Interview by Sivasankari with Balbir Madhopuri

Balbir Madhopuri was born in 1955 in the small village of Madhopur (Jalandhar),Punjab. Despite having to work as an agricultural labourer on account of poverty, he managed to acquire a post graduate degree in Punjabi. His writing primarily focused on the problems of the oppressed classes. Apart from his original works, he also understood the importance of translation and took on the task of translating, into Punjabi, like Taslima Nasreen’s ‘Lajja’ and Catherine Cle’mnet’s ‘Edwina and Nehru’ among others. His works have earned him the Gurdas Ram Alam, Sant Ram Udasi awards, Dr Ambedkar Fellowship and Bhai Vir Singh Award of Punjab Govt and awards for poetry and translation of Dehli Govt.

We met at his house in Mahavir Vihar, an extension of Palam village, on the outskirts of Delhi. Balbir was thoughtful enough to ask a friend to wait for me at the market place to escort me to his residence. But for this, I would have certainly wasted my entire day looking for it! After we were done with the interview, he introduced me to his wife and children, offered me tea and refreshment, and gifted me a beautiful pen. Thereafter, he touched my feet and look my blessing saying. “You are like my brother and you have taken the trouble to come and meet me”. It was a very different experience indeed.

I am glad to meet a young writer like you who has tried to throw light on the problems of the oppressed people through your writing. Balbir, since you identify yourself as a Dalit writer, I would like you to clarify a few things with regard to the Dalit ideology that is reflected in Punjabi literature. Let me ask you something about caste structure before that. The material that I have read reveals that the combination of Sikh and Sufi philosophy resulted in a rather unique cultural environment prevailing here. As the functioning of the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabha ensured an environment of the mutual respect, it is to satisfying to understand that there were no caste based conflicts or atrocities. What kind of a social environment prevailed here prior to the Sikh religious leaders founding the Sikh religion in the 15th century?

The same kind of caste divisions that prevailed in other parts of the country existed here too. Although, reformers like Budha, Kabir and Ravidas revolted against caste based distinctions and demanded equality for all, there were instances of caste atrocities happening here and there. Before proceeding further, I must point out that the information you refer to is false. Caste conflicts do occur even today in this so called ‘progressive’ state of Punjab. It is a false notion that there are no caste divisions here. The Sikh Gurus proclaimed equality; they said that all men are born equal and that there should be no divisions amongst them. This was an integral part of their ideology. The same way, Sufi saints also pronounced that there should be a universal brotherhood rising above distinctions of religion, caste, race and regionalism. Despite all this, the sad truth is that caste based distinctions prevail here till today.

This is news to me!

I believe that you need to know what the reality is. The Sikh Gurus did not lay as much of emphasis on eradication of caste-ism as they did on humanitarian thought. While they stressed on the eradicate untouchability, they did not encourage inter-caste marriages. My own caste is an indicator of the fact that the humanitarian situation, which the Sikh gurus wished for to prevail in society, does not exist. I belong to the Chamar community, which is traditionally engaged in agriculture labour and shoemaking. After becoming Sikhs, our people have been renamed as Ramadasia. They can’t even call themselves Ramdasia Sikh. Similarly, people belonging to the scavenger (sweepers), Valmiki community are called Mahzabis not Mahzabi Sikh as jat Sikh, Khatri Sikh etc. when they embrace Sikhism.High caste Sikhs call them Mahzabis only but not Mahzabi Sikhs.

I would like to say more,Gurus said,“we all are the children of one God.” Saints of Sri Guru Granth Sahib said in their poetry with protest and anger. ‘No one is superior nor inferior’. If a Brahmin thinks he himself superior than others why he could not select the other way to take of birth. Every human being has the same parts of body, has same colour of blood.’ They nullified the caste system and pro-varnashrama dharma books like Vedas, Smiritis etc.Gurus were agreed with their ideology and they included their Bani (poetry) in their Holy book….Our people have been renamed as Ramdasias or Mahzabis but could not suffix ‘Sikh’ word in their Scheduled Caste Certificates though they have made a long struggle for it. I have listened from someone in these days that Government of India is doing or has done amendment in this direction itself.

