Dr. Shruti Sareen has a keen interest in Indian Poetry in English. Her M.Phil dissertation looks at the depiction of urban spaces and her Ph. D thesis is on twenty first century feminist poetry submitted to the University of Delhi.
The paper views the Dalit woman as represented in selected poetry by Meena Kandasamy, Aruna Gogulamanda, Nitoo Das, Sampurna Chattarji, Nandini Dhar and Anindita Sengupta through an intersectional approach. The Dalit woman is exploited in a way which is neither experienced by Dalit men nor by upper caste women. According to Uma Chakravarti, the four main facets in which a Dalit woman is exploited are with respect to water, education, sexuality, and the idea of untouchability and pollution. All these four facets are also brought out by the body of poetry examined here. Dalit women are not allowed access to water resources. They are systematically denied education or else ill-treated in institutions. Upper caste men use Dalit women as devdasis, or as loose women which they have free access to at any time. Ideas of purity and pollution force them into traditonally ‘dirty’ occupations such as fishing, manual scavenging, devdasi and so on. Finally the paper also attempts to see Dalit women through Mary Douglas’s and Julia Kristeva’s formulation of the “abject”—that part of the self which has been disowned and repudiated.
Keywords: Dalit women, discrimination, Indian women’s poetry, pollution, untouchability, education.
Dalit women’s poetry has emerged only in the 21st century. Before the year-2000, there were no Dalit women poets writing in English, though indeed there were many writings in other Indian languages. The other women poets, who did write in English in the 20th century, also seemed to be more concerned in documenting their own experiences, than that of others. However, this has changed with the new century, and a few poets do depict Dalit women in their poems, though their tribe needs to increase. Radha Kumar writes that the Indian feminist movement throughout the late 60s, and the 70s and 80s was not able to bring Dalit women into its fold. Dalit women’s conferences and so on started happening only as late as 1995, such as Samvadini- Dalit Stree Sahitya Manch, National Federation of Dalit Women, All India Dalit Women’s Forum, Dalit Mahila Sangathan, and so on. The high point came in 2001 with the international conference on race in Durban, South Africa. Thus, after this point, caste-consciousness began to increase and we see the rise of Dalit women’s poetry in English. This paper examines poetry depicting Dalit women, written by Meena Kandasamy, Aruna Gogulamanda, Nitoo Das, Anindita Sengupta, Sampurna Chattarji and Nandini Dhar. The latter three do not self-identify as Dalit women, although they do depict them in a few poems.
Intersectional theorists such as Kimberle Crenshaw, Deborah King and Ange- Marie Hancock inform that the impact of intersectionality is multiplicative, not additive. Dalit women are at the crossroads of being Dalit and women, if one goes back to Kimberle Crenshaw’s old metaphor of intersectionality as a crossroad. Thus, one cannot grasp the experience of Dalit women simply by adding up the experiences of Dalits and the experiences of women. The experiences of Dalit women are totally different because, on the one hand, they have always been sidelined within the mainstream women’s movement. On the other hand, they have been marginalised within the Dalit movement as well where the men have taken centre stage.
Rajni Tilak who founded CADAM (Centre for Alternative Dalit Media) in 1995, states that the mainstream feminist movement often misconstrues Dalit women’s issues. The feminist movement was in favour of autonomy for bar dancing girls in Mumbai, but did not realise that most of these Dalit girls had no alternative. Uma Chakravarti in ‘In Her Own Write: Writing From a Dalit Feminist Standpoint’ traces Dalit women’s writing in various Indian languages and sees a few thrust areas or points of focus, namely, the sexual availability of Dalit women to upper caste men, lack of access to education, lack of access to water, and the “untouchability” and associations with pollution which forced them into traditionally dirty occupations (Chakravarti 134-145). These are the few chief areas which also emerge from the poetry discussed below. After a brief discussion of these four issues, the paper focuses upon Dalit women’s poetry in English and shows the same four features operating therein.
