The women movement in India since the 1980s has made for the emergence of a decisive feminist perspective in the social sciences, primarily from women scholars;
it has also inspired a huge wave of creativity among women, leading to the appearance of the category of ‘women writers’ although not all of these writers might accept such a label. The languages in which women have written and the genres they have used to express themselves have varied. Collections of short stories, novellas, and on occasion poetry published by feminist presses have circulated widely and accessibly among a readership that the social science writings would not have been able to reach. This body of writing has also been able to enter university courses, especially in literature. Given that the social and regional location of women writing in India is also widely disparate, the nature of the audience itself would vary and translations into English and other languages play a key role in widening the reach of the writing.
While examining the body of work that has emerged and studying its audience would be an important project, I will focus here on a growing body of work by Dalit women/feminist writers. Almost all of them write in their mother tongue and have a dual readership comprising those who read the work in the original languages used and others who read them in English translations. With such a focus we may be able to think about a dialogue that has been opened up between scholars and activists on the unacknowledged universalist claims of the women movement the critiques of the movement that have come from Dalit activists. Dalit feminist writing might give us an idea of what may perhaps be ‘shared’ and what is distinctive in experiential terms in the making and breaking of identities. Since it is impossible to be exhaustive in exploring this category of writing, I will select some works for a close reading while drawing from others in broader terms.
It took some years for the caste question to ‘hit’ the consciousness of the largely city-based women movement even as the issues the movement took up in its first phase did focus on the ‘subaltern’ woman. The rapes of Mathura and Rameeza Bee, around whom the campaign against sexual violence by the police in custodial contexts triggered off country-wide protests at the judicial bias evident in the judgement which was understood as an imposition of normative standards drawn from upper-caste Hindu notions of female virtue. Since these notions were being widely challenged in the campaign, even though the activists, almost always constituted by middle class and upper-caste urban women, confronted the judicial bias against an Adivasi girl, their own social location was less visible to them. The marginal woman and the city-based activists were united in a common cause against the imposition of outrageous standards drawn from archaic ‘Hindu’ but decisively upper-caste notions of virtue. It took a decade for questions of caste to surface in the 1980s and early 1990s, especially when the Mandal agitation introduced what was perceived by urban India as the emergence of identity politics over the supposed unity of people forged by the Left. Once these debates appeared in the public sphere, suppressed or unacknowledged questions of caste began to fracture the consciousness of a single unitary woman subject that the women movement had ‘sort of worked within an overarching call for ‘women’s solidarity’. Dalit feminist consciousness became a force to reckon with.
Literature on caste from a feminist perspective soon began to appear in the social sciences. At the same time, the distinctive experience that shaped the identity of Dalit women too appeared as an issue in social science scholarship (Guru, 1994). Before Dalit women began to speak to a wider national and international ‘audience’ through their own writing in English translations, a life history of Dalit women speaking through an interlocutor caught the attention of scholars. Viramma’s recounting of her own life is significant for the graphic account of how her identity is shaped by the performance of labour, her caste location, the class relations that subject her to the power of landlords, and the workings of the State It also vividly depicts the mythologies, histories and culture of the paraya community, the struggle for survival, the subversions, the refusal to consent to the hegemonic ideologies by which class and caste power are maintained and reproduced, and the attempts at resistance whenever possible (Racine and Racine, 1997). It mirrors, nuances, enriches and deepens the fine anthropological account of labouring women in Tamil Nadu (Kapadia, 1996).
A point that emerges from the account narrated by Viramma is her awareness that she is telling her story to someone who is not of her own caste or class, or indeed someone who shares her culture. Viramma not only constantly reminds Josiane Racine, to whom she is speaking, of this, but through this device the reader too is made aware of the huge gap between Viramma and us. She does this through the book in various ways, disguised sometimes and more consciously at other times, interspersing her speech with reminders of the different locations of the narrator and the interlocutor. An example is her allusion to kaliyuga, the traditional notion of dystopia in Brahmanic mythology and textual tradition, of which she makes very subversive use. The Brahmanical ideology of the kaliyuga as a time of normlessness because of its obsessive fears of it being a time of social upheaval is retained intact by Viramma; however, by using a strategically neutral voice, she continually draws attention to all the things that are now pro-paraya. In the time of kaliyuga, Dalit women can go to school, become teachers and so make it possible for Dalit children to have teachers who are not biased against them, have access to dispensaries and hospitals, vote, and therefore be wooed by political parties. Now the government itself has brought in the kaliyuga. As Viramma tells ‘Sinamma’, her name for her biographer:
Yes it was better for you in the past. You could employ us for a rupee or a rupee and a half and we’d eat what grew at the edge of the fields. Nowadays in this kaliyugam, ploughmen demand ten or fifteen rupees. The government steps in and sets wages. Would we have seen or experienced a government in the past that took care of us like that?
