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Tradition, Exploitation and the Expression of Revolt in the Dalit Autobiographies of Kumud Pawde and Bama


Tradition, Exploitation and the Expression of Revolt in the Dalit Autobiographies of Kumud Pawde and Bama

Debayan Nag

Ph. D. Research Scholar

Department of English

Central University of Rajasthan

Rajasthan, India


Dalit literature is a reflection of the oppression inflicted by the rigours of the traditional caste system upon the lowest section of the community. The Mahars of Maharashtra and Parayas of Tamil Nadu are among such communities who have been the victim of hegemony in different ways. To analyze the expression of revolt against the established tradition, the paper has taken into consideration the autobiographies of Kumud Pawde and Bama from these communities respectively. Each of them provides different expression of this revolt.  Pawde silently but firmly opposes all religious and ideological obstacles towards her earning a degree in Sanskrit. Bama, more than directly protesting against the exploitation, provides a vivid elaboration of it thereby striking the reader’s conscience. As a literature of revolt, Dalit literature is ‘separate’ in the sense that it attempts to create a distinct tradition against the one existing for decades.

Keywords: Dalit; tradition; rebellion; religion; caste; oppression


You are not a Hindu or a Muslim!

You are an abandoned spark of the

World’s lusty fires. (Dangle 65)

These were the lines from Prakash Jadhav’s poem Under Dadar Bridge, originally written in Marathi. Steeped in agony and the burden of an inner sanctum of consciousness and freedom fractured by decades of tradition, this is one of the many narrative voices of rebellion popularized in Dalit literature. The liberation from untouchability influenced by the actions of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was in pursuit of bringing about a social revolution. As Ambedkar himself said (noted in Poisoned Bread)

We must uproot the four-caste system and untouchability, and set the society on the foundation of the two principles of one caste and of equality… (ix)

The initiation of the Dalit Literary Movement organized helped the Indian underprivileged lower caste identify their position in a society, culture and tradition comprising of language and religion. The reflection of the atrocities inflicted upon by caste brought forth this new and separate ‘literature of revolt’ of Dalit writers as Gail Omvedt called in the Preface to Poisoned Bread. But what was this tradition? How did it go about exploiting one section of society by privileging another? How was this revolt voiced by the Dalit writers in their ‘separate’ literature? I shall seek to answer these questions by taking into consideration the aspects of language and religion. I will focus on the narrative form of autobiography by Dalit writers addressing more specifically an extract from the Dalit writer Kumud Pawde’s Antasphot  and the Dalit Christian woman writer Bama’s Karukku.

The reason for considering two Dalit texts from separate parts of India – one Marathi and the other Tamil – was due to the fact that the Dalit movement with its strongholds in Maharashtra despite losing its efflorescence had a strong flow in other Indian states and languages as Omvedt stated. The separate minor communities in the subcontinent follow their individual cultures and religion but in terms of caste bondage and oppression by white collars, all of them suffered the same sense of, what Marx called ‘false consciousness’. “Ideology prevents the recognition of oppression by the oppressed…a veil that prevents the oppressed from proper understanding” (Nayar 130) of their condition. Ambedkar referred to the same thing as a caste-feudal bondage stating that this ‘mental slavery’ of seeing the bondage to be their right as the reason that held the Dalits and untouchable communities backwards.

This bondage was one of the means of exploitation and Kumud Pawde, in a way, attempted to break this bondage by fighting for and upholding her true right. Her form of rebellion was a silent, skeptical one, a deliberate refusal to accept compliments. Pawde had post graduated in Sanskrit traditionally regarded to be the language meant only for the Brahmin caste. When she got an assistant lectureship and later became “a professor in the famous college [Morris College] where I studied” (Dangle 122) she received several compliments. In Antasphot she stated that after hearing herself praised, she felt that she was being stung by several gadflies which made her look askance at the individual who was praising her.

The reason is that the tradition of casteism made it unsettling for the Indian mind to combine such a sacred language and the underprivileged Mahar community from which she originated. This led to her being a victim of a traditional mind that tormented her using ironic and sarcastic comments:

“Well, isn’t that amazing! So you’re teaching Sanskrit at the government college, are you?” or “All our sacred scriptures have been polluted” or even “It’s all over! Kaliyug has dawned. After all, they’re the government’s favourite sons-in-law!” (111)

Though Pawde is writing in post-independent India, this ideology of discrimination is still strongly grounded and though Dalits have earned their liberation outwardly, casteism kept their inner self bound by conflict, struggle and anxiety. So the struggle to break free from tradition and attain her goal continued even after she earned her place in society. Caste thus became so rooted to her as a form of social and political identity that forgetting it became impossible, something she and the other members in her community were born with.  Her form of rebellion was to reciprocate with the very weapon of oppression that had offended her all her life and added obstacles during her studies in college. In the felicitation ceremony at Nagpur on the Vijaya Dashami day of 1971, her introductory speech in Sanskrit reverberated her mixture of emotions having both a sense of anxiety and pride

Whereas our traditional books have forbidden the study of Sanskrit by women and Shudras, a woman from those very Shudras, from the lowest caste among them, will today, in Sanskrit, introduce these scholars. (113)

The response which followed also conceded a reflection of mixed emotions among the multi-caste audience – the traditionalists were furious conscious of their defeat whereas she earned respect from some of the acquaintances from her community.

