The Dissenting Voices of Dalit Women Writers: Breaking Away from Narratives of Victimhood

Sandrine Soukaï


Electronic reference

Sandrine Soukaï, « The Dissenting Voices of Dalit Women Writers: Breaking Away from Narratives of Victimhood », Archipélies [Online], 10 | 2020, Online since 15 December 2020, connection on 23 April 2024. URL :

From the late 19th century onwards, the Indian nationalist movement offered a seemingly inclusive, yet Hindu-dominated image of the nation and so did Indian national historiography for four decades after independence. This vision was challenged in subaltern studies, in the Partition literature of the early 1980s, and in the feminist historiography of the 1990s. Dalit literatures, which timidly appeared internationally then, perfectly illustrate Jacques Rancière’s analysis of the literary as a realm of ‘‘dissensus’’ that can disturb and redefine systems of divisions and hierarchies of the aesthetic-political sphere. Dalit literatures emerged as a political tool, but they have been accused of promoting a culture of sentimentality for political gain and of homogenising Dalit identity. I study the dissenting voices of three Dalit female writers whose works undermine intersecting caste and gender discriminations. The article examines the literary specificities, in both form and content, of the texts under scrutiny. Faustina’s Sangati, Sivakami’s The Grip of Change and Shyamala’s Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… break away with tales of oppression and refuse to confine Dalit women to the role of victims given to them both by Hindu nationalist and Western orientalist discourses. Instead, they place marginalised Dalit women at the centre of at times crude, at times astonishingly humorous narratives.

Dès la fin du 19e siècle, le mouvement nationaliste indien offrit une vision apparemment inclusive de la nation indienne qui était cependant dominée par une identité hindoue. L’historiographie nationale des quatre décennies suivant l’indépendance, perpétua cette vision. Elle fut remise en question par les études subalternes, par la littérature de la Partition au début des années 1980 et par l’historiographie féministe des années 1990. Les littératures dalit, qui apparurent progressivement sur la scène internationale à cette époque, illustrent parfaitement l’analyse que Jacques Rancière propose du littéraire comme domaine du « dissensus » qui trouble et redéfinit les systèmes de divisions et les hiérarchies de la sphère esthético-politique. Les littératures dalit se développèrent comme un instrument politique, mais elles sont accusées de promouvoir une culture de la sentimentalité afin d’obtenir des gains politiques et d’homogénéiser l’identité dalit. J’examine les voix dissidentes de trois écrivaines dalit dont les œuvres subvertissent les intersections de discrimination de genre et de caste. L’article analyse les spécificités littéraires, en matière de fond et de forme, des textes choisis. Sangati de Faustina, The Grip of Change de Sivakami et Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… de Shyamala, rompent avec les récits d’oppression et refusent d’assigner aux femmes dalit le rôle de victime qui leur est attribué à la fois par les nationalistes hindous et par les orientalistes occidentaux. Au contraire, ces œuvres placent les femmes dalit au cœur de récits qui sont parfois vulgaires, parfois étonnamment drôles.


Modern Dalit literatures only became mainstream in India in the 1990s through the English translation of Marathi Dalit writing1, and notably thanks to two anthologies: An Anthology of Dalit Literature (Mulk Raj and Zelliott 1992) and Poisoned Bread: Translation from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature (Dangle 1992). Dalit literatures appeared then as a political tool for Dalits to reclaim their subjectivity and they timidly gained international visibility. Dalit literatures perfectly illustrate Rancière’s analysis of the literary as a realm of “dissensus” that can disturb and redefine systems of divisions and hierarchies of the aesthetic-political sphere (Rancière 2004)2. Indeed, these literatures developed against the grain of Hindu historiography, nationalism, culture and politics. Yet, Dalit literatures have been accused of promoting a culture of sentimentality for political gain and of homogenising Dalit identity. To interrogate and circumvent such pitfalls, this article examines Dalit literatures from a gendered perspective by discussing three dissenting Dalit female writers, Bama Faustina, Palanimuthu Sivakami and Gogu Shyamala. Their works do not offer a holistic and unified vision of Dalits’ plight and claims. On the contrary, they question the patriarchal Dalit communities they portray and address the double burden of caste and gender Dalit women suffer without confining the latter to the role of victims they are traditionally conferred. Bama Faustina’s Sangati (first published in 2005, 13th edition 2017) and Palanimuthu Sivakami’s The Grip of Change (first published in 2006, 4th edition 2015) portray the dalitisation of the female body through subjugation by men, both from the upper caste and the Dalit communities, but they also tell of Dalit women’s resistance to male oppression. Gogu Shyamala’s Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… (2012) sharply and wittily breaks away with the tales of victimhood and misery decreed the true subject of Dalit writing by placing marginalised Dalit women at the centre of a humorous and light narrative.

