Dalit diaries

It takes a powerful flashlight to collate and catalogue narratives of the marginalised —for voices long subdued have a tendency to fall silent at approaching footsteps

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The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing articulates what was until now wrapped in twilight by zooming in on a region, on certain crucial aspects of expression and issues.

Popular Malayalam output has found global readership via translations, awards and other platforms, and yet there remains a section of regional writing that goes frequently overlooked or is underplayed — the Dalit writings in this language.

In Group Photo, S Joseph speaks in verse of “a cursed life that some Malayalis lead all by themselves”.

Tracing back the beginnings of Dalit writing in Kerala and going forward to the present-day output in the state, the book translates poetry, short fiction, novel excerpts, drama, autobiography, biography and critical interventions into English, and opens up a dark Pandora’s Box.

As Sunny Kavikkad says in his poem An Unchartered Map, “For darkness to write history, I offer my eyes.” The able translators, in turn, offer their ears.

The word ‘Dalit’ itself had a late look-in in Kerala towards the end of the seventies, following its use elsewhere in India from the 1920s onwards, after Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s hectic efforts. It was only in the eighties that the Dalits in ‘God’s own country’ began to stir.

They were privy by then to the hypocrisy of the upper-caste reformers and at the turn of the 20th century, “Dalits remained fragmented as castes and sub-castes”. Attempts at wipe-off set off lyrical ripples, provoking poet Poikayil Appachan to lament:
I see no alphabet
About my race
I see histories
Of many races.

G Sasi Madhuraveli echoed this almost pre-lingual pain in his poem With Love: “Black is the seed of self-rage.” Poets in this collection include KKS Das, KK Govindan, Kaviyoor Murali, Raghavan Atholi, M R Renukumar, M B Manoj, Binu M Pallippad and S Kailesh.  There is a brief history of short fiction in Kerala, as with other genres.

The specific stories in this book showcase the anger, helplessness, rebellion and devaluing of their lives. Written by TKC Vaduthala, Paul Chirakkarode, C Ayyappan, P A Uthaman, P K Prakash and M K Madhukumar, all narratives resonate with ringing native truths. As the story titled Luminous White, translated by Shirley M Joseph, concludesk, “Man — what a limited word!”

In this book one meets Kunjappan who fishes for “that feeling of freedom”, Ramachandran who opposes his preacher dad because “to dream sky-high was foolish”, widowed Kochukarumbi whose Chankranty offering goes awry, Kurumba Muthukki, an elderly woman with a sickle to whom “the red of the flag is not as red as it used to be in the olden days”.

Novelists like TKC Vaduthala, D Rajan, Raghavan Atholi, etc, voice suppressed emotions in aptly chosen excerpts. While referring to C Ayyappan’s Uchayarukkathile Swapnangal (Dreams in a Siesta) Sunny M Kopikkad says the characters in it were Nairs or Namboddiris or Pulayas or Christians.

He says, “The Pulaya woman in Pretabhashanam (Ghost Talk) asks god a question: ‘How can a Pulaya woman be sister to a Christian, old man?’ At this question, it was as though someone had stuffed a plantain in god’s mouth. The Pulaya woman who stuffed a plantain into god’s mouth is a powerful symbol that haunts the Malayali’s pretensions of progressiveness and values.

It is only with a shudder that we realise that the question would render the average Malayali also speechless.”

No such translation project can triumph without its translators — K Satchidanandan, Shreekumar Varma, Lekshmy Rajeev, A J Thomas, Abhirami Shriram, Catherine Thankamma, Sushila Thomas, Saji Mathew, Ravi Shanker, K M Sherrif, E V Ramakrishnan, Ajay Sekher, Valson Thampu, T C Narayan.

The editors of this collection — M Dasan, V Pratibha, Pradeepan Pampirikunnu and C S Chandrika — engage in constant dialogue via the introductions to each segment, decoding the indecipherable, especially to outsiders.

When it comes to going on record, inattention has a lot to answer for. A host of experiences, cries and concerns of a whole people can so easily go unheard. Collections such as these point to a primal lacunae in not just our attention span but our rearrangement of memories, our sense of history and deliberate misreading of it.

Collective amnesia is up against a perfunctory nod for the sheer need to occupy comfort zones. Once the blindfold comes off there is the need to listen, however shaming that may be.

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