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When the subaltern started speaking

Going strong: Poisoned Bread inspired a vibrant movement   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Twenty-five years ago, Poisoned Bread, a kind of anthology of Dalit literature, hit the stands and created a storm, which led to a serious discussion on what constitutes this category. The book was edited by Arjun Dangle, one of the major Dalit writers and an activist of the Dalit Panthers, a social organization created to fight caste discriminations.

The book comprised poems, short stories and essays written by prominent authors including Baburao Bagul, Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, who had given voice to their pain and anger at generations of subjugation under the caste system.

It is interesting to revisit Poisoned Bread after 25 years, to analyse what led to the new wave of writings that started in Marathi and later spread to other languages to eventually influence the whole of India.

Babasaheb Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations in 2016 emphasised his influence in the post-Independence era. This provided an opportunity to revisit Dalit literature with reference to its landmark books. Poisoned Bread forced the mainstream literati to take note of the new literature created out of the miseries of the oppressed.

For the first time, Dalit authors mustered the courage to listen to their inner voice and pen down their experiences using words and imagery not known to the literate world. The unexpected language and imagery of the outpourings in the poems, short stories, essays and songs by the Dalit youth in Maharashtra rattled readers. This literature of protest motivated a large number of Dalit young men and women, who wanted to change the system.

There was no particular group directing these writings, which were mostly spontaneous and autobiographical. The force behind these powerful pieces of writing was anger—at the suppression

When the subaltern started speaking

of the rights of the downtrodden that had been guaranteed by Constitution, co-authored by none other than the Dalit messiah, Ambedkar.

Get jolted

The youth who spoke out in Poisoned Bread were inspired by the ideology and teachings of Ambedkar. But they were also looking beyond Ambedkar to the Dalit Panthers movement. The Dalit Panthers had been formed this day in 1972 by these authors, who were then in their teens, with the firm

belief that the system can be changed only with political methods. They had the support of senior activists who had suppressed their anger for long.

Poisoned Bread played a significant role in creating an ideological bond and recognising the writers who had so long been expressing themselves in a sporadic fashion. The book received an overwhelming response, got translated into Indian as well as foreign languages, creating a vibrant literary movement. In Maharashtra, the custodians of mainstream Marathi literature got a jolt, which lead to a serious debate about whether new parameters of judging the literature of protest should be evolved or whether the accepted norms of classic literature should be used.

All those who were at the forefront of the literary movement—Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, Arjun Dangle—later emerged as the main articulators of the socio-political aspirations of the Dalit Panthers movement. How the Dalit Panthers lost its shine later and how the Republican Party of India got splintered are a matter of history.

However, Dalit literature made Marathi literature more vibrant and unshackled it from conventional parameters. At the same time, Poisoned Bread recognised the literary value of writings by Dalit authors, thus giving them a platform. Over the years, these authors’ merit has been acknowledged by scholars and littérateurs.

Unheard voice

Those who have studied Dalit literature agree that whatever may have been the inspiration behind these writings, they explore existential questions. For instance, Daya Pawar’s autobiography, Baluta, narrates the “experiences of an untouchable struggling for a peaceful existence”.

It examines the mind of someone tormented mentally and physically but incapable of hitting back. Most of the writings in Poisoned Bread belong to the same genre where outrage, exasperation and misery lead to revolts aimed at bringing about a more equal social order. The voice of the marginalised in Dalit literature makes it on a par with great literary works in any language, national or international.

Twenty-five years after the publication of Poisoned Bread, what is the status of Dalit literature today? Does it stand alone or has it been absorbed and applauded by the mandarins of the mainstream? Dalit literature, in itself, has moved with the times, incorporating the new technologies and new realities that have come with globalisation.

For Dangle, who edited Poisoned Bread, Dalit literature has not lost its relevance for the larger socio-political movements of Dalits who are still struggling to break barriers at various levels. Dalit literature has also travelled a long way from the autobiographical writings of the early days to reach a new level of socio-political knowledge.

Poisoned Bread remains a milestone for Dalit literature as well as for Dalit movements even if Generation Next chooses to use different methods to carry forward the fight for an equitable Indian society.

The author is a journalist and writer whose collection of short stories recently won the State award for best literature in Maharashtra.

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Printable version | Nov 19, 2020 6:18:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/when-the-subaltern-started-speaking/article19230572.ece

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