1. Dalit literatures as the “realm of dissensus”

1.1. Dalit literatures: a politics of dissent and resistance

Dalits were formerly known outside India as Untouchables. The word “Dalit” comes from Marathi and Hindi and means “oppressed”, “ground down” or “broken to pieces” (Zecchini 2016, 68). An enlightening analysis of the term and its implications is also provided in French by Kannan and Gros (1996, 1) in their discussion of some of the historical, sociological and political factors that have driven Tamil Dalits’ quest for a literature of their own. The term “Dalit literature” was first used in 1958 at the first conference of the Maharashtra Dalit Literature Society. However, literate Dalits mainly wrote in vernaculars that could only reach a limited readership and most Dalits first published short stories, poetry and autobiographies while for a long time Indian literature was spread in South Asia and worldwide mostly through the hegemonic Anglo-Indian novel. The word “Dalit” only gained currency following the Marathi Dalit movement and the founding of the Dalit Panthers in 1972 by the writers Namdeo Dhasal and J.V. Pawar. The movement revisited and embraced the ideas of the Dalit activist and scholar Bimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) and appropriated his disagreements with the Gandhian model of Indian nationalism which was rooted in the caste system. The caste question has shaped modern India and constitutes today a fundamental part of national politics.

Since the 20th century, Dalits have constructed themselves as a dissident political and cultural non-Hindu minority. From their marginal position, they have challenged official representations of the Indian nation, its culture, its literatures and creation myths (Zecchini 2016, 58-59). Many world-renowned Indian writers have expressed their support to the Dalit cause, notably Arundathi Roy who advocates the abolition of the caste system. Nonetheless, like several other minority groups, Dalits have been concerned about having their voices silenced by the non-Dalits claiming to speak for them. Dalit literatures have thus been at the heart of a debate about who is legitimate to authorise Dalit writing and represent Dalits.

However, such a debate stems mostly from a reductive reading of Dalit literatures whereby these literatures are mainly, if not exclusively, studied for their socio-political concerns. This issue is pointed out in the introduction to the second edition of Dalit Literatures in India where the editors observe that Dalit literatures:

… are still not considered for their literary dimension, for the constant experimentation that is the source of energy for the writing, for the way they subvert traditional literary genres, interrogate narrative voice and perspective, and for the way they are a politics of protest and rage instead of simply showing the politics of protest and rage, or buttressing it (Abraham and Misrahi-Barak 2016, 5).

Inspired by these remarks, this article examines the literary specificities, in both form and content, of the texts under scrutiny. The novels and the collection of short stories which were selected are translations into English from Tamil and Telugu. The analysis will not so much focus on the political and social claims voiced in these texts as on the politics of literature through which they are articulated. This politics challenges and subverts caste hierarchies by turning upside down the discursive and linguistic constructs that support them, not in all Hindu modern literatures but in most classic Hindu literatures.

1.2. Challenging the appropriation and silencing of Dalits’ voices

The question of who can speak on behalf of marginalised communities and subalterns became central to postcolonial studies with Gayatri Spivak’s famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (Spivak 1988). Taking the example of a Hindu widow whose suicide had been reframed through the ritual Hindu practice of sati, while she had initially meant for her self-immolation to be an act of resistance, Spivak explains that the subalterns do speak but they are not heard3. Aimed at the historians of the Subaltern Studies Collective, her critique points to the dangers of claiming to speak for another while actually not listening to the latter. Yet, Spivak herself did not avoid this pitfall as she relied mostly on upper class Bengali Mahasweta Devi’s works when writing about Dalits (Zecchini 2016, 64). To circumvent such issues, since the 1990s, feminist historians, like Urvashi Butalia, have been trying to let Dalit women speak for themselves by collecting and transcribing their personal testimonies (Butalia 2001)4. Yet, even this act of transcription and translation into English already presupposes a transformation on the writer’s part.

Even well-intended progressive writers, like Arundhati Roy, have been accused by Dalits of appropriating their voice. Some radical Dalit intellectuals harshly criticised Roy for writing The Doctor and the Saint”, an introduction to the 2014 edition of Ambedkar's most famous essay “Annihilation of Caste”, originally published in 1936. The criticism against Roy questioned the right of a non-Dalit, upper caste Indian, to take part in Dalit public life while she could not claim entitlement or authenticity. Filippo Menozzi discusses the debates between Roy and her Dalit critics over rights to speak and to “represent” and he defines a politics of emancipation that falls neither into identity politics nor into appropriating the voice of the marginalised. Instead, he supports an “ethics of identification” through which outsiders can empathetically assume the standpoint of the oppressed and tell experiences that they have not lived through. As such, he asserts that “you can also write about Dalit experience, being aware of your own position, yet not renouncing the responsibility of witnessing Dalit suffering and expressing your solidarity in the struggle for social justice” (Menozzi 2016, 72). Moreover, this “ethics of identification” testifies that it is still possible and relevant to express social consciousness and communication across sites of struggle for social justice. A similar argument was already developed by Dalit ideologue Raj Gauthaman in the mid-1990s. Gauthaman pointed out that Dalit writing articulates a politics that can awaken Dalits’ consciousness and fill them with pride and confidence, help non-Dalits deconstruct their traditional mindset that made them perceive Dalits as inferior and, additionally, create solidarity with other oppressed communities worldwide (Gauthaman 1995, 98). As both Menozzi’s and Gauthaman’s interventions suggest, it would be critically reductive to support the idea that only Dalits can write about Dalit experience and suffering. In fact, such a stance would lead to a critical and ethical distance from the ongoing social injustices Dalits endure.

