Short Story in Gujarati Dalit Literature

Economic and Political Weekly

This essay outlines the historical circumstances that produced Gujarati dalit literature and locates the short story within that tradition. A 'content analysis' of select dalit short stories is provided to acquaint the reader with some of the dominant and not-so-dominant themes recurring in them. Drawing on dalit sociology, the author highlights inequalities and anomalies of representation as they criss-cross with literary narratives and also demonstrates how dealing with them will require a readjustment of the dalit aesthetic.

Rita Kothari

Nirav Patel, the well known Gujarati dalit poet, sums up a discussion on novels by five leading Gujarati dalit novelists by stating: "The dalit experience portrayed in these novels can hardly be considered as complete. It is at best fragments of total reality. All the five novelists incidentally belong to one gender that is male and come from the predominant vankar caste which is at the top of the dalit pyramid and more backward castes like chamar and bhangi and many others are yet to articulate. One shade can- not create rainbows, let hundred flowers bloom to bring the spring." (Patel 1999: 11). Patel's observation points to gaps in the articulation and representation of dalit experiences important to fill for a dalit expression to be truly authentic. However, the very notion of authenticity is rife with contradictions. According to Chandraben Shrimali, a dalit and an erstwhile member of the Gujarat legislative assembly, the parameters of authenticity are the possession of male dalit writers. She perceives untouchability as a small curse of a larger, decrepit social system and focuses upon discrimination on grounds of gender rather than caste (interview with author, November 19, 2000). It is worth noting that Chandraben belongs to a relatively upper caste among the dalits and to that extent her version of the dalit problem may not be same as a woman from the bhangis, the lowest rung of the dalit ladder. These instances point to the fissures among the dalit writers regarding identity, representation and authenticity.

This brief prelude indicates that it is essential to maintain some degree of tentativeness and provisionality in any consideration of dalit literature. Any assessment of dalit literature would have to take into account a complex web of social, political and economic contexts, and the paper will turn to them in the last section. To move to the thrust and structure of this paper, Section I attempts an outline of historical circumstances that produced Gujarati dalit literature and locates the short story within that tradition. The same section also provides a 'content analysis' of select dalit short stories in order to acquaint non-Gujarati readers with some of the dominant and not-so-dominant themes recurring in the stories. Both Sections II and III draw upon dalit sociology to highlight inequalities and anomalies of representation as they criss-cross with literary narratives and also demonstrate how dealing with them will require a readjustment of the dalit aesthetic.

l Origins and Evolution

Unlike Marathi dalit literature, Gujarati dalit literature had a fairly delayed beginning. Unlike Marathi dalit literature, Gujarati dalit writing did not evolve out of a larger political movement against the upper caste. As a matter of fact, it grew as a response to the upper castes' virulent attacks on the reservation policy in 1981. The eventful year of 1981 and its consequent anti-reservation agitation created an environment of hostility and acrimony between upper caste Gujaratis and dalits. The very same environment was also helpful in evolving a dalit literary movement, which was up to then scattered and disorganised. In the initial years, dalit sensibility expressed itself largely through poetry, (poetry constitutes the largest part of the corpus of Gujarati dalit writing) that is replete with anguish and pain. Once the sporadic efforts found focus and organisation in the 1980s, the number of journals increased multifold and the dalit consciousness sharpened to include not just anguish, but also anger and protest against the upper castes. The 1990s witnessed a steady flow of short stories, poems, and to a lesser extent, novels. There was also a rise in animated debates about the aesthetic and ideological preoccupations of Gujarati dalit literature at large. Simultaneously, sociological and research studies on the dalits also increased, contributing thereby, to the formation of a dalit discourse in Gujarat.

