawar, The weave of my Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs tells the story of three generations of Dalit women and their struggles. Through a candid and intimate narrative, Pawar shares the personal tragedies that she underwent and how they impacted her in her demand for social and political change. From an autobiographical point of view, Pawar brings forth questions about the treatment of caste, class, and gender in Indian society. Against the backdrop of the Maharashtrian culture and traditions, she talks about the prevalence of insurmountable oppression due to the confluence of poverty, patriarchy, and casteism. Pawar writes,
“the community grew up with a sense of perpetual insecurity, fearing that they could be attacked from all four sides in times of conflict. That is why there has always been a tendency in our people to shrink within ourselves like a tortoise and proceed at a snail’s pace”
Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature
edited by Arjun Dangle
Poisoned Bread is an anthology of stories written by more than 80 different Dalit writers and edited by Arjun Dangle. Every story gives the reader an insight into the oppression and exploitation faced by Dalits on a regular basis. The stories also highlight how due to their socially helpless positions, Dalits are often humiliated and forced to remain in a position economic deprivation. Dangle’s decision to anthologise the stories was to theorise the active social participation of Dalits for their emancipation. For Dangle, a compilation of the stories provided a space for the discourse around a new social order where Dalits are treated with self-respect and equality and are able to live a life with dignity and justice. In of the short stories, an upper-caste Brahmin tells his grandson,
“And mind you, even if a Mahar or a Mang gets education, no one will ever call him a Brahamin. A Mahar is a Mahar even if he passes L.L.B and becomes a barrister.”
Bama; translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom
Born as Faustina Mary Fatima Rani, she wrote under the pen-name Bama. Karukku, written in 2000 is the first autobiography of a Tamil Dalit Christian woman. Through a non-linear narrative, Bama describes the humiliation and experiences that impacted her life whilst navigating around the identities of being a woman, a Christian, a Dalit, and a Tamilian. In an honest and vulnerable description of her life, Bama writes about her experience of being the poorest student in her class, her failed attempt at trying to find a place of belonging in the convent, the inability to express her faith, and other such incidences of her life, set against the vibrant and colourful backdrop of the community she grew up in. In an excerpt from her book, she writes,
“All the time I went to work for the Naickers (upper caste) I knew I should not touch their goods or chattels; I should never come close to where they were. I should always stand away to one side. These were their rules. I often felt pained and ashamed. But there was nothing that I could do. To this day, in my village, both men and women can survive only through hard and incessant labour.”
G Kalyan Rao; translated by Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar
Originally published in Telgu as Antarani Asantham, Untouchable Spring, was published in the English translation in 2000. Through his book Rao talks about the struggles and lived experiences of Telgu Dalits and the Dalits who converted to Christianity to escape the horror of the caste system, only to realise that even within Christianity, a caste hierarchy was imposed. In his book, Rao also prioritises the oral tradition of story-telling over the written word, since most Dalit folklore and culture is passed orally through generations. Although heavily autobiographical in nature, Rao tells the story of 5 generations in his novel. In a heart-warming narrative, Rao writes,
“In this country, the air that one breathes has caste
The water one drinks has caste
The field canal that flows and the land that yields harvest have caste.
The school, the temple and the village square have caste.
The food one eats, the house one lives in and the clothes one wears have caste.
The word one speaks has caste.
Literature and culture have caste.
Justice and the courts have caste.
The corpse and the cemetery have caste God has caste. Devil has caste.”