My Journey with “Dalit Literature and Culture”


                                                                                                                                                                                    –Sandra Cuadra


   As one gets older the chances of having a completely eye opening experience get smaller and smaller. Thanks to the media and a more internationally minded conscious, it is hard to find a topic that one knows nothing about. That is what this course was to me. As naïve as it sounds, I knew nothing about the caste system in India, and had only heard the term Untouchable a couple of times in my life. This class opened new doors for me as it made me see the real life situation in India as well as explore a literature that was completely foreign to me.

            It always amazes me to see just how far people go in dehumanizing others. I find that need we seem to have of placing some above and some below both revolting and fascinating at the same time. This is why learning about the caste system was almost addictive. At first glance, the caste system in India seemed like a perfect master plan of subjection and domination where the idea of one group being better than the next was not just enforced by the legal system but by religion. When one puts religion into something it is very hard to step away from it. India is divided into Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras, with Untouchables under these four groups. The divisions go further as each caste is subdivided. There are so many rules and regulations for how each caste should behave, and what each group must do that keeping up with them seemed almost impossible. The system is so complex that it seems every possible scenario was thought of when making all the rules. Although the new constitution makes castes illegal, the readings of this course clearly show it will take more that new laws to eradicate this system.

            The historical background of India is captivating. It has had to deal with foreigners for a long time. With the British in 1646, India slowly began to lose control of powerful institutions and it wasn’t until the 1900’s that a call for nationalism began to be heard. Although India was no stranger to foreigners in its land (Muslims had been there for quite some time) the British began taking over everything, including private space and did not want to keep to themselves. Gandhi, probably the only Indian scholar I knew before taking this course, began to preach for self rule by the name of swaraj. Eventually, a new constitution was drafted by Ambedkar and India got its self rule yet internal problems within the Indian people have proven hard to solve.

            Before taking this course I knew nothing of Indian writers, scholars, activists, or political leaders. The only name I knew was Gandhi’s. I always thought of Gandhi as almost saintly; as a man who gave his life up for a greater cause, a man who believed in non violence to the point of endangering his own life in order to keep his ideals pure. Needless to say, this course completely destroyed that illusion. Now Gandhi is no longer a personal hero but a man who did the best he could, and although his work is amazing, it is not one I completely agree with. Because Gandhi truly believed in Hinduism and felt that the problems arose because it was practiced and interpreted wrongly, he did not want to separate Dalits from Hindu society. Therefore he was against Dalits having their own separate electorates, and went on a fast until death to get his wish. He also self proclaimed himself the speaker for Dalits, and I am against the idea of self proclaiming oneself as anything. If one wishes to represent a group, that group should give its consent publicly. Although I see Gandhi as a great man he is no longer that saintly person because I would have put the interest of the people first and those of India second. I can appreciate his methods and his courage but he is no longer a personal hero.

            This course left me with a great knowledge of Ambedkar. Much of the Dalit work we read praised Ambedkar and claimed him responsible for the Dalit Movement. I feel that I am more like Ambedkar in his being so pro action. He is a man to be admired for having overcome adversity as he was a Dalit too, and yet was able to get an education and come back to his country to help it move forward. He drafted the constitution that made castes and dowry illegal, and tried to unify Dalits. One thing I completely disagree with though was his use of Buddhism. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism not as a conversion of faith but as a slick political move. It was his public denouncement of Hinduism and he called for all Dalits to convert and leave Hinduism behind. Although I agree that Hinduism was doing nothing for the Untouchables, people should not switch faiths if there is no real belief. I know this is not the case in much of India’s history as many used Christianity as a means to escape Hinduism but I still do not agree. I also did not like how Ambedkar did very little for women and his methods seemed relatively guided by tunnel vision.

            I believe the man I admire the most from what I learned in the course is Jotirao Phule. He also came from an Untouchable family and was a firm believer in education. He also included women in his work. What I read from his work was very inspiring. He used psychological shock as a method of getting a passionate response from his readers and after reading his essays, it seems impossible to remain calm and passive. Phule wanted to upset the lower castes into arguing, thinking and fighting, and I believe his method was brilliant. I do acknowledge the power Ambedkar had on the communities but Phule just seems more honest than Ambedkar. Ultimately, if I had to choose just one of these three great men to follow, and all three lived in the same time, it would be Jotirao Phule without a doubt.

