Even as modern Dalit literature took off with the arrival of Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra in the 1970s – chiefly in Marathi, with Hindi following up about a decade or so later – there remains a gaping hole: satire. That, too, when we have a mother book for satire: Annihilation of Caste.
Until a few decades ago, the works of Munshi Premchand, whose novels and short stories such as Kafan and Sadgati have forever divided critics on whether they showed a “realistic understanding of caste oppression,” were primarily regarded as examples of Dalit representation in Hindi literature. Then the Dalit Panthers movement arrived. Inspired and influenced by the teachings of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, Periyar, the Indian Constitution, the Black Panthers movement, and spearheaded by writer-activists Namdeo Dhasal, Arjun Dangle and Raja Dhale among others, it revolutionised the Dalit literary sphere.
But the writings, barring a few notable exceptions in Marathi, Tamil, and Punjabi literature, have lacked satirical and humorous takedown of caste, something that US authors have enriched Black literature with their sharp incisions cutting deep into ‘sensitive’ white privilege.
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Racial satire in Black literature
In a caste-ridden India, it is not enough to educate and inform people about the many ways through which oppression and discrimination operate. A work must leave the oppressor searching for a place to hide. Usually, that place is the cocooned self. But satirical humour takes away that fallback device. This humour seems to act as ‘restorative justice.’ In a way, it is literary revenge.
According to American literary critic Meyer H. Abrams, “Satire (is) the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation. It uses laughter as a weapon, and against a butt that exists outside the work itself. That butt may be an individual, or a type of person, a class, an institution, a nation, or even the entire human race.”
African-American author Paul Beatty, who won the Booker Prize in 2016 for his satirical novel on racism in the US, The Sellout, wrote in an essay for The New York Times about how he wishes “I’d been exposed to this black literary insobriety at an earlier age. It would’ve been comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one laughing at myself in the mirror.”
If people have been dehumanised for generations, then some form of expression has to take the lead in rehumanising them – and there is nothing better than scathing humour and satire, which seek to disarm the perpetrator. Writing tragedy makes the writer more responsible; writing satire makes the system cautious.
As Prof John Burma wrote: “Since subtle barbs often strike more telling blows than gratuitous insult or rational argument, not infrequently these techniques include humor, satire, irony and wit.”
A sucker-punch of a remark that the protagonist in Beatty’s novel Sellout makes in a courtroom, perfectly explains this. When asked to state whether he pleads ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’, he faces the bench and says, “Your Honor, I plead human.”
Perhaps it is for this reason that scholars and researchers have been intrigued to explore the use of humour/satire both as a tool to fight the Nazis and as a defence mechanism during the Holocaust.
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Responsibility on second-generation Dalit writers
The first-generation Dalit writings started with Marathi literature and gradually appeared in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, etc. However, it was the autobiographical tales of angst, revolution and oppression from writers such as Omprakash Valmiki (Thakur ka Kuan), Mohandas Naimisharanya, Suraj Pal Chauhan, Tulsi Ram, Kanwal Bharti, Jai Prakash Kardam and many others that laid what came to be regarded as the foundation of Dalit Hindi literature.
Although, as South Asian scholar Sarah Beth Hunt showed through her ethnographic research in her 2014 book, “Dalit literary production in Hindi has a much longer history, beginning in the early 20th century” through “the formation of a field of Hindi Dalit pamphlet literature.” The Dalit literary scene grew in the 1990s, during the politics of Kanshiram and Mandal Commission, and with the advent of Hindi magazines such as Hans, edited by Rajendra Yadav, and Yuddhrat Aadmi, by Ramnika Gupta.
During this period, a few books that satirised the caste system were published. These included Murdahiya by Tulsi Ram, Ghotbhar Paani by Marathi writer Premanand Gajvi, humorous poems of Gujarati poet Neerav Patel. But they couldn’t establish or popularise Dalit satirical literature. In this respect, Hindi, being the largest spoken language among them, had much more responsibility but lagged behind compared to Black literature.
Thirty years on, satirical Hindi writers have found a new life in the age of social media, idolised through memes on Twitter and Facebook. Noted humourists such as Harishankar Parsai, Sharad Joshi, Ravindra Kalia, Shrilal Shukla have been reinvented, which has helped grow their cult with new followers. Though much of the internet humour is inane and barely touches any social aspect, let alone caste.
It raises some questions then. Why haven’t the second-generation writers taken the lead in humorous writings to break the mould? It also needs to be researched why Dalit Hindi literature hasn’t caught up with the strides we see in other Indian regional languages.
