Dalit writing, global contexts: Om Prakash Valmiki's Joothan is the shining pinnacle of Hindi Dalit literature
The English translation of Joothan — a magnum opus of Hindi Dalit literature — is an event in which we have witnessed both, the importance of translation as well as how translation of Dalit literature has many political dimensions that are yet to be unravelled.
Joothan was first published in 1997.
Its impact in the stagnant, Brahminical landscape of North Indian literature was like that of a volcano erupting in a placid town.
Six years later, it was translated into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee (a Brahmin professor and literary critic) and published by Samya, an imprint of the (Savarna) publishers Bhatkal and Sen.
Editor’s note: In India, the use of English is a product of colonisation. It is a language that embodies colonial narratives about the country and its people.
Notably, it remained exclusive to Brahmin and Savarna writers until recently, and close examination of their writing reveals that they were often elitist and frequently prejudiced in their depiction of society. Where Dalit characters find mention, they appear as ‘subjects without history’, to use the term coined by Edward Said. Indian writing in English, therefore, rarely did serve the purpose that good literature is supposed to: to depict the lives of people through literary imagination.
With the emergence of Dalit literature, the lives and histories of the marginalised have gained representation. Since Dalit literature is written in several languages, translation into English is the only way its collective vision and ideals can be made available for the world to read. It has more to gain from translation than it has to lose.
This series will take a close look at 10 Dalit writers across Indian languages, and their works which have been translated into English. Read more here.
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.
A few months ago, I started to research the trajectories and politics of translations of Dalit literature in India. In this time, I have witnessed many hues and aspects of it which have less to do with the growth of Dalit literature as a movement, and more to do with the politics of Brahminical hegemony in India’s literary domain. The English translation of Joothan, by Arun Prabha Mukherjee, has many such political connotations, which must be understood with critical mind. Translation of literary works widens our imagination of society. Most importantly, it provides new meanings to the pains and pleasures of life; it expands our ability to think about society more broadly and generously; it lessens our prejudices about people we may have never met; it is a transport system that transcends our world-views about a world without actually visiting it in person.
Just as it has many artistic dimensions, translation has its own politics. The English translation of Joothan — a magnum opus of Hindi Dalit literature — is an event in which we have witnessed both, the importance of translation as well as how translation of Dalit literature has many political dimensions that are yet to be unravelled.
Joothan was first published in 1997. Its impact in the stagnant, Brahminical landscape of North Indian literature was like that of a volcano erupting in a placid town. Six years later, it was translated into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee (a Brahmin professor and literary critic) and published by Samya, an imprint of the (Savarna) publishers Bhatkal and Sen.
Prior to Joothan, there were several Dalit autobiographical works from Maharashtra which received tremendous recognition among readers at home and abroad. However, Joothan was the first Hindi Dalit literary work that was — according to me — written in consideration of the philosophy of Dalit literature (a philosophy largely shaped by Marathi Dalit writers). It leaves readers with many questions and provides them a space to introspect over the caste within them, regardless of who is reading it. For instance:
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.
Ex ‘untouchable’ communities (read: Dalit) in India share one thing in common, despite the differences in their geopolitical situations: the experience of untouchability. This experience is horrendous and inhumane. Imagine the inhumanity of the oppressors (Savarnas) who practiced untouchability.
Merely a narrative against caste is not necessarily ‘Dalit literature’. Dalit literature is a body of narratives which tend to annihilate caste in the literary domain and provide a blueprint for a caste-less world: Begumpura or Prabuddha Bharath.
Joothan in this sense 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.
The English translation and publication of Joothan has a few undercurrents that we must examine. For instance, as mentioned earlier, the 2003 English translation by Mukherjee (a Brahmin) was brought out by an imprint (Samya) of a Savarna publishing house. Two publishers now sell the book on Amazon. From among them, Samya's retail price for Joothan is Rs 500. By Samya, the book has been reprinted seven times; the current edition is of substandard quality, with a glossy cover and unnecessary notes and an introduction by translators. The second publisher is Columbia University Press (2008) which retails the book in three formats: Kindle, Hardcover, and Paperback, priced at Rs 1298, Rs 4364, and Rs 1699, respectively.
Since Dalit literature is about representation, both in the literary domain and the domain of political economy (their book being their labour), it becomes imperative to ask what such a huge pricing would aim at? Why have almost all the English translations of Dalit literature been undertaken by Savarnas, especially Brahmins? In this way, do they not again impose their hegemony over Dalit literature by representing it in the domain of translations? These are among the many questions the English publication of Joothan forces us to confront, including this overarching one: who is going to decide the form of Dalit literature in the domain of translation and publication in the future?
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.