Poems of Pain and Stories of Sadness: Dalit Literature

During my short stint in university I had the fortune of reading several poems and short stories by members of the Dalit community. The read was challenging but I persevered. In brought me a little closer to understanding something of Subaltern life. As the issue of caste-descrimination is a hot topic in the UK, I thought to share this short written piece--simple as it is.  It may inspire you to read some Dalit literature. 

Fifteen years ago I was entrenched in a tremendous conflict with the head of the Bungis or sweepers, Sundar lal , who was neither cleaning my toilets properly nor allowing me to clean them. Being from Britain and working in India, I more or less accepted the status quo of the village I lived in and Sundarlal was just a part of it: a part that gave me tremendous grief. However, I just could n’t live with unclean toilets and I thus challenged Sundar lal’s right to clean them. Needless to say after blocking all the drains, leaving the rubbish to pile up for weeks and threatening violence, Sundarlal won the dispute and returned to not properly cleaning my toilets.  Defeated by Sundar lal  I was more peaceful aside from the fact that the toilets then remained almost untouchable. Looking back today I now question if Sundar lal was victorious in regaining his rights over my toilets or was this small victory only part of a greater  defeat-the ‘abject submission’ of the millions in India who have become known as the ‘untouchables’.
   Since the 1950’s an entire genre of literature including poetry, short stories and autobiographies have come forward from the ‘untouchable’ or Dalit community of India (Dangle 1992:7). Through this literature they tell their harrowing story and by doing so they convey their struggle to the literate world.  In this essay, I will discuss  a selection of such poems and a short story while bringing attention to the main characteristics of this genre and by which it may be identified.

Candalas, Untouchables and Dalits
In South Asian there were four recognised social divisions or varnas known as Brahmin, Ksatriya, Vaisya and Sudra[1]. Amongst those who fell outside of such categorisation, the Candalas (untouchables) were considered to be the lowest of all. In An Introduction to Hinduism, the author Gavin Flood describes Candalas as follows : ‘ Untouchables had no place within the higher social orders, living outside of the villages, as Manu directs, and living by performing menial and polluting tasks such as working with leather and sweeping excrement from the village’ ( Flood 1996: 61). Flood also explains that on entering a village the Candalas would have to strike a piece of wood to warn others of their presence and if per chance they happened to touch a Brahmin, the Brahmin would have to immediately take bath. Thus, in time the Candalas became known to the western word as the ‘untouchables’.  The Marathi word ‘Dalit’ meaning broken, was used during 19th century by reformists in referring to ‘caste oppression’, however it’s acceptance and popularity as a name for  the Untouchables only came to popularity in the 1970s due to the activists from the untouchable Mahar caste (Mendelson, Vicziany 1998:4).

Dalit Literature: Brace Yourself
It is difficult to simply make a cold and academic statement about the nature and character of Dalit literature. The truth is that it is gripping and tormenting.  It draws you into a world of tangled emotions that may either conclude in utter defeat or rebellion.  The mere reading of the literature’s continued proclamation of ‘pain’, either from hunger, labour or social inequality, tends to leave one with an aching sense of helplessness and even, sadly--pointlessness.  Perhaps, that is due to fact that many of the stories conclude negatively and in hopelessness.  Rarely, is there light at the end of the tunnel. After having read a selection of such writings from the anthology edited by Arjan Dangle, Poisoned Bread, which I will be referring to in the essay; I am left with the thought ‘should I just close this book and get on with my insignificant yet comfortable life’ or should I abandon all and join in the fight for equality for the Dalits’. It is a powerful body of literature, without doubt.