I am confused, Balbir! When Hindus who are identified by caste names like Chamar or as those belonging to the scavengers’ community convert to Sikhism, you claim that they are still identified differently by giving them suffixes like Ramdasia and Mahzabis. So, what is the purpose of conversion, then?

Please see, the caste is by birth. No one could eradicate or change it. All religions of India excluding Buddhism, recognize it. As you know Hindu religion claims that Chamar(Scheduled Castes and ex-untouchables) community is a part and parcel of a Hindu society and Hinduism but where is equality for all including lower class people and untouchables?.... The Dalit community of Punjab was attracted by the principles of Sikh religion. There are some reasons behind this. Number 1; Bani(poetry) of 15 Saints belonging to Shudras and Ati-shudras(untouchables) in Shri Guru Granth Sahib for example the poetr of Kabir (weaver), Ravida(Chamar), Namdev(Shudra), Sadhna(butcher) etc. in this Holy Book. Number 2; 10th Guru had taken support from lower caste people and gave them special treatment. He had written that I have such status and respect because of them.

I was also attracted by the principles of the Sikh religion and we believe in Adi-Granth(Sri Guru Granth Sahilb). It is a self-conversion. There is no need of permission from any authority for such activity. My family like another community, performs rituals in the presence of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. I am an atheist. I do not believe in any religion. I was merely attracted by the concept of universal brotherhood that the Sikh religion emphasizes. That is all!
One more reason and purpose behind becoming Sikhs is to get a religious equality inside of Gurudwaras which does not exist in the temples for Dalits. Now the situation is changing. Now you can see the fact that there are 12,500 villages in Punjab and Dalits have 10,000 parallel Gurudwaras in the villages.

The other writers whom I met said that there is no caste based discrimination. You insist otherwise!

I can give you many instances of caste based discrimination prevalent in this state. In villages, there are separate gurudwaras for Jats, Ramdasias, Carpenters, Scavengers (Mahzabis), Lubanas etc. They even have separate crematoriums till today. Inter caste marriages are still a dream for young people, those couples who have tried to marriages, have killed or committed suicide. On those bases how we can claim there is no place for casteism or untouchablity in Punjab? The strong untouchability like UP. Bihar and Southern India does not exist in Punjab, I can say.

The situation here is the same as it is in other parts of the country. I wonder why even writers deny this!

Madam, what do the residents of big cities know of the situation in villages? I can only say that they probably have their own imagination of what prevails in society! High castes people have no experience of such situation because they had never mixed with the total society.You can see, Dalits have their separate clusters in all over India.

While speaking of rural life and the caste system, I wish to know more about you childhood

I belong to the village of Madhopur, located close to the city of Jalandhar. I was born there and spent my childhood there too. My father carried on the family’s hereditary profession of shoemaking while he lived in Lahore for six months. After shifting from there, he became an agricultural labourer again. The circumstances were very difficult. We were seven children in all. We lived in a small, makeshift shed, where we co-existed along with the cattle. During monsoon, the house would be in floods. The kerosene lamp would be lit up only on occasions and as such, we would be surrounded by darkness. I have worked as an agricultural laborer right up to my graduation.

It is quite something that your father managed to educate you even under such circumstances!

That is true! My father realized that the employment that my education could help me gain would provide deliverance to the entire family. It was quite an achievement for me to complete my post graduation amidst an environment of dire poverty. People who are city born and bred cannot even begin to conceive the difficulties we faced. I grew up in an environment where we, who had been identified as untouchables (now ex-untouchable in free India), worked without pay on the lands that belonged to the rich landlords. We were not even paid in the form of food grains like wheat. It was a very pathetic situation where we worked without wages through the day. Sometimes, they would be kind enough to give us the carcasses of dead cattle. These carcasses provided us with skin for leather and flesh was sustenance. How can city dwellers conceive or emphasize with such a kind of a life?

Since Punjabi's are a very industrious people, I have heard that you do not have any beggars here!