Uma Chakravarti analyses how the caste system stringently controls female sexuality, or has even perhaps been created precisely in order to control land ownership and women’s sexuality, as Ambedkar argued. Endogamous marriages have been the primary means through which separate, enclosed castes have become possible. Upper caste women are regarded as the gateway or as the entry points into the caste system. Mixed caste marriages would pollute the purity of the caste. The most polluting castes are those that are the unions of a woman of a higher caste and a man from a lower caste. Thus, there was a need to stringently control the upper caste woman’s sexuality which leads to their seclusion. While the woman’s sexuality is strictly monitored, the sexuality of the upper caste man is given a free rein. Many castes practise hypergamy where a lower caste woman married a higher caste man, enabling the woman’s caste to gradually rise up in the hierarchy. Such couples may have to elope or may be brutally killed. Thus, there is a close connection between class, caste and gender and the present time has been called Kaliyuga, because it is a time when normative structures are overturned, there is mixing of castes and women and lower castes do not perform their duties.
Apart from such marriages, upper caste men have always had sexual access to lower caste women through material power. The lower caste woman is regarded as a natural aspect of desire and pleasure. Women of the lower castes, unlike upper caste women, were not considered to be grihinis or family women, and could even be denied their own children. There is no option for the lower caste woman but to abort the child of the upper caste man. It is only with class mobilisation in recent years that the rape and sexual abuse of lower caste women is being resisted by the Dalits. This leads to exploitation of landless labourers who are the Dalit poor by the upper castes. Even though the Constitution formally ended caste based discrimination in public spaces, it has not broken the hold of the upper castes over material resources or state machinery. While they can take a woman from the lower castes they cannot give a woman to the lower castes. The lower caste woman realises that it is not egalitarianism that makes an upper caste man willing to marry her, but is in fact a demonstration of his power over the low caste woman. (Chakravarti 134-145)
Anagha Tambe in ‘Reading Devadasi Practice Through Popular Marathi Literature’ states that Devdasis are Dalit women who, on attaining a certain age, are married off to the gods. Once the woman is married to the god and becomes a devdasi, she becomes the wife of the whole village and is exploited by upper caste men for their sexual needs. Unlike other devdasis who are considered temple women, the lower caste jogtin or devdasi is given no space or rights in the temple and is cast on the periphery, left to seek her subsistence in the village. The devdasi is not permitted to get married. If her parents try to save her from the jogtin life, the entire family is beaten with sticks and is driven out of the village. Similarly, a jogta is a man who is supposed to cross dress and act as a devdasi.
A jogtin cannot complain of sexual harassment, unlike a married woman. A jogtin is freely available to all men of the village. The jogtin may have a relationship with an upper caste man and become a zulwa or mistress, but never a wife. In a zulwa relation, the man would accept the paternity of the child. The woman is dishonoured if she gets pregnant outside a zulwa relation because the paternity of her children remains doubtful. Women aspire to become a zulwa for some financial stability and love, and also for the paternity of their child. Men, however, are wary of taking these women as zulwa and holding financial as well as paternal responsibilities. A jogtin in a zulwa relation is also considered more pure than the one who is outside a zulwa-relation.
A jogtin is considered fit for no other occupation besides entertainment through sexual and religious means. While upper castes appease the goddess through donation of a cow or money, lower castes are condemned to ward off the wrath of the goddess by dedicating their women. A jogtin’s cultural labour is to sing and dance in praise of the deity and she must also perform this function while begging for jogwa. Thus, the devdasi phenomenon needs to be seen in a completely different light than that of prostitution as sex work, though both are seen as derogative. Brahmanical patriarchy operates such that there are different standards of purity for upper and lower caste women, and neither has any actual sexual agency. (Tambe 85-92)
The second issue is that of education. Although the education system is such by and large, the problem becomes compounded for Dalit students because of their historical exclusion from learning and knowledge. There is also the issue of violence which emerges from a growing educational status among the Dalits. Upper castes are often jealous of Dalits who may now be much superior to them educationally even though they may not own much land. Violence and clashes may break out as revenge by the upper caste men on what they perceive as a threat of growing educational status among the Dalits.