1.3. An implicated reading of intersectionality in Dalit literatures

In his analysis of interconnecting trauma histories and contemporary forms of racial and social injustices, Michael Rothberg offers a perspective that helps reconcile the imperative of speaking about injustices or traumas one has not directly experienced and the seeming impossibility to legitimately do so. Rothberg argues that beyond the traditional dichotomy that opposes “victims” to “perpetrators”, there is a third subject position, that of the “implicated subject”. “Implication” does not rely on identification or disidentification. It designates the way individuals are synchronically or diachronically involved in the injustices or sufferings experienced by another community than the one they belong to/were born into. A critical understanding that hinges on “implication” blurs the dichotomy between “victims” and “perpetrators” and enables those who would originally be considered as outsiders to develop a “long distance solidarity” with diverse communities (Rothberg 2019, 1-28).

The present article offers an implicated reading of Dalit literatures from the perspective of a French academic working in postcolonial studies who is interested in marginalised literatures, especially from South Asia. For a long time, not only did literatures and cultures receive little space in Dalit studies compared to socio-political research but Dalit literatures were also excluded from what academia deemed to be South Asian literatures. Dalit Literatures in India is the first volume of critical essays on Dalit literatures published by a renowned publishing house that targets both Indian and international audiences (Abraham and Misrahi-Barak 2016, 2nd edition in 2018). The very concept of “Dalit literatures” is still questioned as some critics wonder who should be allowed to authorise Dalit literatures as well as whether the term is to be understood as a generic equivalent of subaltern and could be used as a transcultural concept or, on the contrary, if it has to be limited to casteism. Additionally, Kannan and Gros (1996, 128) point to the fact that though subaltern studies do encompass criticism of class, caste, colonialism and have influenced as such Dalit ideologues, they have lesser or even no impact at all on the consciousness of Dalits themselves since the latter only have access to vernaculars. This however does not prevent us from referring to subaltern studies and subaltern folklore to shed light on the literary analysis proposed here. Terminological debates can become stultifying and the unresolved debate on the definition of Dalit literatures has partly contributed to the lack of international visibility of Dalit literatures. What is more, political establishment within India provides little documentation on the production and outreach of Dalit literatures and this further reduces their recognition worldwide.

Invisibility affects more severely Dalit female writers. That is why this article focuses specifically on the writings of Dalit women and analyses the “intersectionality” of gender and caste discriminations (Crenshaw 1989)5. Mainstream Indian feminist discourses only began to recognise issues surrounding caste in the 1980s and 1990s, while Dalit literatures have been accused of privileging caste over gender issues. Dalit feminism has gained pace in this context as a discourse of discontent questioning the claim of Dalit men to speak for Dalit women as well as the hegemony of mainstream Indian feminism. Dalit women writers themselves are taking the pen to articulate and record their experiences of hurt and humiliation and subvert centuries-old historical neglect by the elitist nationalist discourse. The recent anthology Dalit Voice: Literature and Revolt is particularly innovative in its attention to the intersections of caste and gender. Not only does the book offer a wide range of Dalit literatures, including prose, poetry, short stories, autobiographic novels, films, but it also analyses the specificities of female Dalit writing (Limbale and Sarangi 2018).

Dalit literatures are still mostly perceived as literatures that document social, political and economic concerns and not literatures in their own right. Yet, though these literatures are inseparable from their socio-political and cultural contexts of emergence, it does not mean the political erases the literary. On the contrary, foregrounding the literary aspects of such works can help grasp their political dimension as literature isn’t something different from politics but it actually “does politics” (Rancière 2010, 152). For Rancière, there is a politics of literature and the literary belongs to the realm of dissensus in so far as literature can tear bodies away from the places and functions they were ascribed. Literature can assign names, invent singularities and subjects, and, by so doing, can make visible and audible what was previously invisible, inaudible or “unsayable”. Literature also blurs the partitions between the “same” and the “other”, the proper and the improper, what matters and what does not (Zecchini 2016, 59).

In the following part, I will analyse the ways in which female Dalit literatures do politics, a politics of dissensus that subverts Hindu nationalist and Orientalist discourses, and even postcolonial theory6. I will first pay attention to the writers’ use and transformation of the genre of the autobiography. Through this genre, the writers engender themselves as autonomous and independent subjects while also freely weaving little subaltern stories that would traditionally stand outside the frame of the autobiographical narrative.

2. Rewriting the autobiography to depart from narratives of victimhood

2.1. A gendered and subversive rewriting of the autobiography

Sangati (Events) was first written by Christian Dalit author Bama Faustina in Tamil in 1994, but it was only published in English in 2005. It is a sequel to Bama’s first novel Karruku, an autobiographical novel written in 1992 (first translated into English in 1999). Karruku and Sangati have come become classics of Dalit literatures in India. The title Karruku comes from the Tamil word referring to palmyra leaves with serrated edges on both sides which make them look like a sword. The title intimates that Bama’s pen stands for a sharpened sword in her fight against the Dalit condition. Karruku retraces her life experience growing up in the Dalit community of Tamil Nadu where she is educated by nuns. She later decides to give up her teaching profession to become a writer. Her novel portrays the double marginalisation of Dalit Christians: they are discriminated against for being Dalits but also for being Christians. The novel makes an appeal for change and self-empowerment of Dalit women through education and collective action. In Sangati, Bama further develops these themes.