That is true! There is poverty in the villages however. This is because Dalit people have not had access to education. After I completed my primary schooling, I had to walk barefoot for five kilometers, in the heat and cold, to pursue my high school education in the neighboring village. I would spend half the day at the school and the rest of the day in the fields. When I was thirteen of fourteen, I realized that people in the cities had a great deal more comforts including electricity. Thereafter, I made up my mind to study. I wanted to become a journalist and highlight social inequalities through my work. I wanted to create awareness amongst people on these issues.
Dalits do hard work but never begged. Profession of begging in India is only in Brahmins communities.

Which was your first literary work?

When I was in Class XI, I was deeply impacted by a girl molested. This was the theme on which my first poem was based.

When did you first begin to write with a ‘Dalit Writer’ identify?

I did not particularly feel the need to write about Dalit problems till I was about thirty years of age. It was at that time a few friends of mine from Delhi gave me a few books written by other Dalit authors and encouraged me to think likewise. Till then, there was no Dalit literature as such in Punjabi. Besides, I was not particularly aware of other written literature till then and hence, these books had a significant impact on me. Even though we were deeply scarred from the dignity of being dubbed as untouchables, our people were not given to voicing their grievances much. So, I was deeply impacted by those books which vividly described Dalit people being burnt alive. I wrote poems on Dalit people being set on fire in 1989.


I joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) and served as a cadre for around fifteen years. Even after debating on the atrocities heaped on the Dalits, I could not accept their demand for class based reservation. I concurred with the CPI’s demand for caste based reservation. Thereafter, I quit the party, although I still meet them on a friendly basis even today. Most of communities have traditional approach towards the society which is dived into castes, sub-castes and untouchables. However, I learned very much from the comrades and Marxism.

I read an article that Santram Udasi, Pash, Lal Singh Dil and Manjit Quadar are among the writers who penned Dalit literature in Punjabi

All of those whom you refer to belonged to the Naxalwadi movement. Santram Udasi belonged to a low caste and wrote several poems that protested against the Brahminical-culture. Pash belonged to Jat community and was a farmer. He was a progressive poet who had great concern for the welfare of the farmers and poor. He was killed by the Khalistanis when he was very young. These poets are popular as revolutionary poets.

When did Dalit literature evolve in the Punjabi language and who pioneered it?

After independence, Dalit thoughts were first reflected in modern poetry by Gurdasram Alam. He was a Dalit by birth. It would be appropriate to mention here that I was the first to be awarded the prize instituted in his name. It was the progressive writers who wrote prolifically on issues like untouchability, caste conflicts and social inequality.

Do you subscribe to the theory that only Dalit writers can write Dalit literature in an effective manner?

If a non-Dalit can effectively understand and emphasize with the pain and atrocities experienced by a Dalit, he can surely write Dalit literature. Jagdish Chandra is a case in point. Even though he was a Brahmin by birth and a Marxist, he has internationalized Dalit emotions in the shape of landless and land holders and written four novels from a Marxist perspective. In our democratic system, a Non-Dalit can contribute but we expect from him the real justice of this social problem as he has not experience like a Dalit writer. So, the strong notion is that a Dalit writer can write Dalit literature for their awareness and consciousness of rights.

The senior Jnanpith award winning Punjabi writer, Gurdial Singh, he has also portrayed the life experiences of the under-privileged people in a very realistic manner!

Forgive me for correcting you but Gurdial Singh is a Dalit (OBC). He was born into a family of carpenters .It is however not a sub-caste that is treated as untouchables.The Punjabis especially Dalits feel proud on him as he has given the voice to the voiceless society in his novels.. Dalit literature is not comprised of imaginary poems and stories… Dalit literature it is a reflection of reality. Now this literature becoming a main stream in the entire Indian literature. 21st century is of Dalits including its literature.

With an improvement in the standard of living and life style, do you think your children will understand the Dalit experience in the same way that you did?

Not really. They live different lives and we have also failed to familiarize them with the background from which we came. As such, their thinking is quite different from ours. Often, they say me that you are a son of a laborer and we are the children of a Class-I Officer. But they are getting experience, taunts of caste in their college and schools in these days.

Do you think that there is a need for Dalit literature and Dalit ideology in the changed time?

