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14 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. Though before you go on to this list, I’d like to mention Savitribai Phule, without whom no Indian woman could have learnt to read or write, and could be called the foremother of all Dalit women writers – do check out her writing, now mostly available online.
Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha her first novel can be considered the first novel written by a Dalit woman – a pioneer for Dalit women writers, 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.
Kalyani Thakur Charal not only writes herself, but has also provided a platform for other Dalit women writers, as the editor of the Dalit women’s magazine, Neer. She is part of the editorial board of Chaturtha Duniya, a publishing house focussed solely on the works of Dalit writers. She is also a board member of the recently formed Dalit Sahitya Akademi. And, of course, she is an activist who has lent her voice to a wide range of issues including the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
She has recently edited and written in Stree-Samya publication’s offering Dalit Lekhika – Women’s Writings from Bengal, along with Sayantan Dasgupta, that removes any misconceptions we may have that caste brutality does not belong in today’s world. The pieces in this compilation are written by a current generation of Dalit women writer.
Anushree, our reviewer of this book says in her post, “A privileged person, even the one who is aware, might fall in the trap of thinking that these stories do not belong to the modern day, that such caste atrocities belonged to a different era, and that caste is slowly vanishing. That (the the pieces in this book are written by Dalit women writers today) means that even as we fight caste representations and discrimination in mainstream narratives, it exists in horrifying forms.”
Born in 1973, Baby Halder is an Indian author. One of her critically acclaimed works is her autobiography Aalo Andhari (A Life Less Ordinary). Baby Halder started her writing journey when she was on a trip to South India- within a month of the trip, Halder had written about 100 pages in her native language Bengali.
Her autobiography talks about poverty, hardship, violence, and her struggle to make a name for herself as a writer. The book touches on topics of her difficult life after her mother left her and how she was married off to a man 14 years older than her.
Her book was translated into Hindi (2002), Malayalam (2005), English (2006), and eventually into 21 languages and 13 foreign languages, including German, French, Korean and Japanese.
Maroona Murmu is an associate professor in the Department of History at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her book Words of Her Own: Women Authors in Nineteenth-Century Bengal explores the idea and articulation of emerging women writers in nineteenth-century Bengal.
Maroona Murmu grew up as a daughter of a Bengali-Hindu woman and a Santhal man from Belpahari in Medinipore. She was often the subject of questions about her ethnicity to being questioned about belonging to a Scheduled Tribe- she faced it in almost all frontiers of her life.
Lily Halder’s Bhanga Berar Panchali (The Litany of a Broken Fence) is another addition to Bangla (Bengali) autobiographies. Lily Halder is an established Dalit writer based in Kolkata, West Bengal.
In her book, Lily Halder doesn’t generalise the concept- and speaks of a marginalised life. Instead, she talks about a life that paves the way out of the margins to the mainstream. The book further talks about how going mainstream proves to be evidence of success- albeit partial- in the struggle against caste discrimination.
Lily Halder worked as an employee for the Indian Railways until her recent retirement. Apart from her work for the Indian Railways, Halder was a part of urban political movements for justice and equality. She is well-known as a poet too.
Sukirtharini is a feminist poet, and she is widely acclaimed for her contribution to Dalit and Tamil literature. Sukirtharani is a Tamil teacher at the Governments Girls High School in Vellore, Tamil Nadu.
Sukirtharani has a master’s degree in economics and Tamil literature. Her works have revolved around the idea of the female body as the chastisement of the oppressive caste system. This idea comes from a deep perspective about being born both a female and a Dalit.
If you have read the work of any other Dalit women writers, we’d like to know. Please post in comments.
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If you want to get back to work after a break, here’s the ultimate guide to return to work programs in India from tech, finance or health sectors - for women just like you!
Last week, I was having a conversation with a friend related to personal financial planning and she shared how she had had fleeting thoughts about joining work but she was apprehensive to take the plunge. She was unaware of return to work programs available in India.
She had taken a 3-year long career break due to child care and the disconnect from the job arena that she spoke about is something several women in the same situation will relate to.
More often than not, women take a break from their careers to devote time to their kids because we still do not have a strong eco-system in place that can support new mothers, even though things are gradually changing on this front.
A married woman has to wear a sari, sindoor, mangalsutra, bangles, anklets, and so much more. What do these ornaments have to do with my love, respect, and commitment to my husband?
They: Are you married?
They: But You don’t look like it
Me: (in my Mind) Why should I?
Why is being married not enough for a woman, and she needs to look married too? I am tired of such comments in the nearly four years of being married.
I believe that anything that is forced is not right. I must have a choice. I am a living human, not a puppet. And I am not stopping anyone by not following any tradition. You are free to do whatever you like to do. But do not force others. It’s depressing.