Indian writing in English has always had Dalit narratives. But majority of the ‘Dalit Literature’ have been narratives from Brahmin or savarna writers with saviour complex. The first person narrative of a Dalit man written by a Brahmin or savarna scholar, elaborated as a helpless person, busy loathing and victimising himself while waiting for a savarna saviour or dying miserably is quite a common scene.
It limited the dimensions of caste narrative in early Indian writing in English. Indian writing was often an exploration of picturesque rural India, rural and urban families, glamorous coming of industrialisation, urbanisation and globalisation. These narratives never addressed caste beyond a reference to helping/ sympathising or saving the untouchables or Harijan. So here is a list of books written by Dalits themselves, some of which are translations.
1. The Grip Of Change By P. Sivakami
Palani Sivakami is an Indian Dalit-Feminist writer and former IAS officer and activist. The Grip of Change is the English translation of Sivakami first full-length novel Pazhaiyana Kazhithalum. Kathamuthu, a charismatic Parayar leader, is the central character, and the book explores his relationship with other Dalit men and woman, his family and the world. Kathamuthu’s family includes two wives and two children, a daughter and a son. The novel explores a dysfunctional Dalit family, the complicated nature of the relationship between the two wives, the domestic violence and the relationship between the father and the children.
The novel opens with a woman named Thangam crying at Kathamuthu’s doorstep bloody and beaten, looking for his help. He’s a local Dalit leader who is often helping file papers, court cases and other dealings with police. This reputation of his has brought Thangam to his door and her presence in the household revealed the fissures in their relationships. A book that’s often prescribed in Dalit literature courses to understand the two-fold oppression Dalit women face.
2. A Word With You, World: The Autobiography Of A Poet By Siddalingaiah
Siddalingaiah a Kannada poet and author, associated with the Bandaya movement that kick-started Dalit writing in Kannada literature. Siddalingaiah is a founding member of the DSS (Dalit Sangarshana Samiti) which fights for Dalit rights. This two-part autobiography was written in Kannada as Ooru Keri and translated into English as one book by S.R. Ramakrishna. The book was published in 2013 by Navayana.
A Word With You is a humorous account of a Dalit boy in a small town. It navigates daily life and struggles with a sense of humour, often a noticeable coping mechanism. The shift for a Dalit boy from the familiarity of home to a hostel and then spending most of his youth in hostels and experiencing caste discrimination from savarna students and caste solidarity shared amongst Dalit students is well elaborated in the book. The next part shifts to a single, Dalit, adult male living in the city, a life that’s very Manto like. This novel is a humorous adventure of Dalit man’s life and how he grew up.
3. Untouchable Spring By G. Kalyana Rao
Kalyana Rao’s Telugu novel Antarani Vasantham was translated into English as Untouchable Spring by Alladi Uma and M Sridhar. This piece of Dalit literature engages with Dalit conversions and lived experiences and struggles of Telugu Dalits and Dalit Christians in history from the colonial times to the present. A Marquez-an like novel set in a fantastical landscape of the village Yennela Dinni, it could probably be home to fairies and other mystical creatures. But these creatures don’t exist, unlike caste, which does exist and make the lives of Dalits miserable everyday in various ways.
Untouchable Spring, unlike Marquez, is not a difficult read. The writing and imagery will drag you into an unbelievable world. The beauty of the village is a strong backdrop to the evils of caste screaming at the perfect worlds you live in, adding another dimension to it.
4. The Oxford India Anthology Of Telugu Dalit Writing
This anthology of Telugu Dalit writing is edited by K. Purushotham, Gita Ramaswamy and Gogu Shyamala. The introduction to this anthology encapsulates the journey Telugu Dalits have made over decades to share their voices and experiences. The works of nearly eighty Telugu Dalit writers and public intellectuals on “caste oppression, a critique of Hinduism and the Left, and angst against a social order that relegated a life of abject poverty by ignoring their culture, literature, and history”. The anthology includes a century’s worth of Dalit writing and movements, ranging from songs and poems to short stories, excerpts from novels, critical writings, and more.
This anthology has powerful, well researched and curated material to teach a masters level course on translated Telugu Dalit writing. A well-written introduction to a large variety of writing, history and movements, it is the best place to understand Telugu Dalit literature.
Popular Dalit literature texts are often from Maharashtra due to the concentrated and extensive work of Dr B R Ambedkar to uplift Dalits. They managed to access education and write about their experiences. Thus, a conscious effort was made to list Dalit literature from southern India.
Below is a list of book recommendations from across the nation. A few books I’m yet to read and hopefully, 2020 is the year for them are, The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy, Sangati by Bama, Steel Nibs Are Sprouting edited by Susie Ed. by Tharu, and K. Satyanarayana, and The Prisons We Broke by Babytai Kamble.
Other books I’ve read but didn’t add to this list are, My Father Baliah by Y.B. Satyanarayana, Father Maybe an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… by Gogu Shyamala, and The Outcaste and Akkarmashi by Sharankumar Limbale.