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Tamil dalit literature


Dalit Literature: My Own Experience


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1Although I do have a serious involvement in literary creations, I have also been giving particular concern to literary criticism. So as my own experience with Dalit literature, I will record my views on criticism.

  • 1 Vellala is the name of a high, but non-Brahmin, caste, often associated with landowning.

2‘That’s the same old story’ is pretty much where Dalit literature stands now: in a rut. We can point to only a few really strong works that are being written these days. As far as looking at Dalit literary recordings in the Tamil milieu is concerned, it has been barely ten years since it began, so it may seem unfair to jump to the conclusion that Dalit literature simply got stuck in a rut in that short period of time. Still, Dalit literary growth, and the debate that has formed it, have been caught in the ‘pure literature’ grip of Brahmins and Vellalas1, to the point where Dalit literature has indeed run up against a real roadblock.

3The philosophies, the legal structures, the religious precepts, even the ways to use language and literary production that are set up as proper indicators by the ruling classes all act intertwined with one another as guides for changing people. Their collective way of being amounts to the ‘social movement of the ruling classes.’ Simple people’s customs, ways of handling food, religious rites, sexual behavior, and all are just covered up by signs of the ruling classes’ traditions. Upholding these traditions, and traditional literature itself, as well as their own pronouncements about literature, are what satisfy these traditionalists. Moreover, their pronouncements have taken on excess power in the Indian soil. That power is nothing other than hierarchical caste psychology. Traditional literature has always given a shoulder to lean on to the fictions created by caste psychology, and to the discipline of a caste society. That is, literary traditionalists are keepers of caste psychology. In opposition to the domination of people like this, and trampling upon the principles of perfection in the ranked literary order of the day that they have set up, Dalit literary attempts consciously launched an oppositional kind of literature. But the dominant literary critics belittled the way of speaking in Dalit literature, calling it ‘caste literature.’ Not paying much attention to those criticisms, Dalit literary efforts began to spread far and wide, as did Dalit social and political awakening. Through this spreading something previously ignored in the Tamil literary milieu came into play: the lives of a great multitude of people. The whole reading of Tamil literature was remade.

4The reach of Dalit literature, and the debates about it that took place in the literary world, brought about some crises for the Brahmin-Vellala literary people. They approved of the arrival of Dalit literature, since they wanted to show themselves as literary progressives. But because they took the psychology of ranked castes as natural, they held up the Dalits’ hidden angers and resentments that are recorded in this literature, and they tried to nip them in the bud. These literary pundits do not care about what Dalit literature actually discusses—the sufferings of Dalit people, or the way in which caste consciousness pierces all through society with its sharp fingernails. Rather, they are trying to swallow and digest the things that Dalit literature has recorded and dragged into their midst. They take the measure of the ways Dalits tell their stories, give their approval and praise, and fit them into their disgusting imaginary categories of aesthetics, standards, and success.

5If these Brahmin and Vellala literary pundits are sincere in their welcoming praise for Dalit literature, why have they not said one word openly against the Hindu caste psychology that Dalit literature records? Unimaginable atrocities are going on. People who have been bypassed in the social arena are being beaten up in the political arena too. These high and mighty literary types see that as a joke, and why is that? How can they be so taken with this literature in a vacuum? These high literature types have not stepped forward and written one single story dealing with Dalit people’s sufferings, or Hindu caste traditions, or the atrocities meted out to Dalit people, and why is that? When they participate in their various caste festivals, or in public government holiday festivals, they take no notice at all of Dalit people’s objections—they keep their mouths shut about that! Is the pathetic state of society due to anything beyond caste order? They operate with a clear plan. They are careful that nothing at all should develop that diminishes Hindu caste psychology. The problem does not end there.

6The praise, the rave reviews and the recognition that this clever kind of literary pundit doles out stand as obstacles in the path of Dalit writers, and they cannot get past them. This is the most important issue that we need to debate. We have to recognize that Dalit writers have been unable to brush aside the fame and the recognition that come from people who have a very high degree of caste feeling. It is just this pitiful situation that has trapped Dalit literature in the snare of these high and mighty literary pundits. Caught in the trap of Brahmin-Vellala literary power, Dalit writers have been submerged in a state of great confusion. They have lost their natural literary instincts. They are faltering, lost in traditional literature’s conception of beauty, and among its awards and its passions. We have to recognize that the past fifteen months have brought forth no solid offerings from Dalits.

7In the task of trying to figure out how to distinguish their friends from their enemies, Dalit writers have gone down in defeat. People who had risen up in opposition to caste society have not doubted their clever enemies’ rave reviews. I am beginning to think that the ignorance simply continues.

