Daya Pawar: How an icon of Dalit literature fought against the exile of caste, and won

Editor's note: Under the norms of the caste system, Dalits were denied the pen. Before the advent of Dalit literature in India, much of Dalit history was oral in nature. Their lives were not available to them in written form, and even when available, it was a depiction by those who had no experiential connection with Dalits.

It was Dr BR Ambedkar who stressed on literary assertion as a means to struggle against the caste system. Thus began the ceaseless movement of literary assertion by Dalits, who went on to write powerful stories about their lives. It marked a resurrection of their experiential world, which had been appropriated by the pens of Savarnas.

Poems, stories, novels, biographies, autobiographies produced by Dalits established a new body of literature in which, for the first time, the downtrodden took centrestage. People who had been denied what humanity considers the ‘basics’, started to transform the lives of others like them, through the written word.

As this movement of literary assertion by Dalits grew stronger, the unseen side of India — the side that is brutal and inhumane — became visible to the world. Maharashtra was at the forefront of this revolution that has, over the last six decades, helped transform the worldview about Dalit lives. Almost all of the writers who shaped the early theoretical discourse of Dalit literature were from Maharashtra and in this series, we revisit the lives and works of 10 distinguished Dalit writers from the state — and their impact on the literary world.

In this sixth column, we look at the literary legacy of Daya Pawar.


In an essay on Mario Vargas Llosa, Orhan Pamuk wrote: “A Third World writer can choose to leave his own country and resettle – as Vargas Llosa did – in one of the cultural centers of Europe. But his sense of himself may not change, for a Third World writer’s “exile” is not so much a matter of geography as a spiritual state, a sense of exclusion, of being a perpetual foreigner”.

Daya Pawar

Daya Pawar

There was a point of arrival for Dalits in the brutal landscape of Indian history, when Babasaheb Ambedkar had to say to Gandhi, “Gandhiji, I have no homeland”. Dalit literature in India emerged not only from the realisation of this sense of exclusion within the country for its own countrymen, but shaped itself as an answer to this exclusion. In 1978, was published Baluta, reputed to be one of the first Dalit autobiographies in India. Its writer Daya Pawar had experimented with the style while writing it: it appears to us more a novel than autobiography. Perhaps it is because the dilemma and the sense of exclusion Pawar portrayed in it, could not be expressed through established forms of narratives.

Pawar did not clearly remember his date of birth. He was born in 1935, the same year Ambedkar announced his decision to abandon Hinduism. Among the Buddhist conversions that took place in 1956, almost all of the Mahars in Maharashtra converted to Buddhism. Pawar belonged to the generation which traversed from one world (of Mahars) to another (of Buddhists) while living on the same land, amid the horrors of caste. The dilemma and transition, the clarity and confusion, which he absorbed while moving from one subjective life to another, is not devoid of the past of being an “untouchable”.

In Baluta he wrote, “It was unlikely that I would have had the courage of my convictions at that age. But were they my convictions? Here, in school, I was being taught ‘Always speak the truth’ and there, I was taking Dada’s loot to sell at Chor Bazaar. The world I learned about at school seemed fraudulent compared to the world I lived in.”

The process of writing for Dalits of his generation was rather like arriving at the point of transition from reactive bodies to creative minds. Pawar was no exception to this. Baluta, when it appeared on the literary scene, was immediately received as a milestone. Apart from its novelistic style and monologues, Baluta caught the attention of readers for its explicit (rather, interrogative) portrayal of sexual desires and bewilderment of growing up as an untouchable and Buddhist at the same time. A few Dalit writers were not comfortable in calling it a Dalit autobiography.

I remember once talking to a Dalit short story writer who said, “The only reason Baluta was celebrated was because of Daya Pawar’s explicit portrayal of sexual desires.” This could be one of the reasons. However, it cannot be denied that Baluta was an intimately thoughtful portrayal of a person’s life, in which the aspect of sexuality was – for the first time – juxtaposed with the social, cultural and political life of an author. However, this was just one of the literary hues that Baluta introduced about the epistemic world of Dalits. The true question was of identity in a caste-ridden society. Pawar succeeded in introspecting over and arriving at one as he writes, “I believe that I discovered my true identity at the taluka school. I realised that the flaw was not in me but in my stars; I knew now that my only way out of the prison of the village was to study. That I might be able to do better than the sons of the Brahmins and Baniyas became apparent. I was better than other boys in my class at hu tu tu or kabaddi. I would break through the ring of boys, slipping like a fish through a net. ‘He must be smearing himself with pig fat,’ the boys would say”.

The late ‘70s were a tumultuous phase for Dalit politics in Maharashtra. By the late 1970s, the Dalit Panthers became the victims of factionalisation, after the Republican Party. The energy and hope they brought about among the Ambedkarite masses seemed to suddenly decline. The leaders of the Dalit Panthers were all either powerful poets or writers. By this time, Pawar too had achieved the status of a significant poet – but we do not see his name associated with the Panthers. Pawar’s struggle, as it appears from his deeply personal reflection on his and his community’s life, indicates us that he was more engaged with the internal theater of human problems; the self was his territory, the self was his society. When the Dalit movement was moving outward to seek its objectives, he moved inward. For much of his life, he sought himself through words, having derived the sense of being a foreigner in the land of his birth.

His first poetry collection, Kondvada (1974), won the Maharashtra Government Award for Literature. In 1990, he was bestowed the Padma Shri, that was, if we look at it from the perspective of Dalits, a token of recognition for a mind that rose from the ashes of human bodies fractured, murdered, and killed in India by its caste-system. Those who had been running this genocidal enterprise for centuries had perennially put Dalits in mental exile in their own land. Pawar, however, fought against this exile, and won.

Yogesh Maitreya is a poet and translator. He is the founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. 

Updated Date: Nov 12, 2017 18:52 PM

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