Reclaiming the literary space that was historically exclusionary towards them, Dalit authors across languages and through decades have given searing insights into the reality of being ‘Dalit’ in India, a society where the hierarchical and discriminatory caste system still endures.
Prior to Dalit writer-activists raising their voices and wielding their pens to elucidate on their experiences in a caste-riddled country, this narrative was populated with upper-caste authors penning stories on behalf of the subaltern. Their privileged myopia prevented them from going beyond stereotypical representations of the Dalit community in their works. These were not their stories to tell anyway.
Jarringly real and authentically educative words flow in the works of Dalit authors who have shaped Indian literature richly. Women writers from the community, for instance, impress upon living as intersectional figures in a socio-political system of two-step patriarchy that has tried to keep them marginalised both for their gender and caste.
For readers seeking truth overshadowed by dominant upper-caste narratives, literature penned by Dalit authors is the pool to dive in. Here are just a few unmissable names.
1. BR Ambedkar
Dr Ambedkar makes for essential reading for those searching for an insight into the social reformer’s ideals that shaped the Dalit resistance in India. Key to the drafting of the Constitution and a primary voice against caste discrimination in Hindu society, Babasaheb, as he is reverently known, has authored numerous works central to Dalit literature. The Annihilation of Caste, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development and Who Were The Shudras? are important texts to get you started.
2. Babytai Kamble
One of the foremost Dalit feminist writers, Babytai Kamble is remembered for chronicling the intersectional existence she and others like her lived. Kamble significantly set a distinctive tone for the narrative concerning Dalit women, which was previously either hijacked or scarcely covered by upper-caste writings. Her Marathi autobiography Jina Amucha translated to English as The Prisons We Broke is considered a vital look into caste exploitation in the 20th century.
Bama Faustina Soosairaj, known mononymously as Bama, has invested the better part of her life in teaching and writing about the experiences of Dalit women, particularly those who subscribe to Christianity. A fierce advocate of women’s rights and independence, Bama expresses activism for social causes through her works, highlighting in the course the strength of womanhood towards equality. Her autobiography Karukku, novel Sangati, and short stories in Kusumbukkaran are some of her best titles.
4. Urmila Pawar
Urmila Pawar is an eminent Dalit feminist whose imprint on Marathi literature is unparalleled, especially when viewed in relation to her expert commentary that lies at the crossroads of caste and gender identity. We Also Made History, the book she wrote with Meenakshi Moon, is considered pathbreaking in the way it shifts the historical narrative from a mainstream patriarchal telling to a Dalit feminist lens. Her autobiography Aidan was translated from Marathi to English as The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs.
5. Om Prakash Valmiki
Author of the seminal work Joothan, his autobiography, Om Prakash Valmiki stands out for his pronounced impact on Dalit literature. He was a literary figure significant in declaring Dalit experiences in the Hindi space, something that had remained largely unexplored prior to his opening the doors wide. Well-known short stories by him are collected in Salaam and Ghuspethiye, while his notable poetry collections include Sadiyon Ka Santaap and Ab Aur Nahin.
6. Shantabai Kamble
Shantabai Kamble rose against the odds of her childhood, mired with exploitative experiences drawn from her caste identity, to become the first published Dalit woman autobiographer. A teacher and activist for the major portion of her life, Kamble was greatly inspired by Ambedkar’s resistance against caste. Her memoir Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha, originally written in Marathi, has been translated to The Kaleidoscope Story of My Life.
7. Kumud Pawde
An illustrious presence in the field of Dalit feminism dialogue, Dr Kumud Pawde is notably the first Ambedkarite scholar of Sanskrit and a founding member of the National Federation of Dalit Women, an NGO committed to Dalit women’s rights founded by activist Ruth Manorama. Her scholarship in Sanskrit is a marked reclamation of caste rights, considering that the ancient language’s proprietorship was long held by Brahmanism. Antahsphot is her autobiography.
8. Anita Bharti
Anita Bharti is another key Dalit voice in the Hindi literary domain, making observations around intersectional feminism and its position in relation to contemporary mainstream feminism. She is notable in her role in making Dalit feminist conversation prominent in the Hindi language through works like Yathastithi se Takraate Hue Dalit Stree Jeewan se Judi Kavitaayein and Dalit Stree ka Pratirodh that hold value as intellectual written protests against caste discrimination.
9. Baburao Bagul
Another voice of authority in Dalit literature written in Marathi, Baburao Bagul is understood as a major 20th-century influence on the Indian short story form. He was a radical thinker and his works focused predominantly on voicing the plight of those marginalised by upper-caste savarna society. Bagul has written multiple groundbreaking titles, including an autobiography titled Jevha Mi Jat Chorali (translated to English as When I Hid My Caste) and short story collection Maran Swasta Hot Ahe (transl: Death is Getting Cheaper).
10. Meena Kandasamy
Meena Kandasamy‘s writings, with a special focus on poetry, are driving impact for new-age audiences, especially for the youth plugged into social media. She has been at the forefront of translating Dalit authors’ works into English, accessible to a larger population of readers. The themes prevalent in her poetry relate primarily to caste identity and oppression against the context of being female. Novels When I Hit You and Exquisite Cadavers are among her best-known titles.
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11. Gogu Shyamala
Gogu Shyamala, a Telugu writer, has had a deep bearing on the religious-political conversation that surrounds caste. A powerful thinker and Dalit feminist, she has notably questioned the dynamics of the Left-wing in India that she says is not free of caste privilege. She has also been vocal about gender violence inflicted on Dalit women. The majority of what Shyamala writes draws from personal experiences and Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket, But… is one of her best-known literary titles.
12. Yashica Dutt
A writer and journalist, Yashica Dutt is an active voice highlighting casteism and advocating against it on social media. The gamut of her writing delves into her experiences of being a Dalit woman in the 21st century, interlaced with powerful criticisms of the caste system still thriving in India. Her memoir Coming Out as Dalit talks about the arduous journey she travelled to come to terms with her identity and the events in her life that shaped her reality.
Pictured: Bama, Baby Kamble, BR Ambedkar