Historically speaking, the first anthology of Gujarati dalit short story made its appearance with Gujarati Dalit Varta (1987) edited by Mohan Parmar and Harish Mangalam. The editors laid down the framework for dalit sensibility and epistemology and established that 'dalit-centredness' as it obtains in some literary works of the Gandhian era does not qualify as dalit literature. They asserted that historical dalitness (that is 'dalitness' by birth) was a mark of defining dalit literature and dalit writing should necessarily contain a dalit locale, dialects, customs and the history of injustice. The introduction to the book has since then served as a manifesto of dalit short fiction. In the years that followed, short stories by dalits became a standard fare in journals such as 'Samajmitra', 'Hayati' and 'Sarvanam'. After the mid-1990s, a formal institutionalisation of dalit literature took place through dalits' very own Dalit Sabha and Dalit Sahitya Akademi. Institutions such as the Gujarat Sahitya Parishad and Gujarat Sahitya Akademi representing the mainstream Gujarati literary establishment resisted dalit writing by asking whether 'lalit' (beauty) and 'dalit' (oppressed) could coexist. In recent years, the debate has become less intense, and some dalit works have formed a part of the literary canon and syllabi in universities. All these signs point to an arrival of dalit literature. The most recent anthology of dalit short story, Vanboti Vartao (2000) offers no attempt at creating definitions and frameworks, and exhibits confidence, range and energy hitherto unnoticed.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that most dalit short stories are sites of anger and protest conveyed through a specific locale and language. A central incident of atrocity inflicted upon a powerless dalit by an upper caste patel/darbar, the rural locale of a 'vas' (separate quarters for untouchables) and dialects stand as hallmarks of a good, authentic dalit short story in Gujarat. With that cultural and aesthetic mapping in mind, let us look at the preoccupations of Gujarati dalit short story in the discussion that follows:

The squalid, unhappy surrounding of an impoverished house in a vas form the physical backdrop of stories such as Dashrath Parmar's 'Paat', Madhukant Kalpit's 'Kulkatha', Harish Mangalam's 'Dayan' and many others. The vas itself is not a monolithic location, it consists of several parts such as 'vankar vas' (weavers' quarter), 'rohit vas' (tanners' quarter), 'bhangi vas ' (sweepers' quarter) and is thus an amalgamation of different castes, customs and languages among the dalits. However, we hardly ever come to know of any interaction amongst various communities through the stories mentioned above or through Pravin Darji's 'Maara Gaam Vachare', Joseph Macwan's 'Rotlo Najrai Gayo', Dalpat Chauhan's 'Badlo', Madhukant Kalpit's 'Kulkatha', Arvind Veghda's 'Rakhopa na Samp'. Many stories focus upon the sub-community of vankars (weavers), a few ('Jeev', 'Aaghat') deal with tanners and their 'negative right over raw hide' [Gopal Guru 2000].

Oppression to a greater or lesser extent, and anger/hurt as its response form a psychological backdrop which runs as a feature common to all the communities. Most stories show oppression and injustice as an inevitable part of an untouchable's life. Resistance, on the whole is very rare, and if it all, it comes in some cases from women protagonists. Stories such as Arvind Veghda's 'Rakhopa na Saamp', Vasantlal Parmar's 'Ek Chhaliyun Daal ni Khatar', Hasmukh Vaghela's 'Jhaal' establish a synonymy between a dalit woman and sexual exploitation. Dalit women form a staple diet for upper caste patels or darbars and the community has no choice but to submit to a demonaic tradition. On the other hand, Haar Paar's 'Somali', Mohan Parmar's 'Thali' and Dilip Ranpura's 'Ratan' show dalit women raising their heads against rape and sexual exploitation. Apart from sexual exploitation, a very common feature is treachery or betrayal. Upper castes make use of dalit gifts for curing diseases and childbirth (Harish Mangalam's 'Utatiyo' and 'Dayan'), for winning elections (Swapnil Mehta's 'Kadaach'), but humiliate the dalits once their interests are served. A pattern of naive faith or oblivion on the part of a dalit and an inhuman behaviour of an upper caste feudal lord are reenacted each time with very slight modifications. The impossibility of a relationship between an upper caste and lower caste forms the motif of B Kesharshivam's 'Reti no Mahal', Keshubhai Desai's 'Boteli Vas ', Mohan Parmar's 'Nakalank'. While the first two are based upon an 'oppressor and oppressed' plot, and to that extent is formulaic, 'Nakalank' is complex and sensitive. The vankar protagonist genuinely enjoys a patel's affection and trust, but the relationship gets murky because each is a product of long personal and communal history.