(Racine and Racine, 1997)
The separate worlds that Racine and Viramma inhabit is also tellingly brought out in a significant passage where Viramma points out that While Racine came to listen and collect the laments that Viramm sang for her study, she did not let Viramma sing them at Racine’s father’s death, because such a lament would have been culturally alien to her world. When Viramma tells Racine that she would have sung for her ‘a most marvelous lament’, it is a telling comment on the separate worlds the two women inhabit. It is also a comment on the difference between a relationship that must remain confined to one between scholar and native informant in the understanding of the scholar, but is regarded as a genuine friendship that is denied in a moment that otherwise could have bound them together in grief. The editors say that speaking gives pleasure to Viramma and ‘is a form of self-assertion’; she uses it effectively to draw attention to the unbridgeable distance between her and her interlocutors. Later in this essay 1 will bring Viramma back as she speaks about the workings of caste in satirical ways, but also reminding us of the chasm between us and her.
Viramma’s life history is based on her speaking sessions with Racine as she cannot write herself. There are other life histories where access to the written word enables Dalit women to tell their own stories, where they represent themselves and are thus their own interlocutors. A number of these memoirs were written since the 1970s and 1980s in Maharashtra, although they became available in translations in the last decade and have also been the subject of an important feminist engagement by Sharmila Rege. Again, since the writing encapsulates a range of experiences, I will focus on a few issues that will help us to return to the debates on Dalit women speaking in a different way from upper-caste women who may never even reveal their upper caste-ness in their writing.
A stigmatised caste status and a permanent sense of its shaping of the world of the writers is the common thread in all of the works. As Kumud Pawade, who published one of the earliest memoirs in 1981 titled Antahspot (Outburst) writes:
The result is that although I try to forget my caste, it is impossible to forget. And then I remember an expression heard somewhere: what comes by birth, but can’t be cast off by dying—that is caste.
The irony is that the emphasis on Kumud Pawade’s caste is doubly marked because though she is a Mahar by birth, she has forced her way into the sacred knowledge system by studying and then teaching Sanskrit; and compounded the transgression by making an inter-caste marriage with a man from a higher non-Dalit caste. This makes her more noticeable than other Mahar women and subjects her to veiled remarks, innuendos and blunt statements that are offensive.
Caste stigma is a running theme in all the autobiographical writings—the offending touch, the association with dirt, labour, ‘unclean’ occupations, and finally the quality of being polluting that inhered in certain castes. The most powerful exclusion that is ever present in Dalit writing is from access to the otherwise common resource of water, the very basis of life without which the possession of land itself would be rendered meaningless. Urmila Pawar refers to it simply, almost in passing, as she describes the structure of her house which was better endowed and therefore somewhat privileged in relation to other Mahar households:
The houses of the Marathas and Brahmins were at some distance from our house. Bhandari and Kulwadi women could drink water from their wells but untouchable women were absolutely forbidden to do so. This was a permanent wound in father’s heart. Therefore he had given strict instructions to my mother to allow the untouchable women to draw from our well. The rope and bucket were permanent fixtures to the well. These were never removed.
It is not surprising that for Babasaheb Ambedkar, the right to draw water from the Chavadar tank at Mahad was more important than the temple-entry women movement spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi: in the scale of deprivation from resources, water was more important 3 challenge than the right to worship the Gods created by the Brahmamcal system! As he said in his speech to those who had gathered in Mahad on the banks of the Chavadar lake:
You will understand the significance of the struggle we have begun… It is not as if drinking the water of the Chavadar lake will make us immortal. We have survived well enough all these days without drinking it. We are not going to the lake merely to drink its water. We are going to the lake to assert that we too are human beings like others. It must be clear that the meeting has been called to set up the norm of equality.
When Kumud Pawade married a man from a caste above hers, they had their first child with no support from anyone because’ they had been excluded from both families. This, despite the claim for equality and dignity, and even after the country became independent and the Constitution banned the practice of untouchability. The father-in-law was furious that his son had had a child by a Mahar woman. He sent his son a message through a friend that he would never accept the child of a Mahar woman into his family — he would rather swallow poison. ‘I have been thrown out of my caste … I would rather burn down my property than give him anything’, he raved. When he relented a little and went to see the child, he continued to humiliate Kumud. When he was approached in reverence by the little grandson he recoiled in horror from being touched by him, only handing over a five-rupee note to the boy. Unable to take the humiliation anymore, Kumud said to the boy: ‘do not take the money in your hands. We too get polluted by money!’ (Rege, 2006).