            Reading about Untouchables and Outcastes was a very emotional task. These people face hardships every day and are put down constantly. What really upset me was how obvious their oppression was. Every corner of the world has some problem with oppression and equality but it is usually hidden or masked. This gives the excuse of not doing anything about it since people argue it is not there. However, India’s oppression is so visible, and so out there that it troubles me how nothing is being done about it, at least not by those in power who could bring about change faster. What troubles me is how the inequality is so systematic because that makes it so much harder to tackle down. Discrimination against Untouchables is in religion, in the system, and worst of all, in the minds of those who are “above” them in rank.

            Language was a very interesting aspect of the course. First how to name Untouchables proved to be a long and confusion chore. Gandhi called them Harijans (sons of God), which apparently many Untouchables did not like. They were also called Scheduled Castes because they were scheduled for rewards. Another name was depressed castes but this did not seem so popular. Definitely the most popular name is Dalits, meaning oppressed or broken. It is a name Ambedkar is given credit for and one that has named not only the people but their movement. The term Dalits evokes power as it shows who they are and what they have been put through but not in a self denigrating way. It is a powerful name and I believe that is why it is so popular. It no longer means just caste but is now a symbol for change and revolution.

Another interesting aspect of language is the widespread use of English in Dalit literature. English has taken force as a means of combating tradition and using Sanskrit. It is a way that Dalits fight the system. They also go against tradition in the literary sense by incorporating vernacular language and curse words in their works. This is done to get the most accurate depiction of their reality possible. This move is important because authors did not use swear words in the works before, as literature was supposed to be something beautiful and over worldly. Swear words give a detailed picture of the relationship between castes and the authenticity of the literary work.

A very difficult question I encountered in this class was who can write Dalit Literature? Is it only Dalits since they have a unique point of view and have experienced what they write or is imagination enough to portray an accurate depiction of their lives? As I read the assignments my mind switched back and forth between the two sides. First I believed that anyone can write Dalit Literature because as long as one truly understands what they go through then one can write about it. Then I changed my mind and believed only Dalits can write Dalit literature because they are the only ones that know what they have lived through and so they are the best ones to share their experiences with the world. Now, I think I stand somewhere in the middle. As much as I believe only Dalits can give Dalit literature that special spark I do think that it should not be banned for everyone else. Supportive literature is important and it should be a form of compliment to Dalits to have others write about what they go through. It is a way to get their message across faster and with a stronger voice if more people join in. I do agree with many that only Dalits can write Dalit literature because only they have lived in their reality but I also think that no topic should be monopolized by a group of people.

            Dalit Literature is marked by revolt and negativism as it is closely associated with the hopes of the future of the group of people who are oppressed, and victimized on a daily basis. It is a literary expression of awareness, and a means of provoking change. What amazes me of Dalit Literature is how it can be so negative yet always have an optimistic undertone. It is always in a social context as that is where the struggle lives. The poems read in this course were all beautiful. They all had elements of confusion, fear, power, and revolt. They could be extremely meek and extremely strong at the same time and I found that incredible. Some works had irony that seemed so wicked it was almost cruel yet its touch was original. An example of this would be “The Poisoned Bread” where the old man finally sees how he should stop begging for food yet he dies that night from the scraps he received.

            Many of the poems serve as a means for the author to reveal the daily life of Dalits. They are ways to express pain and suffering while at the same time show just how bad their lives can be. A poem I really enjoyed was “Mother”. This poem is very structured in the sense that it repeats one phrase over the length of the poem, “Mother I have seen you”. This simple phrase is so powerful because it shows how no one ever saw his mother; no one took the slightest notice of her, except her son. “Bossom Friend” is another poem I really liked because it shows how difficult it is for upper caste and lower caste individuals to truly be friends and leave caste aside. I think this poem clearly exposes the problems India faces today.

            Short stories have always been a favorite of mine and I really enjoyed reading Dalits work on this genera. Dalit short stories always end negatively, always sad, and some have that touch of wicked irony. The stories seem simple to the naked eye but they are really complex in that they symbolize different things and have subtle references that provoked the reader. Dalit short stories are not the typical stories with a concrete beginning, middle and end but rather begin with no beginning and end with no conclusion. This is a way of expressing real life for how can a writer end a story when Dalit problems have had no ending yet. It is a way of showing how the issues of the story are truly alive in the real world. The tradition to end in a negative tone is one of defiance to Sanskrit where happy endings are the norm. It is also a way to show how tragedy has no easy fix and has no simple transition.

