Dalit writing is the toast of publishers but the market has its own way of winnowing

Move over Mulk Raj Anand, Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai, Shivarama Karanth, Premchand and Arundhati Roy. Bakha (Untouchable, 1933), Chudalamuthu (Thottiyude Magan, 1919), Choma (Chomana Dudi, 1931), Dukhi (Sadgati, 1933) and Velutha (The God of Small Things, 1997) have found their own voices. Their stories – told in Marathi, Tamil, Hindi, Kannada and Telugu – are now being translated into English. And French and Spanish. They no longer depend on empathetic non-Dalits, with no firsthand experience of Dalithood, to tell the world their story. In fact, Dalit writing seems to be getting on the list of every major publisher in India. It is also being taught in universities in India and abroad.

Narendra Jadhav’s memoir Outcaste: A Memoir was published last month by Penguin, but only a year after the French publisher Fayard had issued it as Intouchable and sold a phenomenal 20,000 copies [Please see interview ]. Jadhav, currently head of economic research in RBI, first wrote his work in Marathi in 1992 as Aamcha Baap Aan Mahi (My Father and Us) and it soon became a bestseller. Soon, the three-generation saga will be in your homes as a 52-episode TV serial.

Publishing dalit writing in English has had a chequered history. The first major rendition of Dalit literature into English, Poisoned Bread, came in 1992, from Orient Longman. But this anthology of Marathi Dalit writing, edited by ‘Dalit Panther’ Arjun Dangle, was not followed up. In 2000, Mini Krishnan, currently translations editor with Oxford University Press, commissioned and issued Tamil Dalit-feminist writer Bama’s autobiography, Karukku, which went on to win the Crossword Award that year. Soon, other mainstream publishers began queuing up for Dalit writing in translation.

The last few years have seen not just English translations, but also keen interest from publishers abroad, particularly the French. Bama’s second work, Sangati, was first translated into French (the English version in India is forthcoming from OUP).

The French were again the first to publish Viramma: Life of a Dalit in 1995, an auto-ethnography in which the life of an unlettered Dalit woman from Tamil Nadu was rendered in French by Josiane Racine and Jean-Luc Racine. And at last year’s Les Belles Etrangeres literary festival (literally, Beautiful Foreigners) in Paris, Jadhav and Bama rubbed shoulders with U.R. Ananthamurthy, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Mahashweta Devi and suchlike. Vasti, the autobiography of Vasant Moon, the scholar who edited the collected works of B.R. Ambedkar, was issued in English by the American publisher Rowman and Littlefield (reprinted in India by Sage).

Gail Omvedt, historian of the Dalit movement who translated Moon’s work as Growing Up Untouchable in India (2001) and whose biography of Ambedkar is forthcoming from Penguin, puts this phenomenon in perspective:

"Dalits are taking advantage of globalization. Since the World Conference on Racism in Durban, they have shown an ability to inter-link, use the internet, make alliances with other oppressed groups like African Americans, and organise themselves. And since they’re more humane, more interesting and dramatic and have a more truthful cause than their brahmanical and upper caste opponents, they are winning a market as well."

And the market has its preferences: it loves autobiographies. Hot from OUP’s press is Akkarmashi: The Outcaste, Sharankumar Limbale’s life-story. Omprakash Valmiki’s Hindi autobiography Joothan: A Dalit’s Life was published this year by Kolkata-based Samya. Earlier, Kishore Shantabai Kale’s Against All Odds, another autobiography from Marathi, came from Penguin. Orient Longman is considering Aravinda Malagatti’s autobiography Government Brahmana, a modern classic in Kannada. Moon, Bama and Jadhav also narrate life-stories. Says Sivakami, an IAS officer whose self-translated Tamil novel is forthcoming from Orient Longman:

"I think the Durban conference on racial discrimination created an awareness among the international community on the Dalit issue. Translation of Dalit writings into English and other foreign languages is welcome. It provides space for a fair and free discussion on the subject."

A publisher’s attraction to Dalit writing is not purely driven by commerce as OUP’s Mini Krishnan explains:

"Anti-caste protest literature is distinguished by both an experience that we don’t share, and a use of speech-styles that have long been considered unacceptable. When in college not only had I not read a Dalit writer, I hadn’t even read about Dalit writers. And I was supposed to be well read! The market should be sensitised. As publishers, we have a social responsibility."