We get a more satirical understanding of caste pollution from Viramma; perhaps she is in real form as she speaks to her upper-caste interlocutor about the contradictions in the way pollution is actually observed. When she is a young mother who is still lactating, the Reddiar mistress hands over her eldest son to Viramma when he is an infant: since they eat beef, the milk is rich. She says to her, ‘here, give him a bit of your milk!’ Years later when the child is a young man, Viramma asks him to pour out some water for her as she is ‘dying of thirst’. He asks his mother whether he should do so. Viramma comments:
He had drunk at my breast and now he is thinking twice about giving me some water! Now he doesn’t respect me and if I’m in the house he says to me ‘Aye! Stop there, you. It smells of paraya here!’
(Racine and Racine, 1997)
Apart from the spatial difference in the houses of the Dalit women and the upper castes into the ur and the cheri, where the upper castes and the Dalits reside, making it obvious without being told that the Dalit women are different from others, all Dalit children experience humiliating discrimination in the so-called impersonal institution of the school everywhere in India. Made to sit outside the schoolroom or at a distance at the back, that theirs is a stigmatised body is seared into the consciousness of children. A most powerful account of such discrimination comes from Urmila Pa war’s memoir, Aydaan. When Urmila’s father dies he exhorts his wife to educate the children so that they can get jobs and move out of the village and the humiliating life they are forced to live, subject to caste restrictions and servile obligations. Aai (mother) wheedles, begs and coerces Urmila to go to school, but she is reluctant for various reasons, including the beatings and humiliation that she receives from her teacher. Guruji insists that Urmila must sit in the last row, sweep the class after school and pick up the dung from the yard. One day Urmila refuses to pick up dung and the teacher slaps her hard across her face and tells her to get out of the school. Reaching home with a swollen and marked cheek, and crying miserably, Aai discovers the reason for the beating and is driven to take the Guruji on in front of others as he returns home in the evening. A furious Aai challenges his version of why the teacher hit Urmila. As Urmila writes in A Childhood Tale:
‘Look here, I am not a respectable woman. I live here under a tree, by the roadside, with my children like an exile. Why? So that they can study…become important people, and you harass the girl like this?’ Aai was speaking ungrammatically, incorrectly. In a loud voice she threatened Guruji, ‘Look here, after this if your ringer so much as touches my daughter, I will see to it that you will never walk on this road…’
After that day many things became easier … collecting dung and Guruji’s beating were no longer part of my fate and destiny. But the main thing was that I began to see my mother as a tremendous support. And my life got some direction.
Apart from describing the stigma and inequality experienced in school, Urmila also captures the strong investment in education that Dalit women make, both as a means of countering the ideology of caste and as a means by which Dalit women could hope to escape the prison-house of caste-based status and occupation that would keep them in the control of the landed elite for whom they must labour on degrading terms. Education was a means of social mobility through which the Dalit women could at least partly break out of the stranglehold of caste. It had the power to transform the lived social reality of the Dalit women, and so her father kept saying ‘educate the children’, like a mantra to their mother, even as he lay dying. Most importantly, Urmila translates through the act of writing or ‘weaving with words’ what her mother expresses through her silent and ceaseless weaving of baskets to make a living, and thus gives words to her mothers pain. Even though poverty and stigma have left an indelible scar on Urmila’s personality, her subjectivity is also shaped by a new political understanding which enables her to make sense of the emotions she experienced as a child. Through the act of writing, Urmila brings the changed consciousness of both the mother and daughter into the public world.
Violence of different kinds hovers around the narratives, ever present and inescapable. Children grow up in its shadow. When Bama, the author of Karukku is 11-years-old, she witnesses the battle between her community of Dalit Christians and the dominant caste Saliyars which takes place in the local cemetery, the raids by the policemen who sided as always with the dominant groups, and their brutality against the men which leads them to escape to the hills and forests to save their lives. The women then have to face sexual abuse by the policemen which Dalit women face on a daily basis too. Bama’s voice in this account is the narrative voice of the community as she recalls the days when she wrote her first book. Her recall of the events also shows how women thought of different ruses to escape the endemic police raids: one time they hung margosa leaves to ward off entry into a house because that is what is hung when someone has small pox, allowing a man to spend a night at home without fear of a raid. On another occasion, Bama’s grandmother hatches a plan to dress a man who is hiding from the police in a sari so that he can attend his son’s funeral. When Bama becomes an adult she joins the church as a nun, hoping to be able to do something for her people. But there too she discovers painfully that there is the violence of caste repression extracted in the form of unquestioning obedience; she leaves the church, writing somewhat bitterly: ‘I don’t know where the God has fled. For now it is the priest, nuns and their relatives who claim themselves to be Gods’ (Pandian, 2003).
