By Razi Abedi

In today's world dominated by the culture of advertisement, even the miseries of the worker are glamorized. Two thousand years ago when Christ tried to ameliorate the misfortunes of the unprivileged, the shepherd's crook became the symbol of the Messiah's mission. Today bishops still honor this tradition by wearing carrying a crook--made of gold.

All institutions ultimately serve vested interests. It is for this reason that the downtrodden of the earth have grown suspicious of all institutions and movements and insist on preserving their own identities. They do not want to be swallowed up by an ideology or a slogan. Such is the case with the movement called Dalit which started in Western India in the 1960s.

Dalit is the literature of the Untouchables of Maharashtra, of those who are looked down upon even by other workers. Dalit is Marathi for 'the spurned'. The term was first used for the Untouchables in 1930. It is a comprehensive expression which now includes Harijans (such as Mahars), Mangs, Mallas, Chambhars and Pulayas. Dalit is a protest literature against all forms of exploitation based on class, race, caste or occupation.

The Dalits are treated worse than animals. Their presence is usually banned from upper-class localities. Even then they are bound to hang clay pots from their necks so that they may not pollute the streets of the privileged by their spittle. They carry brooms tied to their bodies so that while passing through such 'upper lanes' they can wipe away their footprints.

Arjum Dangle gives a harrowing picture of their wretchedness in a poem entitled 'Chhavni Hilti Ha', ('The Cantonment Has Begun to Shake').

We fought with crows,
Never even giving them the snot from our noses.
As we dragged out the Upper Lane's dead cattle,
Skinned it neatly
And shared the meat among ourselves,
They used to love us then.
We warred with jackals--dogs--vultures--kites
Because we ate their share.
Dalit has not yet been acknowledged as a literature in its own right, and no reference to it is found in the standard literary journals of India. But its reverberations are now being heard all around the globe. Like the stories of Prem Chand, it creates characters of great sympathy and humanity, humbly asking for their right to civic representation, but no moral or political organization has the courage to openly associate with them. Recently we have found them turning up in the odd literary story or what has come to be known as the 'art film'.

Dalit should not be confused with Marathi protest literature, because its subjects are very different. For example, the short story by Dr. Surendra Barlinge, chairman of the Sahitya Sanskrit Mandal, 'Mepan Maze', deals with the topic of sex change, a subject which could interest only upper-class readers. Similarly, Padminiraje Patwardhan's story, 'Deepshikha', is about a beautiful talented girl, Brahamin by caste, who marries a civil servant.

No doubt these are stories that deal with genuine problems of modern life. But they are not the issues which interest Dalit writers. In their world women are casually stripped and molested, men brutally murdered, and this has been going on for centuries, generation after generation. These are Untouchables who invite death if they dare to quench their thirst from a common pond. Even the Brahamin's god is not their god. He does not accept their supplication. He is not even capable of feeling their misery. Keshav Meshram challenges this god in 'One Day I Cursed That...God', in these words:

Would you wipe the sweat from your bony body
With your mother's ragged sari?
Would you work as a pimp
To keep her in booze?
O, father, oh, god the father!
You could never do such things.
First you'd need a mother----
One no one honors,
One who toils in the dirt,
One who gives and gives of her love.
A homegrown movement of the Untouchables, Dalit is opposed to all notions of caste and class, but it also suspects the intellectuals of the left as well as Marxist ideologues who treat Marxism itself as a dogma rather than a science. Such people assume the role of Marxist pundits, and Untouchables cannot afford to trust pundits. The theoretical variety of revolutionaries cannot even imagine the predicament these wretched people live in. Namde Dhasal cries out:
This world's socialism,
This world's communism
And all those things of theirs,
We have put them to the test
And the implication is this--
Only our shadows can cover our own feet.
Their suffering is not just the suffering of the individual, and there is nothing romantic about it. Their problem is neither ideological nor philosophical. They do not seek poetic beauty. Similes, metaphors and symbols are not important. The reality of their life is too hideously shocking, beyond the capacity of fantasy or imagination. Their tragedy is universal, trampling them down and disfiguring their humanity. Narayan Surve makes an ironical comment on the champions of revolution and their rhetoric in his poem, 'Karl Marx':
In my first strike Marx met me thus:
I was holding his banner high on my shoulder.
The other day he stood listening to my speech at the gate, in the meeting. --now we alone are the heroes of history, of all the biographies too, henceforth...
He was the first to applaud, then
laughing boisterously
he put his hand on my shoulder and said:
'Are you a poet or what...
nice...very nice...
I too liked poetry
Goethe was my favorite.
Their bitterness is totally understandable. They have been subjected to the worst atrocities. A young man's thumb may be amputated just so that he does not become a better archer than a lad of the upper class.

These people see the class war that is going on at the global level as irrelevant to their cause. Class war is a long-term struggle. People like themselves have neither the time nor the patience to wait for the tide to turn. The verdict of history may come too late. Prabhakar Bangurde spurns such wishful thinking in his poem 'Comrade':

Don't be in a hurry for revolution.
You are still very small.
Your ability to resist
the atrocities, boycotts and rapes
that go on every moment
has become nil
Tomorrow's sun is yet to rise
sleep undisturbed until then...
This is their everyday experience that closely ties them to prevailing social conventions, justifying their appalling living conditions in the name of culture and tradition. They are particularly concerned about their daughters who must be married according to strictly imposed custom and lead respectable and pious lives. This must be hard to swallow when they see that 'they strip naked my mother, my sisters' and 'my own daughter's virtue is looted in public/ my eyes look on, my blood shakes'. These are lines taken from a folksong.

But Dalit poetry is not merely protest. There are also the eternal emotions of love and sacrifice reverberating in it, as in this poem, 'Mother', by Warman Nimbalkar:

Dark, dark slender body---this was my mother.
Drudged in the woods for sticks from morning on.
All we brothers, sitting, waiting, watching for her.
And if she didn't sell the wood, all of us slept hungry.
And one day she died of hard work and left them wailing, through not without leaving a sweetness behind her:
My eyes seek my mother,
I still grieve,
I see a thin vendor of wood.
I buy her sticks.
Consider this beautiful poem, 'The City', by Daya Pawar. It begins like this:
One day someone dug up a twentieth century city
And ends on this observation.
Here's an interesting inscription:
'This water tap is open to all castes and religions'.
What could it have meant:
That this society was divided?
That some were high while others were low?
Well, all right, then this city deserved burying--
Why did they call it the machine age?
Seems like the Stone Age in the twentieth century.
The Dalit are also burning with a desire for revenge. Their anger is reflected in 'You Wrote From Los Angeles', by Daya Pawar:
In the stores here, in hotels, about the streets,
Indians and curs are measured with the same Yard--stick.
"Niggers! "Blacks! This is the abuse they fling on me.
Reading all this, I felt so damn!
Now you've had a taste of what we've suffered
In this country from generation to generation.
But though it is the poetry of the oppressed, in it can be heard the echoes of a rebellious soul:
I'm the sea; I soar, I surge.
I move out to build your tombs.
The winds, storms, sky, earth.
Now all are mine.
In every inch of the rising struggle
I stand erect.
                            -J.V. Pawar: "I Have Become the Tide".

(Razi Abedi is Pakistan's foremost literary figure. He was chairman of the Punjab University in Lahore and has published extensively on the literatures of both East and West. His particular interest is the study of Urdu literature in the context of third-world literature and the literature now being produced in the West. He has also written extensively about education, specifically on its socio-cultural implications. Abedi is actively involved in the cultural and academic life of Lahore and is a member of many organizations in the city. He also writes poetry.)