Writing the Self


by Charu Gupta - Courtesy epw.in


The two recent landmark anthologies compiled by K Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu (2011, 2013) on dalit writings in Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu, not only document the upsurge in dalit literature, particularly since the 1970s, but also compellingly show how dalit writers have made strategic interventions in the field of print and knowledge. It has also been widely acknowledged that it was the post-Independence dalit literary movement in Maharashtra, with its rich corpus of life-writing texts, autobiographies, stories and poems that provided the first systematic stimulus to dalit literature. This has been coupled with the fact that this region has particularly proved rich in dalit histories, with the pioneering figures of Jyotiba Phule and Bhimrao Ambedkar hailing from here.


At the same time, the meteoric rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the dynamism of dalit movement in Uttar Pradesh (UP) have compelled many scholars to shift their gaze to the Hindi heartland. The works of Badri Narayan (2006), Ramnarayan Rawat (2012), Laura Brueck (2014) and Kanwal Bharti (2011) have highlighted how since the 1920s, north Indian urban, literate dalits began writing in Hindi, viewing print and publishing as a critical tool for social, political and economic mobility, and for claiming dignity. Sarah Beth Hunt’s book adds another engaging chapter to this rich body of work.


Hunt shows how Hindi dalit literature emerged as a means of protest against caste oppression, to carve a distinct all-encompassing dalit identity. Highlighting the complex relationship between dalit literature and their cultural representation, she challenges such registers that examine Hindi dalit literature as a mere imitation or extension of its counterpart in Marathi. Asserting a much larger history of Hindi dalit print culture, Hunt concentrates on chiefly two literary strands during the course of the 20th century: the early popular small pamphlets and journals published from the 1920s, distributed exclusively to a dalit audience and brought out by small presses; and the more contemporary expressions of dalit writings in Hindi in the genres of autobiographies, short stories and literary criticism, published largely by mainstream Hindi commercial presses.


While the introduction of the book paints in very broad strokes the dalit assertion in 20th century north India, and the slow, incipient late appearance of a middle-class amongst them (Pandey 2013: 18-21, 195-217), it is important to stress the wider context of marterialisation of dalit print culture from the 1920s in the region, which Hunt only alludes to in passing.


A combination of factors, including the flowering of print culture and printing presses, migration of a section of dalits from rural to urban centres of Uttar Pradesh, proliferation of caste associations, rise of limited education and literacy among a few dalit men, some employment opportunities in government jobs (especially in army and municipal corporations), and the rise of the Adi Hindu movement created the basis for the emergence of Hindi dalit literature. Print, combined with functional literacy, aided the democratisation of language and literature, with dalits carving their distinct cultural expressions and forging new identities through booklets, newspapers and journals. As part of a vernacular reading and writing public, dalit spokespersons and writers helped nurture a counter-public sphere, which was marked by different ways and practices of representing dalits.


As Laura Brueck has noted, the boundaries of the Hindi dalit counter-public sphere were located “squarely in the interpretative framework of caste” (Brueck 2014: 50). Hunt too brings us this counter-print-public sphere to underscore representations of dalits in different genres, emphasising how Hindi dalit literature has been an important expression of dalit middle-class performance, and how this is shaped by, and in turn, shapes the dalit audience and actors.


Political and the Literary

While very much within the framework of writings by Badri Narayan, Ramnarayan Rawat and Laura Brueck, there are certain features that stand out in this book. Hunt brings to us the complex relationship between dalit print culture and the evolution of political and institutional spheres amongst the dalits. She draws out differences between the literary and the political in terms of both methods and scope. Thus she argues that “while dalit politics portrays a very specific dalit identity linked to social and economic oppression, historical disenfranchisement and a shared set of civil rights that must be regained, dalit literature displays a much broader and more fluid set of characteristics and experiences that constitute Dalit identity” (p 11).


She goes on to state that in the political, the relationship is much simpler, singular, cohesive, as it is between the representer and the represented, i e, dalit politician and members of his/her constituency; meanwhile, in the case of dalit literary, it is much more fluid, flexible, layered and complex, as it is between the portrayal and the portrayed, i e, dalit character(s) and members of the dalit community (p 12). She utilises the classic writings of Gayatri Spivak to mark this disjunction between the political and the literary amongst dalits. While taking the point, it is perhaps equally important to remember that such dissections have existed in almost all identity assertions from the margins, be it by blacks, women or minorities. Alongside, equally significant has been the blurring between the political and the literary, including amongst dalits, where the two have drawn from, and fed into, each other in critical ways. It is the political and the social that has left its footprints on the personal and the literary.


Dalit Literary Pamphlets

The most engaging aspect of this book is its investigation into the literary economy, form and contents of dalit pamphlet literature, with its specific sensibilities, practices and institutions. Hunt effectively shows how “Adi Hindu literary practices established the foundations of a new field of dalit pamphlet literature in Hindi” (p 32). Particularly recognised is the landmark contribution of Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu and his publication house in 1937, which was later renamed “Bahujan Kalyan Prakashan”. As Hunt notes, the symbolic transformation of his press “from an ideological alliance with the Hindu reform movement to a new assertion of bahujan identity” reflects larger ideological changes among dalits (p 39). One would have liked to get more information here on the writings by Achutanand, for example, his pamphlets Harijan Bhajan Mala (1913) and Mayanand Balidan (1926).