While being written like an autobiography, Sangati adapts the conventions of the genre. Traditionally, the autobiography privileges the voice of one protagonist. Yet, in Bama’s narrative, the voice of the community imposes itself upon the voice of the individual. She also changes the quality and style of canonical narratives considered as literary to accommodate the stories of silenced people. In fact, Sangati reads more like a collection of life narratives than an autobiography. However, the individual is never erased by the collective. On the contrary, the structure of Sangati reflects the struggles of an individual within and against the life scripts provided by the Christian Dalit culture. The subject ‘I’ is constituted through an unnamed reflexive voice – who is first identified as a young girl then as an adult narrator –. Her comments on the plight suffered by Dalit women pepper the narration. In the course of the narrative, restoring the female subject ‘I’ appears as an arduous process through which the anonymous narrator progressively steps towards reclaiming agency and subjectivity, but also towards gaining political inclusion and taking political action (Zecchini 2016, 66).

Sangati also challenges received notions of what a novel should be since it has no plot in the classic sense of the term, but it is merely composed of the powerful stories of several memorable protagonists. It is a series of intertwined anecdotes related in the first person, then counterpointed by the generalising comments of grandmother and mother figures, and additionally by the reflections of an author-narrator. In the earlier chapters, the narrator is a young girl of about twelve, the action is set in the early 1960s. In the last four chapters, the narrator has become a young woman. However, throughout the novel, the reflective voice heard is that of an adult woman looking back upon her experience. This reflexivity creates shifts between past and present. Bridging experience and analysis, the narrative ends with a practical call for socio-political action from a Dalit feminist viewpoint (Holmström 2017, xvi).

The novel The Grip of Change is written as a more straightforward autobiography, yet it subverts the genre through its choice of style, language and subject matter.

2.2. The Grip of Change: Dalit women assert authority on their life and body through the act of writing

The Grip of Change is the English translation of Pazhayani Kazhidalum (1988), the first Tamil novel by a female writer. It is comprised of two books: Book 1: Kathamuthu: The Grip of Change and its sequel, Book 2: Gowri: Author’s Notes. Palanimuthu Sivakami wrote the first book when was twenty-six and the sequel ten years later. The protagonist of Book 1, Kathamuthu, is a charismatic Parachi leader with two wives7. The novel opens as a Parachi woman, Thangam, finds refuge at Kathamuthu’s after having been seriously beaten up by the relatives of her upper caste employer because her in-laws spread rumours about her having an affair with the latter, a married man. Kathamuthu uses his influence within the village caste hierarchy to obtain some sort of justice for Thangam while still looking down on her as an inferior being since she is but a woman. In the second book, Gowri, Kathamuthu’s daughter, that the readers see grow up in the first book, compares the town of her memories which inspired the writing of The Grip of Change to what she observes as a thirty-one-year-old woman. Gowri is the fictional author of The Grip of Change – though the question of whether or not she is to be understood as a younger Sivakami is left open –. The sequel contrasts what happened in her family and community to her interpretations of those events and thus points to the gaps in the narrator’s knowledge and understanding of past events. This undermines her authorial reliability, while also pointing to her gained maturity and autonomy at the end of the narrative.

The novel cannot be read as a classic bildungsroman since Gowri’s voice is one of many in Book 1. In this book, it is Thangam’s body which takes centre stage. Thangam is rejected by her in-laws who refuse to give her the land she should receive. She is raped and exploited and is almost beaten to death at the beginning of the novel. She is considered as a useless woman since she is childless and widowed. Her broken up body shows how vulnerable Dalit women are to male sexual assault and harassment. Since the narrative hinges on Thangam’s body and the abuse she suffers, a mute woman whose existence was marginalised becomes central to the plot and, in an amazing turn of events, her ordeal can even spark a caste riot (Meena Kadasamy 2005, 194). Eventually, Thangam obtains justice; her in-laws are forced to give her some land. She repays Kathamuthu by physically yielding to his desires, but she also manages to use the very body which had been subjugated and oppressed to gain power in Kathamuthu’s house and dominate his first two wives.

The novel is also an expression of Dalit youth’s eagerness to work for change and socio-political progress. The first book ends with an enumeration of vast economic, social and political changes with which the elderly cannot keep up. Kathamuthu’s wives, accustomed to the patriarchal system in which they had evolved till then are unable to envision any changes when Gowri eagerly evokes the women liberation movements: “Gowri constantly goaded Kanagavalli and Nagamani with talks of women’s liberation. However, both women were used to bending to Kathamuthu’s demands. They were happy for Gowri, but felt it was too late for them” (125). The novel concludes on an optimistic note for the younger generation as Gowri defies her father and refuses to marry. She manages to win her independence by completing her studies, she gets a doctorate and then a teaching job. Yet Gowri is still forced to hide what caste she belongs to as she looks for a job then for a place to stay, and she is harassed by her neighbours and colleagues. The novel thus ends on the long road ahead for women Dalits to obtain full and equal rights.

The novel’s style and prose do not reproduce the vitality, humour, crudeness and subversiveness of Dalit women’s language, most likely because the fictional author, Gowri, embodies a well-educated younger generation independent from casteism. Resistance is mostly enacted through the characterisation of Gowri, who authorises her own life as she writes her own narrative and the life stories of other Dalit women. Yet, as the sequel, Gowri: Author’s Notes, dissects and deconstructs the first book, it illustrates the hesitation, worries and anguish that accompany the act of writing and reflects the challenges met by female Dalits to become authors of their own life.