Kumud Pawde’s revolt against the orthodox Brahmins did not begin only after her lectureship. Her whole life was reminiscent of this act of rebellion. Her curiosity towards learning Sanskrit was not inborn; it was aroused when uninvited she secretly visited the thread-ceremony of an upper caste classmate’s brother (115). There she witnessed the Brahminical ceremony in a pandal, the sacrificial fire and Vedic chants of ‘svaha’ that occupied her. Her sense of self-respect was infuriated when on discovery she, being a Mahar, was driven out like a beggar. So is her devotion to learning Sanskrit actually an act of Dalit vengeance, a desire to stand firm against all odds of conventional ideology? Or is it a genuine eagerness to learn this elite language despite all odds? The answer is not completely certain because she did not receive opposition only from the ivory tower Hindus. There were people from her own Mahar community who laughed at her interest in studying Sanskrit and who constantly reminded her of her limitations. This was a result of stubbornly adhering to those systems of beliefs, the notion that hegemony is legitimate, a submission to the tradition of upper castes. Therefore it is clear that this revolt was an individual struggle carried out only by her, what Gramsci would call a ‘passive revolution’ as he mentioned in Prison Notebooks, because it did not involve “a social group which ‘led’ other groups, but a State which… ‘led’ the group which should have been ‘leading’” (194). Only here it was not the State but the religious structure which led the ideology of the community.

During her college period, she experienced more of this stagnant ideology and false consciousness that shone in the similar attitude of dislike at her receiving a scholarship, from the peons to the officials in the higher positions. Reformers from the lower castes mocked her ability to teach Sanskrit – “Government Brahmins, aren’t they?” (120). The truth is that Pawde was idealistic but not in the sense she was considered by the then Chief minister of Maharashtra. Her act of revolt back then was only a means of survival. She protested against the hypocritical promises of a job as she was starving. When unemployed after receiving her Master’s degree she presented her case to the Central Cabinet Minister Shri Jagjivan Ram stating how she was disgusted by the hypocrisy of the state government and administration for flouting the Constitution.

Kumud Pawde’s autobiography Antasphot was reflective of the pangs of Dalit Mahar community who are forced to be made aware of their caste throughout their life even in independent India. In a similar manner, Bama, the teacher of Mathematics in Uthiramerur, witnessed and underwent a similar kind of experience with her family in the Tamil Paraya community before which made her realize this dormant traditional structure. In Karukku, she heightened in greater detail the atrocities committed by the Naicker community and violence of casteism which is the chief reason why I chose this autobiography for the article. Bama was not an outspoken rebel to the extent Kumud Pawde had been. By elaborating the horrific events of untouchability and Christianity she witnessed during her childhood and as nun she rather speaks through the reader’s consciousness. Karukku makes readers realize without a doubt what Anna Bhau Sathe, from the untouchable Mang community of Maharashtra, proclaimed in his poem Take a Hammer to Change the World:

The rich have exploited us without end,

The priests have tortured us … (5)

The sight of her mother vomiting blood after carrying a heavy load, the irrational beating of the men in her village by hired policemen over the rights of a cemetery were but some of these instances of ‘torture’. Bama churns this Dalit rebellion by voicing the oppressive structure.

In Bama’s autobiography, the Paraya community, mostly agricultural laborers, lived by fishing, gathering firewood from the mountains and other odd tasks. The village they lived in had no such works allotted to them for which the Parayas and their neighboring Pallars had to undertake menial chores and any work they could find as that was their only mode of earning. Contrarily, the Naicker community had every privilege that was reserved for the upper caste 

Most of the land belonged to the Naicker community…The post office, the panchayat board, the milk-depot, the big shops, the church, the schools – all these stood in their streets. (6-7)

The existence of untouchability was revealed before her when she witnessed an elder from their community who was carrying a packet for a Naicker but being untouchable had to hold it by its string. It was the embedded ideology that Naickers being the white collars must not touch Parayas to avoid getting polluted, something mentioned by Pawde too when a friend of hers was warned by her mother not to touch her or she would not be allowed inside the house anymore. Bama’s personal struggle with identity began when she questioned, “What did it mean when they called us ‘Paraya’? Had the name become that obscene?” (16). She said that only later realization dawned upon her from Paatti, a relative, the existence of hegemony, the domination not just through violence but by winning the consent of the upper caste to be dominated. And here the consent is masked in their being dependent on the Naickers for survival. As the relative revealed to Bama that they regarded these upper caste people as the maharajas without which their survival would become very difficult.

