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Caste in Bengal: Dalit Lives in Bengali Dalit Literature

Mehnaz Noor

“Democracy hasn’t eradicated caste but rather entrenched and modernised it”

The Doctor and the Saint, Arundhati Roy.

Dalit writing which often stays unacknowledged within Bengal’s mainstream literary output, unlike in Marathi, Tamil or even Kannada where the literary discourse is heavily informed by Dalit writings owes a lot to Bengal’s socio-political history since its advent of modernization during the colonial rule- with its anti-colonial movement, the politics of partition and the rich debates of the educated elites about subalterns- hugely overshadowing the narratives of Bengali Dalit literature. However Dalit writing from Bengal has existed for many centuries, and the publication of Survival and Other Stories: Bangla Dalit Writing in Translation in 2012 collated such stories in English and revealed the deeply entrenched unspoken casteism in Bengal.

Before remarking on the features of such stories, it becomes important to align it with what Barbra Harlow has defined as resistance literature to hold the contemporary mode of colonialism responsible for, in Roy’s words, entrenching and modernising caste. Manoranjan Byapari’s note that “[T]he body of writing” becomes “a part of a protest movement against the caste-based inequality…”, resonates much with Barbara Harlow’s in Resistance Literature where she states how works that “calls attention to itself, and to literature in general, as a political and politicized activity…[and] sees itself furthermore as immediately and directly involved in a struggle against ascendant or dominant forms of ideological and cultural production,” becomes clear examples of resistance literature.

The stylistic feature of such writing is “blunt and explosive” emphasizing more on the experience that further “creates a problem for the literary establishment by challenging its aesthetic standards” (Byapari). Gopal Guru problematizes our general methodology of approaching theory, reveals the important role played by one’s lived experience that would legitimize Dalits with the right to theorize and narrate Dalit lives. This notion of lived experience assumes a central figure in other forms of resistive writing all across the world (albeit with its distinctive characterizations) that could be suggested to be a result of different historical trajectories. In Survival and Other Stories, the texts are written in a simplistic language and style that creates a problem for mainstream literature by challenging its aesthetic standards and explores the myriad ways Dalits live their lives under constant subjugation, without any romanticization, glorification, or jargonistic theorization of such experience, which contributes to the larger political struggle against “dominant forms of ideological and cultural production” (Harlow 28)

The short stories in the collection narrate a world common to a lot of authors elsewhere writing about Dalit lives, with a strong emphasis on the circumstances of their characters that involve engulfing poverty, social ostracization, structural discrimination, and violent physical attacks. In the titular story Survival, the author-activist Shyamal Kumar Pramanik inflects each phrase, “dishevelled hair”, “unkempt beard”, “tattered clothes,” “bodies drooped without nourishment” to portray the oppressive situation that the family finds itself in (142). The story follows Raju, the protagonist, and his family trying to procure food from a rat’s burrow while dodging a snake guarding it. Pramanik dramatises the original title Ekhono Adim (literally meaning “primitive still”) throughout the story as it narrates the fight between humans and animals. The narrator states how “they resembled primitive human beings'' and unlike other people who regularly work for a living (even in the lowest classes farmers are getting daily wages for their labour).

Raju’s family has to hunt out food collected by a rat and guarded by a snake, both of whom are well fed and sheltered (143). When Raju is warded off by the snake for the first time, he recounts the memory of his mother’s death due to starvation after a famine when his father had lost his job and was unable to sustain them. Raju’s sense of helplessness at being unable to provide for his family is overbearing as he despairs: “His child doesn’t get a decent meal. Fatherhood seemed a heavy burden for him… he remembered the day his father sobbed over his mother’s corpse,” revealing further how such instances of poverty are not isolated, but rather structural spanning generations (144).

The reference at the end of this paragraph mentioning their reason to migrate to Bengal is given as “…the soils of Bengal are golden. Nobody starves there” which takes us to the political climate of Bengal in the 1980s, when refugees from the erstwhile Bengal Presidency (mostly lower caste people) who had been promised land near the Sundarbans area by the upcoming communist government, find themselves rehabilitated along the regions of Dandakaranya (spread out in several parts of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh) that has rocky and inhospitable lands useless for growing crops. Furthermore, when the communist government had come to power and the refugees returned to the Sundarbans area mostly Marichjhapi, within a few months they were evicted and forced back into Dandakaranya (144).

People who resisted were completely obliterated in what came to be called the Marichjhapi massacre. The suppression of the press by the government, the loss of over a thousand lives are all recounted by the victims in a recent publication Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre (2019) by Deep Halder. However, although we don’t find any direct reference to caste-based discriminatory situations, the beatings that Raju gets from a local farmer presumably belonging to a higher caste which Matia thinks to be their fate pushes us to logically assume that their poverty is the fate of the family, and it is so, owing to the presence structural discrimination that is ingrained into the psyche of every individual in the society. Thus, when pushed at the peripheries of the society where they have to fight an animal for a day’s meal, the end is relieved with the death of the snake, as a meal for two days is now assured. However, this relief is momentary since eventually, they have to encounter similar circumstances again for daily survival with a new dawn. So when in translation the word ‘survival’ is used to entitle the story, the literal meaning of Pramanik’s original title Ekhono Adim is partially lost while adding another layer of meaning when the story recounts the survival tactics in Survival.

