Two books on the Dalit struggle, one concerning personal space and the other reflecting a social movement. A review by GAIL OMVEDT.
BONDED labourers, tending cattle while their masters heap scorn on them and their women vulnerable to rape; untouchable field labourers finding their hope for a share of the harvest they have always brought in snatched away from them by arrogant landlords; a Dom woman, beautiful and at first beloved, accused of being a witch by her own community including her nerveless husband; an upper-caste school teacher turned to fascination with caste rather than "class" by a defiant Dalit colleague; a man married to a lower-caste woman but still fearful of his daughter marrying a Dalit; a fisherwoman defying a ban on going near temples these vignettes from Translating Caste give depiction of the still caste- and ritual-bound life of too many Indians. Strikingly, women are at the centre of much of the action, the most oppressed and most defiant. Doiboki the Assamese fisherwomen, Chandi who defiantly refuses to be a bayen or "witch", Neeli Raman the Dalit teacher they defy and inspire the men of their community and other communities to stand up against caste. It is fitting, then, that a short interview from the Maharashtrian Dalit writer Urmila Pawar concludes the volume, with her own story depicting the traumatic childhood of a girl trying to meet the aspirations of her mother, carrying on the tradition of a dead father and defying the caste-ridden society to do so.
With the exception of one story from medieval Kerala, these are set in a kind of timeless post-independence India. Their action is individualistic; almost none shows the effect of a collective movement the current nation-wide upsurge of Dalits in politics is not yet reflected in this literature. Yet the scope of the stories and the issues they raise are both wide, sufficient to raise troubling questions about why caste continues to survive as it does, and the degree of its human cost not only for the "low" castes themselves, but just as much, and in a different way, for the humanity of the traditionally "upper" castes. Besides the set of short story translations, this volume also contains a series of critical essays, discussions of Dalit literature, and critical comments on the translations themselves.
The Other Half of the Coconut directly reflects a social movement: it is a collection of writings by women involved in the Self-Respect movement. They include essays and short snippets published in Self-Respect journals such as Kudi Arasan and Kumaran, extracts from a novel on Devadasis, and a few writings by Periyar. Selections discuss the oppressions of widows, Brahmanic opposition to trying to raise the age of marriage, tensions inside families over disagreements about participation in Self-Respect programmes, the exploitation of women selling fodder contrasted with the ability of Brahmans to get easy money for a few strands of sacred grass; and the role of "women's labour" under socialism. Most, but not all, focus on the relationship between Brahmanism, religious blindness and women's oppression, but a couple deal simply with oppression within the home. Extracts from a major novel on Devadasis are included, which show somewhat ambiguously both the conventionalism of the writer (a former Devadasi herself, who sees the profession as degrading) and the underlying theme of appreciation of the energy and initiative of the Devadasi women themselves. One problem here is that the term "myner," left untranslated, is distracting; it would have been better to simply use "playboy" or some equivalent.
In one respect the selections leave some questions unresolved. As Srilata notes in her introduction, there was a fairly extensive debate in The Economic and Political Weekly on the significance of the Dravidian movement for women, with C.S. Lakshmi arguing that it left untouched the glorification of women as mother figures, particularly potent when Tamil identity itself was seen in these terms. M.S.S. Pandian, V. Geeta and others strongly defended the movement, arguing that in particular Periyar and the Self-Respecters unleashed a full-scale attack on ideologies of women's place and women's sexuality. The selections given do indeed show a fairly radical attack on women's oppression and on traditional family life.
However they do not quite deal with the degree of compromise within the movement, which evidently took place in the context of efforts at broader mobilisation, for instance in the anti-Hindi agitation. And the few that are given from Periyar himself do not show the very radical attack on conventional notions of sexuality and chastity which are argued by Geetha and Rajadurai in their study, Towards a NonBrahman Millennium.
Nevertheless, the book gives a wide range of material on one of the important struggles of feminism in India.
Translating Caste: Stories, Essays, Criticism, edited by Tapan Basu, Katha, 2003.
The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Writing Self-Respect History, translated and edited by K. Srilata, Kali for Women, 2003.
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