Growing up in Kerala, Chandramohan Sathyanathan wanted to be a mathematician. Arithmetic’s loss is literature’s gain. For the 34-year-old is one of the best known Dalit poets in India today.
In the wider literary world, the spotlight is on Dalit writing. In regional languages, Namdeo Dhasal and Sharan Kumar Limbale (both Marathi) and Om Prakash Valmiki (Hindi) are among the acclaimed names. But a new crop of Dalit writers, especially poets, is quietly yet firmly making its presence felt.
Writers such as Sathyanathan have been winning awards and selling well, their books have been featured in the mainstream media in India and abroad, and are being discussed at prestigious literary festivals. Several new publishers are dedicated to publishing Dalit poetry. The writings are receiving favourable reviews in print and online literary journals. The academia, too, is opening its doors to them.
In August last year, the Sahitya Akademi — the organisation tasked with the promotion of literature in the languages of India — invited five Dalit poets writing in English to an exclusive symposium-cum-reading. Terming it a “first-of-a-kind” event, the institute observed in a press release that the works of Sathyanathan, Cynthia Stephen, Yogesh Maitreya, Aparna Lanjewar Bose and Aruna Gogulamanda were marked by “elements of protest, resistance, pride, assertion of identity”.
Sathyanathan came out with his first collection of poems, Warscape Verses , in 2014. His second book, Letters to Namdeo Dhasal , published in 2016, has reportedly sold around 800 copies — a creditable achievement given that even widely-retailed books in India rarely sell beyond 3,000 copies. The same year, he was shortlisted for the prestigious Srinivas Rayaprol prize, awarded by the English department of the University of Hyderabad.
For someone who grew up “aspiring to be a mathematician”, and in whose family environs “Ambedkarite ideals had not seeped in”, Sathyanathan expresses satisfaction with his journey so far, terming it “swift”.
But it was not easy, he says. “Indian writing in English, in my opinion, is too elitist and panders to the urban, upper class, caste, heterosexual male gaze,” he says.
The poet has just returned from a two-month writing fellowship at the University of Iowa in the US. He cherishes the stint at Iowa, for which he was nominated by the US consulate, and where he received the rare honour of having a blow-up of his poem displayed with illumination at one of the campus buildings.
“The American poetry ecosystem has much to offer — it’s very diverse with many Afro-American and queer voices in the mainstream,” he says.
Like Sathyanathan, Yogesh Maitreya too derives inspiration from the firebrand Marathi Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal and finds Indian writing in English “elitist.” Currently a PhD scholar at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Maitreya’s research is on the Dalit shahirs , or bards, of Maharashtra.
As someone who grew up in a Dalit basti , with books not readily available, his first introduction to the world of art and knowledge were the shahirs .
“The songs of (the) shahirs ... introduced me to the poetic rhythms and vocabulary of life which depicted our identity, (and) belongingness,” says Maitreya, who has been writing a series on the bards for a news website.
His debut collection, The Bridge of Migration was published last year by Panther’s Paw Publication, a company he set up. The small publishing house has just brought out another book of poems, Broken Man: In Search of a Homeland , which is an English translation of the Marathi original by Dalit poet Loknath Yashwant.
Maitreya does not believe that writing in English may reduce the reach of his work, pointing out that pioneers such as Babasaheb Ambedkar had already created a space for Dalit discourse in that language.
Keenly aware that Dalit writing is now a “saleable commodity”, he resents attempts by upper-castes dominating the publishing industry and academia to “mediate” the narrative.
“I do not like to be explained by others; I do not like to be misrepresented and misunderstood,” he says. His favourite authors span a wide spectrum and include thinkers Jyotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Arthur Schopenhauer, Gopal Guru and Sharad Patil and writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens, Toni Morrison, RS Thomas, Baburao Bagul, Arun Kale and Nagraj Manjule.
