Dalit writing, global contexts: S Joseph combines critique and compassion in My Sister’s Bible
In Communist Kerala, S Joseph emerged as the forerunner of the Malayalam Dalit literary tradition. He was able to challenge Brahminical poetic traditions while offering verses that soothed the wounds of the lower caste people
In Communist Kerala, S Joseph emerged as the forerunner of the Malayalam Dalit literary tradition
He was able to challenge Brahminical poetic traditions while offering verses that soothed the wounds of the lower caste people
His work is a rare example of Dalit literature which borrows inspiration from across India's states, a feat that is challenging because of linguistic barriers
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.
In a political environment like Kerala, which has been dominated by Communist ideas for decades, it took time for the seeds of Dalit literature – as a collective consciousness and movement – to take root. Communist discourse recognises class as societal categories, not caste. For a Dalit person to lean into and assert their caste identity, roots and politics in such a place, they must reject the history and Savarna literature they were taught to develop an anti-caste imagination.
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.
“S Joseph’s poems stand apart both from the mainstream tradition of Malayalam poetry and the poems by the writers of his own generation by their apparent simplicity, the unfamiliar world they often deal with, the aura of mystery he lends to common things and situations, and their organic link with environment,” K Satchidanandan wrote.
Hailing from Kottayam, Joseph began writing poetry at the age of 16. He has since published six collections of poems, one of which — Uppante Kooval Varakkunnu — won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2012. He now teaches Malayalam at the Maharaja's College, Ernakulam.
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. Sample his most popular poem, ‘Identity Card’:
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.
Caste, as Dr BR Ambedkar once explained, killed the spirit and enthusiasm of people in India. ‘Identity Card’ poignantly explains this to us. In the poem, we also witness how hate is replaced by the vision for a casteless world, in which two people can love each other without prejudice.
In ‘My Sister’s Bible’, which is considered a classic poem from Dalit literature, Joseph questions what organised religion meant to the lives of Dalit people, and what it could and could not offer to them:
These are what my sister’s Bible has:
a ration-book come loose,
a loan application form,
a card from the cut-throat money-lender,
the notices of feasts
in the church and the temple,
a photograph of her brother’s child,
a paper that says how to knit a baby cap,
a hundred-rupee note,
an S.S.L.C Book.
These are what my sister’s Bible doesn’t have:
the Old Testament and the New,
the red cover.
Kerala’s ecology, with its backwaters, coconut trees, beaches and fields, shaped Malayalam poetry to give it a romanticised form, until the arrival of Dalit poets whose work served as a reminder of the purpose of poetry – to examine life’s beauty as well as its brutalities. S Joseph was a forerunner of Dalit poetry in the state; he was able to challenge Brahminical poetic traditions while offering verses that soothed the wounds of the lower caste people. Through his metaphors and images of beauty, he was able to challenge the notion that Dalit writers are only commentators on discrimination.
His poem ‘A Letter to Malayalam Poetry’ is key to understanding both his profound use of language, as well as the compassion he was capable of. In it, he directly addresses Malayalam poetry, telling it that it will find itself freed and cared for, should it visit his house and come into his hands:
What you want is freedom, right?
That is all we have:
You can say what you like,
can bathe in the brook,
can chirp with the wag-tails
visiting the compound,
can sit on a mat on the veranda.
Mother and Father will
keep you company.
In another poem titled ‘Butterflies’, he establishes that though the Dalit community was barred from practicing art, reading, writing and painting, they did not lack artistic sensibilities and perceptions. This is because they were able to find beauty and colours in nature, which is governed by the laws of life itself, rather than the discriminatory, non-inclusive laws of humans:
Butterflies are artists who fly around
with paintings in both hands.
They exhibited paintings to the people
when there was no such practice.
Later cave paintings, murals and canvases emerged.
The fleeting butterflies still fly around
with paintings in their hands.
Later, in the same poem, he laments that nature’s beauty has been destroyed by humans:
Humans shed their wings when they grow
and then they crawl as worms for the rest of their lives.
English translation allowed Joseph's work to transcend beyond the Malayalam literary circles. After 'Identity Card' and 'My Sister's Bible' were translated, he became a national figure and many readers can recite these two works from memory.
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.