Dalit literature is slowly emerging as a discipline of academic study as well. The department of English at the University of Pune features Dalit and African American literature in a course entitled ‘Literature of Protest’. Jamia Millia Islamia has received support for an endowed chair in Dalit Studies from the Ford Foundation. The syllabus of the Telugu optional paper for the UPSC exam lists ‘Dalit Literature’ as one of the necessary areas of study. But the attitude of non-Dalits takes longer to change. K. Satyanarayana, who teaches at Hyderabad’s Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, offers the proof of experience:

"I offered Dalit Studies as one of the courses in M.A. in 2000. Only one student registered initially. I wanted to scrap the course. But friends advised me to persist. Eventually, eight students joined. Only one was a non-Dalit, a Christian. None of the Brahmin students enrolled."

But serious lobbying is under way. In May 2003, NRI Dalits organised an international conference in Vancouver, inaugurated by former president K.R.Narayanan. One of the resolutions adopted was:

"Dalit Studies must be included in Indian and international educational and research institutions, especially in North America and Europe."

Says K.P. Singh, who teaches South Asian Studies and Sociology at the University of Washington and one of organisers of the Vancouver conference:

"When I came to the US in 1995, I found scholars focusing on religions in India. But today, American universities offering South Asian Studies are thinking positively about Dalits issues. I have offered two special courses: on ‘Post-Colonial Dalit Literature’ and another on ‘Race, Caste, and Ethnicity’."

However, even in Canada, there’s an echo of Satyanarayana’s experience. "My courses attract more American students than Indian-origin students," observes Singh.

It is this potential that perhaps made OUP issue The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar last year. And publishers are grabbing what little is coming in. Says Mandira Sen, who published Joothan, "The US and UK rights for Joothan were bought by Columbia University Press. It is hoping that the book will be prescribed in US undergraduate courses. If Americans have Anita Desai and Arundhati Roy on their reading lists, why not a Dalit text?"

Arundhati Roy, whose God of Small Things features a Dalit character Velutha, of course has no problems, but she cautions:

"This surge in publishing Dalit literature, if it has to be taken seriously, has to ride on the back of a contemporary civil rights movement. Otherwise, mainstream publishers will only use it for commercial gains. The only other realm where we have seen Dalit assertion is in electoral politics, but there’s a downside to it: it is not very liberating."

But the prioritisation of autobiographies and the politics of publishing worries some critics from within. Says Ravikumar, activist-theoretician of the Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu whose nonfiction is being translated for Samya,

"Where translation into English plays mischief is in the selection. Those who publish, translate and introduce Dalit writing are all non-Dalits whose choices are inflected by what they find least threatening – autobiographical literature of pain and suffering. They rarely engage with the work of Dr. Ambedkar. The problem is, unlike with blacks and feminist, autonomous Dalit publishing has not emerged in India."


Reflecting the publishers’ tendency to stereotype are the titles given to dalit writing, where ‘untouchable’, ‘outcaste’ or ‘Dalit’ continue to figure on the cover.

Those who want to grapple with the issue of how to respond to Dalit literature will soon be able to read Sharankumar Limbale’s Marathi work Towards and Aesthetics of Dalit Literature in English (from Orient Longman). Says the translator Alok Mukherjee, who teaches literature at York University, Toronto,

"Limbale characterises the non-Dalits’ preference and response to the representation of Dalit misery as liberal-reformist. One could conjecture that they fit into the penchant for ‘discourses of pity’ rather than for literature that prompts one to take social action."

Satyanarayana too points to such problems:

"Sisir Kumar Das reduced Dalit writing as ‘narratives of suffering’ in his monumental 11-volume Sahitya Akademi project on Indian Literary History (only two volumes are out)."

A humane future lies, it appears, in not just publishing Dalit literature but in admitting and doing something about social realities specific to India. Warns Roy:

"I do believe that in India we practice a form of apartheid that goes unnoticed by the rest of the world. And it is as important for Dalits to tell their stories as it has been for colonized peoples to write their own histories. When Dalit literature has blossomed and is in full stride, then contemporary (upper caste?) Indian literature’s amazing ability to ignore the true brutality and ugliness of the society in which we live, will be seen for what it is: bad literature. It will become irrelevant."

But does reading Dalit narratives make non-Dalits sensitive to issues of untouchability and casteism? Satyanarayana does not think so:

"Reading literature and responding to issues of discrimination are not necessarily connected. Our Brahmin academics do read a lot of Black literature. But this doesn’t affect their response to day-to-day discrimination of Dalits here."

What would go a long a way in sensitising young upper caste minds, according to him, is introducing Dalit writing from Ambedkar to Omprakash Valmiki from the kindergarten to PG level. Such curriculum changes may have a long way to go, but the spurt in publishing Dalit writing will sure have a trickle-down effect.

They are telling their own stories. Others must begin to listen and unlearn.

A slightly condensed version of this appears in the print magazine.

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