The Subaltern Identity and Literature: The Poetry of Indian Dalits
Literature is the product of the intersection of various socio-economic factors that are external, with the internal psychological ones. The site of that intersection is the mind of the human being: an entity that is identified as the subject, and happens to be the point of origin of all creative products, including literature. Literature has the power to perform the revolutionary and reactionary functions. This fact makes it a very potent tool: a tool that has been conspicuously utilized since the Reformation. The present paper is an attempt to analyse the poetic output of the minds of the Dalit poets of India.
Strategic essentialism, a very useful and ad hoc “Spivakean” stance, has been adopted partially in the paper, in order to group similar tendencies together and to draw conclusions that make understanding these people who have been exploited and discriminated against for centuries. The themes of dalit potry reflect the hard and harsh realities of the metaphorical Caliban’s life. He has learnt the language and power plays of the exploiters. He has mastered the language of the masters of yesteryears and is now producing from it “something rich and strange”: but this creation is not characterized by any attempt to maintain an aesthetic or rhetorical stance. It is the committed poetry of the people who need it urgently, because they have faith in its power to change their state of marginality and voicelessness.
The Subaltern Identity and Literature: The Poetry of Indian Dalits
Many things have changed with the passage of time but the power words have over human minds remains unaltered and undiminished. Poetry communicates the living, pulsating life-experiences and aims at bringing about change, especially when it is committed to a cause. “In a wholly racialized society, there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of the language is complicated, interesting and definitive” (Paul 60). Aboriginal Australian and Dalit Indian poets and poems take a stance that is predominantly committed. They are driven by the dominant current of reactions against an exploitative system. They assert an individual or caste or racial-ethnic pride same as the various movements of the coloured peoples of the United States, South Africa or many other parts of the world do. These peoples whose voices had been suppressed for a long time, and who had been marginalized completely, had a Blakean choice before them. They can either create their own system or follow that of the others. Instead of choosing to live as branded “infra” humans in a malevolent and maleficent system, they opt for liberty(limited initially but finally full) and equality, if not fraternity with amity, to begin with.
Only God has the hypothetical power of creating matter ex nihilo. He is the only exception to the law: “Nothing will come out of nothing.” All human products of imagination are definitely the outcome of the creative processes of human mind, but that site of creation (the subject as an entity) is itself the point where various intersecting lines of effect meet. It is a very interesting thing when two peoples separated by several hundred miles of oceans, without any definite and prominent socio-cultural exchange, produce literature that has themes that may be called mirror images, albeit with unique features of their own. This paper focuses only on the poems of the Indian Dalits in English or translated into it from various Indian languages.
Officially, India gained independence in 1947, so did the Dalits, in theory. The ground reality is different. Untouchability was decreed unconstitutional in India on paper but the people of that caste were never freed of the stigma in practice. They continued being the unpurchased slaves of the upper castes because of the monolithic social structure of India. The courses of the history of subjugation and exploitation ran on smoothly as ever. Voices were raised and action taken against the atrocity. The responding voices are a legion, but their core concerns are pronounced and clear, as is evident from an analysis of the poetry of the Indian Dalits. The hitherto dormant volcano of their hearts erupts and the lava of their anger, discontent, frustration and angst flows out with force as in J. V. Pawar’s “Birds in prison”:
Shouting slogans to condemn or uphold
a blaze of fire marches forth
And forest fires take birth
in oceans that seek to oppose.
What obstacle shall now withhold
Our turning volcanic vein by vein
every inch of the terrain? (41)
The age old system of oppression and discrimination finds staunch opposition. Those who had been silenced by the forces beyond their control wrote back. Their poems assert their identity and the pride they take in it. They also emphasize their right to be treated as equals to their fellow mortals who claim themselves to be the more equals among the equals. The dispossessed, those whose dignity was snatched away, reclaim it and don’t hesitate to snatch it back from the usurpers even violently, if the occasion demands it. Women, the doubly dispossessed, the subaltern among the subalterns, the invisible, yet irritatingly present entities of this discourse, have been subjected to the worse kind of oppression. Their voice is heard amid the tumultuous uproar of multitudinous voices. In fact, it has never been silenced completely. The Dalit women have never been so effectively silenced as their middle class counterparts from Hindu upper castes. The oral and performative aspects of their expressions cannot be discounted as they have had a strong tradition of lavanis and tamashas where they have presented their thoughts candidly, although they are new to the expression in the form of printed words.
History is theirs who have the power and means to write it. The marginalized subaltern never gets the centre stage. Where all action is shown in progress they remain “invisible” as always. As Fanon or Malcolm X proclaimed, these voices assert that violence must be employed if needed, against the exploiters whose best interest is in maintaining the status quo through perpetuation of their hegemony. It is the process of maintaining the hegemony that has taken a lot of ideological support and practical methods that have congealed into policies. The Indian Dalit had to face a challenge to his caste identity and responded in various manners. The extent of hopelessness was compounded by the fact that thay were the doubly dispossessed and marginalized.
