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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Claiming the English language as a Dalit poet

It challenges existing notions about who can write English poetry in India, affords access to a wider readership and helps create a springboard for anti-caste linguistic and cultural praxis

Written by Chandramohan S |
Updated: April 17, 2021 9:25:00 am
BR Ambedkar

I have been writing poetry in English for about seven years and have received acclaim from my peers. I write from the perspective of a Dalit poet writing in English, and bring into my poems a wealth of experience from my involvement in various civil right struggles of Dalit-Bahujans, Muslims and queer people as well as from a parallel exploration of the intricacies of language in a post-colonial, multi-cultural world. Indian writers in English tend to be nearly exclusively from the upper castes and poets of my background and socio-political leanings tend to be a rarity on the contemporary Indian English poetry scene.

If B R Ambedkar (whose birthday was this month) can be considered the founder and pioneer of Dalit literature, it has taken many years for the category of a Dalit writer or a Dalit poet — or more specifically a Dalit poet writing in English — to emerge as a self-identified category. “Dalit poet” is an epithet accorded to someone by virtue of his birth circumstance and by his own self-volition, who is armed with the epistemological privilege of having experienced both overt and insidious social exclusion and caste violence, and has prioritised anti-caste politics over progressive causes, just like Ambedkar who, despite speaking for a spectrum of subaltern issues, chose to champion the Dalit cause as a priority. It was because the preceding generations of college-educated activists from within the Dalit community prioritised anti-caste politics over every other concern that today I have the privilege to pursue writing poetry in the English language.

The objectives of my assertion of Ambedkarite subjectivity are multifold. A category like Dalit poet can torpedo the caste dimensions of the apparently politically pasteurised Indian English poetry. First, it necessitates a discussion on the deconstruction of one’s privilege by the literati and triggers a scrutiny of inclusivity in various benchmark anthologies of Indian English poetry or fiction. Second, it signals to the discerning reader that an assertive Dalit/ Ambedkarite/Neo-Buddhist can write poems conceived in the English idiom, just like others. This is even more pertinent considering entry barriers to this language.

Two accomplishments by Dalit writers must be mentioned here: Yashica Dutt’s Coming Out as Dalit winning the Sahitya Akademi’s Yuva Puraskar is significant as no Dalit writer before her has won a Sahitya Akademi Award in English language. Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E Butler by Mimi Mondal, a Dalit speculative fiction writer, received the Locus Award in Non-fiction and was a nominee for the Hugo Award.

A literary mission prioritising the assertion of Dalit identity and propounding a caste-aware world view does not imply a restriction on either the themes or the choice of diction. Poetry aspiring for such a mission strives to be artistic, in the sense that it has a broader view than an anti-caste mission and strives for an ideal of beauty and aesthetics in the texture of its language.

What are the opportunities for a Dalit writer in English compared to the vernacular? First, the English language is a lingua franca within India and also provides access to London or New York. Hence, denting the discourse of the nation could be easier in English.

Second, while Dalit literature in translation is a fad in academia, we tend to overlook the violence that is meted out to the cultural text in the process of translation. A Dalit writer of the vernacular may not have control over which of his works is chosen for translation or who is translating it. Thus, knowledge of English can illuminate the contours of exclusion.

Third, the English language does not foreground a semantic bias against the anti-brahminical expression conceived in English, unlike when the Dalit writer needs to manoeuvre from his own dialect to the print (mainstream) versions of many vernacular languages. There could be spiritual injunctions against the learning of Sanskrit by the subaltern, but no such reins tether English.

Fourth, strife in our social lives happens mostly in the vernacular cultural milieu. The onus is on the Dalit writer, especially if he earns a philosophical-contesting position in the English language to reconstitute himself in the new tongue, and creates a springboard for anti-caste linguistic and cultural praxis.

In conclusion, I would like to quote one of the most acclaimed fiction writers in the country, Ajay Navaria: “The times are changing and Dalit writers are increasingly foraying into hitherto uncharted waters, letting go of themes such as anger, and embracing newer forms and subjects — beauty, nationalism, urban discrimination, mob violence, communalism, Islamophobia.”

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 17, 2021 under the title ‘Following Babasaheb’. Chandramohan S is an Indian English Dalit poet based in Trivandrum.

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