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We Also Made History: Dalit Women's Writing in Marathi

Dalit women's autobiography-writing in Marathi is a long tradition that will not let women's voices in the Dalit movement be lost

We Also Made History: Dalit Women's Writing in Marathi
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She ran a grocery store that she built herself soon after her marriage at the age of 13, when she was only a fourth standard pass schoolgirl. Her quest for knowledge never died. She would read the re-cycled books that reached her as wrapping material for the masalas and provisions she sold. There she read various stories of Gods and the roles of women in these stories infuriated her. They compelled her to write and she chose to write about the stories of the women in her community. She had to hide all that she wrote as she had a husband whose hands flew around her face and body with great fluency and on the flimsiest grounds. She was terrified of her son as well who was going to school and college then, getting an education she never had. She had several files of her writing by the time a US sociologist, who was researching her community, asked to see and liked. She got her to publish them in a magazine. This eventually become a book.

The woman in question was Baby Kondiba Kamble (1929-2012), the book Jina Amcha (Our Lives), widely loved as one of first Dalit autobiographies by women. The US sociologist was Maxine Bernstein who had moved to Maharashtra in the early 60s as a researcher. The magazine the chapters were first published in was Stree.

Feminists who have reclaimed women’s voices from neglect and erasure from the beginning of writing and then print culture have widened what we understand as autobiography to include letters, fragments, personal objects (feminist Uma Chakravarti weaves a marvellous narrative around a ‘blue trunk’ of objects that belonged to Mythily Sivaraman’s grandmother who, to the best of what we know, did not write a word, or not any available to us, though her granddaughter wrote a whole book about her and her great grand-daughter (Kalpana Karunakaran) is now writing a book about her grandmother (Mythili’s mother).These women belong to a Tamil Brahmin family.

But what of Dalit women and their foremothers?

Literary academia also relentlessly argues about what constitutes autobiography as a genre. Here the debates are more about the lines between autobiography and fiction but also, influenced by feminism and other forms of identity-based Minority Studies, about what constitutes the literary itself. Dalit autobiography is often not considered literary enough and not highbrow enough to be called literary and this is how casteism reiterates itself. In other contexts too, this sort of  hierarchy operates. The Latin Americans call this sort of writing testimonio (testimony); African-Americans have explored the idea of memory, re-memory and memorialising through it; writing by Native American writers inevitably becomes autobiographical, even when fictional or engaging with the mythic.

In India, too, all these forms circulate. Writing by Naga tribal writers like Temsula Ao (who died recently), Easterine Kire and Avinuo Kire engage with myth, history and Naga lives seamlessly; Sonya Surabhi Gupta, a Latin Americanist who teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, recently edited a volume of dialogic essays between Latin American testimonios and Indian Dalit autobiographies. But even a Mona Zote ( Mizo feminist poet) or Beni Sumer Yanthan ( Naga feminist poet) poem might be read as autobiography.

Marathi has a long tradition of women writing autobiography in various forms from at least the nineteenth century, pioneering Savitribai Phule

Marathi has a long tradition of women writing autobiography in various forms from at least the nineteenth century, pioneering Savitribai Phule and her schools for girls. Mukta Salve (Muktabai), for example, a Mang (a Dalit community in Maharashtra seen as even more oppressed than the Mahars who were politicised by B. R. Ambedkar, the community to which he belonged) student in one of her schools. How can one read any word she wrote, like her essay ‘Mang Maharachya Dukhvisayi’ (‘The Pain of Mangs and Mahars’) written when she was 14, in 1855, as non-autobiographical. We know that Savitribai had stones and mud thrown at her as she walked to school. How can any word she wrote not be autobiographical as well?

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Dalit autobiography in Marathi is thought of as starting in the 1950s and 60s, inspired not just by B. R. Ambedkar and his movement for the liberation of Dalits but a range of global movements – the Black Panthers in the United States (which inspired the a Dalit Panthers movement in Bombay in 1972), the anti-Vietnam movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and labour and progressive movements across the world. This is largely seen as a movement of ‘Angry Young Men’ as Arjun Dangle puts it, patting women on the head for being part of it in a patronising paragraph or two in his account of it.

Feminists have not done much better. Sharmila Rege in her book Writing Caste, Writing Gender, which brings together what she calls in her subtitle Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonios, while making all the right noises, pushes Dalit women back into the Ambedkarite fold, referring to them as written (and profitably read only) “in the context of the inteoduction and writings of/on Phule, Ambedkar the Satyashodhak, the non-Brahmin and dalit movement in Maharashtra.”

Rege, who was a sociologist, does a very poor job of reading these autobiographies in terms of their particular formal manner and uses of language, despite stating that their styles vary but, more grievously, she does not acknowledge the importance of their critique of the very male Ambedkarite movement, jamming the eloquence of these women’s voices with some extraordinarily banal commentary right through. Experience is a category feminists have questioned, most eloquently since Third Wave feminist historian Joan W. Scott’s essay by the same name. Scott’s point was women’s (or anybody’s) experience is discursively constructed (which in plain English means is non-readable as fixed truth) and must be read as much for what it does not say, what it hides and what it discloses against itself (and not some Biblical truth as earlier generations of feminist claimed) as much for what it claims. This kind of feminism, seen by old-fashioned feminists as destructive of the women’s movement, actually strengthens it.

In assimilating Dalit women’s autobiographies into some seamless Ambedkarite movement, Rege not only repeats the subordination of women’s writing (which she herself warns us has happened with Dalit women’s writing, she also domesticates critiques of the Ambedkarite movement that actually might have made it stronger had it been listened to then, as now.

Translations into English of many of these autobiographies effect another sort of violence and erasure on them. The Brahmin, bourgeois need to produce Dalit writing as revolutionary (it follows a tired narrative of oppression – resistance – rebellion – bourgeoisfication) means that all nuances are steamrollered into a unifying (and stultifying) narrative. This is evident from the titles onwards. Maya Pandit translates Jina Amcha as Prisons We Broke and Urmila Pawar’s Aydaan (Weaving) as The Weave of My Life. Our Lives, the actual translation of Kamble’s book, in its simplicity and power, captures much better her intent and this patronising, offensive title.

Which leads us to the question of the autobiographical ‘I’ in Dalit autobiography. Baby Kamble claims that she writes about the community and not herself. In fact, she said she hid all the abuse and violence she faced both because of conventional reasons like protecting her family but also because she was writing about her community as a whole. But must we?

My contention is that we read autobiographies in the texture and grammar of their structures. Marathi Dalit women’s autobiographies give us an incredibly powerful critique of patriarchy, Dalit patriarchy as much as Brahmin, and much more. They offer a critique of Dalit politics (an overridingly male domain) and a constructive way of fulfilling the vision of a liberatory Dalit politics. If only men cared to listen.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Doors Slammed Shut")

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