I now wish to turn to the not-so-dominant themes and somewhat non-formulaic situations. An interesting case in point is B Kesharshivam's 'God's Mercy', located in the turbulent times of communal riots in Gujarat. The story indicates solidarity among Muslims and dalits and establishes the Hindu feudal order as the traditional enemy of all minorities. Shailesh Parmar handles internal politics within the dalit community, the emergence of a dalit brahmin very effectively in 'Dhol ni Dandiye'. The bhangi (sweeper) protagonist, bewildered by discrimination not from an upper caste master, but a post-Mandal dalit elite rejoices when the former is rudely reminded of his low caste. Another critique of the lack of unity among the dalits is to be found in Dashrath Parmar's 'Jaat'. The educated, city-dwelling protagonist helps bridge gaps between the vankars and the rohits in order to prevent an appropriation of dalit deities by upper castes. Daniel Macwan's 'Lohini Lagni' and Dalpat Chauhan's 'Thandu Lohi' share the theme of 're-visiting,' critical outsider's perspective. In 'Thandu Lohi', the visit brings back bitter memories of humiliation, its residual effects continue when the protagonist continues to be called 'bhala no deekro' instead of by his title D B Parikh. Chandraben Shrimali (2000) entirely with the dalit ghettoes or slums in urban cities. Oppressive and poor ways of life within the community stunt its growth and worse, cause a premature death. The woman protagonist falls down the decrepit stairs and loses her child, the staircase (daadro) in the title serves as a metaphor for the entire community. Chandraben's story 'Dankh' brings out inconsistencies inherent in the so-called followers of Gandhi who visit the Harijan ashram but do not accept food from a Harijan. The anxiety regarding food operates with subtlety in Mavji Maheshwari's 'Safe Distance'. After settling down in an upwardly mobile urban colony, Ravjibhai takes comfort in the anonymity that city offers and rejoices in the support his brahmin neighbour extends. The neighbour discreetly avoids eating at Ravjibhai's house and maintains a 'safe distance'. The recurring theme of sexual exploitation mentioned earlier, finds a unique treatment in the hands of Jasumati Parmar, a dalit woman writer. The enemy is within - ready to trade his wife's body, out of poverty and desperation. The wife walks out, refusing to be 'Kali ni Rani', the third card in his gamble. Both Chandra Shrimali and Jasumati Parmar reinforce the double oppression of a dalit woman.

II Literature of Protest

Protest literature, notes Digish Mehta (1989:79) has a, "a referential load: it implies a content which is specific, being grounded in history. When expressed in a literary mode, it seeks to elicit a response of a specific kind; the bias is empirical and it points, beyond the aesthetic plane, to the plane of praxis or action." The argument for privileging a 'plane of praxis' over an 'aesthetic plane' has implications for the production, reception as well assessment of dalit literature. To put it clearly, it serves not to ask whether dalit short stories discussed above satisfy literary needs, because literary parameters are inadequate for investigating dalit literature. In an introduction to the Indian short story, Mohan Ramnan talks of the multiple influences at work on the Indian short story, so that an Indian author is exposed not only to English, but also to Irish, French, Russian. He further talks of the disruption of linear strategies in the Indian short story and the prevalence of modernist features such as fantasy and magic realism [Ramnan 2000]. These questions when applied to dalit short stories, lose their significance because they assume a fully literate society. Digish Mehta reminds us: "Discussions on the distinction between 'literary' and 'non-literary' texts originating from the west, usually assume the background of a fully literate society. .". He adds, "A writer who seeks to give literary expression to a sense of resentment or protest against oppression would, in this context, adopt either of two courses available to him: (a) he would work within the literary tradition and would adapt or exploit, with whatever degree of success, the stylistic and other devices made available to him; and (b) he will recoil, as the dalit writer does, from the whole area marked 'literary' and will fall back on 'writing' in the raw, primary sense taking recourse to oral and non-standardised forms of speech, and to forms.the choice of the mode of writing will itself constitute a gesture of protest" [Mehta 1989:84]. Thus any literary investigation has its explanation in the social history of the dalits and therefore tools of literary assessment with regard to dalit literature become irrelevant. At the same time, admittedly, some 'absences' continue to assail this reader and in the discussion that follows an attempt will be made to seek explanations in a context other than the aesthetic one. To begin with, if protest literature is 'grounded in history', why is the treatment of an oppressor and oppressed in Gujarati dalit short stories ahistorical? Why is a patel or darbar in one story indistinguishable from another in a different story? Why is every dalit equally good and naive, without any mechanisms of circumvention or resistance? Is the oppressive 'other' always without and never within? Oppression, as it obtains now in Gujarati dalit short story, is defined in a unilinear fashion, its psychological and social mapping fixed. It flows from the oppressor and moves towards the oppressed. The point is what happens to state and cultural apparatus that solidifies the nature of oppression? The investigation of these questions and problems must take us into non-literary contexts. The unhistorical treatment is a re-enactment of the archetypal struggle between good and evil, central to Hindu mythology and many indigenous traditions. The lack of historicisation may also have to do with the imperatives of a communitarian discourse. A dalit writer, avowedly, speaks not as an individual, but as a member of a community and must therefore, avoid individuated expression. Individuated treatment makes for subtlety and complexity, but runs counter to larger needs of a community. The questions take us into the 'sociology' of dalit literature, which according to Manilal Patel (dalit critic), is a meaningful way of examining dalit literature [Patel 1999:25]. The section that follows turns to an examination of non/emerging sociological contexts or signs of social activity underlying Gujarati dalit short story.