2.3. “Little” subaltern stories: the Dalit woman as the cornerstone of family and community and the custodian of traditions

Father May be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… by Gogu Shyamala is a collection of twelve stories translated from Telugu by nine individual translators, men and women alike (Shyamala 2012). Gogu Shyamala is a senior fellow at the Anveshi Research Centre for Women in Hyderabad. She edited one collection on Dalit Women Writings (Shyamala 2003) and one on Madiga Subcaste Women (Subhadra and Shyamala 2006). She also published the biography of a leading Dalit female politician, T.N. Sadalakshmi (Shyamala 2011). In her back-cover review of the 2012 Navayana edition, Susie Tharu argues that Shyamala’s collection of short stories could be the prototype of a new genre that might be called not “short” but “little” stories after the “little magazines” written by the Telugu press since the 1960s. The term ‘‘little’’ refers to the Dalit subaltern customs that the stories give access to as opposed to grand Hindu national traditions. The stories are autobiographical since they are based on the writer’s childhood memories. She was born in Andhra Pradesh (South eastern Indian state) in 1969 in a Dalit family of agricultural labourers. Having noticed she was not physically strong enough to work in the fields, her parents sent her to a school away from her village. They wanted to educate her for her to have a restful life. She studied till intermediate (class 12) then stopped, as she was drawn to several social movements. She returned to her studies much later and obtained a law degree in 2006.

The first story, which has the same title as the collection, was originally published in a monthly journal, Bhumika, in 2012, and was appreciated by readers for its feminist sensibility. It is written in the first person and revolves around Shyamala’s mother, father and grandmother. The story opens with an idyll as the child plays outside with other children while waiting for her mother who has gone to work in the fields. The opening pages focus on the beauty of the landscape and the arrival of the much-awaited rain that pours down after a long period of drought and famine. As the child and her friends gaze dreamingly at a rainbow, symbol of a renewed hope, a Telugu song is hummed by a nearby villager and the girls join in. The Telugu stanzas kept in the English translation interrupt the narrative flow.

The story then evokes Shyamala’s father’s return home after a year of absence. Though elliptical, the narrative reveals that her father, who had been wrongfully accused of being a thief, contracted a debt and ran away to avoid being killed and to earn money to pay off his debt. He eventually returns home penniless. He then relentlessly beats up Shyamala’s mother when she cannot give him the money he wants for drinking. The story ends as Shyamala’s grandmother boldly berates and curses her son for abusing the wife who supported his three children and herself while he was away. Eventually, Shyamala’s mother is asked to attend to her elder daughter – who has already been married off – and has just given birth prematurely. Despite the poor state she is in after enduring her husband’s beating, the mother is still forced to go. This prompts the grandmother to recall a proverb passed on to her by the village elders: “an elephant-like father may go, but the small basket-like mother should stay” (26). The title of the story derives from this old saying which suggests Dalit women are the main breadwinners and providers of the family and, despite being seemingly weak, they are needed when a family could survive without a man. Patriarchy is doubly undermined since the father does not dare stand up to his mother, and his wife turns out to be the vital force of the family.

For Dalit ideologue Raj Gauthaman, Dalit literatures should challenge in content and form received Indian literary norms. The content should shock by focusing on a subject matter, the lifestyles of Dalits, which by definition stands outside of caste-proprieties. Furthermore, Dalit writing should disrupt received modern upper caste language proprieties which maintain the dominance of the latter by marginalising the language of Dalits as vulgar and obscene (Gauthaman 1993, 98). In the texts analysed here, language is disruptive, subversive and at times offensive (this latter qualifier does not apply to The Grip of Change). It disturbs the language of pre-existing canonical literary circles and provides a new aesthetic imagination and writing that challenge traditional aesthetic criteria and undermines sanitised classic Indian languages such as Sanskrit and literary Tamil or Telugu. Language thus becomes a weapon of resistance for the female writers and the way through which they assert authority on their narratives.

 3. The empowerment of Dalit women through subversive language

3.1. Offensive colloquial language vs the violence of sanitised Hindu language

Sangati focuses on Paraichi women (from the Paraiya caste). Their situation is singular since they are Christians while the other women are Hindus. Though women from all Dalit castes face an overall similar plight, only the Paraichi cannot divorce. This can lead to additional tensions which demonstrate that Dalitness is not a unified and singular identity.

The novel portrays the violence women face from men and sometimes the slurs they receive from upper caste women, but Dalit women do not appear as mere victims. Bama showcases women who are not of the traditional shy, humble and modest Indian woman type, but are strong-willed and straightforward. Domestic quarrels end up with women fighting back their abusive husbands by returning the blows they have received or by using offensive language to insult and shame these men. The use of crude and sexual language participates in the text’s subversiveness. Women try to escape physical savagery from men by using violent language. This is illustrated during the fight between the Dalit woman Raakkamma and her husband Paakkiaraj. The fight takes place in the streets and all witness it as Raakkamma shouts: “How dare you kick me, you lowlife? Your hand will get leprosy! How dare you pull my hair? Disgusting man, only fit to drink a woman’s farts! Instead of drinking toddy everyday, why don’t you drink your son’s urine? Why don’t you drink my monthly blood?” (61). Menstrual blood that is deemed repulsive is often referred to in the novel. Women’s bodies and what is usually considered as impure take centre stage. This subverts the sanitised Hindu socio-linguistic systems that reject Dalits as contaminated (Zecchini 2016, 68).

