Swans Commentary » swans.com June 14, 2010  



India's Untouchables Find Their Tongue


by Peter Byrne





"I am a venereal sore in the private part of language."
—Namdeo Dhasal, poet and founder of the Dalit Panthers


(Swans - June 14, 2010)   India's Untouchables regularly splash across the Western glossies for a quick exposé between ads for exotic cruises and gourmet coffee. This was the case of Italy's Il Venerdi in May. The piece had all the requisites. It was about brutalized women who got together not only for self defense, but in order to fight back. They even armed themselves with bamboo lathi, a cruel weapon favored by the Indian police. To finish the picture -- and what photographs it made! -- they wore luminous magenta saris and called their vigilante group the Pink Gang.

The sensational details could only please readers, and the article also served as a puff for the autobiography of the Pink Gang's founder, which was being published in Italy the following week. Ms. Sampat Pal came from Uttar Pradesh, defined by the magazine as "one of the poorest areas in the world." Since we were obviously in for another misery memoir, why was I already planning a trip to the bookstore?

A cloudlet of self-scrutiny wafted over me. I'd long since sworn off the wounded-psyche sob stories that have filled The New York Times bestseller lists for decades. I couldn't take any more poor little rich girls who finished in rehab because their father flew the coop or their mother sent them off to kindergarten without a hug. I had no curiosity for noble males who dawdled atremble on the threshold of the closet for half a century, even when they came clean posthumously. We have only so much empathy, and like the wind it goes its own way. Along with Il Venerdi I invested mine faraway where life was so hard it made me wince back home in the easeful West.

Sampat Pal's burdens were many. She was female, poor beyond measure, and resident in a desert region governed by corrupt officials and sadistic police. Illiterate, married at twelve, and pregnant at puberty, she was, in the bargain, an Untouchable, a member of a low herdsmen's caste. Her story reminds us that Indian casteism has never gone away. Mohandas Gandhi, national independence, Jawaharlal Nehru's noble profile, rapprochement with the Soviet Union, wars against China and Pakistan, the free market, and finally globalization have all failed to eradicate a system at the heart of Hinduism for two thousand years.

To put it crudely, back before time was reckoned, Brahmins concocted a social hierarchy from texts that they declared sacred. It placed them above the rest of the human race, in a space free of physical and mental pollution. The task of the less than human lower castes was, simply, to do the dirty work, which then confirmed their polluted and untouchable status.

The result differed from an apartheid setup in that the lower castes were fully integrated into the Brahmin world view. They were a necessary "other," like domestic animals, but with the difference that domestic animals were not considered soiled beyond remedy from birth. It would be easy to horrify the reader by listing what has been inflicted over centuries on the lower castes. There are men alive who remember when some were forced to walk with brooms tied to their backs. This was to clean the path that they had defiled by walking on.

Times change, but in India not all that quickly. Governments have tried to mitigate the caste system by law. Programs have been set up to aid the lower castes. Education has awakened some of the oppressed to defend themselves and, like the Pink Gang, to fight back. But, if mainstream Indian writers are to be trusted, caste oppression remains an everyday reality. The excellent novelist Aravind Adiga in his Between the Assassinations (2008) tells the story of Jayamma, a cook who being unmarried is exploited by her Brahmin family as well as by the Brahmin lawyer who employs her. Yet she scrupulously marks herself off from the equally exploited lower caste child servant of the household.

The cook's conduct points to what has been a dilemma for Indian Marxists. The remarkable Marathi thinker B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) wrestled with it for a lifetime. For him a mere class analysis could not explain the Indian predicament. The Marxist parties, invariably dominated by Brahmins, could never uproot a caste hierarchy that was part of their DNA and predated anything we would recognize as class conflict. Again, Indian fiction can throw light on the problem. Arundati Roy, in her novel, The God of Small Things (1997), tells how an upper-lower caste love affair ends in racist murder. But she also tells how an upper caste Communist Party official manipulates a lower caste member without ever accepting him as an equal.

Born an Untouchable, Ambedkar would become an important political and intellectual figure in India and the scourge of orthodox Hinduism. He would differ with Gandhi whom he accused of making Untouchables a mere object of pathos. His call to action set in motion a movement of lower caste people throughout the subcontinent. They became known by the sometimes controversial name of Dalits and were soon producing a literature of their own in various regional languages.

So we come around again to misery memoirs, but in a very different context from the Western ones. In India the Dalits had been pushed out of the national picture by official culture. When they finally were able to take up the pen, their natural reaction was to say, "No, we are very much here to the tune of 160 million, and this is what I in particular have had to put up with." The last half of the 20th century saw a flood of autobiographical books by Dalits that documented individual lives. A fascinating sidelight is that this movement looked to black American authors for inspiration. The group that in the 1970s germinated contemporary Dalit literature actually called themselves the Dalit Panthers. Like black writers from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, they told their life stories in order to make themselves visible in society.

Sharankumar Limbale is the author of an outstanding Marathi autobiography, The Outcaste: Akkarmashi, published in English translation in 2003. He undertakes in Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature, published in English in 2004, to set Dalit writing in a larger frame. He defends the predominance of life stories but wants Dalit authors to involve themselves more in the world beyond them. He makes a good case for the militant, committed direction of their writing. For him Dalits are in an even more dire fix than Australian aborigines, native Americans, or African Americans. Classic Hinduism excludes them from humanity. Until casteism disappears, Dalit writing must, he feels, subordinate all else to combating it.

Brahmin forms and norms in the arts have been as oppressive as in social life. This inclines Limbale to take a very big step in his theorizing. He contends that Dalit writing should be judged by neither Hindu nor Western critical standards. It's something of another species altogether, although of what nature he doesn't make clear. This strikes me as doing no favor to Dalit writing and on the contrary confining it to a shadowy ghetto. One would like to point out to Limbale that some of the best committed writing of the West, Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, or Richard Wright, stands up by any criteria to the best writing of their day.

The foreign reader has of course everything to learn. All he can do is take up a Dalit book and read. But if he chooses a typical writer his critical reactions will be the same as to a Western or even a Brahmin author. I tried Harum-scarum Saar & Other Stories of 2006 by the Dalit writer in Tamil who signs herself Bam. Her ten tales deal with lower caste rural life in Tamil Nadu state. The characters struggle beneath the weight of the Brahmanical order but within those confines their humanity effervesces as it might in Chekhov or Maupassant. There's subversion between the lines and in irreverent remarks and raucous behavior. Moreover, the sudden explosions of anger of these humble people suggest trouble ahead for the powers that be.

Take Malandi who broke his leg and had to borrow 200 rupees for his treatment. He's already paid 1000 rupees in interest, but the principal remains. Now the money-lending landowner threatens to take his water buffalo, which is his only means of subsistence. Malandi has sharpened the animal's horns. He has always treated it like a person, murmuring into its ear. When he says the word it will tear the upper caste creditor's intestines out.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 14, 2010