Cynthia Stephen shares with Maitreya a love for Dickens, who wrote extensively about the English working class. A journalist-poet, social activist and feminist, Stephen says her literary tastes are more attuned to the classics. So among her other favourites, of course, are the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen.
She says that she is “not a prolific poet” and only writes when she is moved enough to do so. After the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula, she wrote a poem called 2016 Space Odyssey , where she says: Our destinies, and those of the children after us — beckon/ We look up/ The sky is dark, but the dawn!/ It comes every morning.
Stephen, who is from Karnataka, is concerned about the exclusion of Dalit writers and poets from literary circles. “Tell me, at how many literary festivals and gatherings do you see the presence of Dalit or Adivasi writers?” she asks. “There is a very strong sense of clannishness in (Indian writing in English)... There is a huge void of Dalit voices in the English literary world.”
As for the growing interest in Dalit literature, she terms it a complex phenomenon. Though the mainstream intelligentsia has been giving it more attention, there is also a “subliminal rejection of concerns raised by Dalits” by the same section, she says. “There is an automatic defensiveness, which blocks out the discourse of Dalits in academia, politics, media and literature.” At the same time, Stephen sees Dalits coming together and forming a discourse of their own, where their points of view are acknowledged without the mediation of the mainstream intelligentsia. Social media is a leveller in this, she says.
Aruna Gogulamanda stresses that social media played an important role in her voice being heard. When she began writing poetry a few years ago, she often posted her work directly on Facebook. A research scholar at the University of Hyderabad, focusing on Dalit and non-Dalit women’s autobiographies, Gogulamanda comes from a middle-class background, with her father in a government job. Her poetry, she says, is mainly oriented towards the concerns of women from her community, who are doubly marginalised — because of their caste, and their sex.
“Dalit women are placed differently, too. While a majority of them are still agricultural labourers and domestic helps or daily wage labourers in rural India, (only) 2-3 per cent are educated and work in different places, in different kind of jobs,” says Gogulamanda, who writes in both Telugu and English.
V Divakar, editor of The Baroda Pamphlet , a bi-monthly journal focusing on caste issues, prefers publishing Dalit poetry written originally in English, instead of translations. “Translation leads to the absence of a certain subjectivity. You lose something if you are not part of an imagination,” he says.
Aside from an issue dedicated to Dalit poetry and edited by Maitreya in 2016, he has published Sathyanathan’s second book of poems through Desirepaths, a small publishing outlet that he runs.
Contrasting the works of Sathyanathan with those of Maitreya, he says the former uses a more subtle and “sophisticated” language, while the latter prefers a “direct” approach.
Divakar is excited about newer developments such as Roundtable India, an Ambedkarite online platform which publishes poetry along with academic and journalistic pieces, and describes as “phenomenal” the trend of new writers from the Dalit community breaking pre-set notions of “academic” poetry.
Divakar believes that the language used by Dalit poets today is not the Queen’s English. Rather, the poets have adapted the language to express their concerns. At the same time, he feels that the community itself has not been able to relate to English in the same way, due to lack of access to education for so long. This is one of the reasons why the books do not sell as much as they should, he says.
Ajay Navaria, a professor at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University and a prominent Dalit writer in Hindi, commends Sathyanathan for paying attention to his craft and his command over the language. “Language itself protests in his poems. He knows that in order to survive, protest must be registered,” Navaria says.
Compared to the “angry, and justified, rhetoric” of the first wave of Dalit poetry, he says the newer poems are more balanced and restrained.
“The earlier phase of raw anger — as seen in Dhasal’s poetry — is now over,” he says.
Will the new Dalit poetry also be as powerful as Dhasal’s verses and have a similar sociopolitical impact? While there are those who believe that writing in English cannot project the Dalit existence as ‘authentically’ as is possible in regional languages, the younger lot of writers appears willing to carefully navigate their way through these criticisms and concerns — hoping, along the way, to leave a firm imprint on the literary history of India.
Abhimanyu Kumar is a Delhi-based freelance journalist