III Understanding Contexts

An application of the tool of sociology involves moving out of the physical text, and into surplus contexts of demography, class, community and gender. The first area of consideration in this regard is the demographic account of the Gujarati dalits. A large population of dalits lives in the rural parts of Gujarat and faces rampant discrimination even today. Studies of discrimination practices by Gaurang Jani (1997) reveal that entry into temples and participation in community meals still occlude the dalits. The segregation of dalits on the basis of purity-pollution ideology is very high in villages and the rise of Hindutva has further reinforced it. At the same time, the Census of 1991 reports that the rates of literacy (not education) among the dalits are equal to those in the mainstream [Yagnik 1997]. The democratisation of education is far from complete and its recipients have been a select few, but it has created a small albeit strong dalit urban, middle class, especially the post-Mandal elite. If the striking feature of the 19th century sociology was the rise of the brahmin elite, in the 20th century it is the formation of the dalit middle class. The existence of this dalit middle class is not an unmixed blessing. It is torn by the desire to erase its humiliating past and the duty to assert it. It is a product of emancipation through education and affirmative action, and is therefore inserted to a certain extent, in the state polity. At the same time, social dignity and material comforts long overdue have come to it at the cost of severing ties with the past. As a consequence, the urban dalit middle class suffers from a strong crisis of identity [Yagnik 1997:35]. As an individual a dalit would much rather erase his past. The change of name, profession and assimilation into a middle class ethos are signs of that erasure. On the other hand, as a member of a community that has to maintain its 'difference' from a homogenising brahminic ethos, he must retain links with its past and identity. Dissociation from the community results in non-participation in building an infrastructure for other suffering members of the dalit community. Gopal Guru points out this difference between dalit in pursuit of modernity (individualistic, antigroupal) and dalit activists committed to intra-group unity [Guru 2000:131]. The burden of my argument here is that the Gujarat dalit short story rarely mirrors the dalit middle class, a very crucial segment in dalit sociology. It was mentioned earlier that the anti-reservation riots in the early 1980s formed a backdrop for the dalit literary movement. The anti-reservation agitation was essentially an urban movement focusing upon the economic implications and cut-down in employment for the upper castes. Ironically, very few dalit short stories grapple with this theme. All this points to an absence of issues concerning an urban dalit in Gujarat and begs many questions to which there cannot be clear-cut answers: Does an urban dalit elide over his 'nuclear' and urban identity in literature? Does the need to 'represent' and speak for/with his community make it imperative to affiliate with a rural, feudal history of anger? If the stuff of an urban dalit's life's not mirrored in his literary preoccupations, what gives rise to that dichotomy and what sustains it? These questions are vexing and wrestling with them is a painful process. The sociological shift from rural to urban has attendant problems of identity which is fraught with contradictions - mirroring the urban sociology in Gujarati dalit literature perhaps also means resolving the contradictions. On the other hand, Marathi dalit short story does reflect this 'ambivalent crisis of identity in a middle class dalit', [Dangle 1992]. Gujarati dalit short story has yet to do so.

Apart from the dalit urban middle class, the story of Gujarati dalit short story is that of many absences. It suffers from lop-sided representation, since only a couple of dalit communities 'represent' a much larger and heterogenous mix of dalit sub-communities. The agency of representation rests chiefly with the vankar community which forms about 50 per cent of the entire dalit population in Gujarat. To a lesser extent, the community of garodas also figures in literary and political movement. It is important to historicise briefly the formation of the vankar community in order to perceive the contexts that make representation possible. The vankars in addition to being a majority, have had the benefits of education and social mobility. Weavers by profession, they were the first one to move from a tradition-bound village life to the textile mills of Ahmedabad during the terrible drought of 1900, known as the 'chhapaniyo dukaal'. Not all forms of migration led to a better and improved quality of life and a large number spent their lives in unhygienic urban ghettoes/chawls. At the same time, it has caused over generations, a background of life in the cities and distance from feudal order of the villages. Add to this the fact that conversion to Christianity is also the highest among the vankars [Ramanathan 2000:64]. The benefits of education and an alternative 'caste-free' religion has given the Gujarati vankars confidence, faith and an improved quality of life.