The third facet to focus on is access to water. Deepa Joshi in ‘Caste, Gender and the Rhetoric of Reform in India’s Drinking Water Sector’ writes how distribution of water systems have changed from community management in pre-colonial times, to management by the State in British as well as post-colonial times, to finally being handed over to private agencies. None of these systems however have been able to guarantee equitable water distribution to all. Dalit women have systematically been excluded from water resources even when they have been plentiful by the traditional casteist community and have been forced to walk for hours to fetch water from distant sources. When the water distribution system was managed by the State, the state gave the responsibility of looking after upkeep and maintenance of tubewells to women, as they were the most frequent users. However, they failed to distinguish between Dalit and upper-caste women. The result was that the upper-castes would allow no access to water to the Dalits. Water that was allocated for the Dalit community was also utilised by upper caste women. If the Dalits took water from their naulas, they were beaten and the water was considered polluted by their touch.
Thus, Dalits are first allowed no access to water and are further condemned for being dirty, which of course follows from the fact that they have no access to water. Private services too could not ensure equitable water distribution. Dalit women had no voice in the matter of water distribution and were systematically discriminated against. (Joshi 56-63). Even in school, children are discriminated against on account of such rules. Kalpana and Vasanth Kannabiran also note the incident at Thanjavur where Dalit children playing at a well were electrocuted by the upper castes.
The last and most obvious facet of Dalit women’s lives as represented in this poetry is the issue of untouchability. Forced into traditionally dirty occupations, they have no easy way out of them. This untouchability also prevents them from access to temples, which are considered sacred spaces. The paper discusses the representation of the four facets just discussed in the poetry under consideration. The paper also views the Dalits through the prism of being the “abject”, using the argument of Julia Kristeva and Mary Douglas. The abject is an aspect of the self which is estranged and treated as foreign or dirty. This could be strands of hair, broken nails, sweat, pus, vomit, menstrual blood, or at the larger societal level, Dalits. The link between the Dalits and the rest of the aforementioned body excretions is unmistakable. Considered as being dirty, they are forever condemned to clean other people’s dirt. The abject then is the opposite of the “object” of desire. The abject is not desired, the abject is not an other, the abject is a part of the self which has been disowned, and which is treated as if it is non-self.
In ‘Liquid Tragedy: Karamchedu 1985’, Meena Kandasamy attacks the age old practice of banning Dalits from village wells and ponds and making them drink the water of the ponds where buffaloes bathe, urinate and shit. She refers to an incident as recent as 1985 in Karamchedu where a woman dares to question this injustice and hits forth with a pot. As a punishment for this, her oppressors let their fury loose and there are rampant rapes and killings and much violence. This also points to how the Dalit woman is seen as sexually available to upper caste men, and how raping a Dalit woman is often seen as a tactic for punishing and repressing the entire Dalit community. The poem, a tool of defence just like the woman’s pot, is itself written in the visual shape of a pot. Kandasamy again shows her ire against Gandhi who set a “rotten example” by suggesting that the Harijans, which in itself is a patronising term, should move elsewhere as they were not given water in this village. Gandhi’s suggestion is surely a compromise and an acceptance of defeat instead of a challenge to caste hierarchy. (Kandasamy 52)
‘One-Eyed’ shows us a little child having her eye knocked out for using touchable water. The pot, the glass and the water see just another noisy, eager and clumsy child, wanting to slake her thirst, but the teacher views this as breaking the rule, it becomes a medical emergency for the doctor, and the press advertises it far and wide. (Kandasamy 41) This also shows that water itself does not discriminate, neither do the pot and the glass, it is human beings who discriminate. At least the press advertises it far and wide, in Kandasamy’s poem whereas such cases are often simply repressed and do not even make it to the news.