The clash between violence and law was an interesting one to explore in the context of Untouchables and India. I believe that, keeping in mind just how oppressed Untouchables are, it is amazing that no massive violent outcry was mentioned in Dalit Literature. It surprised me to read how it was those in power who did most of the massive violent acts. Of course since it is the ones in power who commit the crimes there are no repercussions. I found this topic really interesting in how it mentioned what Untouchables feel about this reality. Many of them seem outraged by the injustices they face, generally the younger generations, yet at the same time some feel that that is the natural way to go and that there is no way to solve the issues at hand. This latter group of people is usually the older generations who have become more accustomed to their way of life and ultimately have reached a point where the dehumanization they have endured has made them somewhat hopeless for change.

Autobiographies have never been my cup of tea but reading Dalit autobiographical works was a real treat. India seems to have a mentality that does not include autobiographies as worthy literature but I completely disagree. It takes just as much talent to write about ones own life as it does to write anything else. I believe autobiographies are particularly powerful for Dalits since they are a great method to give life to their message. They can show the life of an Untouchable in a way that no other genera can. After reading the first autobiography I was worried that all Dalit autobiographies would be the same and that reading one would be the equivalent of reading all. I was wrong. After reading more autobiographies I understood how, even though they all talk about the same thing, the ways the author shows his life is always different and emphasis is always placed on different things. Each autobiography brings something new and interesting so it was not boring to read many, but actually rewarding since I feel that I got a more accurate and general picture of Dalit life now.

A very interesting and unexpected genera covered in class was the interview. One of the readings was an interview of a Dalit village woman and reading it was worthwhile. The interview dealt with women’s issues but more than that, it was an emotional revelation of the hardships that particular woman had to face. What was amazing was how she wanted to fight and do something about it, regardless of her age and her status. I loved when she told the interviewer “Don’t just interview- organize us! I am ready to fight!” The article also explored how Dalit activists sometimes neglect women’s issues because they are worried of the greater goal of castes. It also showed the sad reality of how the women were not scared to fight as they claimed that if they were put in jail then they would at least have food to eat. The idea of being willing to lose your freedom to fight for your rights is courageous, and I loved how those words came out of an old woman. It really gives strength to the optimistic idea that anyone can make a difference in life.

Dalit women and gender issues was one of the last topics covered in the course, and I was worried they would be ignored. Most of the Dalit work read did not really mention women, and if it did it was done briefly and as a transition to something else. However, when I read the works of women it was well worth the wait. Their works explored the intersectionality of class and gender, and reveled how much harder it can be for a women who has the double burden of work and home. I did feel that these writings regarded marriage very negatively, and I do not know if it is because that is how life truly is or because as feminists they regard marriage as a tool men use to control women. As a complete romanticist I believe in love and marriage and the happily ever afters, and although I know things can go wrong I do not like such negative attitudes about love and marriage. However I am not blind to domestic violence and to the abuse many women suffer daily. I understand why women can have such a hard time, especially if the home is a battle field as well as the outside world. I think this is one of the saddest realities of Indian village life because if a woman cannot go home and be at peace then her life is truly miserable. If men have all control then women are left with no one to go to for help.

Some of the problems with women’s rights that I read about are not only in India. The fact that women cannot speak out against rapists and that victims get blamed for the crime is a worldwide reality. It is sad but true just how far men go to blame women for things that are beyond their control. Somehow, if a young girl gets raped on her way home it is her fault for “tempting” or simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. There is also the lack of sexual education that makes unwanted pregnancies a constant problem. Women do not want to go on birth control because they fear it will conflict with their bodies and their health, and leave them incapacitated for work in the fields. Men refuse birth control because they fear it will reduce their manhood. So, because of misconceptions and a fear caused by lack of education, women get pregnant, and have to deal with their situation by dangerous abortions or bringing a child into the world when they have very little to survive. Although I know these problems are worldwide it does upset me to see how young girls have to suffer from things that could be avoided easily.

