Prose | Chandramohan S

IWE Dalit-Bahujan writers' consortium

Source: imdb.com

From the colonial times, English has been a language of privilege; it has taken more than 60 years or so after Indian independence for literature produced by Dalits or Dalit-Bahujans, that articulate resistance against the oppression of any kind, to have a miniscule presence in the literary pantheon. Certain novels in vernacular languages have even documented how Dalits are empowered via the skilful use of English; for e.g. in Saraswathi Vijayam, by Potheri Kunhambu ( and translated from Malayalam by Dilip Menon). The author himself was a Dalit-Bahujan.

Saraswativijayam is one of the earliest novels written in the Malayalam language and propounds English education for untouchables as a tool for subverting the social hierarchy. Similar to the ideals propagated by Sree Narayana Guru and others, Potheri Kunhambu was optimistic about the sites of resistance opened up for lower castes by colonial modernity.

Observations by Kannadiga writer U.R. Ananthamurthy on the lack of original English writing by Dalits and disparaging comments like, "probably there will never be 'Indian English' literature by us " point to a certain glass ceiling which should be shattered in the post-Rohith Vemula era.

In her essay, included in Poisoned Bread- An anthology of Dalit writing published from Maharashtra, Gail Omvedt had pointed out that a sense of cultural capital, required in order to produce poetry, short stories or novels in English is lacking among the Dalit community and that many Other Backward Castes lag behind the Dalits when it comes to producing scholarship or literature in English. Fiction produced by non- Dalit writers, that have portrayed Dalit life, leave much to be desired.

Though an act of translating fiction or scholarship of Dalit-Bahujan writers can be perceived as a step to de-caste themselves by those involved in the process, issues remain.  

Firstly, a lot is lost in translation. This loss is even more pronounced in the case of literature produced by the Subaltern since they are much rooted in their respective cultural milieu best expressed in the vernacular. The politics of the translator affects the output subtly. This can result in serious misunderstanding or misappropriation of the rhetoric of the source text.

If languages are sites of struggle, and if our perception of this world we live in is very much shaped by the language we use, then every small pin prick of subversion is inextricably intertwined with the specificities of the myriad dialects that are in use, all of which could go for a toss during the process of translation.

Moreover, there is a huge time-lag involved in translation into English. Many literary works which respond to the socio-political reality of the present situation may not serve the expected outcome when the English translation arrives many years later. Thus the role played by Dalit literature in complementing the civil rights struggle of Dalits could get blunted. For example, it took more than a couple of decades before the acclaimed novel Devanoora Mahadeva’s Kusumabale could see the light of the day in the English language.

Dalit literature is a cultural text, a nuanced engagement with which could play a vital role in extending the political struggles to the cultural arena which may not be served by journalistic endeavours of reporting facts without articulating a stand not to the mention the absence of Dalits in the newsrooms.

Secondly, Dalits have very little say in what is getting translated and who is translating it. This could be very detrimental to the civil rights movement based on identity politics since it is rooted in the dictum of who decides what for whom. Identity politics aims for engaging with the discourse without mediation from anyone else.

There is a big disparity between the deliberations and literary criticisms produced on literary works directly written in English compared to translated fiction. The reasons could vary from ubiquitous literary festivals which are designed for the spotlight to fall on the Indian English writer rather than on the vernacular writer with a recently published translation. Secondly, there is definitely a dearth of good translators from the vernacular to the English and to add insult to injury, academic interest in South Asian literature prefers an articulate English speaker to his vernacular counterpart.

A conspicuous example in this regard could be a comparison between a collection of short stories of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar  (The Adivasi Will not Dance; Speaking Tiger)  and translated fiction of Ajay Navaria(Unclaimed Terrain: Navayana); though both have been amply praised by critics, the latter has not received enough notice.

Another example is of Tamil writer P Sivakami had to wait for more than a decade to get platforms to air her views when compared to a writer like Meena Kandasamy.

The pertinent questions raised by U.R. Ananthamurthy on why there are no Subaltern literary movements in Indian English writing could be settled in this era along with literary theorizations by Dalit-Bahujan critics themselves.


1.Changing landscape of Indian literature- K Satchidanandan , Muse India International.
2. Poisoned Bread- Introduction by Gail Omvedt ;OUP.
3.”We too made history” – Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon ; Zubaan Books

No comments:

Post a Comment