Mainstream Indian literature and culture, until very recently, was limited by the marked absence of any significant representation of the Dalit experience. Although not completely absent from the literary and cultural discourse of India, the Dalits found textual space chiefly through the writings of the upper caste litterateurs and sociologists. However, the upper caste writers, although sympathetic, could not transcend their own caste position to draw an ‘authentic’ picture of the Dalit life in India. Their ‘reformist-liberalism’ almost always portrayed the ‘untouchable’ as abject, submissive and pitiful, resigned to the malice of caste and destiny. The lacuna in the Indian literary philosophy and culture caused by the caste specific bias in the delineation of the Dalits has been sought to be rectified by the writings of the Dalits themselves, and it is primarily to this end that the efforts of the Dalit writers are directed. They have challenged the hegemonic conventions and value systems that inscribe the former ‘untouchables’ within the circle of the upper caste discourse, and in the process have created a body of literature that is essentially identified by a parlance of productive protest for the purpose of provoking a critical re-examination of the authoritarian and unequal caste hierarchies in the society. By incorporating the subjective voices of the Dalits themselves, Dalit literature became a part of a vast cultural, social and political movement in India which sought to challenge the hegemonic brahmanical discourses and their caste prejudice.
The Dalit Panther Movement started around the 1970s and it was influenced by the Black Panther Movement in the U.S.A. Like many social and political movements, the Dalit Movement too incorporated literature as a primary tool for strengthening and spreading the movement. Writers like Baburao Bagul, Namdev Dhasal, Anna Bhau Sathe and many others came to the forefront and gave Dalit Marathi literature the much needed impetus.
Representation of the Dalit Women
Although Dalit Literature tries to incorporate the voices of the Dalits in the literal space, it also becomes important that they incorporate the voices and experiences of the Dalit woman. The Dalit women occupy a slightly different space. They are the marginalized among an already marginalized class. A Dalit woman is a Dalit among the Dalits. The dual oppressive forces of caste and gender work simultaneous to create an intensity of oppression which becomes unbearable for a Dalit woman.
In the Feminist Movement of the 1970s the category ‘women’ was conceived as collectively, based on their being oppressed by the fact of their womanhood. However such a generalization led to the exclusions of racial, class and caste differences among women. Since most of the vocal feminists were upper or middle class, university educated women- it was their experience which came to be universalized as the ‘women’s experience’ and the experiences of the Dalit women were overlooked. There was an absence of an analytical frame that in the tradition of Phule and Ambedkar would view caste hierarchies and patriarchies as intrinsically linked. But by the 1980s this consensus had broken up and ‘difference’ came to the centre of feminist analysis. The fact that Dalit women speak differently and that their position and experience differs vastly from any generalized ‘women’s experience’ should be taken into account first. Thus looking into any text that portrays a Dalit woman requires a prior acknowledgement of this ‘difference’ in their experience and position in the social setup.
Baburao Bagul’s short story “Mother” deals with a Dalit widow who lives with her son Pandu. Pandu’s mother is not given any particular name perhaps to stress upon the universality of her experience among all Dalit women. After Pandu’s father comes to the city, he is diagnosed with tuberculosis and Pandu’s mother has to work all day to earn the family bread. Things slowly become worse for her as Pandu’s father, drunk and tubercular, suspects his wife of selling herself for favours. Pandu’s mother has to bear it all and on top of it his husband constantly physically abuses her and tries to deface her in an attempt to make her less attractive and thus relieve all his doubts about her fidelity. This constant attempt of the male figure to deface and disfigure the female reflects the male ego’s constant attempt to control the female body as well as to mark on it an unmistakable stamp of the male authority and ego. Thus Pandu’s mother has to fight a two-fold battle- both in the caste prejudiced outside world as well as in the patriarchal, male dominated household. However Pandu’s mother ultimately gets her revenge over her husband. She turns on his dying body with vengeance demanding her “conjugal rights” and thus hastens his death. Thus she uses her sexuality- which is supposedly her vulnerability- as a weapon against the male patriarchy.
Ten years pass on and throughout that time she has to work ceaselessly to provide for her son, Pandu. Through the years she has resisted the advances of several men and thus deprived herself of a much better future only because of her son Pandu. However, eventually her sacrifices go in vain as her own son turns against her.
The story begins with the description of a classroom where the teacher reads a poem about a mother who is like a river of love or a “Vatsalya Sindhu”. The poem transports them into another realm and their “muddy faces shine with a strange wonder” as they smile “happily through their unkempt hair”. It affects Pandu in an unusual sort of way as he tries to fit his own mother with that mythic image. However such a comparison is bound to be detrimental to a Dalit child as the society around him is bent on portraying his mother as a prostitute. Thus Pandu, who for a moment was transported into another world and felt a certain kind of normalcy in a long time, (“the hostility he usually felt towards his classmates abated somewhat. He sat watching them at play and a benign smile slowly came to his face”) is thrown back into utter darkness and despair again. Ultimately Pandu himself begins to suspect his mother because the society around him repeatedly labels her as a prostitute- one who sells herself for monetary favours. Thus the ultimate tragedy for the mother comes one day when despite all her self-sacrificing efforts to give her boy a better life, she finds in his eyes the “same dark suspicion” she has seen before in the eyes of her husband. At that point of time she feels like murdering him too.
Like Pandu who momentarily comes alive with the poem, the mother too finds a breath of life in the arms of the overseer. “The loneliness of the past ten years had made her vulnerable, and now she could only think of the overseer’s strong arms.” However, “for this Dalit to find bodily life thus, as woman-self, she must die as mother.” (Tharu 5) “Whore, I spit on your clothes” are Pandu’s last words to her before he runs out of the house. Thus in order to re-invigorate her life as a woman, she as a Dalit widow, has to sacrifice all her other relations including her motherhood.
It must be noted that the final image in the story is of the struggling mother. Baburao Bagul’s story focuses more on the figure of the Dalit widow than on the young boy. It is the final image of her struggle to get out of the overpowering arms of the overseer and save her boy which has a lasting impact on our minds. “She was trying desperately to escape from the bear like hug of the overseer. But like a person stuck fast in a quagmire, she found release impossible…” The final image of a woman caught in an inescapable hold symbolically shows the predicament of all Dalit women who find themselves caught in the tyrannical hold of both the male patriarchy and the caste system.
Baburao Bagul’s short story thus attempts to pose the ‘Dalit Women’s Question’. It tries to portray the different forces which determine the predicament of a Dalit woman. Despite all her attempts to find a better life for herself and her son, she finds herself strangledby the male patriarchy and the caste system. Her life becomes a never ending cycle of pain, torture and humiliation. The fact that a Dalit woman is a Dalit among the Dalits is aptly shown in the story. Her suffering, humiliation and final estrangement from her son also reflect how the forces of caste and gender are linked together and work in inter-related ways. Thus this story is not only an attack against the caste system in India but also the male patriarchal system which together work in many inter-related ways.
Bagul, Baburao. “Mother”. Poisoned Bread. ed. Arjun Dangle. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2009, pp 209-219.
Rege, Sharmila. “Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique of ‘Difference’ and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, No. 44 (Oct. 31 – Nov. 6, 1998), pp. WS39-WS46.
Tharu, Susie. “The Impossible Subject: Caste and the Gendered Body”.
Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 31, No. 22 (Jun. 1, 1996), pp. 1311-1315