Hold­ing up a mir­ror

In his lat­est book of short fic­tion, Sha­ranku­mar Lim­bale, a for­mi­da­ble voice of Dalit lit­er­a­ture, mir­rors the re­al­ity that Dal­its live with even to­day.


S HARANKUMAR Lim­bale is among the most ac­claimed writ­ers of con­tem­po­rary Dalit lit­er­a­ture in In­dia. His lat­est book, a col­lec­tion of 28 short sto­ries ti­tled The Dalit Brah­min and Other Sto­ries, fur­ther ce­ments his rep­u­ta­tion as the voice of Dalit lit­er­a­ture.

The son of a Patil fa­ther and a Ma­har mother, Lim­bale re­alised that he was con­sid­ered akkar­mashi, or one of im­pure blood. His grand­mother had a live-in re­la­tion­ship with a Mus­lim. Lim­bale em­braced this as his so­cial, ge­netic and emo­tional her­itage. He named his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Akkar­mashi (The Out­caste), and when it was pub­lished in 1982, it was hailed as a land­mark in Marathi lit­er­a­ture.


Dalit writ­ing is largely ex­pe­ri­en­tial. There is not much fic­tion. Per­haps it has to do with the fact that un­til re­cently Dal­its did not write or, more ac­cu­rately, were not al­lowed to write. Un­til 50 years ago, lit­er­a­ture in In­dia was the strong­hold of the up­per castes.

The sto­ries and tra­di­tions of Dal­its were oral un­til B.R. Ambed­kar em­pha­sised the need for Dal­its to de­clare them­selves through lit­er­a­ture and dis­prove the ac­cepted wis­dom that writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture were meant only for the up­per castes. Hence the ex­pe­ri­en­tial writ­ing that now largely char­ac­terises Dalit lit­er­a­ture.

The writer Anand Tel­tumbde writes in his in­tro­duc­tion to the book that it is this in­ten­sive re­count­ing of their lives and all that has been force­fully in­grained in Dal­its that has made Dalit writ­ing “oc­cupy a cen­tral place in lit­er­ary dis­course to­day”. Tel­tumbde places Dalit writ­ing in con­text, say­ing: “The his­tory of Dalit writ­ings, as the ex­pe­ri­en­tial nar­ra­tive of Dalit lives by Dal­its them­selves in writ­ing, goes back to the Tamil Sid­dhas (6th to 13th cen­turies C.E.) and Bhakti saints; since many of them were Dal­its, it is prob­a­ble that their oral verses were com­mit­ted to writ­ing for their aes­thetic and spir­i­tual value by oth­ers…. Mod­ern Dalit writ­ing, a prod­uct of the con­scious­ness cre­ated by the Ambed­karite Dalit move­ment and the spread of ed­u­ca­tion among Dal­its, adopted the nat­u­ral genre of short story.”

Tel­tumbde goes on to trace the rise of this lit­er­a­ture through the growth of cer­tain publi­ca­tions that “brought forth a new gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers who were dis­sat­is­fied with the estab­lished Marathi lit­er­a­ture, which they saw as bour­geois, Brah­minic, mori­bund and ortho­dox. It [the Ambed­karite Dalit move­ment] ush­ered in mod­ernism in Marathi lit­er­a­ture and sig­nif­i­cantly be­came one of the cat­a­lysts of the Dalit lit­er­a­ture move­ment.”

The short sto­ries in the col­lec­tion are a glimpse into the lives of Dal­its. The frame­work is the Ambed­karite move­ment. The char­ac­ters are Ma­hars who have con­verted to Bud­dhism. They in­clude the young and the old, men, women, chil­dren and young adults with rag­ing hor­mones. They ei­ther bow to cruel tra­di­tion or chal­lenge in­sti­tu­tion­alised op­pres­sion. The set­tings are both ur­ban and ru­ral. Feu­dal­ism, moder­nity, class bar­ri­ers, il­lit­er­acy, su­per­sti­tion, love, treach­ery, blind de­vo­tion and op­pres­sion rage through the sto­ries. They are not pot­boil­ers; they mir­ror the re­al­ity that Dal­its live with even to­day.

There is the gen­er­a­tion that ac­cepted the in­jus­tices. There is the gen­er­a­tion that ques­tions these in­jus­tices, fol­lowed by the gen­er­a­tion that is

The Dalit Brah­min and Other Sto­ries By Sha­ranku­mar Lim­bale Trans­lated from the Marathi by Priya Adarkar Ori­ent Black­swan Pages: 206 Price: Rs.450

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