• On Dalit Autobiographies

    An extract from Locating Indian Literature: Texts, Traditions, Translations by E. V. Ramakrishnan

    August 18, 2017

    The kind of experiences which are narrated in Dalit autobiographies have had no models before. One of the first points that strikes the readers of Akkarmashi by Sharankumar Limbale is the dehumanising impact of caste oppression in Hindu society. His autobiography documents his struggles against poverty, deprivation, discrimination and caste violence. His family rarely enjoys a square meal. He rightly compares himself to Jarasandha, the mythological character who is torn apart and joined together repeatedly. Limbale’s house, like many others in the Maharwada, was involved in the business of brewing illicit liquor. He writes,"Our house was crammed with customers. Sometimes they continued drinking late into the night and we went to sleep while they were still there. Sometimes there was a quarrel. Often they arrived when we were having our meal. They kept vomiting even as we ate" (2003, 29). The routinised violence of this everyday existence recurs in many other Dalit autobiographies. The experiences recounted here suggest that their ordinary selves are in constant conflict with their environment. In Limbale’s narrative, very often, Dalits have to compete with animals around them in their struggle for survival. After narrating an incident of stealing bhakri (unleavened bread), Limbale writes,

    Bhakri is as large as man. It is as vast as the sky, and bright like the sun. Hunger is bigger than man. Hunger is more vast than the seven circles of hell. Man is only as big as a bhakri, and only as big as his hunger. Hunger is more powerful than man. A single stomach is like the whole earth. . . . There would have been no wars if there was no hunger. What about stealing and fighting? If there was no hunger what would have happened to sin and virtue, heaven and hell, this creation of God?

    If there was no hunger how could a country, its borders, citizens, Parliament, Constitution come into being? The world is born from a stomach, so also the links between mother and father, sister and brother (50–1).

    This is a world view which takes for its starting point the contingency of everyday life involved in the struggle for survival. It also highlights the centrality of the caste body in the Dalit narrative. Hunger, as an every-day experience, refers to the irreducible fact of the primacy of the body. Caste system spatially organises society, severely limiting the mobility of the lower castes and confining them to the ghettos. The narrative of Dalit autobiography puts the caste body at the centre, problematising the relationship between the individual and the society. While the self is an elusive entity which can be conceived of in transcendental terms, the fini-tude of the body cannot be reduced to anything other than itself and in this sense, forms an absolute condition that cannot be transcended. Dalit autobiographies can contest prevalent historical discourses because they are engaged in recovering the discourses of history centred around phys-ical abuse and oppression. They do not conceive of the self in transcen-dental terms.

    Laxman Mane, in his autobiography Upara, shows the difference between his kaikadi community and the middle-class Maharashtrians, when he says that he could not understand the language they spoke in school. He writes, "I knew only our kaikadi dialect whereas all others knew Marathi which I could hardly understand" (1997, 23). As he belonged to a nomadic tribe, his family was constantly on the move, and every time they moved to a new village, his father would request the teacher of the village to enrol Mane. There are several scenes in his autobiography where Mane witnesses violence and humiliation. In one such incident, his parents are paraded almost naked by caste Hindus. Humiliation becomes a mode of understanding the social system. While reminiscing about working in a restaurant during his school days, Mane writes, "The art of earning people’s trust was acquired by me right from my childhood. Besides, servility ran in my blood" (130). Humiliation also breeds resistance which is internalised. It is articulated only when a socially coherent discourse becomes available for its expression. The Dalit movement made such a discourse available. The discourse of Dalit autobiography is anchored in the social context of resistance and affirmation.

    Louis Dumont, in his Homo Hierarchichus, identifies the contradiction between purity and pollution as central to the ideology of caste structure. Partha Chatterjee, in his critique of Dumont, notes that caste system could be maintained only through a structure of reproduction and subordination of the lower caste body (1997, 194). The caste system imprisons the body in a social system that appears natural but is in reality constructed through social practices. Dalit autobiography addresses this very hegemonic structure of the caste system. What appears natural is obviously ideologically constructed. It is by appealing to the moral corruption of the society which legitimises the caste oppression that Dalit autobiographies bring out the constructed quality of the social system. Shankarrao Kharat, in his autobiographical narrative, describes an episode where a constable forces his father to fish out a bloated dead body from a well. After describing the gruesome incident, Kharat reveals that Mahars had actually fought for the right to recover dead bodies as a caste right. He writes, "Only after I myself had become an advocate did I learn that for the sake of this hereditary right the Mahars had played the game of litigation right upto the high court" (Dangle 1992, 6). Dalit autobiographies recognise the power of ideology that imprisons them and provides a critique of the paradigms that validate the social oppression. In this sense, they are addressing the very social process of Dalit subjugation. As Laxman Gaikwad notes in his autobiography, The Branded: Uchalya,

    In our community young apprentices (boys and girls) start their training with lessons in being beaten. They are trained to withstand physical beatings and all sorts of torture so that they will not disclose the names of their colleagues when caught and tortured by police for information.They are trained to be tough and not to crack up when severely tortured (1998, 6).


    Excerpt from Locating Indian Literature: Texts, Traditions, Translations by E. V. Ramakrishnan, pp. 66-68, © Orient BlackSwan 2017. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.

    Also read E.V. Ramakrishnan's poem "The Darkest Word in the Dictionary" published in Guftugu here.

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