Reviews

‘Spotted Goddesses – Dalit Women’s Agency-Narratives on Caste and Gender Violence’ review: Streaming Dalit consciousness

Through ethnographic notes, a writer chronicles the fragile, vulnerable and personal experiences of women who, on occasion, know how to celebrate life too

I had a good chance to host the book talk of Roja Singh’s Spotted Goddesses in June 2018 at the Ambedkar Lecture Series I ran at Harvard. The book was then in a German publisher edition. Roja Singh’s ancestors converted to Christianity for the very reason that many Dalits went to the liturgy of white wo/man’s church — for economic viability and status and dignity.

Born into a family of educators, father a professor and mother teacher, Singh had a privileged childhood, where the “c” word seldom featured. Singh thus grew up with a non-caste (upper caste) sensibility. Upon realising her caste at the age of 26 she felt enraged for two reasons: her parents not exposing her to caste, and the lowness that her caste was kept into. Singh eventually overcame the trauma and “learned to love her Dalit identity more” in the thatched roof huts and among humble yet resolved Dalit women who own their identity with more pride.

It is through this lens of middle-class, Dalit Christian women that we witness the beat of a Dalit woman: her life, her story, talent, generosity and compassion in dealing with violence and subverting it to celebrate which the author foregrounds as earthy humanness, in the melodious notes of Dalit women of rural Tamil Nadu.

Earthy humanness centres on the degendered person — the human who is grounded in the ethics of dignity and wellbeing while devouring care in the songs of paraparesis of Indian caste society.

Singh dives into the colonial ethnographic methodology to reclaim herself and the method itself. Oral narratives are hardly caricatured as novel mediums if written from an intra-community perspective.

The musical storytelling does not have processed thought as a condition for building a discourse. They are fragile, vulnerable, private and extremely sensitive. Deciphering them as a mode of knowledge for the wider community’s consumption, Singh argues that these oral narratives comprise “multi-textured dimensions of Dalit culture along with Dalit female agency” thereby becoming “resistance to victimization”. Bama notes Dalit culture is a repository of Dalit women’s wisdom.

The book meticulously weaves ethnographic notes — stories and songs — by carefully presenting a narrative that makes one shudder and tatter into pieces.

The stories are incredibly disturbing and yet Dalit people find occasions to celebrate their life too. It is the genius of the author who has managed to bring out such personal experiences.

Formidable ride

Singh has delivered a work of immense breadth. Sharp yet limited, this book has caricatured Dalit women’s style, voice, rage, courage, disruption, wail, anger, innocence, morality, dare, subversion, protest, submission, etc. to the phenomenal life of sassiness and attractive pedagogy of Dalit community as a whole. The author couldn’t remove herself from the text as it lives in her. She is passionate about the work and the stories and songs that have inspired her. This book is an academic story of two powerful Dalit women leaders, activists, justice seekers Kalai and Rani, among other formidable women in Tamil Nadu, who preface gallant by embodying the spirits of ancestors to subvert their submission. The author places Dalit women’s body as a site of exiled self wherefrom the process of de-colonisation should begin.

Although the stories presented are of rural Tamil Nadu, they easily speak to the rest of India. It has brought forth the plight of Dalit wo/men who are pushed into the unforgiving dark chambers of suffering and epidemic violence.

Good primer

The book is the story of charming sheroes that Dalits in contemporary times need to inspire. It serves as a good primer packed with nuanced commentary on India’s caste condition. One can argue the problem of women in India and Dalit women in extension comes from the epics which condition the thought process of identifying characteristics, virtues, beauties and norms of moral high from the scriptural anecdotes such as Ramayana and Mahabharata in real life. A Dalit girl has to “transgress” to feel beautiful.

In addition to the book’s many strengths in data gathering, it misses the socio-historical density. The Dalit history month was already experimented by the creative genius of Kanshi Ram through “Ambedkar Mela on Wheels” in 1980. The question of queerness and sexuality would have been an important mediation for the readers to grasp on the entirety of Dalit women experience. Nonetheless, the book elucidates the importance of allyship and how it has helped the subjects of her study to continue their fight. However, in the cacophonous tit-for-tat type of clickbait politics it seems to be an impossible option.

Spotted Goddesses: Dalit Women’s Agency-Narratives on Caste and Gender Violence; Roja Singh, Zubaan Books, ₹795.

The author of Caste Matters is a post-doctorate fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 5:51:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/spotted-goddesses-dalit-womens-agency-narratives-on-caste-and-gender-violence-review-streaming-dalit-consciousness/article30828787.ece

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