Dalit writing makes its mark

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Next month, an autobiography called "Untouchables: My Family's Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India" will hit American shores.

The author, Narendra Jadhav, head of economic research at the Reserve Bank of India, is also a Dalit or "untouchable," a member of the bottom rung of India's centuries-old caste system. His tale, which spans three generations, is an act both of political and literary assertion, he says.

"It is the story of my family, but at another level it is a story about the enormous social changes of the past 90 years and how it has liberated minds," he says of the book that was published in India as "Outcaste: A Memoir" in 2003.

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Mr. Jadhav's book is at the crest of a growing wave of Dalit writing that has been translated into English from various Indian languages and offered by mainstream publishers.

These books are often searing narratives of pain and suffering in the form of autobiographies, novels, and critical discourses. They bear testimony to the fact that today, as India marks its 58th anniversary of independence from British rule, as much as one-quarter of its population still faces discrimination and even violence resulting from caste divisions.

In rural India, Dalits cannot draw water from the same well as those from upper castes or inhabit the same spaces. Even in urban areas, where education and economic class increasingly override caste, discrimination continues in subtle forms.

Indian law guarantees political and social equality to all citizens, but many Dalits - who fall outside the four-tier caste system - say they still are made to feel inferior. Poverty and social stigma, they say, tail them everywhere.

But Dalits increasingly are banding together against an ancient hierarchy they deem unjust and inhuman. One of the strongest rejoinders to this history of oppression comes from Dalit literature, or what Dalit author Sharankumar Limbale calls "the burning cry of untouchables against the injustices of thousands of years."

Domestic demand and international curiosity have fueled the growth of Dalit writing in English. In recent months, at least 12 autobiographies and other narrative works by Dalit writers have been published in English. Today, mainstream publishers such as Sage, Macmillan, Penguin, and Oxford University Press consider three to four new manuscripts of translated Dalit writing a year; five years ago, it wasn't even a category. In December 2003, India's first publishing house devoted to caste issues, Navayana ("new vehicle"), opened for business.

Although Dalit writing in Indian languages has flourished for several decades, the shift to English is recent. "English is the only tool that can connect the Dalits of India; and, being the language of modernity, it can connect people around the globe to the Dalit experience," says journalist Chandra Bhan Prasad, whose "Dalit Diary," a collection of columns written for an English newspaper, sold out within six months of publication last year.

This growing market will benefit future writers as well as the entire Dalit community, says Gail Omvedt, a scholar of Dalit issues who is writing an academic paper on the anticaste movement. "It's definitely a good thing.... As more and more Dalits get educated, they will produce more and better writing," she says.

Recent titles in Dalit writing

Untouchables: My Family's Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India, by Narendra Jadhav (Simon & Schuster, September 2005).

Sangati (Events), by Bama Faustina (Oxford University Press USA 2005; India 2004).

Angaliyat (Stepchild), by Joseph Macwan (Oxford University Press India, 2004).

Multiple Marginalities: An Anthology of Identified Dalit Writings, edited by Badri Narayan and A.R. Misra (Manohar, 2004).

Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature: History, Controversies and Considerations, by Sharankumar Limbale (Orient Longman, 2004).

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