Discrimination in Education
‘In ‘An Angel Meeting Me’, Kandasamy describes an imagined encounter with a rosy cheeked, glowing faced angel who visits her and sees all the scars and marks on her body, and her twisted red ears and the fact that she has only one eye. Then the angel lifts up her skirt and sees the grossest violence of all. She then explains to him that this sexual abuse and violence is because she went to school. This shows the atrocities that educational institutions still mete out to little children just because they are Dalit girls (Kandasamy 118). Again one sees that one evil leads to another. As if discrimination in education was not enough, the little girls are sexually abused as a way of suppressing them and putting them down.
The poem ‘Aftermath’ is about the day she went to school after drinking six glasses of orange juice on the day of the English exam, and threw up in the toilet in school, and the creamy white breakfast milk all became sour green vomit. Because of her brazen attitude, a rumour of morning sickness and pregnancy goes all around and before she knows it, girls younger than her point fingers and slander, teachers gossip in staffroom about her child, and everyone thinks her rage is because of the lover who jilted her. All the while, “you know the nauseous / truth of your thighs: you are virgin.” The truth itself is enough to make her nauseous, just like the pregnancy would have. The line is satirical and tongue-in-cheek. However, “they make you confess for your sins, they make you a scapegoat, a victim, they need you to be who they want you to be”. (Kandasamy 120-121) And thus the rumours and slander continue, and nobody believes in her innocence. Here there are only rumours but we see how a girl is harassed and tormented even for a possible pregnancy, even for one which does not really exist.
‘Emergency’ shows Brahmin women in Delhi braving water cannons, tear gas shells, lathi charges and other such leftover forms of colonial control in order to protest again reservation in education, especially in the field of medicine. Meanwhile, writes Kandasamy, their lower caste sisters, fully qualified, continue their professional practice elsewhere, perfectly capable of becoming paediatricians, cardiologists, physicians, dermatologists, endocrinologists, gynaecologists, and obtaining expertise in every branch of specialisation. (Kandasamy 19-20) The poem shows how caste reservations, which are meant as affirmative action, have themselves turned into a source by which Dalits are discriminated against, as they are believed to be less meritorious because they have slightly lower cut-off marks. The poem probably shows the anti-Mandal agitation in the 1990s, wherein upper caste women protested against the OBC (Other Backward Castes) reservations. The protests were primarily asking the extremely casteist question of “who will we marry” if ‘lower’ caste men become their classmates, thereby implying that marrying a ‘lower’ caste man was not even an option.
In the poems above, one can see how Dalit women are sexually abused as a form of punishment even when they try to access water or education. But the sexual abuse of Dalit girls does not even need a reason. Their sexuality is wilfully constructed as being “loose”, a myth is created that they are “available”.
The poem ‘Narration’ mentions a rape by a landlord (Kandasamy 56), and ‘Shame’ again shows the humiliation of a sixteen year old whose body has been wrecked, and who resorts to fire, which was a purification test for Sita, and is irrevocably killed, there being nobody to save the poor Dalit girl, unlike the mythical Sita. As for the perpetrators of the crime, “Their Caste is a classic shield” as Kandasamy succinctly puts (Kandasamy 58). As a Dalit girl’s sexuality is constructed as being “loose”, it is always the woman’s fault, and the upper-caste men enjoy impunity for all their actions.
