Translating Caste is a significant addition to the literature of caste now available in English. The first English-language anthologies of dalit literature, such as Barbara Joshi’s Untouchable! Voices of dalit Literature (1986), Arjun Dangle’s Poisoned Bread (1992), and the Anthology of Dalit Literature by Mulk Raj Anand and Eleanor Zelliot (1992) have served very well as windows on Dalit writing, especially the radical literature of protest that appeared in Marathi and other languages from the 1960s. These anthologies established the uniqueness of dalit writing in modern Indian literature, even as they drew attention to its conditions of production, to questions of style, genre, and resistance, and to the comparability of this corpus with the literature of indigenous and disadvantaged people from across the world. At the same time, the shared polemical case of these volumes, that the dalit alone may authentically represent his/her experience, and that this was the only authentic experience of caste, was too procrustean perhaps
Though unexceptionable as a principle for putting together coherent anthologies or for directing radical movements, the strictness of the selection foreclosed the option of reading the dalit alongside other representations of caste, besides implying a disconnect between dalit politics and other struggles for freedom and rights in post-independence India. By widening the goalposts to include a broad selection of stories on the subject, Translating Caste avoids these constraints; and, if this allows the volume to place dalit literature within. a broad sampling of literature of caste, it is a worthy move for a volume that builds upon the gains of those earlier efforts.
The eight short stories (from Assamese, Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, and Tamil) in the volume include some by dalit writers (‘Oorakali’, by Irathina Karikalan, and ‘The Paddy Harvest’ by Mogalli Ganesh), and one dalit part-autobiography (‘My Childhood Tale’ by Urmila Pawar), besides stories of upper caste life (M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s ‘Sukritam’), and a story about the Doms by an author not officially dalit (‘Bayen’ by Mahashweta Devi). The stories invariably foreground the workings of patriarchy within the institutions of caste, or they show the cultural and economic complexities of inter-caste marriage, as in ‘Kulaghati’ by Narain Singh. In ‘Oorakali’, which is about the daily humiliation and sexual exploitation of the Oorakali women of Tamil Nadu by upper caste men, the device of the ethnographic informant-narrator mediates the representation of the crippling, indeed tragic, mix of the economic and sexual exploitation at the hands of the upper caste Nattar. Here, dalit women are entirely passive, spoken about, but not speaking themselves, and suspected by their men folk of succumbing not only to the ‘force’ of the upper caste man, but also to ‘desire’. Unlike ‘Oorakali’, which essentializes womenfolk as sexual beings, in Mogalli Ganesh’s ‘Paddy Harvest’ lower caste women are represented ‘in terms of their relationship to labour, and through it to economic, rather than sexual exploitation by upper caste landowners’ (p. 215). Pawar’s ‘A Childhood Tale’ is an example of ‘unmediated’ dalit autobiography: the story of a dalit woman reflecting on her early years, her relationship with her mother, her experience of degrading poverty, and her awakening to political consciousness; while the story, ‘What is your caste?’ by K.P. Ramanunni shows the ubiquity of caste as an everyday social category despite the transformations wrought by class mobility. Finally, there are excerpts from a dialogue, ‘Urmila Pawar and the Making of History’, where the Marathi writer discusses her life and writing as a dalit woman.
The variety of languages, locations, and caste identities is however at the service of a close historical interest. The stories are mainly from the 1990s, culled from Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature and from Katha anthologies, and they belong to our contemporary history, when caste mobilization and themes of social justice have changed electoral politics in fundamental ways, sometimes aggravating the forms and frequency of caste violence across the country, transforming caste politics from a reservation issue to a question of substantive human rights, and making researchers, activists, and authors alive to the fact that neither Indian feminism nor dalit activism had yet reckoned with the dalit woman, the victim alike of caste discrimination and patriarchy, of sexual and economic exploitation. But there is another reason why Translating Caste is a significant addition to ongoing work on dalit writing. Besides the short stories, there are seven essays that engage with the literature of caste, framing the eight stories with reflection on historical and political issues, and it is this combination of creative and critical material that gives to the volume the format of a Reader than of a literary anthology. Of these essays, four ‘critical commentaries’ engage with specific stories in the volume, and on the practical and ideological choices that have shaped the translation of these stories into English. Hephzibah Israel’s reading of her fine translation of ‘Oorakali’ is exemplary in its alertness to the many pitfalls of translating from an Indian language into English, as in its attempt to read the story as part of the poetics and politics of the ‘alternative voice’ in Tamil dalit writing. Likewise, the commentaries by H.S. Shivaprakash, Brinda Bose, and Uma Chakravarti guide the reader intelligently into the world of the stories, offering new ways and means for thinking and writing about the literature of caste, and about Indian literature in English translation.
The other four essays by Tapan Basu, Sisir Kumar Das, Uma Chakravarti, and G. Arunima are on the sociology and politics of caste, on the intersections of caste and gender, and on literary history. ‘Caste and the Underprivileged’ by Sisir Kumar Das and ‘Dalit Perspectives’ by Basu provide short but useful histories of the representation of caste in modern Indian literature, ‘Through Another Lens’ by Uma Chakravarti is a sensitive overview of the stories in the volume, and G. Arunima’s ‘Some Issues in an Analysis of Caste and Gender in Modern India’ explores the overlaps between patriarchy and caste oppression. Sisir Das’s survey begins in the early twentieth century, examining the representation of caste and themes of social justice in Hindi, Bengali, Telegu, Kannada, and Marathi writing, and offering quick thumbnails of the work of major authors who engaged with caste, such as Kumaran Asan, Premchand, Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya and Mulk Raj Anand, and readers familiar with the second volume of Sisir Das’s History of Indian Literature (1995) will remember a similar account in that work. Basu’s historical essay however breaks new ground by putting together an account of the literature of caste from the 1960s to the present, an exercise that goes beyond its obvious usefulness in giving a framework to the stories in the volume. The essay traces the growth of dalit literature from Marathi Little Magazines like Fatak and Asmitadarsha to subsequent dalit writing in other languages, but as Basu admits in his notes, much of this area is poorly documented, and dalit writers ‘remain virtually unknown and unrecognized as far as the Indian literary establishment is concerned’ (p. 196).
By engaging with ‘the translation of caste as a social institution into an assortment of cultural discourses’ (ix), Translating Caste addresses precisely this lack with its intelligent arrangement of diverse material. But there is still both room and need for more anthologies from across languages, regions, and genres, and for systematic documentation, and, one hopes the editor will bring out more volumes of dalit writing in English translation.
Gautam Chakravarty is at the Department of English, University of Delhi, Delhi.