After her return to her own people she breathes freely and seeks to fashion a world of justice and equality. The title of the book Karukku evokes the pain she has suffered through the violence of poverty and stigma as she is seared by sharp double-edged leaves when collecting firewood. Now she uses words and ideas that will be sharp like the karukku to hit back at the oppressors. There are three issues with which I want to close this essay. Dalit women articulation of difference is evident in all the pieces of writing to which I have already alluded. There are two issues that I want to examine here that are suggestive of the areas of tension between the women movement and the Dalit women movement, and these have erupted at different stages of mobilisations and events in the last three decades. Early on in the 1980s when the feminism of Dalit women was less evident as a different voice—a stage that Rege refers to as the ‘silent’ or perhaps ‘silenced’ years of feminism—Dalit women in the urban cities were part of women’s groups that began to mushroom as the autonomous women’s groups. But they soon began to feel that their experience of caste could never form the basis of the main campaign plank of the women’s groups as their distinctive experience was swept under formulations such as ‘all women are Dalits because all women were involved with cleaning jobs for their children! Thus, when Dalit women in Delhi sought to include an end to manual scavenging for an 8 March campaign, its non-inclusion in the campaign document led to some Dalit members falling out of the campaign. Over the years, Dalit women feminists have formed their own organisations. They have also drawn attention to the Dalit women as the thrice-oppressed: by class power and the exploitation of labour; by the stigma of the caste system and the oppression experienced through the power of dominant castes and on the basis of their gender through regular abuse of their dignity and endemic sexual violence. The distinctive social experience which upper-caste women in the women movement failed or refused to understand surfaced sharply at a conference in 2007 over bar-dancing. Contentious issues arose around how feminists should view forms of contemporary labour complicated by gender and sexuality. There was anger expressed by Dalit women feminists because the relationship between labour, caste and stigma was not recognised by the mainstream women movement. These confrontations have led to the opening up of a dialogue between the two strands of the women movement which is still ongoing.
These dialogues may be deepened by the nuances of the literature produced by Dalit women feminists in the form of poetry, short stories and other forms of writing being published now. Two have made a powerful impact on me: a short story by Gogu Shyamala on the practice enforced by the dominant castes of dedicating girls from the Dalit castes to a goddess and then making them available for sexual use by the landed elites and justified by tradition; and a powerful story by Saraswathy on manual scavenging. Shyamala’s story, Raw Wound, is written in the first person and poignantly describes a Dalit family’s struggle to save their daughter from being dedicated, which the rest of the village, led by the biggest landlord, is trying to enforce in the name of tradition. When he hears that the family is trying to place the daughter in school to be educated, the landlord says:
In this village our word is law. We speak for the good of the village. Tomorrow we may have deaths, disease, drought and famine. To appease the gods after that would be futile. We should do our dharma—only then will god look after us…. If you don’t do your duty and I mine, we are doomed. We have to follow what is written on our foreheads. Who are we change our destiny? You know the fingers of the hand are not equal, don’t you, my man?
When the family against all odds manages to secretly take the daughter away to a residential school for admittance, they face the severest of violence. The whole family is beaten viciously and then banished from the village; so they must leave it, giving the land to the landlord in return for their lives. As they leave the village lamenting the cruelty of caste power, the father exhorts his daughte, not to cry, to study and become a big officer, and that is what gives the daughter courage to continue with her education. She writes about the struggle:
My childhood, marked by a refusal to become a jogini and by my father losing his land, is a raw wound for my family and I throbbing memory even today.
Saraswathy’s story weaves together two axes of difference that have become points of criticism for the mainstream women movement: caste and disability. In a marvellous story, Bacheesu (Tip), that Saraswathy has read at conferences, she describes the life of the manual scavengers, the filth that they must carry away for the city to remain clean. A pregnant daughter of such a family who has come home for her delivery decides to cook a nice meal for her parents who work so hard and have little time for themselves to prepare meals, just drinking coffee to get past the tiredness of the day. But, when the parents return home the mother is unable to eat; she cannot swallow anything after having dealt with the stink of the rotting remnants of the everyday life of (upper-caste) people, the dregs of the city, dead dogs and cats. She has just come back from dealing with the remnants of a dead puppy which has disintegrated in her hands. Before the daughter can notice that her mother is not eating, the baby decides to herald its arrival. But the baby has a deformity—he does not have all his fingers. The boy has only two fingers in the right hand and three in the left. The doctors reassure the grandparents that they can do corrective surgery in three months but that it will cost money, something the parents do not have. They are deeply distressed. The mother tries to console the daughter and says to her that if God has put an obstacle in their lives, He will find them a way out too. That reassurance is not needed as the daughter has found her own way:
Why should I bemoan my fate? Amma, I am not sad, only recalling how much you tried to make me go to school and I never heeded you. Now there is no way but to send this child to school. You ask why? This child can only hold a pen in two fingers and never a broom. God has given a gift. Why should I refuse it?