Cry from the abyss

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am

For light reading, don't look to writing from India's 'untouchables'. Full of anger and bitterness at the injustices they have endured for 2,000 years under the Hindu caste system, their literature unsettles and disturbs.

Affirmative action in politics and the civil service has given the untouchables, who prefer to be known as dalits, greater visibility than before but it is still rare to see them in Indian cultural life.

Which is one reason why the voices of dalit writers struck a disturbing note at last week's Jaipur Literary Festival, at times turning a normally sedate gathering into what seemed like a call for revolution to empower the oppressed and dispossessed of India.

Trembling with indignation, dalit writer Omprakash Valmiki stirred a wave of sympathy as he told of the anguish of India's 160 million untouchables. Dalits, he says, are not allowed to wear decent clothes, ride on a horse during marriage processions, draw water from the village well, or remain seated while an upper-caste person stands. Dalit children are seated apart in school, forced to sweep the classroom and clean the toilets. Upper-caste Hindus refuse to be treated by a dalit doctor or rent their homes to dalits for fear of 'pollution'.

Dalit books are typically searing narratives of cruelty and injustice that burn with rage. The days when untouchables had molten lead poured into their ears for trying to memorise Hindu sacred texts may be over, but they continue to be dehumanised. 'Hindus feel no shame or guilt at their treatment of dalits,' Valmiki, author of Joothan: A Dalit's Life, told his predominantly upper-caste audience at the festival, now in its fifth year. 'Whites in America fought alongside the blacks in the civil rights movement in the 70s and white South Africans fought to end apartheid. But which upper-caste Hindus have fought to end untouchability?' he asked, as his listeners squirmed in embarrassment.

Delhi-based publisher Namita Gokhale, who founded the festival with British writer William Dalrymple, says she was determined to have a special focus on dalit literature this year.

'Their voices need to be heard. They have a message for India about the deep injustices in our society that have been glossed over.'

Jaipur prides itself on being the 'most democratic' literary festival in the world with free entry and equal treatment for all writers and visitors. But it has grown into something of a glamour event compared with its first year, when a handful of locals gathered in a dusty room for a reading from Dalrymple.

These days, the Jaipur festival attracts 20,000 visitors and hundreds of writers, including prominent names such as Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka, biographer Claire Tomalin and former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown.

Held in the open air or in tents on the manicured lawns of the Diggi Palace, a historical building that has been converted into a hotel, it makes the most of the music and colour of the setting in Rajasthan state, with turbaned men in bright costumes serving tea in tiny clay cups, and folk musicians and dancers adding a carnival-like atmosphere.

At such occasions, the only dalits to be seen would normally be the cleaners. This year, Gokhale and Dalrymple offered dalit writers a platform at a mainstream event.

'Dalit writing is a specific literary genre. It gives us a new history of India, a history from below, a history that is not found in the textbooks,' says political scientist Christopher Jaffrelot. A few non-dalit Indian writers have portrayed dalits in their fiction but always as passive or tragic figures, or as victims, he says. 'When dalits write about themselves, it is a totally different kind of writing. It is raw, it's a cry of anguish, it's very moving and very powerful,'

Some critics have derided dalit writing as lacking literary merit, describing them as propagandist material that exaggerate injustice.

'What they don't understand is that the dalit literary movement is also a cultural and social movement because dalit books portray the aspirations and wishes of tormented dalits,' Valmiki says. His parents used to empty toilets for a living and he and his family endured countless instances of humiliation as he was growing up. One that still rankles was having to eat leftovers on the plates of upper-caste employers. What made it even more galling was that they were so poor even such food scraps were savoured, he says.

Kancha Ilaiah, who wrote the acclaimed Why I Am Not a Hindu, called untouchability a much deeper form of degradation than racial discrimination. Racism, he said, meant that American blacks could not sit on buses or in restaurants with whites, or that blacks in South Africa could not vote. 'With Hindus, if they come into contact with an untouchable, they have to bathe because according to them, God created him as an untouchable.'

As with other movements such as feminism or black civil rights, the first wave of writing tends to be autobiographical.

'If you are a dalit writer, your entire early experience has been shaped by caste cruelties - how you eat, where you sit, who you can meet or touch - so it cannot be a light-hearted, easy read,' says S. Anand, head of Navayana publishers, which focuses on dalit works.

But a new breed of dalit writers are moving away from autobiographies and exploring issues of identity or sexuality; dalit women, for example, are beginning to write about dalit men, says Anand, who is about to release a dalit anthology, On Love.

'They are breaking down boundaries and confusing people's expectations. People are surprised. They can't figure out what is happening,' he says.

Ajay Navaria, a lecturer at Jamia Millia University in New Delhi, for example, has recounted his relationships with women who he worries he might be attracted to only because they are non-dalit.

Dalit literature is also slowly emerging as a discipline of academic study. The English department at Pune University features dalit and African-American writing in its literature of protest course. Jamia Millia also received support for an endowed chair in dalit studies from the Ford Foundation.

For all such advances, Ilaiah reminded festival participants that the reality was very different outside Diggi Palace, in the villages of Rajasthan. 'Dalits will be living in segregated areas and are banned from entering a temple on pain of, at best, a flogging or, at worst, death.'