There are differences in the themes and concerns of the poetry of the subaltern of various times and climes, yet there is a stream of commonality that runs through them. Specificities notwithstanding, the insults, wounds and scars these peoples share give their voices the same intensity of pain and poignancy. Internalization of the prejudices of the dominant group and their assertion and perpetuation by the very people against whom the prejudices were held, is a common mechanism for survival. It creates a set of alienated people who neither belong to their people nor are accepted as equal by the others. Racial and social mobilizations are excruciatingly slow and very unsure processes whose rate or outcome can never be controlled or predicted with certainty. Moreover, black skin with white mask (or Dalit skin with upper caste mask) is not a psychologically healthy combination. Neither is it right, ethico-politically and socially. The subaltern – dispossessed and silenced – belong to one mass. Their resistance to the phallogocentric social structure and their attempts at critiquing or deconstructing are very logical ends to the centuries old process of planned dehumanization. Multiculturalism, postmodern questioning of grand narratives and trends in upward social mobility have brought about many changes in the mind set of the people. How deep these changes have percolated and how fundamental in nature they are, has yet to be seen and tested. In the meanwhile, the longest march for a yet unreached goal must not stop.
The themes of hatred and resistance against the exploiters are very common in their poems. The voices of the subaltern, freshly raised, rising from the soil, raise disturbing issues. They prove that the grand narrative of the Enlightenment – the great ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” as the rational end of all social systems and the attainable or desirable state of existence – is only there to beguile the masses. In reality, for an Indian Dalit, there is neither liberty nor equality, and fraternity is nowhere to be seen. Reason has been proven powerless in redressing the wrongs perpetrated by an iniquitous system of institutionalized exploitation. Therefore, the subaltern must catapult themselves to the stage of power play using any means whatsoever. Their language is charged with the power to burn the social customs and the desiccated traditions that have given them a life worse than that of animals.
The voices resisting exploitation are fully aware of their own strength and dignity. They take pride in their being what they are. Their identity and self-image are affirmed in their poems again and again. Of course, hatred and anger are not the only things present in their poems. There is love too, as is seen in the following lines about a mother:
On her head, a burden. Her legs a-totter.
Thin, dark of body… my mother.
All day she combs the forest for fire wood
We await her return.
Mother is gone…
Even now my eyes search fro mother. (Nimbalkar 36)
Subjection and subjugation for generations turns an individual’s existence into an everlasting hell: a hell that is so unshakably embedded, so deeply programmed into the existence that it is assimilated and naturalized. Socio-political and psychological repressions of the most debilitating kind, stretched over centuries, take the form of the hands of unseen fate or karma for those who are hopelessly trapped in prisons called their own existence. They have been sentenced to death in life, day after day, every day of their life. A time eventually arrives – later, if not as soon as it should have come – nearly at the threshold level of tolerance, when life becomes unbearable and the blood boiling in the veins can simply not be contained any more. If revolutionary blood bath and anti revolutionary purges don’t follow, the blood takes the form of words and flows out as a cry of anger, anguish, anger, resistance, pride and a series of various human emotions that were repressed till then. The ideological apparatuses of the modern hegemonic states have tilted the balance of power so much towards the agencies that run nation states that any challenge seems at lest ineffectual in the last count, if not practically impossible. The intellectual pessimism arising out of this situation has generated theories galore. The petits recits (mini narratives) are the one that seem to be valid in the discourse the present paper is concerned with. The war against the structure that has successfully interpellated the thinking subject appears to be a contradiction in itself. The Dalit or the Aborigine is under a lot of socio-economic pressure for assimilation, if possible, with the dominant culture. The range of choices available to them is broad. They may identify with the dominant mastering discourse and internalize it to propagate it themselves later. They may remain neutral observers, or they may become active in resistance, raising their own voices in the public sphere, creating their own mini narratives. A stream of resistance, strong, conspicuous and continuous, can be seen originating from among the repressed. The war against an internalized and inherently exploitative system can only be fought with innovative tools, applying a series of methods available for the purpose. As Gene Sharpe recommends, the struggle has the best chances to be effective finally if it is peaceful and democratically committed. He speaks about action against repressive non-democratic regimes. Both Australia and India are democracies. Therefore, the insistence on peaceful and democratic methods seems to be more relevant as the pressure it builds will generate voices – both nationally and internationally – against the institutionalized exploitation and repression of the subaltern. Literature has always been a part of the move to persuade at the levels of both the state propaganda and that of the resistance. Although newly acquired as a weapon and it serves the same age old purpose for the cause of the subaltern whom everyone else has failed, and gives them hope, not false, but true:
In our colony-
Reforms get confused
Paths are bruised, schemes stumble
Now- only now have boys started learning.
They write poems- stories- Indian Literature
The axes of words fall upon the trees of tradition (Meshram 10)
Meshram, Keshav. “In Our Colony”. Tr. V. G. Nand. Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Ed. Arjun Dangle. Orient Longman: Bombay, 1994.
Nimbalkar, Waman. “Mother”. Tr. Priya Adarkar. Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Ed. Arjun Dangle. Orient Longman: Bombay, 1994.
Paul, S. K. “Dalit Literature and Dalit Poetry: A Brief Survey”. Dalit Literature: A Critical Exploration..eds. Amar Nath Prasad and M. B. Gaijan. Sarup & Sons: New Delhi, 2007.
Pawar, J.V. A Corpse in the Well: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Autobiographies. Ed. Arjun Dangle. Orient Longman: Bombay, 1992.