Dalit Lekhika: Women’s Writings from Bengal by Stree-Samya bears witness to the lives of the oppressed women who write their own stories.
Being apolitical is no longer an option in a society that needs urgent measures to check environmental degradation, fascism and oppressive structures.
In a very distant future, a very longish time later, perhaps there would be no caste. There would perhaps be no discrimination, and there’d be equity for one and all.
But till then, it is important to remind ourselves every breathing moment, that there is a very wide chasm of caste and class that divides us as a society. This chasm, that sees humiliation, dehumanization, death, violence that is emotional, verbal and physical, day in and day out, keeps pulling many into a suffocating void of desperation, depression, desolation, deterioration, and demonization, even as it pushes some of us upwards towards more and more privilege.
In a country as vast as India, where cultures, sub-cultures, languages and dialects change every few kms, for someone to ever say with complete certainty that they are ‘fully’ aware of the extent of inequality, is juvenile. Yet the only way of creating any probable monumental change eventually is by making yourself aware of this inequality at every available opportunity, to keep forming groups of individuals who can probably share similar energy, and put in a collective effort to make at least these small dents humanly possible.
Being apolitical truly is no longer an option in a society that needs urgent measures to check environmental degradation, fascism and oppressive structures.
A good way to do that is by reading Dalit literature.
Literature, as is reiterated numerous times by several distinguished people, is one of the most powerful ways to get stories move mountains of ignorance.
There is a dire need to bring to the fore literature that lives on the margins. Literature that is from non-commercial ventures that dig deep into these depths. Literature in local languages that may be globally inaccessible, but by bearing witness to the lives of those marginalised and oppressed, have the potential to create and further movements.
The effort of Stree-Samya in endeavoring to do this, therefore, needs to be lauded.
I recently got to read their newest book, Dalit Lekhika – Women’s Writings from Bengal – edited by Kalyani Thakur Charal and Sayantan Dasgupta.
I was wary at first because for me to write something about things I had no idea about until a few days back, or about brutal oppression that I will never face ever, was frightening. Despite my initial protests, I decided I will, because it is better to write than do nothing at all. As I finished reading the introduction by Kalyani Thakur Charal, I was sure I was going to do this, despite all my doubts, because the closing passage of the introduction needs all attention it can get.
She writes, “The women who lay the skins of the cattle to dry, and sit next to them, inhaling the stench, and write by the light of a small oil lamp, or those who clean the excrement of others, or those who cook tasty meals by substituting inexpensive seeds and other ingredients in place of costly vegetables and then sit down to write of their experiences, are the true creators of Dalit literature of the future. This collection of poems and stories is an attempt to inspire and urge them to write.”
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.
Wrong. The stories in Dalit Lekhika are written by a current generation of Dalit women.
That means that even as we fight caste representations and discrimination in mainstream narratives, it exists in horrifying forms. Even as we vehemently say that the East may have lesser caste discrimination (I did read a Bengali Savarna woman say this on a forum I administer), the current complex intersections of gender, class and caste of Bengal will need a lot of keen investigation and research before an outsider such as me even starts to comprehend.
It was a moment of terrible shame for me, as an intersectional feminist reader. Most publications mentioned in the introduction of this book, even the writers (Tarak Chandra Sarkar, Harichand Thakur etc.) and the movements (Tebhaga, suicide of Chuni Kotal etc.), were unknown to me.
My notes are probably as long as the book itself, and that just goes on to show how transformational this little volume of about 150 pages might be.
The book is divided in three parts; the 1st has 13 stories, the 2nd has 15 poems, and the 3rd is an essay on the childhood of Kalyani Thakur Charal, and some of them hit harder than I expected.
The stories explore many themes – of poverty, education, reservation, untouchability, savarna saviorism, internalized casteism, food, home, etc. with different narrative styles, and at par translations. Words which defy translation are kept the way they are, with a glossary the end of the stories. The general kinship terms and the Bengali calendar is explained in the beginning of the book. Some stories have leaps that I had a bit of difficulty understanding, but despite that, the experience of reading them was rich and satisfying.
Heart-wrenching, the poetry makes you think hard and learn more. The styles adopted range from biographical to stream of consciousness. The end contains of a few words of all the authors and translators.
The book is a short yet sublime and significant, even necessary piece of work for oppressors like us to understand, that even as we question paying up for our ancestors, discrimination has never skipped any generation so far.
Your personal rejection of caste, does not in any way reject the reality of it.
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Image source: a still from the film Jait Re Jait and book cover Amazon.
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