It is essential that Dalit literature is created not just in Punjabi but in all other Indian languages as well. When there are different genres of literature like Vedic literature, epic literature, Sufi literature, Gurmat literature (poetry of Gurus and related their literature), science literature and children’s literature, why not Dalit literature? It is of historical importance to record the upper caste oppression on the lower castes. Like I mentioned earlier, Dalit literature is not born out of imagination. It is a reflection of reality. In the present times, social change and progress will be made possible if there is a combined functioning of Marxism and Ambedkarism, but the Indian traditional Comrades have no interest to do such. Dalits will continue to write literature until they could not success to eradicate such system of discrimination. The purpose of Dalit writings is only to create humanism, equality among the people and equal opportunities for jobs for all.

Shall we talk of your writings? Your autobiography is very famous. Why did you choose to write an autobiography at such a young age?

I have brought out seven books incuding two volumes of poetry so far. A research scholar had even submitted a thesis on them and earned a doctorate from the University of Punjab. There is a reason for writing an autobiography at young age. I decided to write an autobiography for fear of not recording certain important things on account of having forgotten them. It is a record of not just my life but that of the entire Dalit community. There have been three Dalit autobiographies published in Punjabi so far. The first was written by Prem Gorky in 1994. It was not of high literary and healthy quality from Dalit point of view. He has narrated his love stories in it. Lal Singh Dil’s Daastaan contains Marxist angle.
The critics have considered my autobiography (The Lopped Tree) as the first Dalit autobiography in Punjabi

I would like to know about the Dalit Sahit Sabha, established in 1994

It is a literary wing of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party, organized the first Dalit Sahit Sabha in a place called Paghwara. Neither I nor any other writer of my acquaintance has anything to do with the body. I am not aware of their undertaking any activities for Dalit welfare or of their bringing out any Dalit publications. If they are creating awareness among the society, I would like to appreciate such organized wings.

Which other language Dalit writer has had an impact on you?

Not one but several! Dr. B.R.Ambedkar’s literature translated into Punjabi by L.R. Balley inspired me to think on his line. Beside this, more than Dalit writing, I have been impacted by the works of the Russian progressive writers. The works of Maxim Gorky, Nikolai Ostrovsky, Rasul Ghamzatov, Chingiz Itamatov and Nikolai Gogol have introduced me to realistic writing.Reason;most of the Indian writings have no energy to impress others due to its imagined,miraculous,hypocritical, inhuman approach.

Are you satisfied with the present growth of Punjabi literature?

Punjabi literature always propounded progressive thoughts. Although the response to poetry has somewhat diminished, I am happy to note that the number of novels and short stories are growing and so also the response to them. Although there are completing demands on the leisure time of the people in the form of technological innovations like television, internet and films, people with a reading habit continue to seek quality writing. Now Punjabi literature has some Dalit writers working on this ideology.

What are your thoughts on the present generation, particularly the Dalit youth?

At present, many among the Dalit youth are well educated and hold good jobs as well. Many are even employed abroad. With increased cash flow, people are spending more money on entertainment and recreation, particularly drinking. This is a worrying trend. There is a wrong belief that with economic growth, caste distinctions will disappear. While the Dalit youth have a strong awareness, I must say that their activities do not back this up. The attitude of living for the present alone must change. People should understand that inter-caste marriages and increased literacy will go a long way in eradicating caste distinctions and act accordingly. As you know that there is no alternative of hard work and I would like to say youth especially to the Dalit youth to do more hard work in every field to compete.

Since most of your replies have centered on caste based oppressions, I would like to ask you yet another question on this. On account of the caste divisions and untouchables in the Hindu religion, people convert to other religions only to encounter the same problems there. Many others also continue face caste based oppressions even after conversion. What is the point conversion then?

According to the Constitution, India is a secular country but in social practice a caste based. The degree of untouchability and upper class-lower distinction seen in the Hindu religion is certainly not prevalent amongst other religions like Sikhism,Islam, Christianity and Budhism, The biggest weakness of the Hindu religion is the Varnashrama dhrama that is outlined in the Manu Dharma Shastra. The Varnashrama dhrama leads to Brahminical dominance. There would be no conversions if the social Brahminical system was completely uprooted and social justice, universal brotherhood and democracy prevailed. Joint efforts by the all sections of society can play a important role in this direction.

