The Hindu on Books | Dalit History Month, Meena Kandasamy on four writers, a new prize for South Asian literature and more

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Published - April 04, 2023 05:18 pm IST

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Welcome to this edition of The Hindu on Books Newsletter.

Welcome to this edition of The Hindu on Books Newsletter. April is Dalit History Month and we have a special edition – an interview with author, poet and playwright Dalpat Chauhan on his new anthology, Fear and Other Stories, an essay by Meena Kandasamy on how Dalit writers are imagining and looking at new ways to resist, an excerpt from Yogesh Maitreya’s memoir and a whole list of books to read and discover. Dalit History Month is an initiative started by a group of young women from the Dalit community, such as Sanghapali Aruna and Thenmozhi Soundararajan, in 2015. It was inspired by Black History Month, writes Siddhesh Gautam, but with time and open participation, it has taken a direction of its own.

In other news, the jury for the Armory Square Prize for South Asian Literature in Translation has selected seven finalists to receive its inaugural award for 2023. The winner will be announced next week. On the  shortlist are Siddique Alam’s ‘The Kettle-Drum and Other Stories’, translated from the Urdu by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Amit Dutta’s ‘This Village Doesn’t Exist’, translated from the Hindi by Vaibhav Sharma, the ‘Selected Short Stories of Appadurai Muttulingam’, translated from the Tamil by Thila Varghese, Charu Nivedita’s ‘Raasa Leela’, translated from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan, Nasera Sharma’s ‘Alpha-Beta-Gamma’, translated from the Hindi by Akshaj Awasthi, Yeshe Dorje Thongchi’s ‘The Smell of Bamboo Blossoms’, translated from the Assamese by Aruni Kashyap, and Sajjad Haider Yaldram’s ‘Save Me From My Friends’, translated from the Urdu by Nandini Krishnan and Jaweeda Habib. 

Granta, the quarterly magazine of new writing, has announced that its new editor will be Thomas Meaney, and that his first issue will be the autumn issue, published in November. Meaney is an editor and writer, Granta said, with a PhD in modern history from Columbia, and has taught at the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University. Last year, he was one of the recipients of the Robert B. Silvers Prize. The outgoing editor and publisher Sigrid Rausing said on Twitter: “Thomas Meaney’s analytical mind and commissioning imagination will deepen our engagement with the world of non-fiction, in particular.” 

Books of the week

Dalpat Chauhan at his residence in Gandhinagar on Monday March 27, 2023

Dalpat Chauhan at his residence in Gandhinagar on Monday March 27, 2023 | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

In the introduction of his new collection, Fear and Other Stories (Penguin), translated from Gujarati to English by Hemang Ashwinkumar, Dalpat Chauhan writes: “I want to chronicle our [Dalit] history and our resistance, so I use village dialects and bring mythological characters into my works. In his four-decade literary career, Chauhan, 83, has written extensively on the socio-cultural and economic realities of the Dalit community. Talking to Amarjot Kaur, he says, “I was born in a Dalit family of weavers in Mandali village, Mahesana. My father fled to Ahmedabad in 1948, when upper caste men started attacking our community because we wanted freedom from begaar [forced labour].” The subjugation of Dalits by Savarnas is central to the characters of Fear, writes Kaur. Chauhan who is now writing his autobiography says though translations are a “something lost, something gained” measure of literature’s worth, he is happy that the stories have gained a wide audience. “We want our stories, our pain, our struggle to travel as far as possible.” 

In 1956, nearly half a million Mahars converted to Buddhism, following the path Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar had shown them. Growing up in a Dalit basti in Nagpur called Takli Sim, Yogesh Maitreya remembers his grandmother lighting candles in front of a couple of photos of Ambedkar and a statue of Buddha. But Buddhism in Maharashtra, he writes in his memoir, Water in a Broken Pot (Penguin), did not affect everyone on the same scale. While many took up Ambedkar’s call for education, some were incapable of doing so because of dire economic circumstances, and his family was part of that group. Yogesh, however, learnt to read, and found the language to articulate the pain of Dalits. In this edited excerpt, he talks about his friend George who hailed from the fisherman community. “George and I were those first-generation learners who had entered into Brahmin-dominated universities in India and could not help but defy their methods of teaching/learning at a later stage. Yet, this had given a space, contradictory to our lived experiences, in which we could explore the realities behind the making of movies and literature in India. So with George, as I was learning to watch movies in all their subtle ways of sabotaging the idea of life with which the Dalit-Bahujan population lives every day, I could not help but think about the hazardous impact Bollywood movies had had on my father. He had invested a large part of his life into watching these films. Yet, he never knew that the movies he watched were either a mockery of the life of his kind or created notions in his head which made him hate his own life. With George, I began to learn to see the casteist notions which movies form in our heads. My father did not get the opportunity to learn to see his own erasure in movies. A man who cannot see his own erasure in the national imagination, through movies or literature, is a man fettered by the times. He is unable to question what he sees or reads because the means – language – by which he can resist his erasure has long ago been snatched away from him by the politics of his country.” 


