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9 Dalit women writers tell it as it is, the struggle as a woman from the margins of society. Through fiction and non-fiction.
Women across the world and especially in rural India have met immense challenges to get themselves educated and for Dalit women, it’s been doubly hard. However, from the pioneering Dalit women of the early 20th century who got themselves educated to young women writing today as intersectional feminists, Dalit women writers have made immense contributions to Indian literature as well as the cause of Dalit rights.
Their writing gives an in-depth view of their struggle, besides having produced many literary gems.
Here are some of the must-read Dalit women writers writing across Indian languages and English.
Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha her first novel can be considered the first novel written by a dalit woman at that time. She is the protagonist and this could be looked upon as an autobiography showing through her eyes the brunt born by Dalits of class, caste and oppression. It chronicles life of Naja through childhood, marriage, hunger and labour.
This book was later shown as a serial in 1986 by the name of ‘Najuka’ which is how it’s known of now. The book is now included in the University of Mumbai syllabus too.
Shantabai was born into a Maharashtrian mahar family in Solapur. As a child she was denied education being a dalit and as a woman, but her yearning of studying was such that she sat outside the class and studied. After marriage she converted to Buddhism embracing Ambedkar’s thoughts. She went on to study, doing a teacher’s training course in Pune. She became a teacher and served at many places and finally retired as the Education Extension Officer of Jat region. She is well known as a Dalit activist advocating people to fight against the atrocities of caste.
‘Karukku’(1992), the most famous book written in Tamil is an autobiographical account of her childhood experiences of being a dalit. In her book she tries to bring about an awakening in dalit women to empower them with education through her experiences. This book led to her being ostracized from her village as it critiques the social order but however gained critical acclaim. Her style of writing was noticed as being unique and one other unique feature being she does not once name the protagonist.
She was born to a Roman Catholic family in Puthupatti which is in Tamil Nadu. Bama’s ancestors were dalit Hindus converted to Christianity and later after education she was a nun for seven years. It was after her years of servitude that she started writing.
Karukku was well acclaimed and after that she went on to write two more novels, Sangati and Vanmam along with two collections of short stories: Kusumbukkaran and Oru Tattvum Erumaiyum.
An Indian journalist and writer, Yashica Dutt belongs to a Dalit family from Ajmer. An alumni of St. Stephens college, New Delhi and Columbia university, USA she has written frequently about the issues faced by Dalits. She has freelanced for numerous well-known newspapers and magazines in India.
After the suicide of University student Rohit Vemula, she realised that she was no longer comfortable hiding her identity as a Dalit and hence wrote a memoir called Coming Out as Dalit. In this very well received memoir, she shares her personal experience about being a Dalit and how she used to hide it and how she came to terms with her identity.
She has also started a Tumblr portal called dalitdiscrimination.tumblr.com to raise awareness regarding the issue of discrimination against Dalits.
Urmila Pawar was born into the Hindu Mahar family in Maharashtra. She has an MA in Marathi Literature and retired from PWD department of the state of Maharashtra. She converted into Buddhism when she was 12 at behest of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s country wide call for renouncing in 1956. Her moving to Mumbai in 1976 marked her discovery of feminism. These two important events shaped her life and writing.
Aaidan (1988) – also available as an English translation titled The Weave Of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoir – her autobiography written in Marathi details the life of her family members and also gives insight into everyday life of Dalits. Aaidan means bamboo and anything made of bamboo and her family traditionally were bamboo basket weavers. It has also been adapted into a play for Marathi stage.
Other works of Urmila Pawar are collection of short stories which are witty Motherwit and We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement. All her books are critically acclaimed and has a unique witty style of writing.
Meena Kandasamy is an Indian feminist poet, writer and translator. While she was in college, she started translating the works of Dalit women around her. Her poems and writings are predominantly centred around feminism and caste reform in the modern day India.
Her poem Ms. Militancy showcases the journey of Kannagi the protogonist of the Tamil epic Silappathikaram delivering a message of women’s unbounded daring. She has also authored a biography on Dalit social reformer from Kerala Ayyankali called Ayyankali: A Dalit leader of Organic Protest. One of her recent and most well-known works is the novel When I Hit You showing the violence and isolation a young women faces from her husband.
Anandhayi/The Taming of Women is a novel by P Sivakami which takes through the journey from the eyes of Anandhayi, the protagonist. Set in the early 20th century, it is also about other women whose lives are intertwined with the male protagonist Periyannan’s life – along with the inevitable changes that industrialization brings to a village social and economic set-up.
P. Sivakami was born in Tamil Nadu although her education took her away from her home and in her acquiring of a BA in history and MA she became confident and independent. She went on to serve in the Indian administrative service for about 22 years and now is part of the Indian political scenario.
P. Sivakami is an active contributer to the journal Puthiya kodangi and is centrally involved in its, publication. She went on to write four other books – Kurruku Vettu, Ippadiku Ungal Yadharthamulla, Nalum Thodarum, Kadaisi Mandhar and Kadaigal.
Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket, But… is a collection of short stories by her depicting the atrocities inflicted on the Madiga community that she belongs to. The inclusion of songs from the community gives it a unique quality. She has given it a very visual quality which makes the reader see the daily scenes in the village and sense the episodes from an involved person point of view.
She was born in Ranga Reddy district which is part of the now Telengana State. Her parents were farmers and her brother was forced into farming. She as the only one among three siblings to get education and later went on to get her BA from Bhim Rao Ambedkar Open University. She is now a senior fellow at Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad.
Tataki Wins Again & Brave Heart Badeyya is a children’s book by her. Some of her non-fiction works are Nene Balaanni: T.N.Sadalakshmi bathuku katha, Vaada pillala kathalu and Gender Consciousness in Dalit Women’s Literature.
Adukala Illathaa Veedu (A Home without a Kitchen, 2006), Amma Oru Kalpanika Kavitha Alla (Mother is not a Poetic Figment of our Imagination, 2009), and Pakarthi Ezhuthu are her collection of poems which portray the hardships and anguish of dalit life. Her usage of poetry instead of prose is a unique feature as poetry considered to be more romanticized in nature. Her works talk about gender and caste issues.
She was born in Perambra in Kozhikode in Kerala and used to write poetry since college days. She is married to Rajesh Chirappad who is a well-known dalit literary critic. In her days before publishing it was even difficult getting a publisher because she was a dalit. Her work has been part of the literary art Hay festival that was conducted in 2015 in Kerala.
Her book Jina Amacha/The Prisons We Broke is the depiction of dalit women of Mahar community and their tribulations.
She was born to a comfortable working class household. Her father was a labour contractor who used to do contracts for the government. Though belonging to the Mahar community she led a fairly comfortable life. She also married into a similar Mahar family and bore 10 children. Despite her comfortable stature her books talk about the poverty and filth faced in general by the community. She later became an activist fighting for the cause of her community. She ran an ashram for backward children till her death in 2012.
Image source: jaipurliteraturefestival.org
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