In ‘The Whore’s Wedding’, Kandasamy shows wedding guests gossiping and conjecturing as to how the whore, seen as a downtrodden filthy woman, would cheat the man, or kill him, or have a child through another man. Again, it is always the woman who is blamed for promiscuous sexuality. Kandasamy views this from the whore’s viewpoint and shows us how she must feel, stuck in bed with her husband and having to fake love when she can probably remember ten other men who were better in bed. Kandasamy is satirical as ever, as she changes the perspective through which we view the incident. (Kandasamy 68)
In ‘Mascara’, Kandasamy writes about a call girl who has been forced into the profession and putting the mascara is the last thing she does as she gets ready “to die, / once more of violation”. The mascara hides the “long buried / hazy dreams / of a virgin soul” . Kandasamy uses the oxymoron “virgin” for a slut, to emphasise the separation between sex and love, between the body and the soul, that the soul may be a virgin, even if the body is not. This is reiterated in the lines: “Sex clings to her devadasi skin, / Assumed superficialities don’t wear off”. Kandasamy here views cosmetics as “war paints”, reminding us that the warrior goddess Kali wears mascara too. (Kandasamy 128-129)
Anindita Sengupta in ‘Brick Women’ writes of sex workers, these women who are “always leaving” , unable to find acceptance and tolerance. They are shown to have hunger spasms in their bellies, perhaps for food, perhaps for love. They “free-range” the streets lit up by night lights. The “glister of sex” drips on businessmen’s shoes as they drive home after visiting the brothel. The men visiting the brothels are not stigmatised. Only the women are. The “lords” buy the women for life and the women “wrench” the coins like love. They bring up their children as “money plants”, worth only the bucks they can help bring in. It is a loveless occupation for women which they do only for the money, one for which they suffer exploitation as well as ostracism. These women might presumably be Dalit women as they are forced into such “dirty” occupations. (48) It must be mentioned here that this view is certainly not true for all sex-workers. However, in the case of Dalit women, this is often by force as they are already perceived as being loose and promiscuous women.
Aruna Gogulamanda in ‘She was told!’ writes about how Dalit women are not even allowed to wear a blouse so that every male can objectify her as a device and watch her. She was told to bend her back and not to walk straight, to make herself a bait, to toil in the fields all day long as a human machine deprived of food and water. She was told not to feed her baby and had to swallow the pain, her breasts pining to satisfy her baby’s hunger. She was told to take the insults, jeers, beatings and assaults for being born a woman in a cursed clan. She was told to take the brutal brunt of sexist remarks, and assaults of her husband, as well as of her master or feudal landlord. She was told that she was a bad omen. Like a sanitary napkin, she was useful but disgusting. Her dreams, beauty and youth have all been sacrificed for the master. She is a silent witness to the hundreds of deaths of her mothers, daughters, sisters- the death of their dreams, and respect as well as their bodies. Her calloused hands, unkempt hair, cracked heels and wrinkled hair tell the tale of living in fear all these years, of centuries and millennia of violence and death. She was told that she was dirt and filth. In this sacred land where thousands of goddesses are worshipped, this living, flesh and blood woman was called a Dalit. Whether it is access to essentials like food, water, or basic human dignity, the Dalit woman is denied all these. She is literally used as a “bait” to catch.
In ‘Beasts…!!’, Gogulamanda shows the Dalit woman as a prey being hunted by wild animals. We could also see these wild animals as being men, whether Dalit or of other castes. The Dalit woman would also be a prey for women of other castes. A jackal is shown to roam around the fence, grabbing a chance to feed on her body whenever she forgets to close the door. A dog full of lust dreams of satiating its hunger and waits impatiently on her doorstep to pounce at her. A wolf hides in the bushes, waiting to tear her apart, and feast on her to quench his thirst. A sly, three legged sniffer dog follows her. Added to this list of beasts are the police, who, despite their office, pull her into bed and rip her apart using third degree methods, and snores his way to thunderous sleep. She is merely a sedative for him. Gogulamanda writes that all the detergents of the world and all the water of the oceans would not suffice to wash away the stains of the sins that are committed by these beasts on the women of this country. The poem also shows that a woman, especially a Dalit woman, is always unsafe. Beasts wait to pounce on her at the doorstep as soon as she emerges from her house and even enter her house when she forgets to close the door. From lurking among the bushes, to following her around, she is shown to be unsafe in private as well as public space.