I believe that the hardest thing for women is how they have so little hope for the future. History seems to show how men help themselves first and then women. So if India needs to work on castes and inequality it will do so before properly addressing women’s rights. As a woman it really upsets me to see girls get married so young and men having so much control. As much as I can appreciate tradition, some traditions are no longer appropriate and should be altered. Bama was one of my favorite books to read because it was so honest and so well written. The author explored all the aspects of growing up an Untouchable, and a girl. She revealed the secrets that go on inside the household and a marriage that all other writers ignored. She also had a new critical mentality when writing her autobiography so her work made the reader think as well as enjoy. I really liked this work because of its honesty, and its inclusion of both the good things and the bad. 

I believe this course was good in showing the life of Untouchable women, men, and children. All stages of life were subjects in the poems, the short stories or the autobiographies. This gave me a complete picture of life for Untouchables as it varies greatly from man to woman, and child to adult. I cannot think which type of person has it the hardest. It is painful to read about children going to bed hungry and cold as much as it is to read about women being beaten by their husbands. At the same time I can only imagine the pressure a man must feel knowing he has a family to take care of, and no means to do so. Therefore I really liked how all aspects and stages of life were topics in the readings since this way I was able to see every single scenario in the Untouchable’s lives.

One of the greatest things I am taking from this course is how now I know the truth of many things I used to simply believe in. I always knew India suffered from poverty and lack of jobs but I never thought it was all so systematic and controlled. I could never have imagined how much power upper castes have on lower castes. I had heard the women’s rights in India were being addressed more and more since the number of women in politics was growing. However, the readings in this course made me see how that does not mean that positive action is taking place. Women are still subject to domestic abuse, lower wages than men, and unwanted marriages. There is a fear of speaking out against the social and political status quo that halts all efforts for improvement in the country. The idea that poor, uneducated people simply accept their situation was greatly challenged by this class as the entire course reveals how even the lowest caste can create a social movement and their very own literature.

The future for India and Untouchables is something I dare not even guess. I have absolutely no idea how long they will have to struggle to get the rights they deserve. Laws change overnight but opinions can last forever and this is why I fear for Untouchable’s future. I believe it will be very hard for them to change the points of view of upper caste people and make everyone feel equal. I think no country has reached that point of equality where mindsets forget the discrimination and prejudice, and just see the person. I hope Dalits keep their movement growing and that their literature is given the criticism it deserves. After all, it is amazing to have such good literature come out of a group of people who are denied an education, and the very basic rights we take for granted. That fact that their literature also serves as a social movement could only have been expected.

The reading for this course showed me so much of a topic I knew absolutely nothing about. Because I knew so little it could have been easy to shape my mind and point of view in one particular direction but I feel that the readings were good in showing both sides of the story. This way I can be confident that my opinion is truly my own and not anyone else’s. I learned a lot about India’s history and culture which I really liked and would be interested to know more about. Learning about Untouchables was hard at first because I had to keep an open mind and not judge the system while taking it all in. Yet in the end it was worth the struggle because I feel that I know about a group of people that many ignore and with what I know I can go on learning and take the next step. The course was difficult in the sense that it opened my eyes to a completely new culture that is very different from my own and so it was somewhat hard to relate certain things if I looked at everything too closely. But if I took one step back and looked at the bigger picture I could relate to everything and connect everything I read about to my life and what I see now. The course opened new channels in the sense that it made me see different ways of life and new ways of struggle and think of them in an analytical way. I truly enjoyed this course because I took so much out of it. It is one of those classes where I will remember everything I learned years from now and use it in the ways I see the world.

The journey taken in the class was a very interesting one. I went in knowing nothing about a group of people and an entire literary movement, and came out knowing more than I could ever have imagined. The course gave me more experience in reading analytically and taking more from a literary work than just its narrative. I really enjoyed being able to talk freely about issues that I knew nothing about because I feel this was what made me comfortable enough with the subject to be able to question it and learn. I know there is much more Dalit literature out there, and I definitely want to keep going and read more. I am also happy to be more socially aware of the reality that is going on in India and want to keep track of Dalits progress in the political and social arena. This course, although giving me so much, left me wanting more and I think that is what made it worth taking. I learned a lot but now I am also driven to keep searching for more literature and more information of Untouchables in India.

                                                                                                                                                      December 6, 2007

Published in: on జనవరి 27, 2008 at 2:33 సా.  వ్యాఖ్యానించండి  

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