In 2004, the French Institute of Pondicherry provided a platform for about a dozen Dalit writers in Tamil to reflect on their experiences in the Dalit literary movement. What they said on the occasion, along with extracts from their writings, were published later. And the book under review is an English translation of that publication. David C. Buck, an American academic who has translated some medieval Tamil texts, has joined the editor of the Tamil volume, Kannan M., in this venture.
The Dalit movement had a late start in Tamil Nadu, when compared to Maharashtra and Karnataka, largely because of the dynamics of the non-Brahmin Dravidian movement. It was only in the early 1990s — in the wake of the Mandal–Masjid developments, and in the context of Ambedkar centenary and the break-up of the Soviet Union and its impact on the Left movement — that the Dalit movement first manifested itself as a literary phenomenon in Tamil Nadu.
The 1990s saw a group of new and talented writers unleash their creative force in the literary field. The smugness of the entrenched literary orthodoxy was effectively challenged. But the movement has since suffered a setback, and a lull seems to have set in. It could be argued that the literary mainstream has now accommodated ‘dalitism'.
Of the nine writers figuring in the volume, two — Bama and Imaiyam — are known internationally, with a substantial number of their works available in English and other languages. Alakiya Periyavan, who showed promise right from the beginning, is now an accomplished writer. The bohemian poet N.D. Rajkumar has an interesting piece.
Punita Pantiyan speaks of the challenges involved in running an avowed dalit journal and, in the process, exposes the sham that caste discrimination plagues only the countryside and that the cities are free from it. Other writers featured in the book are: Sudhakar Ghatak, Yakkan, Vili. Pa. Itaya Ventan, and Yalan Ati.
Considering that the cutting edge of the Dalit literary movement, at least in its initial phase, was provided by critics (especially Raj Gowthaman and Ravikumar), their absence somewhat detracts from the comprehensiveness of the volume.
Translating any literary piece is a formidable task. It's much more so in the case of dalit literature, which seeks to challenge linguistic as well as social protocols.
In order to capture the range and nuances of the dalit dialect, the translators here have adopted “a derivative of the English spoken by less-than-affluent people in rural areas of the American mid-south.” It's a very interesting way of overcoming the challenges, one that lends itself to numerous possibilities.
When read in conjunction with No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing From South India, edited by K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu (Penguin, 2011), this volume will be of great help to both academics and students of literature in understanding the dalit movement in Tamil.
It would have gained immensely from a good copy-editor. The purpose of the book would be served better if middle-class readers reflect upon their own privileged position in the hierarchy of caste.