Dalit writing, global contexts: From JV Pawar to Manoranjan Byapari, examining the English translations of literary works from across India
The ‘Dalit Writing, Global Contexts’ series looks at 10 Dalit writers and examines their works, which have been translated into English.
As a product of colonisation, the English language in India has, until recently, been exclusive to Brahmin and Savarna writers. A close examination of such writing often reveals an elitist and prejudiced depiction of society. Where mentioned, Dalit characters appear, in Edward Said’s words, as ‘subjects without history.’
Dalit literature’s emergence has meant that these marginalised lives and histories have gained representation. Since it is written in several Indian languages, translations into English are the only way to make its collective vision and ideals accessible for the world to read and learn.
The ‘Dalit Writing, Global Contexts’ series looks at 10 Dalit writers and examines their works, which have been translated into English. These writers include JV Pawar, Loknath Yashwant, Kamal Dev Pall, Lal Singh Dil, Om Prakash Valmiki, Neerav Patel, Manoranjan Byapari, S Joseph, ND Rajkumar, and Bojja Tharakam.
JV Pawar, one of the founding members of the Dalit Panthers movement in Maharashtra, is prominently known as a historian of Ambedkar’s movement. But he’s rarely discussed as a poet.
As he likes to describe himself, Pawar is an activist – more a Dalit Panther than a writer – and this reflects in his poems. He employed poetic rhythm to depict the pain and strength of Dalits, rather than metaphors or figures of speech. His poems are thus more social than personal, and they meditate on incidents and personalities which were not included in the mainstream history of India.
Blockade (Nakebandi in Marathi) embodies a new vision adopted by the Dalits. The poems in this collection speak of the community’s everyday life, their struggles, their agonies – and their hope amidst it all, as the purveyors of Babasaheb’s legacy. The poems also comment on the hypocrisy of culture and the famine in Maharashtra, which was not a theme in the works of Savarna writers.
The ashes of hundreds in Sherpur
is our culture’s greater achievement
and the Gawai brothers’ case
at Dhakli is the greatest felicitation
Friends, let us sing in chorus
the songs of our culture
‘my culture is the greatest
Which I am very proud of’
Look, out there on the ground
They too wish to have a share in our chorus
the eyes of Gawai brothers, Shambuka’s head,
Eklavya’s thumb, Ramdasa’s hammered penis
and Gopi’s chopped off hands and feet
Why bother about music?
the shrill cries of Kilavenmani
the wailing of Sherpur
will tune the chorus
Loknath Yashwant presents the brutality of the caste system in simple yet profound verses. His poetry depicts the complexities of lives around us in an uncomplicated manner.
A poet and acclaimed translator, Yashwant has numerous poetry collections in Marathi to his name, all of which have been received well and became popular among readers of poetry as well as people associated with the anti-caste movement. Another defining quality of his poetry is its ability to showcase that which goes unnoticed by our eyes.
Though he has been writing for three decades, it was only in 2018 that his poems were translated into English and published as Broken Man: In Search of Homeland by Panther’s Paw Publication.
The Jailor slipped into a nap
Of late, prisoners have started
Keeping a watch on each other
To read Kamal Dev Pall’s poetry collection Days Will Come Back, is to enter a Punjab which most of us would have hardly imagined. Originally written in Punjabi and recently translated into English by Rajinder Azad, what makes Days Will Come Back significant is not only its status as the first Dalit Punjabi poetry collection to be translated in English, but also the literary imagination it offers; indeed it changes the very way in which we look at the idea of Punjab.
Days Will Come Back introduces us to the value of the labour of Dalits in Punjab; it makes clear their role in the history of the nation, it details the aesthetics of their love and labour, their dreams and aspirations, and how crucial their imaginations were, in planting the seed of beauty in a land that has internalised the cruelty of caste.
Neither the lawns nor the flowers
Exist in our courtyards
Like in a King’s palace gardens
We can hardly fit a camping bed here
However, our relationship with flowers
Is as old as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro
That is why we grow roses
In the bottom of broken pots
With an expectation
That days will come back
When we will fulfill our dreams
We will grow the same roses in our backyards
Then lawns will not only exist in palaces
But also, in our courtyards
Nurtured as a poet during the Naxalite movement in Punjab, Lal Singh Dil’s poetic imagination is solely held together by the needle and thread of his experiences, of being born and raised a Dalit.