What is your position at the Information and Broadcasting Ministry at the Centre?

I am editor of Yojana (Punjabi), a monthly being published by Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. I have been entrusted with the job of identifying and translating books from other languages to Punjabi. I identify poems, fiction, plays, essays or any other form of literacy work that I believe need to be taken to the people, cutting across language barriers. I have so far translated twenty books.

What is your current literacy project?

I have been traveling across Punjab and collecting some information for my forthcoming novel. It is also based on the Dalit life. I intend my novel to focus on eradicating social exploitation, the social Brahminical system and the orthodoxy that the system propounds. This is the objective of not just my novel but of all Dalit literacy works!

-August, 2003

Would you say something about your autobiography’s (Chhangia Rukh) response?

Madam, I got good response. Five editions of this book have been published in Punjabi. In 2007 its translation has been published in Hindi by Vani Prakashan with the same name. Serialized in Punjab Express in USA, in Pancham in Pakistan and in Kuk Punjab Samachar in New ZeaLand. Some bits have been published in Oxford University Press has translated into English and published this year (2010) under the name Changia Rukh – Against the Night. The translation work is going on in other Indian languages. In Pakistan it has been published by the Pancham Publishers,Lahore with the same name
My new book on Ad Dharam Mandal Punjab has been published under the name - Founder of Ad Dharam- Ghadrite Baba Mangu Ram recently(2010). It is about the movement of untouchables in Punjab in undivided India in 1926 to onwards for their human rights.

-April,2010(updated through e- mail)

An Interview with Balbir Madhopuri author of Changiya Rukh by Yashpal

Yashpal : What made you write your autobiography?
Balbir :There are many reasons which have compelled and inspired to me to write my autobiography ChangiyaRukhAgainst the Night. First, I bornedin an untouchable, landless and a poor family in Doabaregion of Punjab. My community-Chamar (Ad-Dharmi) is an outcaste like other thousandsin caste system and Varna-Dharma. One can understand well that untouchables had never been part and parcel of Hindu Society. It reflects the conflict between natives and invaders. In other words- centuries old quarrel and tension between two races; original people of India and Aryans who conquered the natives. The slavery for natives is the outcome of war between these two races.Manu Smriti– a creation of Varna -Dharma had given more strength to Varna -Vivastha by its codes.

One thing more I would like to share you that Iwas very muchfond of books during my school and college time. I can say my trend had been set to read more and write also. My poems had started been publish in thePunjabiDailies and magazines. Those days, I think was my experience. During this period left movement was on peak and I had joinedit. Along with my syllabus I had read communist literature- Revolutionary Literature. The writers of USSR like Maxim Gorky ,ChingezAitmatov, Nicolai Ostrovsky,Dostoevsky, Pushkin etc. were my favourite. Now, I had direct links with the CPI local, district level leaders and literary personalities of Left ideology.

In 1987, I had transferred been to the capital of Indian where I had got books onDr.B.R. Ambedkar, Guru Ravi Dass and Dalit literature. My first book of poetry- BhakhdaPatal(The Smouldering Netherworld) was published in 1992. And up to 2000, I had authored seven books and translated more than a dozen books into Punjabi from Hindi and English.

When I read a chapter of Sheoraj Singh Bechain’s autobiography published in a Hindi magazine, I made up my mind to write my autobiography. Some Marathi, Hindi Punjabi and other languages autobiographies and biographies Ialready had been read and I decidedto write my biography because I had lived very hard and deprived life in a caste discrimination poverty and an environment of atrocity.

I had done a child labour. As a young man I was an agricultural labourer during my college study. These circumstances have given me courage to fight against castism and Varna-Dharma based on injustice. These were the reasons which compelledme to write something for awareness among the untouchables (scheduled castes) for their human rights. To inspire them it was the motive to write my lifestory.