Poems of Pain
Dalit literature is presented mainly in the form of poems, short stories and autobiographies.  However, pain, despondency, negativity, frustration, humiliation, submission and rebellion (just to mention a few) are common themes throughout. Although Arjun Dangle sums up the nature of the writings as ‘negativism and revolt’ (Dangle 1992:6), I would go further to say that some writings are like a literal form of crying. One gets the sense of helpless people, almost mourning a life that never should have been and resigning themselves to its misery.
    In Pralhad Chendwanar’s poem My Father (Dangle 1992:16), he writes about the great hope his father had, that by educating his son; his life would be transformed for the better.  However after having waged his entire life and everything he had for this end, his son was no better off. In fact he may well have been worse off, as he could not even afford to buy Jalebis or sacrifice a goat as his father did on occasions. In the end his father beats his wrists on a solid way until the point of his own collapse and he dies along with his hope. Chendwanar does not end on a happy note and neither does he insist on living in pursuit of our dreams.  Pessimistically he refers to his father’s hope as if false by saying ‘the dream creeper bears flowers of reality’. Chendwanar’s appears almost indifferent to the tragedy, as if an observer rather than a son.  All that remained consistent for him was his father’s grubby traditional clothes and the adverse poverty that they lived in. 
  In the poem Mother by Waman Nimbalkar (Dangle 1992:36), he relates a pitiful sight of his family huddle at the door of a hut without food or light, waiting for their mother.  His mother collected wood ‘legs a totter’ to feed the family some morsels.  If she had no wood they would starve. The poem begins with the ‘death of daylight’ and the ‘reign of darkness’ as they waited for their mother. She is then bitten by a snake while out collecting wood and thus the poem goes on to conclude with: ‘the day ends. So does her life’.  The poem conveys an overall sense of ill-omen and gloom. Even when the children cry their grief ‘melts into the air’. Again it’s a sad poem and the grieving appears to fulfil no other end than melting into the air, nothing changes, there only further melancholy. In this poem as with My Father, we find a sense of resignation to hardship.
  Beyond the indifference and melancholy we also find a tremendous expression of despair and this is notable in This Country is Broken by Bapurao Jagtap (Dangle:1992: 37). Jagtap sees his country and the its people as ‘broken into to thousands of pieces’. He condemns the country’s religion as ‘heartless’ and proclaims that the ‘screams’ of his people’s despair will write the ‘chronicles’ of India. The poem ends with his resolve that it would be best to quit India and go to another country, where at least you can have a roof over your head and a cemetery that will receive you when you are dead.
   In Caves by Jyoti Lanjewar (Dangle 1992:22), we see that the pain of life as an untouchable does not turn to melancholy or despair; rather it turns to cold calculative rebellion. The poem is a statement of power in that it begins with Lanjewar saying that his heart is ‘made of rock’ and that the ‘inhuman atrocities’ are carved in it like ‘caves’. This power is also felt in the fact that he declares India, a country which is celebrated as ‘mother’[2], as a land that ‘was never a mother to us’. And a country that had failed to provide them a life standard of even ‘cats and dogs’. He speaks of being ‘wary’ in changing times, where ‘sparks’ of rebellion are appearing. Having been silent and listening, he has now decided to become a ‘rebel’.
  Taking these few poems as representative of many others we can see that the characteristics that appear again and again are pain, melancholy and despair which either lead to the resignation or rebellion.

A Short Story of Crushed Hope
In the short story Mother by Baburao Bagul (Dangle 1992: 183), the same distinct traits of pain, despair and helplessness are found. It is a story of a boy named Pandu, who is the son of a widow. Due his mother’s having an affair, Pandu is ridiculed at school and on returning home he discovers it is true. Dejected he cries in the street and a crowd gathers around him. Just then his mother returns and on realising what is happening she curses everyone including Pandu. When she then tries to make up with Pandu he runs away. Alone she then reflects on the hardship of her own life and how she only lives for Pandu.  After years of abuse from her now deceased husband, her needs had taken prominence.  In fear and silence she waits for her son to return. Just then her lover arrives and takes her in his arms. And thus she fails to notice the arrival of Pandu. When she does it’s too late and distraught at what he sees, Pandu runs away with the dogs ‘barking at his heels’.
   This is not just a sad story but it is a story of ‘crushed hope’. In the beginning the author Bagul writes of the ‘mother’s lap’ being the only secure place for such destitute children. However, that ‘warmth’ and security do not last long in the story.  Feeling rage, helplessness and hatred, Pandu attempts to cope with his mother’s infidelity. His mother on the other hand is suffering amongst her own set of problems. Her husband had mistreated her, her neighbour lustfully stalked her, the local men had tried to abduct her and because of this the women hated her. Her life was hell and whatever personal opportunity she may have had she had sacrificed for the sake of Pandu.  In the end of the story when things could have possibly improved with Pandu returning home, they did not. Pandu was crushed by what he saw and his mother was helpless.  Pandu and his mother are victims of destiny, trapped by unfavourable circumstance with no way out. In the last word of the story, Bagul sets this helplessness in concrete by saying ‘She was trying to escape from the bear-like hug of the overseer. But like a person stuck in a quagmire, she found release impossible...’

These poems and short story are highly typical of Dalit literature in general.  They speak of the endless pain felt by the outcastes of society, a pain that turns to tears, anger and despair.  The stories are provocative and upsetting. They can be melancholic or plainly negative. Some are explosive with emotion and others carry an indifference that appears symptomatic of raw emotion persevered until deadened.  While some of the characters rebel and stand up against the atrocity, many more, simply submit to the miserable life they have with all hope extinguished.
    The last time I visited India I met Sundar lal, my toilet cleaner of the past. He stood before me as always with his hands folded as if to pray and wished me all the best in life. His health was bad and he was slight of build. Reflecting on that image now I do question whither Sundar lal had been the winner.


Dangle, Arjun, ed. (1992) Poisoned Bread. Translation from Marathi Dalit Literature. London: Sangam Books.
Flood, Gavin (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mendelson, Oliver and Vicziany, Marika (1998) The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] These four varnas represent respectively the priestly class, the warriors, the mercantile and labourers.
[2] Vande Mataram (Bow to thee Mother) is the National song of India written by Bankim Chandra

Popular Posts