Dil was always a truth seeker. Humiliated by society and the police, he nonetheless remained grounded in his search for love and truth. This quality, which only a true revolutionary could possess, seeped through his poems.
If this were revealed
To people living on other planets
They would turn into stone, never move again,
If the animals were to experience it
They would rush into the jungles
Screaming, frightened of mankind
Poet of the Revolution: The Memoirs and Poems of Lal Singh Dil is translated by Nirupama Dutt. Perhaps it is the only book about Dil which illumines his wide literary imagination (apart from a few of his poems that were translated over the course of his life). Reading it is to feel as though the poet himself is conversing with us. As a translation, it is simple and lucidly captures the spirit of Dil’s original Punjabi prose (and verse).
I read the English translation of Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan in 2013. I read it in seclusion. It was a reading that transported me to the horrors of caste in north India, making me understand people whose languages were different but whose pains are similar to mine. While reading it, I frequently sobbed in silence, felt nauseated or stunned; at times, I was unable to comprehend the depth of pain or the strength of aspiration in the words of its writer. Joothan had an everlasting impact on my mind. After I finished the book, I read a few of Om Prakash Valmiki’s poems, sought out articles about him.
Joothan is a unique narrative from north India — a region that is patriarchal, feudal and violent in terms of caste issues. It is in this landscape that Om Prakash Valmiki's work has managed to become a representative of a Dalit community, their idea of life, and their quest for dignity and justice.
Why is my caste my only identity? Many friends hint at the loudness and arrogance of my writing. They insinuate that I have imprisoned myself in a narrow circle. They say that literary expression should be focused on the universal; a writer ought not to limit himself to a narrow, confined terrain of life. That is, my being Dalit and arriving at a point of view according to my environment and my socioeconomic situation is being arrogant. Because in their eyes, I am only an SC, the one who stands outside the door.
In the 1980s, Neerav Patel, a Dalit writer from Gujarat, published two poetry collections — Burning From Both The Ends (1980) and What Did I Do To Be Black and Blue (1987) — in English. At a time when other Dalit writers were experimenting with styles of writing and forms of their spoken languages, Patel articulated the Gujarati Dalit life in English. By the English literary circle, however, Patel’s monumental contribution was overlooked.
Even as a bilingual writer (English and Gujarati) and despite being possessed of a poetic imagination far more creative than his contemporary Arun Kolatkar (upper caste, and bilingual), Neerav Patel wasn’t exempt from the prejudiced and casteist nature of Indian literary criticism. Savarna critics immortalised Kolatkar and invisiblised Patel.
But nothing can dampen the power of Patel’s verses, as evinced in Severed Tongue Speaks Out, his translation from Gujarati into English, of his poetry collection Bahishkrit Phoolo.
We are a fashionable caste
Or tribe you may call:
Our forefather Mayo Dhed
Had a shirt of 3 sleeves
His father has a shroud as his shirt
and his father wore a shirt of his own skin
I am no less fashionable —
Just got a pocketless, sleeveless, buttonless
Peter England, the second
From the mall road pavement I sweep
I flaunt it like Salman Khan
The bare chested Bollywood hero.
Every high caste girl is tempted to pay her respect
To the label of the lords
But without touching my collar-bone
Our shirt has a song to sing
Of bizarre fashions
For many readers of the English language, encountering Manoranjan Byapari’s Interrogating My Chandal Life is nothing short of entering a world of magical realism. They gain a tumultuous yet meaningful tour of a world that is proximal but invisible to them, thus exposing their hypocrisy and/or chosen ignorance.
Byapari writes in Bengali. In the English translation of his autobiography, it is not the power of the language that is most arresting — it is the merit and essence of his story, his experiences, the people who populate his narrative. It is his life as a Dalit that offers a meaningful sensibility and literary nourishment to the Indian literary world.
Byapari’s autobiography performs another stupendous feat: Observe how even the cruelest episode of Indian history — the Partition — has rarely been perceived through the prism of the Dalit community’s experiences. Interrogating My Chandal Life fills this vacuum of experiential reality in literature. Through Byapari’s words, we see how caste is the monster that haunts ‘untouchables’ during the crisis of Partition, whilst favouring Brahmins.
