Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gujarat, India Dalit (Outcaste) Short Stories

"A Brief Introduction to Dalit Literature" by Meena Kandasamy (5 pages, 2007)
"The Flame" by Harish Mangalam (6 pages, 2008)
"The Hell" by Dharmabhai Shrimali (5 pages, 2006)
"Untouchables" by Chadu Maheriya  (5 pages, 2007)

Dalit Short Stories from Gujarat India
Documenting the Outcaste Experience
More on Poverty Porn
I have recently been posting on the five short stories that are short listed for the Caine Prize for African literature.    In reading posts by others on these stories I learned a new to me literary term,  "African Poverty Porn".    The meaning of this term is still in flux but basically it refers to works written about and by people from Africa that use the poverty of many African people to sell stories to western readers who find stories about child soldiers, pregnant ten year old girls, refugee camps and starvation somehow exciting.   This is a huge topic but as soon as I read of the term I could see there was something very interesting in this concept.   My first thought was, "well then was Charles Dickens writing poverty porn when he described the orphanage in Oliver Twist or was Victor Hugo doing so in the wonderful parts of The Hunch Back of Norte Dame that  depict the mock court trials of the underworld in Paris in the 15th century?      Of course poverty porn could be great literature or hum can it be?  

My recent venture into the South Asian Short Story, a now life time interest and permanent part of The Reading Life, has opened up many new exciting reading and learning windows for me.    There are dozens of cultures and languages just in India alone, each with its own literary tradition and its own relationship to the English literary tradition.    I am partially finding this a bit overwhelming but I am taking it one story at a time with each work read leading me to the next one, hopefully with a greater appreciation and understanding as I go along.    Stimulated by claims of other bloggers that some of the Caine stories (and the whole Caine enterprise by some) are "poverty porn" I wanted to look at some short stories by people born into the Dalit (Untouchable) caste from the Gujarat region of India that portray the life experiences of the most poverty stricken people in India, some 165 million.    I choose stories from this part of India because there are two brilliant editions of Muse India (2007) that focus on Dalit Literature from the Gujarat region (North Western) of India.  (There is a good background article on Gujarat here)

"A Brief Introduction to Dalit Literature" by Meena Kanasamy  is an excellent place to start.    She is the editor of The Dalit, is an award winning poet, a translator of numerous works on Dalit studies into English, has a PhD in linguistics, and was a writer in residence in 2009 at the University of Iowa International Writers Program.   She is very active as a political writer and speaker in the area of Dalit and Women's rights in India.   I want to quote a bit from her essay (which you  should read if you are at interested in the concept of "poverty porn"-here is the link  She has a very interesting blog that I now follow.)

"A Brief Introduction to Dalit Literature (by Meena Kanasamy)
Mahatma Jotirao Phule was the first to use the word Dalit in connection with caste. However, the word Dalit came into popular currency with the advent of the militant Dalit Panthers. In Marathi, the word Dalit means ground crushed, broken down and reduced to pieces. This name was chosen by the group itself, and it contained in it an inherent denial of pollution, karma and caste hierarchy. The Dalit Panther movement, was a self-conscious movement among the ‘Depressed Classes’ who sought to follow the militant and revolutionary Black Panthers of America. Dalit literature grew out of the Dalit Panther movement which was established by two writers Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale in April 1972. Like Black Literature, Dalit writing was characterized by a new level of pride, militancy, sophisticated creativity and above all sought to use writing as a weapon. 
Today's Dalit Literature that occupies a pride of place is actually born out of the heinous system of untouchability and caste discrimination that have been practiced in India for the past millennia....

Dalit writers were quick to point out that the 2000 year old history of oppression has not been documented at all: it is a literal holocaust that has slipped by without being put into words! 

Marathi Dalit literature is the forerunner of all modern Dalit literature. It was essentially against exploitation, and made use of writing as a method of propaganda for the movement. It was not immediately recognized by the mainstream which was obsessed with middle class issues."

I think we can see from this that one can write literature about the experiences of the very poor that does not simply pander to the needs of richer readers.   All three of the stories I will briefly post on today were written by people of Dalit backgrounds (someone correct me if this is wrong please) who have educated themselves.   (Two of the authors are Medical doctors).   All of these stories have been translated from Gujarati.    As I read these stories,  I thought of Frank O'Connor's central thesis in The Lonely Voice: A Study in the Short Story that short stories are about people in "submarginal groups", those who have no one to speak for them.    (O'Connor's book has some real flaws but is also flat out the best thing written on the short story as a literary genre.)    The Dalit of India are are 165 Million people who fit (or did)  this idea perfectly.

Dalit's were only allowed to do the most undesirable kind of work.   For 1000s of years it was illegal for them to learn to read and write.    Much of their work was devoted to waste disposal and the cleaning of toilets.  (Imagine 600,000,000 people with no access to toilets with sewers and you see the immense amount of very hard, very nasty, unhealthy and dangerous work to be done.    This is a long way from Ballywood.    Dalit  women were widely employed as toilet cleaners.   There lives were shortened by diseases and they suffered terrible abuse by their husbands and worse if widowed or abandoned.  

