A Brief Introductory Overview of Bengali Dalit Literature
When Advaita Mallabarman, a well known Bengali Dalit writer having a Malo origin, began working on his seminal work, ‘Titas Ekti Nadir Naam’, some of his friends discouraged him by saying that Manik Bandyopadhyay’s novel on a similar theme, ‘Padma Nadir Majhi’ would give him a tough competition. Mallabarman could only reply, “The son of a Brahmin has written from his point of view. I will write from mine.” If we take this as an entry point into the ignored corpus of Dalit Literature in Bengali, we must invariably realize that the dominant caste writers, no matter how ‘declassed’ and sympathetic they were to the cause of untouchables, never had to undergo caste oppression. It is crucial to differentiate narratives of resistance from the narratives of suffering or sympathy.
Communism in West Bengal proved futile to address the Dalit cause. The topmost leaders, barring a few, came from urban dominant caste backgrounds—they could neither feel nor represent the victims of prolonged caste discrimination. This consolidates my argument that to know about the aspects of caste oppression in Bengal, it necessary to study the literature produced indigenously by Dalits rather than bank on the likes of Tagore, Satinath Bhaduri or Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay. Although the term Dalit (literally connoting ‘crushed’ or ‘suppressed’) initially referred to the atisudra community, the lowest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy, it has extended its meaning to include “any member of a large group of socially oppressed people in India.”
Post Independence India saw a massive development in Dalit literature all across the nation. Dalit writers in Marathi, Gujrati, Telugu, and Tamil among other languages looked upon Ambedkar as their centre of inspiration, a savior figure, and formed what we define as Dalit literature today. But Bengali has a different tradition. The first identified printed Dalit text dates as back as to 1916. Much of what we confirm as Dalit Literature in Bengali is influenced by Harichand Thakur, a leader of the Motua community, along with Ambedkar being a major inspiration. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s ‘The Namasudra Movement’ and Sumit Sarkar’s ‘Writing Social History’ elaborate upon how caste consciousness and anti-caste movements were initiated in colonial Bengal under the leadership of the Motuas.
But the identifiable and organized Dalit literary movement began in Bengal as late as in 1992 after Chuti Kotal’s suicide. The protests against it culminated in the formationof the Bangla Dalit Sahitya Sanstha; a magazine, Chaturtha Duniya, devoted solely to the nourishment and circulation of Dalit writings, was launched. ‘Chaturtha Duniya’ (literally meaning fourth world), on the one hand, refers to the world of fourth varna of the caste system, while, on the other hand, articulates the testimonials of living in a world within the third world. This magazine saw the rise of several important Dalit writers; notable of them being Manohar Mouli Biswas, Jatin Bala, Kapil Krishna Thakur, Kalyani Charal, and Manju Bala among many others. The critical attention and popular acclaim garnered by Dalit proletariat author Manoranjan Byapari’s autobiography, Itibritte Chandal Jiban, has already caused a stir among reader and academics alike. Since the constriction of space forbids me to delve deep into the corpus of literature produced by them, I will refrain from dropping further names and, instead, try to reach a general conclusion.
The army of the Fourth World has posed a threat to the hegemony of dominant caste writers reigning over the mainstream journals by not only creating parallel establishments operating in the interest of Dalits but also by challenging, negotiating, and at instances, refuting Savarna literature. These writers have decolonized themselves by gaining access to the Brahminical tools of knowledge and writing- they have carved out a niche for themselves by employing literature as a plausible mode of resistance. Translation has enabled them to attain international recognition. One may anticipate at this hour that that day is not far when names like Manoranjan Byapari or Nakul Mallik will be evoked at par with Sunil or Shirshendu or Nabarun Bhattacharya to define the parameters of post-independent Bengali Literature.