Inextinguishable Fires

The Engaged Observer is a collection of writings by eminent author and intellectual, Shanta Gokhale. The book is an invaluable record of the social, political and cultural changes that have taken place in Bombay, Mumbai and beyond. The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Inextinguishable Fires: Dalit Literature in Marathi”.

Image Courtesy: Speaking Tiger

One of celebrated Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal’s childhood reminiscences is about the time he and his young friends committed the crime of swimming in a well whose water they, as untouchables, were forbidden to ‘pollute’. The boys were mercilessly stoned by the villagers for the crime. So when Dalit writers say their literature is about life, they are talking about a bitter and humiliating struggle for existence. To be denied water is to be denied life. How then are they to feel they belong to this land and its gods?
L.S. Rokade writes,

I spit on this great civilization
Is this land yours, mother,
only because you were born here?
Is it mine
only because I was born to you?
Sorry mother, but truth to tell,
I must confess I wondered
Should I be born
Should I be born at all into this land?

Trymbak Sapkale says in a hybrid Marathi-English,

Amhi god maker                        (We are god makers)
bajavato notice tujhyavar          (We serve a notice on you)
negligence of dutychi                (For negligence of duty)
Your services are not required. (Your services are not required.)

These are the angry poets of the 1970s and after. But before they arrived, there was another, Baburao Bagul, who was writing impassioned short stories that pitchforked readers out of their well-lit world into one that was dark, desperate and dangerous.

Baburao Bagul was born in a village near Nashik in a desperately poor family. At ten years old, he was sent to Mumbai to live with his maternal aunt in the Matunga Labour Camp. This was a colony built by the Bombay Municipal Corporation1 for migrant Dalit labour from the interiors of Maharashtra, located on a piece of marshy, mosquito-infested land abutting Dharavi in Central Mumbai. Bagul’s school education ended with matriculation, after which he did several odd jobs till he found permanent employment in the railways. The Labour Camp at that time buzzed with intellectual activity. The Communist Party held regular study circles there and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation office was also located there. Thus Marxist and Ambedkarite ideologies came to form the foundation of Bagul’s thought, and gave his writing muscle.

In 1963, ten of Bagul’s stories appeared in a collection titled Jevha Mi Jaat Chorali Hoti (When I Hid My Caste2). The book created such a stir that Bagul was interviewed by The Times of India and Maharashtra Times, while the Marathi mainline dailies, Navakal and Navashakti, ran editorials about him and his work. It is often said that Jevha Mi Jaat Chorali Hoti gave a new momentum to Dalit writing. This does not mean that the collection suddenly galvanized Dalit writers into writing. Writers like Shankarrao Kharat and Anna Bhau Sathe were already writing stories that had won them admiration. One of the factors that must have contributed to the upsurge of Dalit writing in the 1960s is education, which gave Dalit youth a sense of self-worth. The People’s Education Society, of which Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar was chairman, had founded the Siddharth College of Arts and Science in Mumbai in 1946, and the Milind Mahavidyalaya in Aurangabad in 1950, to encourage Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe youth to choose education as a path to a better life. However, what Bagul’s stories did do, was to give Dalit writing a public face. His work told writers that they could write about their universe of experience without worrying too much about established norms of literary construction and language.


Jevha Mi Jaat Chorali Hoti was followed in 1969 by Bagul’s second collection of stories, Maran Swasta Hote Ahe (Death Is Becoming Cheap), which focused on life in the slums of Mumbai. This collection consolidated his position in the literary world and brought him the Maharashtra State’s Hari Narayan Apte award. The most prominent amongst Bagul’s contemporaries was Anna Bhau Sathe, the Marxist shahir, short-story writer and novelist. He, too, lived in the Matunga Labour Camp. His life experiences were no different from Bagul’s. However, unlike Bagul, who wrote like an elemental force with no time to spare for embroidering descriptive details into his stories, Sathe wrote in a more conventional style.


There was another contemporary of Bagul’s, Narayan Gangaram Surve, whose long poem ‘Majhe Vidyapeeth’ (My University), published in 1966, did for poetry what Bagul had done for fiction. It brought into poetry life experiences, a world view and a street language that it had not known before. Abandoned on a footpath in Mumbai as a baby, found and looked after by a mill-worker couple, Surve was to go on to win the Padma Shri and Kabir Samman awards. But ‘Majhe Vidyapeeth’ was about the lessons he learned on the streets of Mumbai. Its first two lines are:

I had neither home nor kin, just as much land as I could walk on.
Shops offered shelter, and municipal footpaths were open, free to use.