Ramanathan notes that, "From the psychological point of view, conversion has divergent effects. When adoption of a new religion provides satisfaction of material and psychic needs which affiliation to the older religion could not give, it seems to strengthen faith, and consequently, identity" [Ramanathan 2000:65]. The largest number of Gujarati dalit authors is from the vankar community of which some are Christians. At this point it must be noted that Christian dalit authors map their literary worlds as pre-Christian, Hindu ones. With the exception of Joseph Macwan, we do not find any Christian characters or ways of life being explored in Gujarati dalit short story. Once again, this can be put down to a dalit author's imperative to affiliate with a communal identity rather than a religious one in order to strengthen the dalit movement. To come back to the question of representation, we notice preponderance of a couple of communities for in dalit literature and for various historical reasons, other communities fall outside the fold of representation. The well known writer Joseph Macwan notes that "the tooris, vaghris, ravalias have all suffered, just as we have, if not more. We must encourage them to write, and till they do, we must speak for them." Discrimination and untouchability form the bottom-line of all dalit expressions, at the same the degree and specificities differ and these do not get reflected in the dalit short stories today. The toories and tagaras are conspicuous by their absence, since the fruits of education and literature are still far-fetched dreams for them. On the other hand, education and consequent agency of representation alone is not likely to result in uniformity of response to the dalit question. The internal hierarchies within the dalit system also constitute an uncharted terrain as far as dalit literature is concerned.

Another problematic absence in the corpus of Gujarati dalit short story is that of women writers. The two women writers mentioned earlier, Chandraben Shrimali and Jasumati Parmar are both from the subcommunities of garoda (the 'upper most' layer of brahmins among dalits) and vankar respectively. This in itself explains their presence and the absence of many others who could have come from less privileged communities. The absence of women writers has occluded forms of discrimination other than sexual exploitation. The double burden of being a woman and an untouchable creates its own specific version of oppression, the depiction of which is missing in the corpus of stories today. The violence within a family, the structures of patriarchy, the responses of dalit men to normative codes of brahminism are constantly papered over by male voices, thereby creating a further imbalance of representation. The apparatus of selecting, printing, publishing, disseminating also lie with the male dalit writers and Chandraben perceives patriarchy within the system as a major stumbling block.

It can be concluded from the foregoing that the literary-social-political body of dalit short stories is rife with inequalities and anomalies of representation. There are a number of 'absences' and explanations to those can be sought not in the 'aesthetics vs, ideology' paradigm but in social history. As decades move, different emphases must take over in Gujarati dalit short story and the paradigm of 'oppressor vs oppressed' will have to be shed to accommodate lived realities. This may also lead to a redefinition and readjustment of the dalit aesthetic. After all, will a dalit writer be able to employ a rural locale and dialect in order to communicate a more urban ethos? Will the emerging generations of the urban dalit have an access to the community life? On the other hand, is the elision of his contemporary present an indication of a dalit writer's refusal to relocate his identity in a different time and place and consequently, reshape the aesthetic? When faced with dominant literary parameters of a brahminic culture, is it not imperative for a dalit writer to assert himself through his specific locale and language? These questions have no clear-cut answers, but constitute further areas of reflection in dalit literature.


Dangle, Arjun (1992); Introduction, Poisoned Bread, Orient Longman.

Guru, Gopal (2000): 'Dalits in Pursuit of Modernity', India: Another Millennium? (ed), Romila Thapar, Viking, pp 123-137.

Jani, Gaurang (1997): 'Dalito na Prashno: Sarvekshan na Anubhavo' (Dalit issues: Survey findings) Vacha, 2: pp 19-22.

Mehta, Digish (1989): 'Differing Contexts: The Theme of Oppression in Indian Literatures' New Comparison, 7, pp 79-87.

Patel, Manilal (1999): 'Gujarat Dalit Sahitya: Ketlak Sanketo' (Gujarati Dalit Literature: Some Indications) Hayati, 2, pp 24-29.

Patel, Neerav (1999): 'The Lead Melts at Severed Tongues Find Voice: Emerges Gujarati Dalit Novel' Lecture presented at A National Seminar, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 26-28 February.

Ramanathan, Suguna (2000): 'Impact of Conversions on Dalit Identity' Social Action, January-March.

Ramnan, Mohan (2000): Introduction, English and the Indian Short Story (eds), Mohan Ramnan and P, Sailaja, Orient Longman.

Yagnik, Achyut (1997): 'Dalit Asmita ni Khoj Maan' (In Search of a Dalit Identity) Vacha, 2, 34-57.

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Published on: November 30, 2001
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