In another story, the Bengali Dalit writer Manohar Mouli Biswas narrates a day in a young girl’s life who dreams of travelling off to Kolkata and Mumbai by being a domestic help to a bhadralok family. The titular Munnali is a rag-picker and the most ambitious dream she could have is to be employed as domestic help, highlighting the effects of the structural discrimination which offer no other way out of the abject poverty at hand. The “dream” that Biswas remarks is with wry irony. The living reality of such communities is brought to light wherein even the young generation is enslaved into similar vicious patterns they were born into: here even the government’s free education policies seem like a cruel joke since the child is compelled to work for daily livelihood rather than go to school.

Her father Kansiram, who works as a temporary labourer for a contractor and earns a meagre wage of ten rupees by “setting up eleven sanitary latrines,” finds himself in a conundrum, for his wife is pregnant and his daily wage would soon become insufficient for his growing family (102). Each detail about the family’s life in the text provides a careful depiction of abject poverty and poor living conditions in the slums. The cramped living quarters, makeshift stove powered by dried straw, broken teacups, and tattered clothes, all point towards a life lived in dire financial conditions. Munnali and Kansiram are forced to be habituated to the dirt and stench from the garbage heaps near the contaminated canal where they live; in contrast, the bright, flashy cars which Munnali stares at, including the people who hold a handkerchief to their nose while they pass the garbage dump, reveals the inviolable gap between two strata of society that will forever remain unbridgeable.

Moreover, here it is deducible that even though people have come centuries away from underdevelopment, they have left behind a whole stratum of humans in the march towards modernity. They have done so, climbing upon the backs of the underprivileged that continue to sustain this very modern life by the “polluting” occupations that seem always to be reserved for them. Here their condition is not just manifested as a result of abject poverty, but rather the result of institutionalized discrimination that is so widely pervasive that it assumes a certain amount of societal and legal sanctioning. The eagles and vultures are shown to be circling the garbage dump that Munnali and her siblings shoo away to so that they could salvage more from the garbage pile, thus bringing us back to the theme of fight for survival that informs the story Survival, and other stories collected in the anthology.

Kansiram’s plan to marry his daughter off depicts the double oppression that befalls Dalit women. Moreover, Munnali has learnt to bear and be quiet about the molestation by a predatory older man, who wants to marry her, and kisses her forcibly, biting her forehead to the point it bleeds profusely. He regularly stalks her and Munnali can do nothing about it except try various ways of avoiding him. Munnali’s mother dreams a better future for her that comprise of sending her as a cook to a bhadralok family and eventually making her learn the etiquette for her to be suitable for being married off into a bhadralok family, while the only wish her father has is to marry her off to lessen his financial burden. However, this dream is destroyed when Kansiram announces that the family is moving abroad, and since Munnali won’t be a fit with their social status and caste identity, they wouldn’t be taking her.

This conversation with his wife further reveals that since a neighbouring cobbler family are interested in marrying Munnali into their family, and Munnali’s mother wants her to be educated so that she becomes well suited for the best, further commenting the cobbler’s family have gotten rich and “ not a cobbler anymore” (103). This enrages Kansiram, who was taught to believe that nothing can erode one’s caste identity, not even ascending a higher class. Munnali upon listening to the conversation realizes the reality of her dreams and collapses “ a broken basket, neglected and discarded”, faced with shock and heartbreak. The text ends on an enigmatic note: it is the narrator’s final comment on Munnali’s fate as Munnali has become a pawn, someone who grows up in figurative and literal darkness and must struggle every day to make a few rupees to contribute to the family income while enduring repeated sexual assaults without any repercussions for the perpetrator(s).

Biswas talks about “cultural rigging” that fuels “cultural silence” in a 2017 interview, where he states the refusal of the educated elites in recognizing Dalit lives for centralizing too much on Dalit experience, play a role in further silencing Dalit culture. The mainstream prefers the intellectuals’ performance of Dalit culture rather than the Dalit people performing their culture themselves, which is why the plain and simplistic narratives are unacceptable. However, the narratives of both the stories; where either the family is fighting animals who have what they don’t (food and shelter) or wilfully planning to marry their young daughter, emphasize on how poverty and the social roles leading to poverty forced upon them form the core of the text, by which the narrators try to summarize the lives of Dalits based on an everyday basis of survival. The consultations of these texts become more important by the day as the crimes committed by upper caste communities against every settlement’s Dalit population are at an all-time high. As the country undergoes extreme right-wing saffronisation, and Savarna communities keep hoarding privileges and dole out punishments, casteist practices, despite the enormous strides in development, continue to prevail, as stated by Roy quoted at the beginning of this essay.



  • Resistance Literature- Barbara Harlow

  • Is There Dalit Writing in Bangla?- Manoranjan Byapari translated by Meenakshi Mukherjee

  • Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre - Deep Halder

  • Survival and Other Stories: Bangla Dalit Fiction in Translation - Ed. Indraneel Achrya and Sankar Prasad Singha

About the author:

Mehnaz Noor is a graduate of Presidency University and is in the process of completing her post-graduation from Jadavpur University. While her interest lies in the role played by Islamophobia in the rising nation-states, it has pushed her to look into various governing systems around the world and its politics that sustain a neo-imperialist capitalist model via subjugation of certain sections of society from the marginalized community.


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