Yashpal : What is the aim of your autobiography?
Balbir :The aim of my autobiography is to tell the people of the world the reality of helpless untouchable’s life pre-independenceand in free India and the conspiracy of slavery in Hinduism for the natives of this land. We people are deprived from human rights. Our people had lost their identity, religion and land, grabbedby invaders, looters of Central Asia. We,dalits don’t want Brahaminical system which is the main hurdle in the development of the entire country. I think,I had done a very small work in this direction with the words of awareness in the ChangiaRukh. Education is must to get the goal of identity,socio-economic equality and inspire the dalits to do struggle for social self- respect. I think, my autobiography narrates all these things through my sufferings,hardships,backwardness in every field and sorrows of untouchables-dalits.
Yashpal : Do you think that by writing your autobiography you have served your purpose?

Balbir :Yes, definitely it had become a source of inspiration for dalits and non-dalits to fightfor the social justice. Its social vision is based on human rights for all not only for few people of a particular religion and caste. I have just layed a stone in the foundation of our literary movement.
Yashpal : Who are your imagined readers?

Balbir :Yashpal, majority of many readers are from non-dalit communities. They have given the reactions in writing as well as on telephone.But as a proof you can see a book namely BalbirMadhopuri Di SwaijeevniChhangiaRukh Da Sahitak-SamajikMulankanedited by Dr.SutinderSingh Noor, formerly Head, Department of Punjabi, University of Delhi. The book contains 208 pages. Only 20 pages are contributed by the Dalit writers. Almost all the readers have the tuning with my views and ideology. The eminent and known writers of Punjabi and have well placed been in the international literature like Prof.Gurdial Singh, AjitCour, Dr.Sutinder Singh Noor, Dr. Sheoraj Singh Bechain, Dr. C.D. Sidhu, etc. have always appreciated my viewpoint, my way of expression including my language. I mean to say, I have a large size of my readers for example; five editions of ChhangiyaRikh have been published in hard and paper back by two publishers, Oxford University Press has sold 378 copies within one year ending on 31 March, 2011 in India and abroad. In Pakistan, the first edition in Shamukhi(a Punjabi alphabet) has been sold. In Hindi, the first edition is also out of stock. My autobiography has been serialized in Punjab Express(USA), Kuk Punjabi Samachar(New Zealand), Pancham(Lahore, in Shamukhi), AmbedkariYug(Punjabi). Two websites have also been serialized it in Hindi. I think, this autobiography have masses of readers in rural and urban areas. University of Delhi’s Department of Punjabi has included in its syllabus this year.

I want to inform you that I have authored 10 books including a biography of a Ghadrite Baba ManguRam ,founder of Ad Dharm Movement in north India. I have translated 23 books into Punjabi from Hindi and English, 4-5 from them are world fame. I have also edited more than 30 books in Punjabi.

Yashpal : What are your experience before you wrote your autobiography and after you got it published?
Balbir :Before publishing my autobiography there was strong harmony in my family and among the friend circle of all communities. After its publication I had faced tensions in the family. Jats (a landlord caste in Punjab) writers in majority ruled out its angle. They don’t want such literature of awareness, liberation of dalits from Brahaminical culture. The catseproudy Sikhs have perform the same practice of caste like Hindus, though there is no discrimination in the Historical Gurudwaras under the SGPC. The Dailies and reputed magazines in Indiaand abroad published its review and said life of dalit is a underdog life.

Yashpal :Do you think that for a Dalit autobiography is necessary to write other genres of literature? If yes or no, why? Do you think Dalits should write their autobiography if yes or no, why?
Balbir :All genres of literature are important, Yashpal, but autobiography is a very powerful source of dalitexpression, to express the experiences, hardships and discriminations based on caste andcreed. So, I have the opinion that ifmore dalits would write their autobiographies it will become the strong parameter for the entire Indian literature. In these days, you can feel that dalit literature is becoming a literature of main stream.
Yashpal : What is your future plan?