Pollution and Untouchability
There are various aspects to this, the common thread being that the Dalit girls are always seen as polluting and degrading some mythical notion of ‘upper’ caste purity. The poem ‘Babies and Bathwater’ exposes religion for the hypocritical and farcical fraud that it is. The poem shows dead babies floating like “fish food” among the lotuses in the temple tank. These “just-born, just- dead babies” are presumably killed for their sex or their caste. (Kandasamy 13) The only response of the temple to this social evil is the purification of the temple tank water with chlorine. The poem shows the hollowness of religion which is based only on external appearances. In this poem, they are literally seen as polluting the water tank which needs to be cleansed and purified. Again, we see the connection between Dalits and water.
‘Facing the music’ is about a woman whose lover has been lynched, possibly because of an intercaste relationship, although Kandasamy does not specifically mention this. “Too weak for suicide, too meek for murder” the woman survives in a death-in-life condition. (Kadasamy 21) Kandasamy here overturns the stereotypical image of suicide, and shows that suicide requires great courage. She tries to imagine he never died, keeping him captive and not letting him wander too far, as if he is still a flame lighting up her darkness, but the flame keeps flickering and the presence is more of a ghostly one. Shell-shocked and spell bound, the unshed tears are withheld in her blood as she remembers her lover being burnt alive into ashes and bones. A ‘lower’ caste person is seen to pollute the ‘upper’ caste man through marriage, which is the reason for the lynching. Here again, we see the blame being laid on the woman. Inter-caste marriage would break the “purity” of caste, and is, according to Ambedkar, the single most effective method of bringing about a dissolution or annihilation of caste.
The poem ‘Eating Dirt’ shows us a poor, starving woman who only tasted food in her dreams. At one point, she succumbs to hunger pangs and starts eating dirt, clay, chalk, citrus soap, raw rice, green mangoes, crayons, ash, crushed ice, powdered glass and rain scented soil. Her son, who follows after her, is shown as containing heaven, hell and earth in his mouthful of sand, as everything is either sand and dirt, or else crumbles to dust. (Kandasamy 18) The basic necessities of food and water are denied to Dalits. She might be denied gainful employment because her presence is seen as polluting. This may drive her to such a desperate condition. Here we see the intersection of caste, class, and gender that is seen in the discussion of poems by Nitoo Das, Sampurna Chattarji, and Nandini Dhar.
In ‘Sacred Thread’, a beggar woman, when asked what she has eaten, replies that she has eaten the remaining waste of a royal feast arranged for a three year old. Again we see the intersection of caste, class, and gender. We also see her being denied the basic necessity of food. Kandasamy describes the turmeric bath, the raw resplendent silk, the sacred thread tying ceremony, and the thousand and eight guests. The punch line and the satire come towards the end of the poem when she tells us that the three year old was a bull. (Kandasamy 84-85) This is clearly meant to show that Dalits pollute, whereas cows and bulls purify. A bull is sacred, whereas a Dalit is pollution.
In ‘We Will Rebuild Worlds’, Kandasamy uses the images of the holocaust and of shattered glass to describe atrocities such as the burning of forty four Dalits because they asked for handfuls of rice, of children electrocuted because they played near the well, or of poison and pesticide poured through the ears, mouth, nose of a man and woman, or of couples hanged simply because they loved across caste. They have several skins “filthy rich and stinking” which they can shed and put on at their convenience. But as is customary with Kandasamy, she voices her anger and outrage, and not merely her anguish over misfortune. The Dalits are determined to fight back and rage a revolution in which dreams will be “red hot” with revolutionary anger and will “scorch”, “scald” and “sizzle”. ( Kandasamy 60) Hot fire can also perhaps be seen as an act of destruction, purification, and change. The sibilance also suggests the sound of crackling fire. Kandasamy goes on to say that here will be song and dance and revolutionary celebration. Their naked bodies close together are compared to “hands in prayer”. Prayers and dreams embody the vision of a revolution and music and dance rejoice in the act of recreation and change. Their words of “fury” are seen as starting a “forest fire”, which again ravages and destroys to pave the way for the new. The repetition of “f” and “r” also suggests the crackling of fire. Other poems discussed in the paper so far have either been satirical, or empathetic towards the plight of Dalits. This poem, however, is full of red hot fury and anger, a quality which is seen in writing by Dalits, but which one does not see when ‘upper’ caste people write about caste. This can be seen in a few poems that follow.
