How Untouchables are changing the face of Indian literature

“What we’re doing is creating a new history of India that’s not in the textbooks.”—Omprakash Valmiki, author of Joothan: An Untouchable’s Life.

The above quote comes from a recent interview with Valmiki published in an article from the Wall Street Journal. The article looks at the increased recognition of writing by the Dalits also known as “untouchables,” India’s lowest social group.

The article explains how Dalit literature offers a new way of looking at Indian history and society. The article quotes Valmiki, “We [Dalits] are drawing on a body of practical experience that we’ve gained through all the things we have made, the crafts, the carving, the carpentry, the textiles. Very little that you see in India was made by Brahmins—and everything carries the touch of those they call untouchable.”

Moreover, Christophe Jaffrelot, a leading scholar of Dalits, suggests that “Not only have their [Dalit’s] books attracted a mass audience, but they are profoundly impacting the political landscape.” Jaffrelot points to Mayawati Kumar, a Dalit who has become chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, as leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

While Dalit literature has helped to bring a new recognition to Dalits, social and political problems persist as Valmiki claims, “”How can we take the constitution seriously? There are still at least 1.3 million of us condemned to a scavenger class sent out each day to collect human feces—and their main employer is the Indian government.”

Joothan, is unfortunately one of the few books translated from Hindi into English. In a related story, there is a very interesting interview with the translator Jason Grunebaum just published on The Quarterly Conversation.

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