About the book
‘An eternity of oppression’ has defined the lives of Dalits. Yet, they survive, resilient and defiant. Drawing on the works of Dalit writers, Survival and Other Stories is a collection of Bangla fiction in translation, that speaks of Dalit lives lived on the edge and of suffering, negation and revolt.
A mason’s refusal to yield despite being tortured by ‘upper-caste’ people for claiming equality with them; mayhem resulting from a witch doctor’s blaming a woman for the illness of her grandchild; a zamindar being forced to drag a plough for taunting another for his ‘low’ ancestry; a penniless family’s fight for survival with a cobra coiled up in a hole full of grains; a proposal for marriage from the progressive- minded son of a corrupt politician being turned down by his ‘low-born’ lover fearing social ostracism; a stick-wielding hireling of landlords, and later of a political party, reluctantly accepting the friendship of his erstwhile Muslim adversary. Evocative of the indignities heaped on the Dalits, these stories are insightful and perceptive. They are a sensitive retelling, that retain the rhythms and idioms of the original Bengali narratives.
The spectrum of experiences as depicted in these probing and absorbing stories is a must read for students and scholars of Dalit and caste studies, development studies, Indian Literature in Translation, and gender studies.
About the Author
sankar Prasad Singha is Professor at the Department of English, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore, West Bengal.
Indranil Acharya is Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore, West Bengal.
The late Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who in the words of Tagore was ‘the first true artist of the Bengali language’ was a pioneer in several other ways also. As is well known, he zealously espoused the cause of the deprived and the depressed classes including widows and women in destitution, and was one of those who initiated what now comes to us as ‘Dalit’ cultural discourse. He did this long before leading world figures like Gandhi, Tagore, Ambedkar or Frantz Fanon came on the scene.
In Sanskrit College, Calcutta, of which Vidyasagar was a distinguished alumnus, lower-caste youths were denied access. It was he who made it possible for them to enjoy the privilege which was earlier available only to Brahmins. It is well known that in the College Vidyasagar freely dined with the ‘untouchables’ and brought about an epoch-making cultural revolution in nineteenth-century Bengal.
Looking at the country as a whole, in fifteenth-century Odisha, the ‘Shudra’ poet Sarala Das, for instance, had stood for the same revolutionary cultural cause. He wrote Sarala Mahabharata, his magnum opus, in the Odiya language, and that monumental work remains to this day a uniquely egalitarian-minded literary classic produced in feudal Odisha. Pre-eminently liberating voices existed earlier still, in medieval India, e.g. those of Chokhamela of Maharashtra and Narasinh Mehta of Gujarat. Following in that tradition, the immensely inspiring works of Kabir, Jotirao Phule, Gandhi, Tagore, Ambedkar and several other eminent Indians revolutionised Indian literary, aesthetic and cultural spaces.
Their profoundly humane spirit is the guiding force behind the thoughtfully produced text titled Survival and Other Stories: Bangla Dalit Stories in Translation, edited by two of Vidyasagar University’s distinguished faculty members, Professor Sankar Prasad Singha and Dr Indranil Acharya.1t is in many ways an innovative and stimulating text and is one of those anthologies of selected Dalit writings (Mulk Raj Anand’s landmark 1992 anthology of Dalit Poems is an illustrious precedent) that best reflect the growing egalitarian outlook of our age. One would look at the present text also as an appropriate tribute to the hallowed memory of Vidyasagar. Its publication is indeed well timed, as the country today is celebrating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Tagore’s birth.
Strictly speaking, ‘Dalit’ writing in Bangla is a relatively recent phenomenon. Yet, rooted in a powerful tradition built with the stirring proletarian voices of writers like Manik Bandopadhya, Tarasankar and Bibhutibhushan down to the more prominently politicised writings in the cause of the subaltern of Mahasweta Devi, Debesh Ray, Abhijit Sen, Anil Gharai, Manoranjan Byapari and several other authors and ideologues, the corpus of Dalit discourse in Bangla today is as considerable and as powerful as the best of Dalit writing produced elsewhere in the country.
It may even be argued that in spirit India’s Dalit literary tradition- that is, the literature of the socially lowly and humble-is as old as the Ramayana (whose heroine Sita is a victim, and author Valmiki a Dalit) and several of the Jataka Tales. Translation of any particular text written in one language to another, especially English, is a relatively recent phenomenon, however. As cultural spaces of the olden times altered and broadened, the more popular among the literary texts of one terrain travelled to another in some form, oral or visual. That is how we came to have more than one version of a particular text, whether a prose tale, a ballad, or an epic. Kabir’s compositions, for instance, came to appear in translation in many Indian languages, as well as their different renderings into English, the most widely read among those being the rendering by Tagore in his One Hundred Poems of Kabir (Macmillan 1915).
