A Literary Renaissance for India’s Untouchables

A Literary Renaissance for India’s Untouchables

By Sanjena Sathian


Because a new wave of literature could become the voice of the lowest caste of Indians.

By Sanjena Sathian

There is a bookstore in south Mumbai that has a special section, separate from history, politics or literature. One simply titled Writings by and about Mahatma Gandhi. India loves this founding father; in almost every city, you will find a road named after him.

But one particular founding father’s legacy is slightly more complicated for the country. Plenty of streets carry his namesake too, but there is no section of that bookstore named for B. R. Ambedkar — the man who led the writing of an independent India’s constitution, who didn’t often get along with Gandhi. To find the inheritors of Ambedkar, you have to rifle around a bit. Look for them under the category of Dalit Literature — “Dalit” refers to the “untouchable” caste, the one referring to people so low on the social strata that they were officially not even included in the four rungs of the Hindu caste system. They span the many languages — Hindi, Bangla, Telugu — and the religions, since even converting away from Hinduism hasn’t saved many from their stigma. There are poets and novelists and essayists and theorists; there are more available on the shelves than there once were, though still the numbers are small.

S. Anand, founder of anti-caste publishing house Navayana, says that after more than 10 years in the business, his outfit — the go-to for most texts on caste in the country — is sustainable at last. The “odd book,” he says, sells over 10,000 copies. (In India, a huge divide remains between literary and commercial fiction — the latter sells in the millions; the former in the thousands.) You can see Dalit voices springing up more, at a time when India is embroiled in debates over institutionalized discrimination, and as the horrifying statistics estimated by human-rights groups persist (each week, 21 Dalit women are raped, 5 Dalit homes are burned and 13 Dalits are murdered). It seems inevitable that literary voices would emerge to make sense of it all. “The awareness is increasing, definitely,” says Anand Teltumbde, a left-of-center writer and columnist who often comments on Dalit issues in the Indian press. 

He dates that kind of Harlem Renaissance in Dalit literature to the 1960s and 1970s in Maharashtra — the state that houses Mumbai — and the rise of radical groups like the Dalit Panthers, modeled after the Black Panthers.

The presence of Dalit voices isn’t new; indeed, some of India’s “richest” literary traditions come from Dalit writers, like Bhakti, devotional poetry, says Anand. But Dalit work is appearing in a new manifestation, says acclaimed Dalit Hindi-language writer Ajay Navaria, who’s also had his work translated and published in AustraliaNavaria, author of Unclaimed Terrain, among other books, tells OZY over email (though his spoken English lacks any audible flaw, he preferred to communicate in his second language in writing) that the first iteration of Dalit literature was about “rural realities and atrocities.” Today, more urban-dwelling writers are emerging, ones who Navaria believes can stage a protest in a stronger fashion. Some authors of this next generation, he writes, “haven’t faced untouchability or physical violence as the previous generation had faced.” There are cops and courts and human-rights groups; educated and progressive non-Dalits also support them. “But in cities, one can feel that there is a disguised kind of hatred,” he adds. (In many villages, Jim Crow–style rule of law remains the norm, with Dalits kept segregated and abused for crossing implicit boundaries, Anand says.)


To offer an American parallel, this storyline of the evolution of Dalit literature sounds not unlike the tumbling on of Black literature — from slave narratives that were political just by virtue of being written to the rise of urban poets and playwrights in the Harlem Renaissance to today, when even discussing “Black literature” as a monolith seems clearly problematic. Anand dates that kind of Harlem Renaissance in Dalit literature to the 1960s and 1970s in Maharashtra — the state that houses Mumbai — and the rise of radical groups like the Dalit Panthers, modeled after the Black Panthers. A few decades later, in the 1990s, Anand says the country started to “remember” Ambedkar at the 100th anniversary of his birth, and the writings and biography of this founding father whose eloquence and careful fury both bear some resemblance to James Baldwin became a “rallying point.” Before, the government had “reduced him to postage stamps,” Anand says.

”Bash them, kick them,

skin these bastards alive!

God is one, they claim

but build a different temple on each street.

We are all God’s children, they say, 

yet they shrink from us holeya as if we’re snakes.

No entry for us to their inns, their wells, their houses.

But dogs that lick our shit may share their rooms.

They eat what we grow, take the sweat of our brow.

It’s only us people they shun…”

—excerpted from “A Song,” by Karnataka poet Siddalingaiah, which appeared in Steel Nibs Are Sprouting: New Dalit Writing from South India

It’s fitting that one of Navayana’s bestselling projects, Anand says, is an Ambedkar text, specifically, a seminal, uncompromising, radical speech he was never able to deliver in real life, called The Annihilation of Caste, which Navayana released with meaty annotations and commentary from Booker Prize–winning novelist Arundhati Roy. “Unfortunately,” Anand says, because a similar venture by a Dalit author doesn’t capture people in the tens of thousands yet, “even to get people to Ambedkar, you need Arundhati Roy.”

And some might say that even getting people to read Ambedkar — a historical figure, no longer around to lead the troops himself — or to write with Ambedkar coursing through their veins is not enough. The political realities of protection for Dalits, or lack thereof, says Teltumbde, are “patchwork.” And literature? “Yes, literature is there,” he says. ”But I don’t think any impact is there — only that it makes you weep.” Teltumbde worries too much Dalit literature is poetry, which he calls “a sophisticated way of crying over your situation.” Dalits, he says, “need to introspect and relate to the soil that they’re standing on.”

The good news, in his view, is that prose can do this — essays, fervent, relatable stuff. Which recalls what Ambedkar wrote in Annihilation: “The entire destiny of a country depends on its intellectual class” — and, we might add, what they have on their bookshelves.