Chattarji, while not a Dalit woman herself, touches upon the plight of Dalit fisherwomen. In the poem ‘Slipstreams’, Chattarji shows a fish-woman reeking with the smell of fish. Fisherfolk in some states of India are from the oppressed Dalit caste. Even in other states, they come from ‘lower’ castes as the smell of fish is considered polluting and unclean. Thus here, the woman is burdened on account of her gender, class, and caste. The fisherwoman’s brine-soaked fingers are described as having become fishes themselves, and her dreams are shown to be full of quick, silver fishes, escape nets, baits and hooks and going beyond the weeds, out of reach. With an implicit reference to the story of Shakuntala, Chattarji writes that the fishes sometimes swallow rings of gold which are later discovered by kings, once the fish has been cut open. Smelling of fish, as she walks up the steps, weighed down by her load, in the midst of mist on an island where she lives, she is enveloped with a different sort of smell, with the smell of musk, as she touches the wetness of hands and mouth and the sagacity of a man’s lust. Wearing her new skin as a sort of perfume, as she flips her way through mud, she once again dreams of becoming a fish: “scale and shine / in a sea of brine” (Chattarji 90-91) Or, she could be a fish in an enclosed tank, in an aquarium, getting her feed routinely, all longing slowed down to this drift from end to end, and then back again. The longing of the fish in the dream can perhaps be linked to the girl’s own longing for life outside, beyond the confines of her current life which may resemble a fish being trapped in an aquarium. The longing of the girl is also for the man she loves.
Nitoo Das, though belonging to a lower caste community, however, does not write stringent poetry in the style of Dalit poets that we have seen above. Das’s style is more muted down and mellowed, measured and controlled. Like Chattarji above, Das too depicts fisherwomen in a few poems, coming from the fishing community herself. In certain other poems, she shows us other kinds of women whom might possibly be seen as being poor, Dalit women. Nitoo Das too shows a fisherwoman in ‘Storytelling I’, her body scarred with stories as a tied baby lolled at her back. Her feet are shown as being trapped in the thin waters among flat bubble leaves and strands of violet flowers. These water hyacinths are shown to stink like shit. With bent back, her feet trapped, and lolling baby, she tries to catch the squirming fish, just as her mother had done before her (Das 24). The fact that Dalits are condemned in certain occupations, such as fishing, also shows the seemingly inherent pollution.
Nitoo Das, in ‘Matsyagandha’ uses mythology, in a very unromantic manner and shows the stark social and economic inequality in society through these myths. Das makes us realise that subjects in themselves may not be necessarily romantic or modernist per se, but it is through the treatment of these subjects in different ways that they acquire such characteristics. Matsyagandha is Satyawati, character from the Mahabharata, who is the mother of Vyasa, and the great-grandmother of the Pandavas and Kauravas. She is born of an apsara who was cursed to become a fish called Adrika. In the poem, the fish-woman Satyavati, who was adopted and brought up by a poor fisherman’s family, gives a retort to the high-caste king Parashar, with whom she gives birth to Vyasa out of wedlock. Matsyagandha tells Parashar that she has grown up with fish, loves fish and smells like a fish herself. She tells Parashar who lusts after her that she works for a daily wage whereas he can afford not to. He has the luxury of leisure while she rows and fishes and sweats with her father. Parashar hates her fish smell and yet covets her, so he gives her boons of perfume. Matsyagandha indignantly claims that the “fake skin smell” (Das 5) of jasmines never fades away now, and she hates it as she paces palace halls alone, longing for her fish smell. The poem resonates at a deeper level as Das herself is from a fishing community in Assam, which gives a slight personal and autobiographical touch to the poem.
