Breaking literary barriers

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“I was overwhelmed by the response, so many people had so many things to say,” an elated Gogu Shyamala says, after the release of her book at the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival in India. “It’s doubly difficult – being a Dalit and being a woman,” she says.

In a gendered, casteist society like India, who Shyamala is makes her work remarkable. As a Dalit (a caste group in India traditionally thought to be untouchable) growing up in rural Andhra Pradesh, Shyamala saw her parents labouring in farms and her brother serving as bonded labour – all for a pittance. “I was very lucky even to go to school,” Shyamala says.

Her first book in English language (translated from Telugu) Father may be an elephant, mother may be a small basket but... is a collection of short stories that draws inspiration from her personal experiences growing up in a Dalit family.

Unequal society
India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, still battles against caste and class differences. Though it registers an annual growth rate of over seven per cent, most of the country survives on less than one euro a day. And those at the bottom of the pyramid often belong to lower castes.

Shyamala was the first girl in her village to secure education until standard 10 (tenth grade), and she thanks her family for that. “My father really wanted me to be educated. He saved money so that I could go to school. He didn’t want me to follow the lines of other Dalit girls,” Shyamala says.

Shyamala’s story is an anomaly. For Dalit girls in most of rural India, education remains a dream that never comes true. Various reports have emerged from states like Gujarat, where young Dalit girls are forced to clean toilets in schools.

Rebellious times
There was a time in her life when Shyamala was disillusioned. She was so frustrated with the way the Indian state was handling caste issues that she turned rebellious. “I didn’t have money to continue studies. The Marxist-Leninist movement at that time was appealing. They spoke of all the problems we were facing,” she says.

Shyamala is referring to India’s Naxalite (or Maoist) movement of the 1960s which was started to demand land rights for the poor and backward. It has been criticised for its use of violence and is cited as ‘India’s largest internal security threat’ by the country’s government.

Shyamala didn’t stay in the movement for long. “Once they killed six Dalits in an orchestrated attack in Karamchedu and that’s when I left them,” she recollects. The incident created doubts about the movement in her mind and in turn triggered Shyamala’s career as a writer.

Reversing trends
In her recently released book, Shyamala outlines the trials and tribulations of Dalit life. “I write about untouchability, landlessness, Dalit children, family structures, Dalit culture etcetera,” Shyamala says.

Traditionally Dalits literature has been limited, as the community's cultural focus rests primarily on oral traditions. The domination of upper caste literature makes it difficult for Dalit writers to establish themselves. “For centuries, thinkers, intellectuals and writers have been from upper castes,” Shyamala says, pointing at the caste system which prohibited lower castes to participate in any intellectual activity.

“Dalits were always left out, but we must start questioning that – why are we the victims?” she asks. This is provocative – she is going against prescribed norms, she is asking Dalits to be proud of their identities, to partake in circles and societies they have always been left out of.