After shouting at her husband, Raakkamma shamelessly lifts her sari for all to see and, as the crowd murmurs in protest, she answers: “If I hadn’t shamed him like this, he would surely have split my skull in two, the horrible man” (61-62). Nalini Pai remarks that Raakkamma’s socially disapproved behaviour is in itself a form of language and communication that reflects real life situations (Pai 2016, 84). The power and beauty of the colloquial Dalit language lie in the absence of sanitisation and editing that classic Sanskrit and literary Tamil would use. Colloquialism undermines the socio-political and discursive Hindu hierarchy which legitimates the caste system. In fact, the caste system is codified by Sanskritic ancient scriptures, like the Manusmriti authorised by the male upper caste Brahmins (Brueck 2014, 58). In Sangati, language does not neutralise or downplay violence, it is offensive and uncouth, and as such it exposes physical and psychological violence.

The English translation provided by Lakshmi Holmström (2017) preserves the subversiveness of Dalit language as offensive words are commonly used to express Dalit women’s anger and discontent. The translation thus provokes a strong emotional response from the readers. Some words that one would usually deem offensive are used on a daily basis without anyone taking offense as they highlight the familiarity between community members. For instance, women sometimes call one another: “donkey”, “whore”, “cunt”, “munde” (abusive reference to a widow). The translation strategy used here is akin to what Lawrence Venuti coined “foreignization” (Venuti 1995). It is a translation that keeps the culture of the source text instead of adapting the source text to the target culture. “Foreignization” defamiliarizes the text and makes readers aware of its cultural difference. At the same time, Sangati’s readers are made to empathise through elaborate descriptions of customs, traditions, social behaviours, conflicts narrated at domestic and community levels, etc. All these descriptions reflect a quest for identity, and language becomes an assertion of that identity.

“Foreignization” is also created through the use of Tamil names that recur throughout the novel. For instance, all the elderly women are named as kizhavi, perimma, paatti and old men as thatha8. Dalit language is similarly preserved through proverbs, folk songs, work chants and rhymes that reflect the Dalit oral traditions of which women are the custodians. For instance, a girl’s coming-of-age ceremony, the pushpavati (flowering or blossoming), is marked by festivities accompanied by rhymes and songs. On such occasions, each stanza of a song is followed by ululation from the women. This is also a way to announce the young girl can now be married. The songs are transmitted orally over generations. Kept in the English translation, these songs preserve the cultural import and connotations of the pushpavati (Holmström 2017, xx; Pai 2016, 85-86). The readers become empathetic listeners; they can feel the lives of the Dalits because the cultural context of the source text is explained. Bama does not use a language of political propaganda; she simply describes naturally Dalits’ everyday conversations and customs. But, through this form of language, she empowers Dalit women while implicating non-Dalit readers.

By bringing the original texts and Dalit experiences to non-Dalit readers, the translation into English of the three works studied here calls for an “implicated” reading which does not rely on sentimentality or graphic representations of Dalit women’s hardships (Rothberg 2019)9. Western and non-Western readers alike become “implicated subjects” as they are made to witness and empathise with the plight of oppressed Dalit women while also interrogating how they themselves potentially contribute to the perpetuation of social injustices and inequities of which Dalit women’s sufferings are but an illustration.

3.2. Dalit linguistic slant: a challenge to Hindu sacred language and epics

In Father May be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But…, Shyamala’s village world gives access to subaltern traditions, Dalit everyday lives and customs, from the songs the children sing in the fields to the games they play and the funny and affectionate names they call each other. Her portrayal of the village life is earthly and sensual, for instance she pays attention to the freshness and fragrance of the wet earth after the first showers in the first story. Her stories do not fit an ideological frame – one that would promote Dalit awareness –, they are not pedagogic either. Yet, they signify the political as they weave lives and small pleasures together with daily work, relationships, food, games, music and culture and, by so doing, show that the individual has an organic connection with both family and community.

The fourth story “But Why Shouldn’t the Baindla Woman Ask for her Land?” uses the language of legends and myths to empower a Dalit woman confronted with an exploitative upper caste landlord. The dora (the most powerful landlord in the village) calls upon a Dalit woman, Saayaama, to perform a ritual during a festival to appease the wrath of a destructive goddess, Ooradamma, who appeared in his dream and threatened to destroy the village if she was not offered ritual sacrifices. Saayaama is an erpula, a soothsayer who belongs to the Baindla group, the priests of the Untouchables. Among the upper caste, the erpula woman is seen as a mere prostitute while for lower castes she is a priestess, an oracle and a highly respected figure (Pai 2014, 20). The dora summons the Baindla and the Dalit elders to a meeting and, to everyone’s surprise, the Baindla woman refuses to perform the ritual until she has been given the land which should rightfully be hers. Faced with the dora’s stubborn refusal, the Baindla bangs her fist angrily on the table, to the elders’ stupefaction. In a final scene, where she is denied the right to properly perform funeral rites for her husband, she curses the dora and other upper caste men in words that transform her into the fiery goddess whose wrath she was supposed to tame: “…you bastards! If you don’t vacate my land, I’ll sacrifice you” (67). Her protest is eventually supported by the Dalit men who do not try to stop her.