Balbir:I am working for the identity ofdalits(untouchables, ex-untouchables, scheduled castes). Our forefathers like SatguruNamdev(Maharashtra- 1270-1350 AD),Guru Ravidas and Guru Kabir(both in 14th and 15th century, Utter Pradesh) had done a lot of work against Brahminical culture. They are our Guides and source of energy to change the social systemwhich is carrying anirrational, superstitious faith for the last thousands years. Without an own religion we are unable to get the identity. Conversion could not solve our social problems through our people adopted Sikhism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. We have our own great heritage and why we are looking other’s prison of religion. In brief, I am telling you that I am writing the Adi Philosophy(Original Religion of the natives of India), biographies of the leaders of untouchables in North especially of Ad Dharam Movement(1926 to onwards). Anthropology of selected poems is also in the pipe-line.

Yashpal : A majority of Dalits are uneducated, what have you done to make them read your autobiography?
Balbir :You are right a majority of Dalits are uneducated but we should have a dialogue with other communities. They may come to us for social change. We want radical change in the society based on logic, scientific approach and decent human behavior.Uneducateddalitsare performing their own responsibilities towards the society for change. They are getting support from educated section. Uneducated dalits dwelling in villages are our powerful and strong support for social change. Hope, one day dalits wouldget their self- respect, human rights through struggle which may be social and literary movement.

Yashpal from Maharashtra recently done his Ph.D. from Puducheri University on ChangiyaRukh –Against the Night.

Dalit writers find a global audience thanks to translations by Mandira Nayar

ManoranjanByapari looks at the large burn mark on his stomach. “I wish it would happen again,” he says, smiling. “ I got some time off work to write .” Byapari, a cook in a hostel in Kolkata, is also a well-known Bangla writer. “I was a small- time goonda,” says Byapari, who also worked as a rickshaw-wallah. He learnt to write in prison tracing the alphabet on the dusty floor of the prison yard. Being a Dalit,however, has over showed his succeed as an author “if you work at Bata shoe factory, you are a high caste,” he says. “But if you do the same work on the road side, then you are an outcaste”.

Byapri has written four books including his autobiography. He began writing after getting chance meeting social activist and writer MahaswetaDevi, who travelled in his rickshaw. “When I Started writing short stories, I changed my name and sent out my work”, says Byapari. “I didn’t want anyone to publish simply because of my association with Mahasweta Devi. All my stories were bought”

His tiny room is crammed with books. He spends most of his days coocking for 200 peoples, He manages to dedicate a little time to writing, each day, but longs for a year off to concentrate on it. “When I go to an upper caste’s house, I am a lower caste,” he says.“For people of my caste, who have made up the economic ladder, I am a still a rickshaw-wallah. For rickshaw-wallah, I am someone. I am writer”.

Currently, he is one of five editors working on an anthology of Dalit literature from the northeast to be published by Oxford University Press (OUP) next year. He is hoping that his work will soon be translated into English.

It has been 20 years since Dalit literature translated into English. Poisoned bread:translations from modern Marathi Dalit literature, edited by Arjun Dangle, was published in 1992. The same year, an anthology of Dalit literature by Mulk Raj Anand and Eleanor Zelliot, was published, making an indelible impression on the Indianliterarilyscene. “It was mind blowing,” saysPriyaAdarkar who was instrumental in getting the anthology published. “Each time a piece came along, whether it was poetry or prose, we wondered where it was hidden. It is like someone discovered America. It was there. We just didn’t know these writers out there.”

Intense, raw, angry, passionate and always political subversive Dalitliteraturehas found its way into university syllabi. At Delhi University (DU), NamdeoDhasal’s poems are part of the M.A. English Literature Programme. An outcaste, the first Dalit autobiography published in 1951, is part of the M. Phil programme. So is Tamil writer Bama’s work. Next year, OUP is publishing a text book on Dalit literature for high school students.

“Identity politics has caught on,” says TapanBasu, associate professor at DU, who teaches a paper on Dalit literature. “But we must see the students do not take it because it is fashionable. We have to inculcate awareness and create a window of experience. Most students who come to DU are upper caste. We want to provide them a window into a world that is beyond their experience”.

Publishing Dalit works, however, is becoming fashionable. Penguin recently published an anthology of Dalit writing from the south titled No Alphabet in Sight. Niche publishers like Navayana who focus exclusively on the caste issue are making an impression at events like the Jaipur Literary Festival.