Prose to prose translation is relatively easy and less problematic. One intriguing related challenge, however, is that of the transcription/translation of a predominantly oral narrative into a written one. It is interesting, however, to see how effectively the business of transcription/translation is negotiated by a professionally trained scholar or by a highly dexterous and imaginative author. Tagore, for instance, transformed a (Dalit) Buddhist legend into his enchantingly lyrical and symbolical play Chandalika. The late learned scholar and Professor Ram Nath Sashtri of Jammu likewise turned a popular legend on the life and martyrdom of a Dogri farmer into his revolutionary play Bawa Jittoo, And the eminent poet and litterateur of Odisha, Sitakanta Mahapatra, produced an attractive book titled Forgive the Words (1978) with his Roman transcription of many a youthful song of the Kondha tribe of that state.
The above (technical) problem does not arise in the preparation of a text such as the present one, however, where the translation is a more straightforward exercise of turning a text in Bangla version into an English one. That task has been deftly carried out by the translators as the reader will see. In their English version the moving Bangla stories of Dalit life and culture, all culled from authoritative sources, will now travel far and beyond the Vidyasagar University campus to an ever-widening English-speaking world. We wish every reader the joy of reading!
The term ‘minority’ has multiple resonances. Do we mean linguistic minority, religious minority, gendered minority, or oppressed minority? Again, all these categories are dynamic and vary in their manifestation in different locales and in their inscription through writing and translation in different languages. To my knowledge, the only translation theorist who has dealt with this phenomenon in some depth is Michael Cronin who in his book Translation and Identity focuses on the migrant or diasporic minority, although in India we are mainly concerned not with diasporic but stay-at-home minorities. Lawrence Venuti, a leading theorist of translation, when asked to edit an issue of the Translator came up with a definition which seems helpful in our context. He wrote, ‘I understand “minority” to mean a cultural or political position that is subordinate, whether the social context that so defines it is local, national or global. This position is occupied by languages and literatures that lack prestige or authority, the non-standard and the non-canonical, what is not spoken or read much by a hegemonic culture. Yet minorities also include the nations and social groups that are affiliated with these languages and literatures, the politically weak or underrepresented, the colonized and the disenfranchised, the exploited and the stigmatized. The terms “majority” and “minority” are relative, depending on one another for their definition and always dependent on a historically existing, even if changing, situation.’ In the introduction to this volume, titled Survival and Other Stories, the editors have broadly and comprehensively defined the term ‘Dalit’ in the current Indian political and cultural scenario which gives the translated stories a certain context in which they are to be seen and understood.
India offers a complex web of major and minor languages, and these categories shift as we move from state to state. Linguistic and literary hierarchy, sometimes chauvinism, has always been a fact of our cultural life, whether it operates brazenly or subtly. For example, Bengali is the language of the dominant majority in West Bengal but is a minority language in Assam, where Assamese is the dominant language, and the stream of Bengali literature written in Assam, though it reflects local reality, harks back to the literary tradition of Bengal rather than Assam. There was a time when Bengali was the main donor literature for Assamese, Manipuri and Oriya, and there was a long struggle for these languages to free themselves from the hegemony of Bengali. A significant part of Assamese, Oriya and Manipuri literatures consists of translation from Bengali, but there are very few works from these languages translated into Bengali. I remember a conversation with Damodar Mauzo, a writer in Konkani, who received the Sahirya Akademi award a couple of years ago. He was resentful of the fact that writers in other Indian languages want their writings to be translated into Konkani but no one wanted to translate from Konkani into their languages. The same is the case with Dogri, Kashmiri, Manipuri and some other languages. Sophisticated fiction or critical, discursive prose is yet to be written and developed in these languages. One wonders whether they will ever be written.