And the last two:

Now that I have come into this world, to wander in its harsh reality,
I have no choice but to live, to belong, giving and taking blow for blow.

Around the mid-1950s, Dalit writers had begun to assert their different-ness from mainstream writers. Their themes, language and narrative style were unique to themselves. They were committed to writing about the socio-political issues that affected their lives. The annual Marathi literary conferences did not offer them a platform to debate these issues. The writers felt they needed a separate forum, and the first Dalit literary conference held in Bombay in 1958 was the outcome. Baburao Bagul did not attend. In an interview given to Dr Nazareth Misquita, author of a critical study of Bagul’s work published in 2006, he dismissed such conferences as occasions to stand on daises and make speeches. Anna Bhau Sathe not only attended but made the inaugural speech in which he said, ‘This world, this earth does not stand on the hood of Sheshanag. It stands on the palms of Dalits. The Dalit must be raised to his rightful place in society and writers must stand shoulder to shoulder with the common people to bring this about.’

One of the questions raised at the conference was how to define the term Dalit literature. After much heated discussion it was resolved that Dalit literature was literature written by Dalits or non-Dalits dealing with the life of Dalits. This definition was discussed in other fora and efforts were made by writers to sharpen it further. Collectively and individually, they identified four values which Dalit literature, in order to be called so, should uphold—rejection of the establishment, protest against injustice, rebellion against the caste system and promotion of the scientific temper. Playwright and academic Datta Bhagat went further. He categorically linked Dalit literature to the Ambedkarite movement. In his book, Dalit Sahitya: Disha Ani Dishantar (Dalit Literature: Directions and Departures; Abhay Prakashan, 1992), he concluded that Dalit literature could be defined as ‘the expression of an intense desire, born of a complete understanding and assimilation of Dr Ambedkar’s thought and world view, to know the self and the socio-political reality that surrounded the self.’

To assert that Dalit literature was distinct from upper-caste literature was simultaneously to reject the critical criteria that had evolved to assess the latter. Dalit poet and critic Keshav Meshram stated in the March–April 1970 issue of Asmitadarsha, ‘Marathi criticism is inadequate to the task of assessing Dalit literature.’ Bhagat agrees, but hastens to point out the pitfalls attached to dismissing existing critical criteria. He argues that writing about Dalit life from an Ambedkarite perspective and rejecting established critical criteria does not mean that writers forget they are, first and foremost, artists. If upper-caste critics find Dalit literature too rough and raw for their palates, that is as it should be. But at the same time, he contends, Dalit writers cannot go away with the notion that the unique moral value of their subject matter will, by itself, qualify their work as Dalit literature.


Although the publication of Baburao Bagul’s short stories was a watershed moment in the history of Dalit literature, the short story as a literary form did not find immediate favour with young writers. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the form they largely chose to express their anger and protest through was poetry.


Dhasal’s first collection of poems, Golpitha, published in 1972, was the next literary landmark in Dalit literature to come after Bagul’s Jevha Mi Jaat Chorali Hoti. Golpitha is the area in and around Kamathipura, Mumbai’s oldest red-light district where Dhasal grew up.


Before he wrote the poems in Golpitha, Dhasal had written lyrical poetry that adhered to the rules of chhand shastra (prosody). In an interview with poets Satish Kalsekar and Pradnya Daya Pawar that appears at the end of the first edition of Golpitha, he explains the shift. ‘I moved from the traditional track to this track because of an incident in my life involving a girl. I suffered a terrible heartbreak on account of the caste hierarchy. Even in the Praja Socialist Party in which I was a prominent worker, I realized that members who called themselves progressive were as casteist as anybody else. I raged then, went berserk, decided to throw away all shackles, including those of prosody, wrote a poem as and when it came. Sharpened my weapons. Started writing recklessly.’

A month after Golpitha appeared, writers J.V. Pawar, Raja Dhale, Arjun Dangle and Dhasal co-founded the Dalit Panthers, a movement for social transformation. The name of the militant movement indicated its kinship with the Black Panthers of America. The black voice demanded land, bread, housing, education, clothing, and, above all, social justice and peace. The Dalit Panthers were fighting for the same things. The founders wrote angry, provocative prose and poetry, giving the Dalit voice a sharp, aggressive edge. Raja Dhale wrote an article in the magazine Sadhana, deriding the national flag. Such writings brought cathartic relief to Dalit youth who had not received the benefits they had expected from the country’s Independence.