“English makes our struggle an international issue,” says writer Sheoraj Singh Bechain. “We can’t fight unless we make this an international issue. Till then, it won’t even get attention at the national level.”

He has a point. Tamil writer Bama sells more copies in English than she does in any regional language. English, however, is not the only medium to be heard internationally. NarendraJadhav’s memoir was a bestseller in French.

“Writing itself is political,” says Bama. And translation has its own share of politics. Who should translate? Will upper caste translators have a bias? These issued have been debated across the community.

Translation, however, is not the main issue. “Dalit don’t want to tell their stories,” says Bechain. “They don’t want us to talk our lives and expose our weaknesses. But if we don’t talk, how will we ever find a cure to disease?”

Sold at a brick kiln by his stepfather, Bechain spent his childhood working in fields, selling lime on the street and laying bricks for a school building. His autobiography Bachpan Mere Kandhon Par is a story of grift, determination, a constant battle against hunger, prejudice and poverty. It is the story of countless Dalits across India. It will be translated into English by OUP next year.

Despite Dalits being politically well represented in the north, the irony of the lack of translated Dalit literature is hard to miss. “There needs to be a cultural movement in the north,” says Basu. “ Dalits may be politically successful in the north, but the lacks foregrounding in culture and tradition.” OmprakashValmiki’sJhootan, published in English in 2003, in one of the odd Dalit works for the Hindi heartland to be translated.

So far, writers from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have dominated the Dalit literature scene in English. Names like NamdeoDhasal, Bama, DevanoorNahadeba, SharankunarLimbale, S.Joseoh, Ravikumar and K.A. Gunasekatan have managed to go beyond the Dalit writing and carve a space for themselves in mainstream literature.

“These writers have changed the landscape of the languages they write in,” says K. Satyanarayana, editor of the Penguin anthology. “DevanoorMahadeva is not a Dalit Writer. NamdeoDhasal changed Marathi literature in term of technique and language and another writers were forced to write like him.”

In January, OUP published anthology of Dalit literature in Tamil and Malayalam literature were forced to rethink their content. “They found that they couldn’t leave out Dalit literature,” says Mini Krishnan, editor of translations at OUP.

Krishnan wants to make Dalit literature more accessible in English. And BalbirMadhopuri is a voice she has helped bring to the fore. A Dalit writer in Punjabi, Madhopuri believes he writes mainstream literature. “Ours echoes the fight for equality,” he says. “It is for all, not only Dalits. His sentiment is echoed in his poem A Poet’s Aspiration:’ I don’t want/my poems/ to be like monsoon streams/ running and merging with a river/ and losing their identity.”

Madhopuri’s autobiography, ChangiyaRukh[Against the Night], is the first Punjabi work by a Dalit to be translated into English. The author was not allowed to enter gurudwaras as a child. “The bhaiji[priest] used to throw prasad to us because he didn’t want to touch our hands,” says Madhopuri. “We wpuld stand outside with bowls. Sometimes, the prasadfell to the ground and was eaten by the dogs.”

In school, too, there was discrimination. “We would walk for three kilometers to wash and feed the animals of our upper caste teacher,” says Madhopuri. “Wewere never allowed to drink from his tap, even in terribly hot weather. His wife used to pour water from a height and we scooped it up in our hands.” The English translation of his book has been on the shelf for over a year and he is feeling its impact. “I have made many more friends,” says Madhopuri. “There are women who call me and weep. We have internationalized our problems.”

He feels, however, that Dalits in the north are still unwilling to embrace their identity. “When people phone to ask me about my writing, my children often tell me to go out and speak,” says Madhopuri.” They don’t like the word Dalit. It is precisely this need to hide their identity that makes the north different. Writers in Maharashtra and the south have established themselves, forms a community, and now have a presence.”

Awareness, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into acceptance. “The more we stand up and revolt, the more we are oppressed,” says Bama. “It isn’t like the olden days, though. Even though people don’t accept us and want to strangle our voices, at least we raise our voices.”

THE WEEK · JULY 1, 2012

Exclusive Interview with
Balbir Madhopuri

What Client's Say?