In ‘Pollution:I’, the pollution is caste. The title may be seen as being tongue-in-cheek as it tries to subvert the notion of caste as pollution precisely by seemingly following the norm and by stating that being born “low” caste is indeed a form of pollution. The poem is a bit surreal as readers are unsure whether it is a fish or a man, perhaps something similar to what was seen with Satyavati and Adrika in ‘Matsyagandha’. The fishermen search for food in the waters within him. His name and body smell of his birth and caste which are shown to stick to him just like scales to a fish; they have become an inseparable part of him. (5-6)
Nitoo Das in ‘Doiboki’ and ‘Portrait: III (Kinnari)’ shows us homeless, wandering women who seem to be on the verge of madness, with hair in knots, turning “into an ill-/smelling saint in / parchment clothes” (9) making prophecies of drying women, leaking crops, and sore buffaloes. Kinnari wears marigolds in her rope-like knotted hair, and sings songs as children watch her pot-bellied walk. Doiboki has “scowling” hair and her betel-spittled lips explode sex words and mark her as being uncouth, coarse and vulgar. She sits in street corners with “glistening secrets” and “shifty eyed” knowledge. (10) Children ran after her as she would turn around and unbutton her blouse for them.
Nandini Dhar, in an interview with Sneha Chowdhury says that she sees feminism as linked to state, capital, class, caste and race, which she attempts to challenge through many of her poems. Dhar’s ‘To Say Without Uttering, 1959’ is narrated by a little girl whose mother makes cowdung cakes for livelihood, and this is the reason why they are able to eat on all the days of the month. This once again shows the linkage of Dalits with a ‘dirty’ occupation such as making cowdung cakes. They are condemned for such occupations because their presence is considered as being polluting. Dhar writes that every part of the cow is valuable, even the shit. Women stand in line for their share of cowdung the way they stand in line for water. The little girl watches her mother, fingers oozing with mud and cowdung, plaster the dung cakes on the walls of their house. She wonders how she, the daughter of zamindar Rajbahadur Pratap Chandra came to be in this state of rolling cowdung cakes like a lowly, Dalit bagdi woman. Dhar shows the casteism prevalent even in the minds of the rural poor. The woman Malatibala, rues her state; she has no oil in her hair, no gold on her skin, and the smell of cowdung follows her everywhere and does not even get washed away by baths. Only her accent and caste pride remain. The little girl refuses to let her mother touch her skin or her hair. The little girl narrates that none of the girls with red floral print frocks who she played with and from whose fathers’s libraries she borrowed books knew that her mother rolled dung cakes. Wishing her hair had more colourful ribbons, the girl tells the others how earlier they used to have rice fields, a mansion, and a pond with fish with wings. The other girls laughed at her stories. They asked her why she did not go back if this is what she left behind. Dhar writes that memories were like barbed wire fences which grazed her hands each time she attempted to climb them. She had a family tree whose roots had been dug up, leaves torn, branches broken and charred. Dhar does not tell us exactly what had happened to them. The girl narrates that by rice fields she means a burning village with scorched land with ash and excrement. No number of stories that she tells can ever cover up or hide the pain of memory. She says that history was never too far away and she and her mother swept shards of it every evening. Her mother hid hers in a pot behind the mirror and the sindoor on the mantelpiece, but the little girl preferred to throw hers away.
There are also a few non-Dalit poets addressing the issue of Dalit-women through a few poems. However, Dalit women poets writing in English is a new development which could not be seen in the twentieth century. However there are still very few women poets addressing Dalit issues in English, and their tribe certainly needs to increase. The four facets of their writing and experience that the paper tried to highlight namely, lack of access to water, lack of access to education and related discrimination, sexual exploitation by zamindars and as devdasis, and the idea of “dirty” occupations, pollution and untouchability refer to the precarious position of Dalit women.
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