‘Good-for-nothing untouchable b—h’ (p. 171): Dalit Literary Justice and Upper Caste Atrocities

Peter Admirand

I apologize for the offensive (though partly deleted) curse in the title, but the vulgarity of upper caste language towards Dalits, let alone sexual, violent, social, and economic depravities unleashed by those of a higher caste against Dalits, needed to be immediately highlighted. There is something both tawdry and ridiculously ironic in a group claiming superiority in their name, with the adjective ‘upper’ who instead show the menial, low, and vulgar status of their individual and group identity through their harsh, one wants to say, demonic, treatment of Dalits and others considered below them. Such resembles, of course, white supremacists who stress the purity of their race and lineage while committing the foulest, most heinous, and sordid actions against so-called depraved races. It is this sense of entitlement, that being born some status enables someone to abuse others with impunity, which is so bedeviling, that needs to be denounced at every opportunity. The Dalit struggle is not a new one, but it remains sadly a contemporary one. The book under review is an excellent pathway through the medium of Dalit fiction and literature to get a sense of the realities Dalits still face in India, among other places, today.

Persecution of Dalits in 2018

Laura Brueck is currently Chair of the Asian Languages and Cultures Department and Associate Professor of South Asian Literature and Culture at Northwestern University. Writing Resistance, the book under review, was initially published by Columbia University Press in 2014, but now reissued in India through Primus Books in 2017. Despite the three-year gap, the book is not updated, though one can certainly not say things have changed in India for the better. Any updates would simply have showed the still-greater need for outreach, moral condemnation of anti-Dalit treatment, and support for Dalit rights and representation. To take one fairly recent example, The New York Times on 3 January 2018, in an article titled: Mumbai shuts down as protests erupt over caste tensions by Vindu Goel, Kai Schultz, and Hari Kumar, reported of early January protests in Mumbai over mistreatment of Dalits. ‘“India has been the same for 2,000 years,” said Shobhit Ambavade, who brought his twin 11-year-old sons to the march. “People are still dominated and humiliated by the upper castes.”’[i] As Brueck’s book notes, even when Dalits have been able to achieve some social and economic gains and power, forces in the government and in their native villages counter any such success with violent reprisals or other forms of discrimination.

Heightening Dalit Consciousness (chetnā)

Academically, the best part of Brueck’s book is in her careful reading and analysis of Dalit short stories, which not only help make readers further aware of injustice committed against Dalits, but introduce the general (Western) reader to the artistic merit and aesthetic expertise of Dalit writers like Kusum Meghwal, Omprakash Valmiki, and Surajpal Chauhan. The most immediate impact of the book on this reviewer is to have me order the writings of these Dalit authors for my university library.

To be candid, I tolerated much of the first part of the book, heavy on literary theory, and trying to justify and contextualize the history, role, and status of Dalit literature. Such background is inevitably needed, but many readers might want to read the following short summary of the first three chapters and jump to the second part of the book which puts the theory into action by analysing the short stories themselves.

In the first part, we learn there is a lively, hybrid, pluralist Dalit literary counterpublic, composed principally of Dalit writers and intellectuals, who through their works, aim to resist the exploitation of public Dalit identities ‘as exploited victim, reviled criminal, silenced majority, and illiterate innocent’ (p. 42). Such a Dalit counterpublic also challenges the portrayal of Dalits by non-Dalit authors sympathetic to Dalit conditions. Emblematic of this issue is the writing of Munshi Premchand, particularly in his short story ‘Kafan’. The complaint is that the story does not fully promote Dalit chetnā, or consciousness, particularly as embedded in the social justice writings of B. R. Ambedkar and his call for Dalit writers ‘to use literature as a form of social activism to underscore the humanistic capacities of creative narrative’ (p. 79). In other words, through the medium of art, social consciousness can be raised, and the beauty, realism, and artistic skill of Dalit writing can help promote Dalit chetnā. Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ was also criticised by some Dalits with its failure to fully confront and understand the reality of sexual violence committed against Dalit women, a theme Brueck returns to in her excellent final chapter ‘Re-scripting Rape’.

The second part of the book discusses short stories by Dalit writers focusing on Dalit characters through what is described as melodramatic realism. The Brahmins in these stories are foul, curse-prone bullies, rapists, and murderers, as reflected in the title of chapter 4: ‘Good Dalits, Bad Brahmins’. It was jarring to hear, even repeatedly, how such figures, whether from the village or city, curse and condemn Dalit individuals simply for being Dalit, again reminiscent of Nazi thugs towards Jews or white Afrikaners towards Blacks. Chapter 5 highlighted close textual readings of Dalit authors employing skilful differences in dialect, whether standard or nonstandard Hindi (with careful, and telling use of English).

The final chapter, on how men and women among Dalit and non-Dalit authors variously portray, ignore, or use sexual violence against Dalit women, is the most important chapter in the book. Brueck expertly shows how female Dalit writers most openly and realistically paint the violence or attempted violence against Dalit women without silencing such women as mere victims or simply as affronts to their male fathers, husbands, or brothers. Instead, in Meghwal’s short story ‘Mengali’, a seemingly subservient, silent, recently widowed woman (Mengali) resists, with rage and strength, her attempted rape by her overseer. She knocks him out with one blow and then receives the support of the local police. Sadly, both acts border on the utopian amidst the reality of contemporary Indian village life. In Meghwal’s ‘Angārā’, Jamuna is raped by the village Thakur’s eldest son, but ends up castrating the rapist in the story’s conclusion. In the West, the #MeToo movement is heralded among the Hollywood elite, but until it reaches the Jamunas of our world, there is much, much work still to be done.

[i] Vindu Goel, Kai Schultz and Hari Kumar, Mumbai shuts down as protests erupt over caste tensions, The New York Times, 3 January 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/world/asia/india-protests-mumbai-dalits.html, accessed 4 October 2019.