8These Brahmin-Vellala literary forces grab hold of Dalit writings that record inter-caste clashes among Dalits and hold them up as the most important pieces of Dalit literature. Then they say that Dalits who expose caste prejudices among Dalits have no right to oppose caste-based power even when it is directed against all Dalits, and thus they legitimize caste fanaticism. They turn Dalit writers who have accepted their literary hegemony, and their guidance, against the foundations of Dalit thinking, and they foster feelings of enmity among Dalit writers. As a result, no open-minded debate among Dalit writers has yet taken place.

9Awards that have in the past gone to literary creations that accept degeneracy in Brahmin Hindu caste society are now turning to Dalit creations. We can sense a strong background for this. Published Dalit works that have the flavor of change, since they are new to the Tamil milieu, have initially been welcomed. But Dalit politics, which has been talked about for many years before this, has been fanatically ignored. Even today in the social, political, and economic spheres, that rejection continues. Yet for the past ten years, but only in the literary sphere, awards, praise, and hopes for the future have begun to take hold. Why this contradiction exists needs desperately to be researched. This is the most serious danger surrounding Dalit literature.

10It is primarily publishers who belong to the Brahmin and Vellala castes who bring out Dalit literary works. Because they think that Dalit creations are just like any other literary creations, these Dalit works are presented to elite readers who do not know how to face up to social tragedies. Ninety percent of these little publications go to Hindu Brahmin-Vellala readers. Since very few Dalit people are in the habit of reading, less than a hundred of the works that have been published are read by Dalits. That is, the very idea of Dalit literature has not reached the Dalit people.

11But things are different in the literary marketplace. The Hindu Brahmin and Vellala powerhouse pundits who style themselves as guardians of Dalit literature have put the welcome that Dalit literature has received to good use. It would not be wrong to say that the recent sales spurt in literary publishing has come about because of Dalit literature. Back in the days when Hindu Brahmin-Vellala works were being written, or the days when Dravidian literature was being written, sales of books were not at today’s high levels. A wide literary market has been opened up for Dalit works, which oppose this worm-eaten caste society, and mock it.

12Dalit literature has been morphed into a very valuable commodity. Is this sales value that has come to Dalit literature real? Shall we take it that the welcome Dalit literature is receiving is just an example of what happens naturally to works whose new ideas challenge society’s normal ways of functioning? If so, then it is certain that today’s welcome will soon wither away. The social tragedies that Dalit people suffer, and which Dalit writers try to document, will simply be used as alternative ‘attractions.’ If that happens, won’t the foundation of Dalit literature crumble?

13Caste society does not grant respect to the fundamentals of Dalit literature. So how has the ‘sales value’ of Dalit literature become what it is? On the one hand, we have the spreading of the idea of disposable people, and on the other hand the price in the marketplace goes up, but where is the mystery here? Why have Dalits not wondered about this and spit it out? Dalit writers do not want to recognize the helplessness of their own creations. I wish to raise the question of whether Dalit writers have taken the welcome that their works are receiving as ‘literary esteem’ for themselves.

14I am going to record one other thing. There is no need at all for any kind of ‘literary esteem’ for Dalit literature, or for Dalit writers, either. The literary esteem that is forthcoming today is an empty shell created by Hindu Brahmin and Vellala pistachio nuts. The ‘literary esteem’ that Dalit writing really needs can come only from an egalitarian society in which castes have been crushed.

15When the forces that resist ruling caste psychology in the social, economic, and traditional spheres really put social change out in front and spread this consciousness far and wide, then signs of social change will become clear among the people themselves. That is how social esteem will develop for writers in the movement: with social responsibility and with opposition to the ruling classes. That social esteem in and of itself will be the real literary esteem that those writings achieve. But since that sort of a situation does not obtain at this point, it is clear that the literary esteem that Dalit writings are currently receiving is a sham, and that it has ulterior motives.

16Dalit writers have not seen and felt the hypocrisy of this ‘literary esteem.’ Among Dalit writers, interest is on the rise in theories like those of aesthetics, sacredness, standards, and technique. Behind this kind of false esteem are the Hindu Brahmin and Vellala traditionalists. This is a betrayal of the people.

17Dalit writers give too much reverence to the words that spill out of the mouths of traditionalists. They agree too much with the Hindu Brahmin-Vellala idea that ‘not taking sides in itself is the thing that will bring esteem to a writer.’ In public meetings and at functions where prizes are given out, Dalit enthusiasts refuse to open their mouths even to say that there are such people as caste fanatics. When people imbued with caste feelings organize their own literary gatherings as guardians of this caste society, these Dalit enthusiasts attend, but they do not say anything in opposition; they just engage in literary debate and go back home.