Legends and myths from the Dalit communities are further used to undermine the caste system and the Hindu mythology which supports it, notably the Ramayana epic. For instance, the fifth story of the collection, “Jambava’s Lineage”, revolves around the origin myths of the Madiga (Dalit caste), the Jambavapuranam. Contrary to the Ramayana which separates humanity into different castes, the Jambavapuranam is about the association of different caste groups. In these myths, each caste is related to Jambavudu (the father of humanity) through a specific cultural genealogy (Shyamala 2012, 237; Pai 2014, 27). Similarly, the Hindu epic is subverted in The Grip of Change. Towards the end of the novel, caste division remains an obstacle to female social and political cohesion as agricultural Hindu castes (Vanniyars) eventually refuse to associate with Dalits (such as the Parayars) to form a political union when elections are held:  

…Women protested against the practice of dowry. Consumer protection organisations emerged. Regressive aspects were being identified and crushed out of existence. But the world, marching forward in progress, still carried many ugly leftover burdens. Caste organizations […] were multiplying and replicating like Ravana’s many heads (Sivakami 2015, 124).

“Ravana’s many heads” are a reference to the Ramayana. However, the traditional hero is replaced here by his enemy, the ten-headed demon king Ravana, who is generally represented with twenty arms. Through this subversion the text illustrates how Dalits make themselves heard both outside the Western orientalist discourse that portrayed them as victims of a backward caste system (indeed they do resist some “regressive” practices) and outside the Hindu nationalist discourse of assimilation, as they adapt Hindu culture. As Zecchini claims, Dalits stand out of these two dominant discourses (Zecchini 2016, 66). This shows also that modernity and independence do not always mean seamless progress.

Moreover, Shyamala’s short stories defy the assimilating Hindu national discourse through her daring use of a Dalit-slanted Telugu that tinges an otherwise serious narrative with humour and wit. The Telugu that Shyamala uses is not the Sanskritic academic and official Telugu but a variant used by Dalits in the Tandur region of western Telangana. It took time for this Dalit variation to be accepted and written down. This was enabled thanks to several ideological and political struggles, notably the demand by the Madiga caste for more equitable access to reservations in education and employment, but also the growth of the Dalit movement in the 1990s and the movement for a separate Telangana state. The beauty, rhythm, craft and music of Shyamala’s Telugu text and the humour of her stories are partly lost in translation. But educated readers of Telugu will notice both the strangeness and vitality of Shyamala’s Telugu with its Dalit inflexions.

“A note on the translation’’ added at the end of the 2012 Navayana edition states that finding an English translation that would not just mimic the strangeness felt by an educated Telugu reader but would also carry the multiple charge of the original text was a challenge that the translation could not meet. But the standard English that the translators used endorses the author’s own pleasure in rehabilitating her mother tongue and it provides the Dalit/Tandur variant of Telugu the status and dignity of a full-fledged language (Shyamala 2012, 247). Shyamala’s use of Telugu enables her to showcase concepts that were used by Dalit elders but are now facing extinction. The text in English makes extensive use of Telugu words, songs or onomatopoeia and the book also includes a detailed glossary entitled “Gogu Shyamala’s World” in which several parts of her universe are extensively commented upon (field wells, village tanks, upper/dominant castes, affectionate or offensive diminutives, myths and legends, games, etc.) so that her peculiar world is still accessible to an English-speaking reader. Her writing is not overtly didactic and political but her use of a Dalit-slanted Telugu that upsets standard linguistic norms challenges and subverts social, political and gendered hierarchies.


The three Dalit women writers whose works are examined in this article gained international visibility through English translation. Though the translation might lose some of the force and subversiveness of the original Dalit Tamil and Telugu idioms, English translation made these texts available to a larger audience and the socio-political struggle of Dalits and Dalit women was given broader scope and recognition worldwide.

Nonetheless, it is important to examine these texts first and foremost as literary works and not merely, or primarily, as “political tools”. Though the three writers are also Dalit feminist activists, their writings need to be read in and for themselves. The sensitivity of the images, proverbs, songs, tales, games and customs that give life to the Dalit village or town along with the crude, abusive and overtly sexual language that mimes the everyday language of Dalit men and women bring the reader closer to the specificities of Dalit life with its cultural liveliness and its daily load of toil and suffering.

If the three works always seem to portray the individual as an extension of the community, Dalit women appear as differentiated and singular. They might suffer similar hardships, yet some remain subjugated and docile while others fight back as they can. In that sense, these texts are subversive since they challenge the male dominated caste society and redefine relations between men and women, upper caste and lower caste, Hindu lower castes and Christian lower castes. They also undermine the preconceived idea that Dalit narratives can only ever be about victimhood and eventually call for collective action for change.

In the two novels and the collection of short stories, Dalit women are restored as political female subjects through language. Language makes visible and audible what was marginalised and unsayable. The texts participate in a battle for political representation insofar as they articulate a battle of and for language and provide Dalit female writers and their female protagonists the right to say ‘I’, to name, and to narrate their story (Zecchini 2016, 60). What is more, the very texture and nuances of the language chosen in these texts, communicated through English translation, bring Dalits’ lives and concerns to the Western readers and thus trigger collective awareness of the ongoing struggle of Dalits, and Dalit women in particular, and encourage “long distance solidarity”. This solidarity can only be achieved when one individual or community acknowledges their own direct or indirect involvement in the suffering of others.