Then there are languages within languages, or registers within languages, or speech communities within languages. When Syed Mustafa Siraj writes about the lives of rural Muslims in the district of Murshidabad in West Bengal or when Anil Gharai writes about the tribals of Singhbhum district (formerly in the Bengal Presidency, now in jharkhand), the Bengali they use is quite different from the standard Bengali of Kolkata, in idiom, tone and timbre. When Mahashweta Devi writes about the Lodhas, Shabars and Santhals of West Bengal, or tribals of Chhotanagpur, and publishes her pieces in mainstream journals for the general Bengali readers, a process of normalisation is already in place. And when this Bengali is translated into English a further process of normalisation and standardisation is called for. The translator has to be careful of the roughness, unevenness, and apparent incoherence of the original. The risk of translating two radically unequal languages, as Talal Asad, in his ‘The Concept of Cultural translation in British Anthropology’, has demonstrated is that the translator in order to make his translation intelligible and in sync with the values and current idiom in the target language might impose a coherence which the original did not possess. We might often assume equivalence or uniformity where none exists. Even the caste system, which is supposed to represent perennial India, does not have a monolithic coherence in the pan-Indian context, as Nicholas Dirks has brought out. When one reads Dalit autobiographies, one wonders how one can represent the dehumanisation that the subjects have suffered at the hands of the dominant groups. When one reads Jhootan by Omprakash Valmiki one feels terribly conscious of the inadequacy of the English idiom to convey the utter debasement and defilement that forms the staple of the author’s experience. How do you even begin to translate the title ‘Jhootan’? How can the nuances of the text be preserved? They should not sound shrill and maudlin on the one hand or sanitised and politically correct on the other. The question is also about the narratabilty or representability in language of experiences that are beyond the pale of the translator. Dalit autobiographies are characterised by gaps and silences, ellipses that need to be filled up or at least suggested in the target language. In Jhootan, Valmiki, time and again, says, ‘I do not know how to express this! It is difficult to put in words one’s own humiliation.’ The translator in English of such texts will have to work at several levels-know well the speech in which it was narrated or written originally, be aware of the process it has undergone while being published in standard Bengali, Marathi, Hindi or Tamil, and then while rendering it into English not to be politically correct, sanitised, ‘polite’ or excessively charitable, so that the sharp edge of the stark, bare reality is not lost in translation.
I am delighted to see that the translators in the current-volume have been sensitive to these facts and have tried to produce a version that attempts to maintain the social and cultural nuances of the original and yet is readable in English.
Finally, I must underline the fact that given India’s multilingualism, translation is the only way to create awareness of issues and build solidarities across languages. The minor literatures and the literatures of the oppressed would have languished within the narrow confines of particular speech communities were it not for translation. Women Writing in India in two volumes (edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita) made the kind of impact it has made because it could access a wealth of material through translation. Partition literature made the impact it did because another rich archive in several Indian languages was accessed and excavated through translation. Similarly, the literature by and about the Dalits has attained visibility because of translation into Indian languages and English.
I am sure the current volume will constitute a substantial contribution to this archive of Dalit Literature in English Translation.
Defining the term ‘Dalit’
The term ‘Dalit’ literally means ‘crushed’ or ‘ground’, and it describes the living conditions for centuries of a large group of people in India. Now, the term refers to any member of a large group of socially oppressed people in India. The emphasis is laid on the group’s social exclusion as they were proclaimed ‘untouchables’ by the law-givers of the traditional ‘Varna’ system. Quite naturally, they have been made to do menial and dirty jobs, often very hard and toilsome. Thus, for centuries these people have been economically exploited, socially discriminated against and culturally marginalised. In recent years, the meaning of the term has been extended to include all those who are oppressed and marginalised. Some would like to equate Dalits with people who are enlisted as Scheduled Tribes in the Indian Constitution. Large segments of nomadic people, denotified tribes (who were classified as ‘criminal tribes’ in colonial times) and Adivasis have also been included within this broad umbrella term. In post- Independence India, the term has been used generally to identify the groups of peasants, workers, women, tribes and former untouchable castes who posed a challenge to the upper-class, north Indian, Hindu Brahmin rule in the national poitical scenario. Viewed from that perspective, most of the minorities in the country are also Dalits. It is applicable particularly to those who were converts to either Islam or Christianity. It is a fact of history that the real reason behind religious conversion was the discrimination against and consequent oppression of lower-caste people by the Hindu upper-caste majority. In order to escape the torment, large numbers of the oppressed embraced Islam or Christianity which did not have caste hierarchy. Of course, pressure and allurement also played a significant role in the process of conversion. But the extension of the ambit of the term is not without difficulties. There are writers who belong to the scheduled castes but are hesitant to be regarded as Dalits and hence not agreeable to inclusion in any anthology of dalit literature. The aversion is probably because of the association of the term Dalit with social untouchability. Over the ages, the Dalits have been made to engage themselves in all sorts of lowly jobs including scavenging. Until very recently, they had to cart away human excreta from household toilets to disposal sites. A woman carrying human excreta in baskets etc. as head-load was a common sight in small towns only a few years back. Quite naturally, these people suffered a process of dehumanisation with the stigma of ‘untouchability’ attached to them. What is all the more disturbing is that such social ostracism was sought to be justified in terms of presumed sins committed in a previous birth. The doctrine of rebirth in the Hindu religion does not only sanction ‘untouchability’ but even prescribes and justifies it under the idea of karma. This scriptural sanction and justification provided by the Hindu law-givers led Dalits to accept their fate without demur resulting in a state of mental servility. The consequence of this was arguably more far-reaching and nefarious than even that of slavery practised in Europe and America. Untouchabilirv is not only physical; it has a mental impact destroying in the victim any sense of self-respect. Dr Pashupati Prasad Mahato, an eminent anthropologist and vice-president of the Bengali Dalit Sahitya Sanstha, states, ‘The consequences of dispossession led them to poverty, exploitation, oppression and dehumanization culminating into cultural silence that debilitates and destroys not only personality, but also cultural excellence and creative genius .... The Mulvasi-Dallt clusters of ethnic groups lost their cultural strength and were forced to think and act according to the idioms and symbols of dominant nationalities in Indian situation. This process we term as cultural silence.