18In politics, Dalit movement leaders sometimes cooperate with groups based on caste fanaticism as though they were protecting their own self-interest, as though they were putting themselves into a rapprochement. Thinking that will be suitable to them as well, Dalit writers are prepared to enter into any kind of an agreement with Brahmin-Vellala literary people. When a book comes out, a Dalit writer’s goal is satisfied by being able to count it as yet one more. Their creation—their creation which they got from the people, and which documents their tragic lives—they do not care who will use it, and to what end.

19Dalit people’s history, and their lives, are not merely weeping and gnashing of teeth. On the contrary, they live in very honorable families. Even when their wise elders and their heroes are brought down by casteism, even when they are slaughtered in their cheris, they keep struggling against domination. They have sacrificed untold numbers of lives, they have lost their lands, their homes, and everything. Do Dalit writings document any of this?

20Just as Hindu Brahmin and Vellala literature has brought Dalit people down, so have Dalit writers affected Dalit people. Painting them as drunks, as whores, as illiterates, as gluttons, as having no feelings of solidarity, as tattletales, that’s how they cast their stories. They think that is what the situation really is. What will this sort of literary production of theirs help? How will these degradations be of use to the Dalit liberation struggle? Most Dalit writing is molded from tears. But the need of the day is works that can nurture the mindset of the struggle that continues to grow among Dalits, works that give faith.

21Why has it been said that the measure of art literature is that it has no boundaries? Is there ever any literary work that does not have politics mixed in? Is politics not behind it when Brahmins and Vellalas paint Dalits in a pitiable light in all of their literature? And behind that politics is there not a caste-ranked social order? Why should Dalit writers be the only ones who have to write with no political aim in mind? What is the reason that the fundamental idea running through their work is so closely connected with Hindu caste social psychology? The same hatred that shows in Vellala works is right here as well. Why is that? We have to conclude that Dalit writers do not know about the victories that Dalit people have won, and about their exemplary lives. They want to remain ignorant of Dalit history, to show no concern for it, to be unable to understand Dalit politics, and to remove themselves from it. Criticisms like these do not appear out of thin air. For any literary document speaking about whatever topic, we can show what the author’s mindset is.

22Dalit writers do not move among the great masses of people and understand the people’s lives, so situations like this develop. Dalit literature should pay attention to the voices of unity among the people, split as they are by internal divisions and custom, and it should be able to stress the necessity of bringing them together. Only when they partake themselves of the people’s problems and struggles, and in their victories and defeats, can Dalit authors tap into the real resources for Dalit literature. That is the only way they can bring out really constructive work. Writers need to search out the path to progress and solutions. That is the only thing that will give them the creative urge. It will bring oppositional knowledge into being. It will lead. It will instill freshness. As society changes, it will be a part of that change.

23Dalit writers think that writing, in and of itself, is a huge liberation struggle. That may be true, but they need to pay conscious attention to the sense in which their very writings are reactions, opposing atrocities that have actually occurred. I didn’t say that they should hunt caste fanatics down all night long, and then turn into guerillas who write literature in the daytime. Nor did I describe an approach in which you hold a sickle in one hand and a pen in the other. Nobody struggles that way here. Rather, Dalit writers need to understand that the great masses of people, behaving perfectly naturally in opposing caste traditions that are constructed by dominant society, can never be imprisoned in anyone’s imaginings. Dalit people’s ways of living were not understood by Vellala writers, nor by Dravidian Movement writers, nor by Communist writers, but they can at least be understood by Dalit writers.

24Dalit literature can foster hope for people who are trying to liberate themselves from the bonds of slavery and exploitation. The idea of opposing the mentality of a caste society will spread. Dalit writers will cut through the nets set by their enemies, and they will be able to step out. They will be able to question the rave reviews given to their writing by advocates of casteism. There are earlier examples of this. Back when thoughts about discussing Dalit literature had not even arisen in Tamil Nadu, in Eelam, upper-caste communists held up the writings that had been created by people whose castes had been oppressed when they opposed the feelings of caste fanaticism, even though they pushed aside the writers of those works. Daniel and Jeeva, writers who belonged to those oppressed castes, did not oppose this way of doing things. They worried more about what would happen to the principles their works spoke of than they did about any recognition they might get for themselves.

25The social order that Dalit art literature puts forward is a rich resource for each man and how he lives his life. It breaks down the dominance of caste that envelops people, and it develops the incredible joy of equality within society. It began in the direction of this ideology. Those who continue it have reason to sorrow because of the roadblocks, the stagnation, and the change in direction. However quickly Dalit writers can redeem themselves from this stagnation and rise again, that is the extent to which the situation can be rectified. New creators of literature will fulfill whatever the old Dalit writers have left undone.


1 Vellala is the name of a high, but non-Brahmin, caste, often associated with landowning.


(1968) is a Dalit writer from Va. Pudupatti in Virudhunagar District. He is a publisher, editor, and book designer in Chennai.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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