1 I use the plural ‘‘Dalit literatures’’ to highlight the variety of linguistic, cultural, poetic, communal and regional contexts in which these

2 For Rancière art and politics are both intricately linked and are both fundamentally dissensual activities. Dissensus, or disagreement, is at the

3 The act of self-immolation is taken either from a British colonial perspective as proof that Hindu women need to be freed from their male

4 Urvashi Butalia is a feminist historian from a wealthy Punjabi family. Her most iconic work The Other Side of Silence (first published in 1998)

5 Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” thirty years ago in her 1989 paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”

6 This article will not tackle in detail the way postcolonial theory is subverted by Dalit literatures. One of the main premises of postcolonial

7 The Parachi are members of the Parayar community, a Dalit jaati. While the use of ‘caste’ may suggest an unshakeable, Sanskristic hierarchy, jaati

8 kizhavi, perimma, paatti (literally ‘grandmother’, endearing terms to refer to older women); thatha (‘grandfather’, often used to address a

9 Michael Rothberg’s coinage of the category of the ‘‘implicated subject’’ derives from his previous research on “multidirectional memory” in which

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1 I use the plural ‘‘Dalit literatures’’ to highlight the variety of linguistic, cultural, poetic, communal and regional contexts in which these literatures develop. A similar point is made by Zecchini (Zecchini 2016, 59).

2 For Rancière art and politics are both intricately linked and are both fundamentally dissensual activities. Dissensus, or disagreement, is at the heart of politics since ‘‘there is politics because speaking is not the same as speaking, because there is not even an agreement on what a sense means. Political dissensus is not a discussion between speaking people who would confront their interests and values. It is a conflict about who speaks and who does not speak, about what has to be heard as the voice of pain and what has to be heard as an argument on justice’’ (Rancière 2011, 2). By considering the literary as the realm of dissensus, Rancière examines how literature can transform the partitions between what counts and what does not count, who speaks and who does not, what is audible and what is not, what can be said and what is unsayable.

3 The act of self-immolation is taken either from a British colonial perspective as proof that Hindu women need to be freed from their male counterparts or by Hindus as a woman’s act of devotion towards her husband, so, in both cases, the agency of the female subject is erased and her true motivations are denied.

4 Urvashi Butalia is a feminist historian from a wealthy Punjabi family. Her most iconic work The Other Side of Silence (first published in 1998) includes some 70 interviews. Butalia spent decades interviewing women, children, lower caste and Untouchable survivors of the 1947 Partition in the aftermath of 1984 Sikh pogroms that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. She also co-founded the first exclusively feminist Indian publishing house, Kali for Women, in 1984 and later created its imprint, Zubaan Press, in 2003. Butalia has always called for greater attention to marginalised minorities, including Dalits.

5 Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” thirty years ago in her 1989 paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” published for the University of Chicago Legal Forum. The concept emerged from ideas debated in critical race theory regarding African American women’s fight for racial equity and civil rights. Crenshaw’s paper examined three legal cases of racial and sex discrimination and concluded that the law forgot that black women suffered from discrimination both on account of race and gender, as it treated both types of discrimination separately. The term “intersectionality” points to the intrinsically racist and sexist structures of law and society. It became mainstream in 2015 when it entered the Oxford English Dictionary and gained further popularity later thanks to the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. While Crenshaw originally used the term to point to the intersections of “race” and “gender” discriminations, the concept can help grasp and analyse the subtle intertwining of other forms of discriminations women specifically suffer from, such as “caste” and “gender” discrimination in the context of dalit women.

6 This article will not tackle in detail the way postcolonial theory is subverted by Dalit literatures. One of the main premises of postcolonial theory being that former colonies write back to the Empire (former colonial powers), it can be noted that Dalit writing that resists national hegemonic discourses undermines the centre-periphery/metropolis-colony dichotomies traditionally associated with postcolonial premises. A nuanced analysis is provided by Zecchini (Zecchini 2016, 58-75).

7 The Parachi are members of the Parayar community, a Dalit jaati. While the use of ‘caste’ may suggest an unshakeable, Sanskristic hierarchy, jaati refers to many communities that may be fuzzy and not always easily identifiable in the caste system. This term has been contested by Dalits, notably from the Madiga community. The Parayar is an aboriginal agricultural community forced to do menial jobs. Parachi women are looked down upon by members of their own community. In The Grip of Change, the Parachi woman Thangam is assaulted by members of the Udayar, a landowning caste Hindu community, but she is cast out by her own in-laws.

8 kizhavi, perimma, paatti (literally ‘grandmother’, endearing terms to refer to older women); thatha (‘grandfather’, often used to address a respected elder).

9 Michael Rothberg’s coinage of the category of the ‘‘implicated subject’’ derives from his previous research on “multidirectional memory” in which, by focusing on histories of past traumas, especially the Holocaust, he demonstrated that diverse socio-historical traumas are always intertwined in acts of memorialisation (Rothberg 2009). Such a conceptualisation also implied that one individual or community who had not lived through a particular historical trauma could still bear witness to it and endorse an ethical responsibility for this trauma. In The Implicated Subject, Rothberg starts by analysing people’s reactions to the contemporary racial injustices the African American community suffers from, especially in the wake of police killings of young African Americans. Rothberg asserts that while the legal framework to account for a crime usually comprises only two opposite poles, the “victim” versus the “perpetrator”, ongoing forms of racial and social injustices call for a new category. The third subject position he imagines, the “implicated subject”, is not static and definite. On the contrary, it is a grey area that an individual can occupy differently at different times. In defining this category, Rothberg also calls for a “long distance solidarity” between individuals and communities that experience or bear witness to diverse forms of social, political, ethnic or racial suffering.

Sandrine Soukaï

Université Gustave Eiffel,

licence CC BY-NC 4.0