It is Chapter 2, which is the best and most innovative in the book. Here the author takes four moments and modes in dalit pamphlet literature, which rewrite the entire historical narrative from the 1920s: assertion of dalits being original inhabitants of the nation, with Aryans as marauding invaders; narratives against the injustices and immoralities of Ramrajya, through the symbolic figure of Shambuk; historical tales of dalit heroes and heroines of 1857 revolt; and pamphlets on Ambedkar and his life, who is the new “Father of the Nation”, bringing the nation and dalits into modernity.


This range of pamphlets, according to Hunt, places dalits “not at the periphery, but at the centre of the Indian nation as its original indigenous inhabitants, as its most loyal freedom fighters, and as its source of the nation’s Constitution” (p 126). Through these pamphlets, the writers are “performing their middle-class identity, even as they remain social marginalised by their lower-caste identity” (p 128). They are also guided by the principle of dalit community seva, and instilling a political consciousness in them. The author here makes use of many hitherto unused Hindi sources, covering particularly the first generation of dalit male intellectuals. It is important to note here that these pamphlets also illustrate the complexities and significance of establishing a historical lineage by the contemporary dalit movement.


My minor quibble here is that it needs to be stated more sharply how the developments in the dalit print-public sphere were also tied to the proliferation of dalit caste associations, and how while arguing for an internal homogeneity and collective identity, dalits were deeply divided amongst themselves. More importantly, in spite of their caste radicalism, the dalit print-public sphere was rendered male, particularly in its early years.


The second half of the book moves to the autobiographic field of Hindi dalit literature. It concentrates on the writings of middle-class dalit writers, largely based in Delhi, including Om Prakash Valmiki, Kanwal Bharti, Mohandas Naimishray, Surajpal Chauhan and Shyauraj Singh “Bechain”. Their works, according to the author, throw new light on contemporary Hindi literature, modernise literary aesthetics, and democratise contributions to the Hindi literary canon. These dalit authors, remarks Hunt, gain mastery over literary practices and sensibilities held in esteem by the mainstream, making them better equipped to “challenge the exclusionary practices of the Hindi literary world on its own terms” (p 169), while also acquiring recognition and respect in the literary mainstream. At the same time, she remarks that the debates “on the meaning and importance of Hindi Dalit literature reflect a power struggle between the autobiographic Hindi Dalit writers and actors in the mainstream Hindi literary field over the authority to judge the literary representations of Indian society” (p 211).


The book particularly marks the personal pain and oppression, as collective political assertion and larger social critique. This nonetheless creates a tension, as a dalit author’s personal suffering is taken to be both symbolic and representative of experiences of all members of dalit community, and yet unique, combined with extraordinary struggle to overcome caste oppression (p 191). There is thus a complex relationship here between the individual dalit protagonist and the dalit community. While competently written, these chapters lead to a feeling of déjà vu, as almost in all books dealing with the dalit literary, one finds similar focus and arguments. Moreover, one of the contentions that Hunt makes is that the dalit autobiographic field has gained much greater publicity and respect, both nationally and internationally, than the Hindi dalit literary pamphlets. However, this applies to all kinds of literature, as it is often the canonised, “high” forms of literature that make it to institutional structures.


Connotations of Dalit Literature

The book centrally shows how Hindi dalit literature completely debunks the premise of “art for art’s sake”. Throughout the book, Hunt also draws sharp lines between the pamphlet and the autobiographic field, stating that “these two fields function independently, are created by different groups of Hindi writers, are based on different codes of literary practice and are aimed at two very different audiences” (p 2). At one place she argues how dalit melas and their political-public spaces are not the ones selling the “autobiographical” and the “literary”.


However, this argument is not always tenable, as dalit Hindi literature cannot fit into any neat boxes, and there is a great deal of criss-crossing and jostling between these genres. In the homes of many dalit intellectuals “high” end dalit literature straddles often the same space as “low” and “small” end pamphlets. The intermingling of the activist-academic strand is very much visible in the personal archives of many dalits. For example, many copies of the landmark autobiography of Om Prakash Valmiki, Joothan, have been sold through dalit melas, and biographies of Jhalkari Bai, the dalit heroine of 1857, have been published in both genres.


Such pedantic aside, this book is an important addition to a growing number of scholarly works on the evolution and development of Hindi dalit print culture in late-colonial and independent India. Together, they have shown how dalit literature has created an expansive vernacular archive, with its own idioms, languages, codes and practices, and how it is one of the richest sources for studying dalit politics and identity formation in north India. There are twinned historiographic imperatives in the current intellectual project of Hindi dalit writers in developing a distinctly dalit literary identity.


On one hand, dalit intellectuals are engaged in the development of a dalit literary history, while on the other, they are increasingly re-reading and critiquing historical representations of dalits in mainstream literature and in narratives of the nation. Even when dalit literary representations are mimicking dominant strands in mainstream Hindi literature, they are creating fissures from within and without. The malleability and range of this counter-print-public culture offers us alternative and innovative ways of understanding dalit identities.



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