The Dalit Panther literary movement turned out to be no different from the faction-ridden Republican Party of India. Internal differences caused Namdeo Dhasal to be thrown out. Soon, ten years after its formation, the Dalit Panthers stood dissolved. However, while the movement was alive, it brought Dalit lives and Dalit issues to the forefront once again.

The next landmark in Dalit literature, poet Daya Pawar’s autobiography Baluta3, was published in 1978, hitting upper-caste critics and readers alike between the eyes. ‘Baluta’ is a term that describes the system of traditional village duties Dalits had to perform for a share in the village produce. Unlike Jevha Mi Jaat Chorali Hoti, which had no followers of comparable power, Baluta inaugurated a stream of explosive autobiographical narratives.


And yet it is not so easy to forget, even today, that Dalits are considered outcasts by caste Hindus. Urmila Pawar, a major voice in contemporary Dalit literature, recounts in her autobiography Aaydaan4 (Basket; Granthali), published in 2003, the aftermath of her daughter Manini’s birthday party to which she had invited her classmate Kishori and her older brother. On returning home, the boy told his mother that there were portraits of Gautam Buddha and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar in the Pawar home. The following day, the mother arrived at Urmila Pawar’s house, stood outside the door and said tersely, ‘Next time my daughter visits you, please don’t give her anything to eat. We are Marathas and we don’t allow it.’

From small incidents like this in educated, urban, middle-class Dalit homes to atrocities like the lynching of four members of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanji in September 2006, exhaustively recorded by Anand Teltumbde in his book, Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop (Navayana; 2008), the upper-castes continue to discriminate against and oppress Dalits. And women have come to realize that they are doubly oppressed—by upper castes and by their own men. Consequently, the Dalit feminist voice has grown increasingly stronger over the years.

Along with the woman question, there is another issue that has been exercising Dalit minds in recent years. Can Dalits afford to be rigidly exclusive and paint themselves into a corner? Why should politically committed writers hold so determinedly apart not only from upper-caste literature, but also from Dalits who are not politically committed but are fine writers all the same?


An allied question of social relations has also come to the fore in recent times. As some Dalits have moved from village to city, educated themselves and entered middle-class professions, they have encountered and grown close to members of the upper castes, inevitably leading to inter-caste relationships often ending in marriage. Sanjay Pawar’s play, Kon Mhanta Takka Dila (Passing the blame), first performed in 1990, deals with the caste conflict arising out of an educated Dalit youth’s relationship with a Brahmin girl, strictly disallowed by the caste hierarchy.


The Dalit playwright Premanand Gajvi’s Kirwant, first performed in 1991, deals with the lives of a sub-caste of Brahmins called Kirwants, who are shunned by their caste fellows because they perform funeral rites. He maintains that they too are Dalits. When he wrote the play, some Dalit critics reproached him for ‘defecting’ to the other side. In this context, Gajvi articulated the dilemma of the Dalit artist in an interview with this writer in 1990. ‘Can I be an artist at all or must I always be a man who was born into a particular caste? As an artist, do I have the freedom to write about any issue or subject that touches my heart and conscience, or must I always write according to a pre-set agenda?’


Looking back over the last fifty years, it would not be wrong to say that some of the most groundbreaking poetry, fiction and autobiographical writing have come from Marathi Dalit writers. Baburao Bagul’s Jevha Mi Jaat Chorali Hoti is still being read fifty years after it was published and five years after his death. Contemporary writers like Pradnya Daya Pawar and Dr Kumar Anil are writing interesting, inventive poetry and fiction. And Namdeo Dhasal, sixty-four, arguably the most celebrated living Marathi Dalit writer, is reported to be writing his autobiography.5

1. As it was then known. It is now the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the acronym remaining the same and the inefficiency.
2. When I Hid My Caste: Stories by Baburao Bagul, translated by Jerry Pinto has been published by Speaking Tiger, 2018.
3. Baluta by Daya Pawar was published in 1978 in Marathi by Granthali; English translation by Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger; 2015).
4. Translated by Maya Pandit and published as The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs (Stree-Samya Books; 2007).
5. Namdeo Dhasal died in January 2015. This autobiography seems to have remained incomplete.

*This article was first published in The Caravan on 1 August 2013.