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  • Dalit Literatures in India eds. by Joshil K. Abraham and Judith Misrahi-Barak
  • Anushiya Ramaswamy (bio)
Joshil K. Abraham and Judith Misrahi-Barak, eds. Dalit Literatures in India. New Delhi: Routledge, 2016. Pp. 366. US$160.

In their introduction, the editors of Dalit Literatures in India, Joshil K. Abraham and Judith Misrahi-Barak, quite rightly ask, "[H]ow is it possible that the major political and literary development that has deeply altered the Indian academic and non-academic world as well as Indian society at large in the last three decades, has not had a greater echo outside India?" (1). Almost all Indian literary language journals and presses since the 1990s have regularly published Dalit literature; in fact, Dalit-identified writers have worked assiduously to define the field as "Dalit" rather than "working class" or "Marxist" literature (as in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit writer K. Daniel whose novels published in the 1960s and 1970s, set in Northern Sri Lankan Dalit communities, were described as part of his leftist activism). It is not an exaggeration to claim that the most exciting development in many regional languages in recent years is a result of Dalit writing, instantly identifiable by its powerfully articulated refusal of local pieties. Dalit literature is deeply aware of its need to bring something new into the world. Even the coining of the name "Dalit"—which means "broken people"—as a collective term referring to the various Dalit-identified communities living on the subcontinent and in the diaspora connotes a history of powerlessness.

Dalit Literatures in India presents Dalit issues to non-Indian readers who lack rudimentary knowledge about the phenomenon of Dalit literature. The first essay, which sets the tone for the collection, is by G. N. Devy, the Chair of the People's Linguistic Survey of India. This is a survey administered by thousands of volunteer activists in order to mitigate the official Census of India's inability to count all reported languages. Elsewhere, Devy has written persuasively on the politics of such classifications, since state language policies impact the very survival of the speakers of minority languages. But the essay in the collection here, "Caste Differently," is reprinted from the literary magazine Fountain Ink and summarizes key Dalit criticisms of Indian scriptural discourses (drawn mostly from B. R. Ambedkar) then highlights the British colonial administrative actions that are the foundational epistemes of contemporary Indian caste society. For the reader who expects to read about the current controversies over Bhashas (the indigenous languages of the subcontinent), which are at the heart of Devy's work, the explanatory mode of the essay, which avoids the vibrant polemic that characterizes his work elsewhere, is a disappointment. [End Page 258]

Even a seasoned academic like M. S. S. Pandian, in "Caste and Democracy: Three Paradoxes," writes a general essay on the topic rather than the expected continuation of the epilogue from his polemical Brahmin and Non-Brahmin, which quotes the Tamil Dalit philosopher and literary writer Raj Gowthaman. Given that Dalit scholarly writing is thriving in multiple Indian languages, the volume has few striking essays on literature. Pramod K. Nayar has one of the best essays in the collection on the Indian graphic novel A Gardner in the Wastland; K. Satyanarayana has a superb essay on the convergences of the Durban Discourse (the human rights rhetoric that came into being in the wake of the 2001 Durban conference on race) and the cosmopolitan Dalit identity presented in Narendhra Jadhav's 2003 memoir, Outcaste: A Memoir; and Rajkumar Hans' essay on the ignored Dalit intellectual poets of Punjab from the late seventeenth to early twentieth century is important.

Since Dalit literatures are produced in various Indian languages, a book of this kind must clearly and explicitly identify regional languages and dialects. For instance, I had to email the translator, K. Satchidanandan, to find out the language of the excerpted poem by S. Joseph that opens the editors' introduction (it is Malayalam). We should take a page from W. E. B. Du Bois, Kancha Ilaiah, or B. R. Ambedkar, who consciously locate themselves in their texts as partisan speakers of a minority group. For instance, in...


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