In order to keep the hegemony invisible, it was necessary that the Parayas accept untouchability as “natural, something inevitable and consider it a good state of affairs even though what passed in the name of this ideology was clearly exploitation. And the community would never complain. Most of them accepted the toil they had to endure as something inevitable and began to see themselves the way Naickers treated them, what the African American scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois called ‘double consciousness’. But can the same thing be stated about Bama when she questioned her identity? By questioning, she did not accept the existing tradition without doubt and later began acting upon it as a teacher, as a nun helping the lower class people and for this sole purpose only leaving the confines of the convent later. Exploitation in the name of untouchability was heightened when she described the way Naickers gave water and food to the labourers. The Parayas would be given water from a great height by the Naickers and they had to receive and drink it with cupped hands. Even the food they were given were actually the stale and unwanted leftovers from the previous night.

Besides untouchability, discrimination too existed right from the school level where the Dalit students were embarrassed being born low, initially denied celebration for the First Communion. Again in the convent she was identified not by her education but by being a ‘Nadar’ or ‘Parayar’. As a convent nun, she realized that all claims of equality in God’s eyes and limitless love were a mere outward display.

the Jesus they worshipped there was a wealthy Jesus… When outsiders arrived, flaunting their wealth…they were treated with one sort of love; if they did not have these things…I am not sure there was any love at all in this case. (106)

The upper class Christians used the convent religion as the institution to imbibe the Dalit class by provoking a blind belief. By highlighting this imposed devotion, Bama’s attack was directed against this institution of religion by showing its inner hypocrisy. In the non-linear narrative mode of Karukku she provided a direct response thereby voicing the need to rebel against these social institutions so that they are no longer provoked into constant submission, and presenting her firm belief that there were no one high or low among human beings.

The Dalit ‘literature of revolt’ was a form of resistance against both the traditional and socio-political structure established by caste. The separateness of Dalit literature is due to the fact that it makes possible to talk in the language of caste that help them break the boundaries of marginalization. Sharankumar Limbale asserted that all Dalit life and experiences flow “from a centuries-old hierarchical and hereditary system… with the concomitant notion of people as polluted and untouchable, which make the Dalit unique and distinct.” (11) The contemporary discourses of Dalit writings have been shaped by the autobiographical form that privileges the author as the one and only proper source of the narrative and truth. Pramod Nayar quoted:

Resistance literature in every culture – working class poetry, anti-colonial writings or women’s narratives – has provided ideologies different from the acceptable ones. (133)

 Pawde and Bama through the vast expanse of their experiences have pointed out the way exploitation stems from a Brahminical tradition and their act of was in response to the act of creating this new ideology different from the established ones – the slavery, Manusmriti, dharma or swadharma referred to by Omvedt – which are the original source of this oppression. Where they have been successful in problematizing ways of looking at cultural tradition, building a separate ideology through separate Dalit literature was not an easy task. Arjun Dangle pointed out “Marathi literary tradition is about nine hundred years old while that of Dalit literature is hardly sixty to seventy years old” (I). The separate tradition was in response to an awakened self of the Dalits, brought forth by this voice of rebellion that encouraged them to accept new ideas of culture, language and religion.

Works Cited

 Bama, Karukku. Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom, edited by Mini Krishnan, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2014.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections From The Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, ElecBook, 1999, pp. 194.

Jadhav, Prakash. “Under Dadar Bridge”. Poisoned Bread, edited by Arjun Dangle, New ed., Orient Blackswan, 2018, pp. 65-68.

Limbale, Sharankumar. Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature: History, Controversies and Considerations. Translated and edited by Alok Mukherjee, Orient BlackSwan, 2004, pp. 11.

Nayar, Pramod K. Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: from Structuralism to Ecocriticism. Pearson, 2010, pp. 130-134.

Pawde, Kumud. “The Story of My ‘Sanskrit’”. Antasphot, translated by Priya Adarkar. Poisoned Bread, edited by Arjun Dangle, New ed., Orient Blackswan, 2018, pp. 110-122.

Sathe, Anna Bhau. “Take a Hammer to Change the World”. Poisoned Bread, edited by Arjun Dangle, New ed., Orient BlackSwan, 2018, pp. 5.