Updated: July 4, 2011 15:33 IST

An alternative history

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No Alphabet in Sight
Special Arrangement
No Alphabet in Sight

This volume's significance lies in its potential to change the way we read Indian cultural history.

Satyanarayana and Tharu's ‘dossier' maps the radicalisation of Dalit consciousness even as it traces the contours of an energized Indian literary scene and a history of publishing that has never received due attention. An archive of fiction, poetry, memoirs, polemical tracts sourced from magazines, newspapers, literary society newsletters, activist writings, No Alphabet in Sight might well be the alternative history of Indian literature we have been waiting for.

Different contexts

The detailed introduction sets out the social, economic and political contexts of Dalit activism, writings and literature. It takes into account the histories of land debates (and land grabbing by upper castes, classes and not-so-faceless corporate houses), the dynamics of political organisation and electoral politics, and the persistent, caste-based inequities that haunt the corridors of academia in (even? especially?) elite institutions (that the editors carefully castigate the University of Hyderabad, ignoring EFL-U, to which they belong, is an interesting statement in institutional politics!). It also makes a strong case for contemporary Dalit writing as both literature and critique that would ‘invent an alphabet that will enable a Dalit tongue to speak', as they put it.

However, the multiple folds of these modes are not something the editors have found time to unravel and by calling it a ‘ dossier' — with all its connotations of officialese, archivism and potentially explosive material — they avoid isolating, unfairly, the literary merits of the selections thereby running the risk of ghettoising them as more ‘protest literature'.

The selections are eclectic in style, tone and, of course, content. Ayyappan's “Branthu”, Paul Chirakkarodu's “Eli, Eli, La'ma, Sabach Tha'ni”, Joseph's poems “Identity Card” and “My Sister's Bible”, Periyavan's “Stench”, Rajkumar and Renukumar's poems, among others, deal with the excruciating daily life of Dalits. Bama, arguably the better known of these authors by virtue of Mini Krishnan's pioneering project, also figures here, along with Sivakami.

What is fascinating is the urgent and strident note seeking dignity in each of these tales. Firmly grounded in local myth, politics and economy, the literary texts refuse to be tagged merely as ‘victim narratives'.

While victimage is, understandably, the scaffolding of the cultural imaginary of all Dalit writings, the selection here ensures that we also get a glimpse of the proverbial ‘fire-in-the-belly' revolutionary potential in these writers. Critique is implicit in many texts, even when many authors refuse to cast their work as ‘political writing'.

Many of the selections pull out materials from hitherto unknown and unseen (to the mainstream) archives. T. Dharmaraj's essay retrieves figures of Dalit cultural nationalism such as Iyothee Dass. Texts that emerge as histories of various societies and organisations like the Cheramar Mahajana Sabha and Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham in THP Chentharassery's essays enable us to move beyond just Periyar and Phule to see how 19th century and early 20th India had witnessed major social reform, Dalit and other emancipatory movements, and thus offer a whole new cultural history of Indian modernities.

Social analyses in Ravikumar, Pampirikunnu, Raj Gauthaman, Sunny Kapikkad and Kunhaman focus on multiple domains: media, development, cultural history and practices. These offer detailed, polemical criticism, often Marxian in tone, of contemporary India, and in the process call the bluff of various clichés like equality, development and rights that have served as shorthand to mask more invidious inequities and injustice.

TM Yesudasan's powerful essay on Dalit studies is a fitting concluding piece (and it is titled ‘Prologue', thus effectively breaking the structural tyranny of narrative and publishing) where he outlines the key components of such a project: retrieving Dalit traditions and forms of knowledge, examining the causes of Dalit ‘backwardness', to develop Dalit ways of seeing past and present and to formulate Dalit critical frameworks of understanding and interpreting, and actively champions, for this enterprise, methodologies from the social sciences and cultural studies.

Powerful voices

Translators Ansari, Madhava Prasad, Meena Kandasamy, Venkatachalapathy, Geetha, Azhagarasan, Udaya Kumar (inventorying like this means risking consigning some to alphabetical black holes, so I shall stop here) do a fine job with their texts. There are some inaccurate translations — it would have been useful if the editors had cross-checked some of these — but the bulk of the volume reads well.

The significance of this volume lies in its potential to change the way we read Indian cultural history. It reveals so many speaking subjects, and voices that are powerful but rarely petulant, poignant yet polemical. It places upon us, the readers, an ethical demand, to respond in certain ways, for there are no neutral ways of reading these texts (just as there are no neutral ways of reading Holocaust narratives).

No Alphabet in Sight is an archive, indisputably. It is for us to understand what this archive truly means: it is not simply about the past, it is always aspirational.

The volume-as-archive forces us to ponder about how this set of documents will be read in the future. This ethical reading must embody the aspirations for the future, encoded within these enormously rich and powerful texts.

No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India Dossier 1: Tamil and Malayalam; Ed. K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu, Penguin, Rs. 599.

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