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Satire that targets the oppressed
Hindi initially derived its literary value from Sanskrit. But the humour in Sanskrit literature is inane and doesn’t target the social anomalies. The hypocrisy of laughing at others while not being able to laugh at oneself has been a persistent aspect of Indian civilisation, evident in literature also. Even when writers like Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’ tried their hands at satire, other Brahmin writers spoke vehemently against him and his work. Banarasidas Chaturvedi, the editor of nationalist Hindi journal Vishal Bharat (Calcutta, 1928), ran sort of a campaign to discredit Ugra’s writings as “vulgar” and “indecent”. Chaturvedi was also against one of the most successful Hindi satirical weeklies, Matwala.
In the 19th century, one of the early Hindi writers Bhartendu Harishchandra wrote satirical plays that mocked colonial rule, but not the caste-based hierarchical system. When caste did appear, such as in his play Andher Nagari (1881), it situated a Brahmin at the centre, shown selling caste for money.
Similarly, writer Radhacharan Goswami’s satirical essays Yamlok Ki Yatra and Naapit Stotra – the latter condemning its barber protagonist for breaking the Hindu order, making him the butt of jokes – adopted an oppressor-caste lens. Almost half a century later, Shiv Pujan Sahay wrote Main Dhobi Hun (I am a Washerman), which too targeted its jokes at the oppressed caste.
Acharya Chatursen Shastri, writer of famous Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu, wrote a novel Bagula Ke Pankh, in which the Valmiki hero is continuously humiliated because of his caste. The writer tries to be funny, but it only depicts the irony.
Even in one of the most popular Hindi novels, Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari, all the social humour lives in the dominant-caste worldview, relegating the oppressed groups’ viewpoint to the corner.
There have been efforts in registering Dalit oppression in Indian literature such as Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, which was in English and Gandhian in nature; Premchand’s Godaan, Rangbhoomi and short stories Kafan and Sadgati. Manu Joseph’s Serious Men too has satirical episodes, but it lacks the Ambedkarite consciousness.
In these conditions, it is difficult to imagine satire emerging from the oppressed class that takes on the dominant ones. It is no wonder that the autobiographical tales of Dalit writers have been called as ‘Literature of Trauma’ by the general ‘upper caste’ populace. It is projected as lacking literary aesthetics, completely oblivious to the fact that aesthetics changes according to the culture, in this case Dalit culture and memory. This Brahaminical anxiety of society has to be countered satirically by the Dalit memory of society. To prevent the ‘mainstreaming’ of Dalit memory, to preserve its culture and, most importantly, in the process to be able to laugh at one’s own follies, satire is necessary.
For example, sometimes Dalit writings involve stories in which there is conflict between various Dalit castes and oppression of Dalit women by Dalit men. Omprakash Valimiki, through some of his short stories, stressed that Dalit is not a monolithic community but made up of several castes that follow the Brahminical order of hierarchy. The famous Tamil writer Bama has written about Dalit women in her novel Sangati. Her characters contain their humour, alongside their exploitation within and outside homes. As new-age Dalit Hindi writer-scholar Ajay Navaria said in an interview: “We are not Dalits 24 hours a day.” Sometimes, one is a writer who sees the ironies of society including in their own.
Also read: Kausalya Baisantri, an early Dalit woman autobiographer, fought a ‘double curse’
The path to Dalit satire
It is not that Dalit literature is completely devoid of satire; it’s just that in the internet age, it should bloom like all forms of literary writing and make its case nationally and internationally. The satire in Dalit literature is not explicit, for instance, Lakshman Gayakwad’s autobiography Uchalaya (The Branded) in Marathi, or Punjabi poet Lal Singh Dil’s autobiographical work Dastaan.
Rashmi Prakashan’s director, Hare Prakash Upadyay, who published several books of Dalit literature, says that satire and humour are present in Dalit writer’s autobiographical stories but as a literary ‘vidha’ (mode), it is largely absent in Hindi literature, which seems to be a product of its time.
Renowned Hindi writer Kalicharan Snehi sees satire and humour writings as part of a power structure. “At present, Dalits are fighting hand-to-hand with the oppressive social structure, so there is little requirement of satire writing. It is a direct fight so humour and satire are at the back of the mind. Draupadi mocked Duryodhana only after Pandavas gained power. When Dalits in power structure will be normalised, satire will automatically flow from their writings,” Snehi says.
Suresh Kumar, a young literary critic who writes regularly on Dalit literature, says that the presence of Dalits in social and political power structure will boost all forms of writing and not just Satire. In the US, he says, blacks have reached many powerful positions despite the inherent racism in American society, but the situation for India’s Dalits in this regard still looks grim.
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Seeds of modern satire
However, the seeds of modern satire have been sown in Dalit literature since the publication of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste. The statements in it are not only political but satirical also. In Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, there is a part “Unmitigated Blackness,” where the main character Bonbon is talking about the stages of blackness. If we are to compare the Black race literature and Dalit literature, there is a reverse parallel between Unmitigated Blackness and the Annihilation of Caste because both thrive on human frailty.
Rishabh is a Hindi author, blogger and has a keen interest in literature and cinema. He tweets @RPratipaksh. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)