This process of cultural ‘dalitisation’ is fraught with the insidious ‘upper-caste’ intention of keeping them in a state of perpetual servility-both physical and mental. The Dalit literary movement has emerged as a reaction against this process with the commitment to defy all such attempts.\
In recent years, attempts have been made to forge intellectual links between the Dalits and down-trodden peoples across the globe like the Blacks in the United States. The kind of deprivation and degradation suffered by the Dalits has affinities with those experienced by Black slaves in Europe and America. Yet in a way, the humiliation of the Dalit is unique in the sense that his exclusion is not merely economic but scriptural as well as we have tried to show. The white races tried to justify their behaviour towards the Blacks on some pseudo-scientific grounds of their own superiority but they did not invoke the scriptures in support of their claim; the caste Hindus attempted to explain it on the basis of scriptural sanctions. But otherwise both Dalits and the American Blacks have shared the same kind of deprivation and humiliation. Again, just as some Black writers hesitate to accept the idea of Negritude, some Dalit writers also feel uneasy with the appellation; they prefer to describe their writings as Protest Literature or the Literature of Resistance. But the majority accept the name with a sense of pride flaunting it as a symbol of change and revolution. Dalit consciousness has become for them a source of inspiration to wage their war against the hegemony of the caste Hindus. The term Dalit is a constant reminder to such a person of the ignominy they or their forebears had suffered, igniting in them hatred for the process of dalitisation. Fanon talked about three stages in the development of Black literature-Assimilation, Ethnic Discovery and Revolution. Likewise, dalit literature passes through the three stages of suffering, revolt and negation. In fact, the word Dalit resonates with a feeling of suffering which has been a historical legacy, but the word also proclaims in a strong way the determination to negate the process.
The origin of the term Dalit has been traced to the nineteenth century Marathi social reformer Jotirao Phule (1827-90). His progressive ideas and the intellectual leadership of B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) were instrumental in realising a distinctly different dalit identity in opposition to the casteist Varna system of Hinduism. Ambedkar with his followers turned to Buddhism as an alternative to the humiliation suffered by Dalits under the caste system. It is in this context that one has to understand their rejection of the term coined
-by Gandhi, Harijan (Children of God). Gandhi sought to integrate the untouchables with the traditional Hindu community. But it was impossible for them to turn to the Hindu religion for solace or look back to their Hindu past with pride. Naturally the appellation Harijan appeared meaningless to them. Rather the term Dalit was defiantly assumed as a marker of identity around 1972 by the Dalit Panthers of Bombay, a group of young dalit activists. Since then the word became synonymous with revolt, a movement for acquiring constitutional privileges, rights, political equality, cultural liberation and economic independence. Thus a dalit movement was created as a revolutionary phenomenon with social, political, economic and cultural aims. It sought not merely to transform the structure of society in order to ensure social justice and equality but to create a literature which would make dalit society aware of its humiliation and servitude by voicing their anguish in a society ordered on the caste system.
Foreword by G. K. Das
The Deceived (Achintya Biswas)
Footprint of an Elephant (Anil Gharai)
Reincarnation of Parashuram (Anil Gharai)
The Sky of Drought (Anil Gharai)
Bazaar (Gautam Ali)
On Water and on Shore (Gobinda Shoundo)
On Firm Ground (fatin Bala)
The Other Jew (Kapil Krishna Thakur)
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