Historically, Dalits (formerly labelled as ‘untouchables’) have been considered to exist outside caste. They have traditionally been assigned to menial tasks such as cleaning toilets and sweeping streets. The scholar and activist Associate Professor K. Sayanarayana explained to the audience that Dalits were long denied a state education and illiteracy rates traditionally have remained high. For a Dalit, then, the very act of writing is itself a revolutionary act. He also explained that, while many Dalits shared the widespread Indian belief that British colonialism was self-serving, they do appreciate the fact that it allowed them, through figures such as Ambedkar, to assert the rule of law over and above the rule of caste.
It was an honour to hear Ajay Navaria read from his short story collection, which was published last year following its translation into English by Laura Brueck, who was also on the panel. Laura explained that Navaria is an experienced writer who has been writing for 15 years in Hindi, but the translation of his collection into English had a major effect on his standing as an author. Even among Indian readers of Hindi texts, she explained, the greater international status of an English language publication suddenly won him high praise as ‘a rising star of Indian literature, as though he was a newcomer to the scene.
Traditionally, Dalit literature has taken the form of autobiography. This has, to a degree, encouraged the idea that Dalit literature provides unmediated access to authentic Dalit experience. Partly to combat this tendency, Ajay Navaria has adopted the short story form to experiment with voice and to explore a wide range of Dalit experiences in a nuanced way. Using the short story form has helped to silence critics of Dalit writing, who see such writing only as popular and non-literary. Ajay wanted to combat this charge by focusing on the writing craft to produce stories that are experimental, intertextual and technically proficient.
When asked by a writer in the audience, Agrena Mushonga, about the future of Dalit literature, Navaria linked the fortunes of Dalit literature with India’s destiny: ‘If Dalit literature rises’, he said, ‘then India will rise.’
A recording of the event will shortly become available in the Centre for New Writing’s sound archive.