"The Hell" by Dharmabhai Shrimali is about a woman teaching her daughter how to go from house to house picking up what ever needs to be disposed of.   Human waste was placed in a tin can, often a leaky one.     In a very well done scene the mother tells her daughter she will not be well received by her future mother in law if she is not used to picking up rotten carcases of dogs and cats.    The only life the daughter can hope for is to marry into another Dalit family and slave away as a garbage woman until she is old enough to be a mother in law herself (if she is lucky enough to make it to that age.)   "The Hell" lets us see for ourselves what the lives of the people in this story were like (You can read it Here)

"The Flame" by Harish Mangalam is an interesting story that gives us some insight into the kind of medical care Dalit people received.    It is kind of in the form of a rant of an older man about the inability of doctors to cure his eczema.   It is interesting and his cynical observations about the financial motivations of the medical establishment were really spot on and funny.    Mangalan is the General Secretary of the Gurarat Dalit Association, a government official, and the author of numerous works of fiction, essays and translations.  You can read "The Flame"  HERE.

"Untouchables" by Chadu Maheriya is a near heartbreaking story.    Those of us interested in post-colonial literature need to stop for a moment to reflect that in the case of the Dalit people of India, a horrible institutionalized millennium old form of internal colonization was in place when the English arrived.   This story deals directly with the lives of female toilet cleaners.   To put it mildly, there is deep sadness in the idea that for 1000s of years millions of seven year old girls knew they were going to grow up to be toilet cleaners just by an accident of birth.   When very lucky, they will be married into another Dalit family where people work together to survive.   With all to common bad luck, she will be abandoned or widowed with children at a young age and considered little better than a "public woman" (a term I learned in The Man Eater of Malgudi by R. K. Narayan).   Mahariya is a government official in Gujarat, the editor of a well known collection of Dalit poetry and an anthology of memoirs of Dalit mothers.    "The Flame" can be read HERE.

I did not get any feeling of "poverty porn" from these stories.    I think their core first audience was other people from a Dalit background.    The stories are a small way out of oppression by people whose ancestors were not allowed by law to learn to read or write.    

Do you have any thoughts on "Poverty Porn" or do you find it a useful concept?-Do the Caine Stories feel more live "poverty porn" than these three outcaste stories do?

Mel u


  1. I'd never heard of 'poverty porn' until I read this post of yours. It sounds terrible, doesn't it? I figure if a writer is truly seeking to be the voice of the voiceless the he/she is using their literary skills right. If only to sell their work, to sensationalize real human tragedy and suffering, I think it's despicable.

    I haven't read the African stories that you've been writing about, so I cannot tell. But I do know that the stories I've read by writers who speak of the poor or the rural people, do so to bring things out into the open - most often these people write in their own mother-tongue. I think that alone should tell us they aren't writing to sensationalize but to vocalize.

  2. I'm not sure I know enough about either the stories or "poverty porn" as a concept to really have an opinion, but I definitely want to read the stories you linked. I'm putting it off because honestly, they all sound like something you need to be emotionally prepared to read.

    Maybe that's the main difference in stories like the ones you liked and poverty porn? The concept is fascinating and I definitely want to read more about it. It seems like one of those very, very fine line issues, though. It seems better (or at least, less problematic) where the stories come from members of the group in question. When someone from the outside is writing about a group like the Dalit (or any group that's in a weaker position for whatever reason), their motive generally seems less suspect. When someone from another group is writing (especially for an audience that isn't that group, either), though, it seems like it would be easier to glamorize or romanticize the poverty. At the same time, that obviously doesn't happen all the time and in cases like the Dalit, there seems to be a danger in throwing around the charge of poverty porn too much, because while it's obviously better to allow the group in question to speak for themselves, if the group can't speak for itself, then it seems better to at allow other people to at least try to give them a voice rather than letting it fade completely.

    I'm not sure if this makes sense, since my opinion on the issue is still half-formed, but it seems like one of those things where the the charge might have some merit sometimes, the danger is that it could very easily have a chilling effect that prevented issues that needed to be raised from every seeing the light of day.

  3. Risa-good points-the stories by the Dalit writers were written in Gujarti by writers with "regular" jobs-I did not see any of the stories as poverty porn

  4. I had never heard of 'poverty porn' either and am offended by the concept. I think people read the fiction of South-East Asia, or of any poor situation (Oliver Twist, as you pointed out) to learn about how others live and perhaps to find a way to help.

  5. Interesting blog.I do not know if Chandu Maheria's 'untouchable' is published anywhere.I have translated his biographical piece entitled 'Mayors' Bungalow' which was published on my blog


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