Dalit is a condition. Historically it has been willed on one set of people by another. By taking away their land. By denying them language. By negating their sense of self — the pre-eminent condition of ownership. Worst, erasing their memories. Refusing them a place in history or a history of their own. Even as we recount one by one the chilling details of such crimes by man against man, we are aware that we have recourse only to the language of the victor and the concepts of the victor to narrate them. The lifeworld of the Dalit, the horizon of all his experiences, stands systematically destroyed by powers that enjoy dominance. In place of this collective and inter-subjective ground of perceiving, all that becomes available are the possibilities put in place by those who have displaced them from history.
The recognition by the Dalits that these possibilities are immense and can be put to strategic purposes to write themselves into history has resulted in the outstanding Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing edited by M. Dasan, V. Prathibha, Pradeepan Pampirikkunnu and C.S. Chandrika. The anthology, comprising 55 selections by 36 writers of poetry, fiction, drama, autobiography, biography and archival and critical prose, uses the very tools of modernity to conjure a worldview and construct a subjective experience not organised on the primacy of the individual or instrumentalist reason. It invokes memories of a world that is experienced in a way different from the present, celebrating the wisdom of a community and beliefs that are other-worldly. In so doing, they erect alternative cosmological and theological frameworks as Poikayil Appachan does when he says, let me add something in my own melody and goes on to speak of the ancient race that made this land fertile and how at one point they became slaves of this region.
It is a daunting task — recording alternative systems of knowing — and the quartet of editors, and supported by the Government of Kerala, carries it out admirably. They have not compromised by yielding to the demands of the market or mainstream academia and in so doing have made possible a collection that will go on to change the existing canon of Malayalam literature. A galaxy of 19 translators, among them award-winning translators like K. Satchidanandan, A.J. Thomas, Valson Thampu and Catherine Thankamma have moved the texts from varied registers in Malayalam into an English they have boldly crafted for the purpose. No one can ignore this book — significantly brought out in the centenary year of Oxford University Press.
Let me explain how such a revisionary exercise of re-drawing the canon of Malayalam literature can be undertaken. Though methodologically we can adopt several mechanisms, I limit myself to three: One, an epistemological revision — in the choice of an explanatory paradigm, two, an ethical revision — in the choice of strategies by which the ideological implications of representation are drawn up, in order to comprehend current social problems and three, an aesthetic revision — in the choice of narrative strategy.
Till date, the discourses of the Dalits have centered on principles of exclusion and inclusion or absence and presence. We have several important texts that examine the modes of exclusion or absence, which is a political stand, and a whole series of writings that examine the terms or the language of exclusion, which is an aesthetic stand. If we examine these texts closely, we can see that both sets assume a subordinate position — even while employing the polemical language of resistance. Conceptually and linguistically, they are always already situated in a position of subordination.
Dalit scholars like Paul Chirakkarod and Kaviyoor Murali who find a prominent place in the anthology have recognised this and have contested the tendency to treat caste as the sole instrument of oppression. They aim to recreate caste as a new identity of self assertion and pride. I see the historic importance of this book as marking a move away from what I would call the mindset of the subordinated.
This book opens up new domains of knowledge that not only bring new objects, new concepts and new techniques to light, but also give rise to totally new forms of subjects and subjects of knowledge. As is now well documented, the subject of knowledge itself has a history or, to put it in a different way, truth itself has a history; not static but constantly shifting and modifying existing systems. Viewed objectively, this book marks a radical intervention in truth positions and the history of truth positions. This calls for reworking the theory of the subject, because we see before us the happy act of the Dalit writing himself into subject positions.
Equations of power have definitely shifted as even a cursory look at the writings of K.K. Kochu in this anthology will prove. If the Dalit was the object of study earlier — in governmental records or missionary narratives or high literary texts — he is the determining subject now. He is the agent of his own change; the master of his own destiny. This is clear from the introduction, clear from each and every selection included in this anthology.
In the poem “My Soil” included in this anthology K.K.S. Das puts forth these ideas in a language that only a poet has access to:
Breaking the chest of hell/ an ember,/ the flowers of thorny plants/ hurl my patrimony/ over the head of dharmashastras.
Breaking the boundary-stones of generations/ in the heart of my father land/ I am born again.