‘Protectors & Providers’ by Tamil Dalit artist Osheen Siva at Chennai’s Kannagi Art District

‘Protectors & Providers’ by Tamil Dalit artist Osheen Siva at Chennai’s Kannagi Art District | Photo Credit: Pranav Gohil

Poet, novelist and translator Meena Kandasamy writes about four path-breaking books, across different genres, that she read over the course of last month. Yogesh Maitreya’s Water in A Broken Pot is a fascinating memoir, she says. Maitreya is well-known for his work as publisher of the radical Panther’s Paw Publication. In this book, he narrates with utmost tenderness his journey: his father’s travails, the pain of childhood hunger, the abominable cruelty of caste, the influence of cinema, the constant presence of Ambedkar’s thoughts in his life, the price of alienation. It is at once a heartbreaking, life-affirming book written with extreme lyrical beauty, volcanic anger and immense compassion. She writes that academic and rapper Sumeet Samos’ book, Affairs of Caste, asks uncomfortable and uncompromising questions, and that he has chronicled how the oppression of the state has shattered their very existence. “Read alongside Manoj Mitta’s incredible book Caste Pride, that is based on two centuries of legislative and judicial records around caste, we realise how the criminal judicial system has often acted in antipathy against Dalits.” The last book on her list is America-based activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s insightful book, The Trauma of Caste, which explores the uncomfortable silences around the discussion on caste. “Read together, they comprise both collective memory and manifesto. As we observe and celebrate Dalit History Month, these books show us new ways to imagine and resist,” says Kandasamy.


The first Dalit autobiography to be published in Marathi in 1978, Baluta (Speaking Tiger) by Dawa Pawar was translated into English by Jerry Pinto in 2015. Pawar belongs to the Mahar caste and writing his life story wasn’t easy and it isn’t an easy book to read either. As Pinto writes in his translator’s note: “Even when we think we know all about the horrors of caste – the practice of untouchability, the constant and extreme humiliation – the sheer pervasiveness of the cruelty shocks us.”  

A host of writers, including Sukhadeo Thorat, Raja Sekhar Vundru, Suraj Yengde, Jignesh Mevani and Sudha Paiprobes the path Dalits must follow, as articulated by Ambedkar. The authors write narratives of different hues, stories of dismay and possibilities. The essays in The Dalit Truth: The Battles for Realising Ambedkar’s Vision (Vintage), edited by K. Raju, offer deeper insights into social, educational, economic and cultural challenges and opportunities faced by Dalits, the varied strategies of political parties for their mobilisation and the choice to be made by Dalits to attain social equality.  

Journalist Yashica Dutt was forced to pretend to be of another caste, terrified of her true identity being discovered, till she worked up the courage to embrace her Dalit identity. Published in 2019, Coming Out as Dalit (Aleph) is a memoir which also offers a social commentary and a glimpse of the history of the Dalit movement. Her personal story alternates with observations on caste, which she says is the “invisible arm that turns the gears in nearly every system in our country.” 

Kakka: A Dalit Novel, written originally in the Madiga dialect by Vemula Yellaiah, was translated into English by K. Purushotham and Gita Ramaswamy in 2000. It chronicles the life of Madigas, oppressed and exploited throughout history and in contemporary times. In recounting slavery’s myriad manifestations, the writer also talks about caste hierarchies and inter-caste tensions. He writes, for instance, of the marginalisation of a Dalit within his Dalit kinships. The eponymous hero, like his mother, rises to the occasion when necessary to protect his family.

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