Of the uprooted people who had, like a tidal wave, rushed into this part of Bengal, there were clearly two kinds. One was the educated upper castes, those who are called the bhadraloks. And the other was poverty-stricken, illiterate, lower castes — the chhotoloks. The upper caste was unwilling to stay at the camps with the Muchi, the Nama, the Jele. Most of them, with the help of the caste Hindu officials or ministers in West Bengal, managed a space within or near Calcutta in the over one hundred and fifty colonies which sprang up on land that had been forcibly occupied by the refugees. Partly as a consequence of having some education, they could negotiate with the leaders, partly through the wily network of communal brotherhood and relatives they managed, with the active cooperation of the political leaders and bureaucrats to secure land and means of livelihood in this new land.
S Joseph’s My Sister’s Bible, translated by several individuals and published by Authorspress in 2016, consolidates many arguments that have been proposed in Dalit literature across languages. One among these arguments is that anti-caste consciousness develops wherever the practice of untouchability exists.
This collection of poems also lends to the canvas of Dalit literature a sense of beauty through the images and metaphors it presents – all of which are products of the Dalit experience in India. It is a rare example of Dalit literature which borrows inspiration from across India’s states – a feat that is challenging because of linguistic barriers.
The poet possesses the unique ability to make us feel that which we have hitherto missed, to touch that which was previously untouched by us, and to revive lost connections with our sense of humanity. His poems meditate on the cruelties of caste while simultaneously speaking of the beauty, love and generosity with which a Dalit person deals with such cruelties.
In my student days
a girl came laughing.
Our hands met kneading
her rice and fish curry.
On a bench we became
a Hindu-Christian family.
I whiled away my time
reading Neruda’s poetry;
and in the meanwhile I misplaced
my Identity Card.
I noticed, she said
returning my card:
the account of your stipend
is entered there in red.
These days I never look at
a boy and a girl lost in themselves
They will depart after a while.
I won’t be surprised even if they unite.
Their Identity Cards
Won’t have scribbling in red.
In India, it is nearly impossible to be a serious reader of literature – especially poetry – and to have not come across ND Rajkumar’s work. Hailing from Tamil Nadu, the land of Periyar, Rajkumar writes poetry that questions Brahminical culture and its hegemony through his metaphors and images. His poetic voice is distinct, for it carries the stories of his ancestors who did not bow down to their oppressors – oppressors who wanted to erase their existence from history. His style, on the other hand, has the rhythm of a folk artist.
Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh, a collection of Rajkumar’s poems translated by Anushiya Ramaswamy, introduces the reader to a world they have not yet seen, or which they have chosen to neglect. The experience of reading the poems in this collection is made richer by understanding them in the context of the poet’s life and times. Rajkumar's ancestors were artisans, who were also known to perform magic. He was given a formal education up till Class 7, after which he worked as a labourer and coolie. Now, he teaches music to children.
His grasp over music and ability to recite poems from memory sharpened his practice as a poet.
to gain religious merit
in the next life,
fed the brahmin.
When the kollathi girl
began to wash the dishes
in the backyard,
they let the brahmin rape her.
After the brahmin left
sated on rice and woman
blessing the family
with a promise to come
in his next life too
she killed herself.
and now she is back,
the Kollangottu Amman,
and shrieks for human sacrifice.
Lusting after women and gold
He married the dancer with lies of love
Then stoned her to death
among the thorns
Of the cactus field:
You are my witnesses, she cried
To the cacti as she died.
The Dark Blue Goddess of the Cactus Fields
Demands blood-soaked rice
Transformed into the dark forest
Bojja Tharakam was in prison when he wrote the poems that would go on to form the collection called The River Speaks. This prison — as I see it — became a source, the point of origin for the river of his poems.
In this great tradition of those fighting for the sake of humanity, Bojja Tharakam’s is a significant name. His tireless and courageous battle was fought through the law, and most brilliantly, with his literary imagination that was channelled through both prose and poetry. Understanding his out-of-the-box approach as a lawyer, is essential to understanding the depth and honesty of Bojja Tharakam’s poetry. He was not one to lament over victims or his victimhood; instead, he would exhort victims to fight with all their might against the injustices they were subjected to. And he offered legal protection to their fight.
Tell the women you face
The unfortunate, powerless women
To turn their tears into sparks
Into a flood of swords
And that flood
Into a bolt of thunder
That shall dismantle
The mountains of power
From their very roots,
Tell that as my words