Dalit Literature: What It Is, Why Should You Read It, and Where to Start

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Dee Das

Staff Writer

Trying to live, love, and say it well in good sentences. Pronouns: she/her. Contact:

In an era when issues regarding human rights occupy the central stage, literary portrayals of marginalized communities are of utmost importance. Dalit literature is an attempt to bring to the fore the discrimination, brutality, and ostracization faced by the Dalit community in India. The members of the Dalit community have been pushed to the margins and their lived experiences have been disregarded by the majority. Their stories have been deemed unworthy to be written about.

The advent of Dalit literature, comprising poems, novels, memoirs, and the like, is rectifying this situation slowly by depicting the nuances of the Dalit culture. Dalit literature is one of the most important literary phenomena in post-independence India that is trying to restore dignity to a community that has been wronged for ages. Their struggles relating to their stigmatized identity as “untouchables” are finally being acknowledged. Dalit literature has become synonymous with the Dalit consciousness, on both individual and communal levels. The writings of B.R. Ambedkar, Joitirao Phule, and Periyar constitute the foundation of Dalit sociopolitical movements and literary productions. 

Why Is Incorporating Dalit Literature In Your TBR Important?

1) Dalits are an important part of Indian society. Since ancient times they have been subjugated by the upper caste. Dalit literature is the much-needed outburst of the exploited people who have been robbed of their identities. It’s high time we make space for the self-narratives of Dalit authors that talk about their suppressed anger and the legacy of ill-treatment inflicted on them by the upper caste.

2) For years, Dalits have been forced into work considered inferior by the upper caste. (For example, butchering, leatherwork, cleaning of rubbish, manual scavenging, etc.) As a result, Dalits were segregated and kept away from participating in mainstream culture. They were not allowed access to communal places of worship and quality education. How long will we as a society keep ignoring the rich literary potential of an entire community to keep feeding on the superiority complex of the upper caste?

3) Dalit literature speaks of revolts, not passivity. It inspires progress despite all odds, not backwardness. This message can be beneficial for the entire world where many communities are still held captive by the self-interests of the oppressor. Dalit literature urges its readers to fight for both bread and roses. The history of injustice this community has been suffering needs to stop once and for all, and Dalit literature takes a step towards bringing in a brighter tomorrow.

a photo of a woman spreading her hair during sunset
Photo by Aditya Saxena on Unsplash

A Beginners’ Guide To Dailt Literature

If you’re looking to explore more of the world of Dalit Literature, the following recommendations might be helpful.

Cover of When I Hid My Caste

When I Hid My Caste: Stories by Baburao Bagul, Translated by Jerry Pinto

Through the experiences of the people pushed to the fringes of our society, Bagul portrays the rage and horror that define the Dalit community. His refusal to sugarcoat for the sake of the comfort of the upper caste readers has been an important step towards revolutionizing Dalit literature. The depiction of the vicious caste system and the repercussions suffered by its victims is raw and thought-provoking.

Cover of Poisoned Bread

Poisoned Bread: Translations From Modern Marathi Dalit Literature by Arjun Dangle

This anthology consists of essays, short stories, speeches, poetry, and autobiographical extracts. After being silenced for centuries, the Dalits of Maharashtra won’t have it any longer. Thanks to the social movement launched by Dr. Ambedkar, their voices are finally being recognized. This extraordinary anthology has made a significant contribution to the field of Dalit literature.

Cover of Love After Babel And Other Poems

Love After Babel and Other Poems by Chandramohan S

This politically charged poetry collection by Dalit poet Chandramohan S sheds light on caste-based oppression and how it causes deep-seated impacts that can’t be undone overnight. He also expresses his solidarity with various other marginalized groups and discusses how instances of Islamophobia and gender violence have become rampant in contemporary India.

Cover of Seasons Of The Palm

Seasons Of The Palm by Perumal Murugan, Translated By V. Geetha

Translated from Tamil, this book tells the story of a Dalit boy working for a non-Dalit family. The relationships he shares with his family and the goats he herds have been portrayed with a lot of care. No matter how hard he tries to cling to happiness, the daily humiliations of untouchability and hunger never leave his side.

Cover of Karukku

Karukku by Bama, Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom

When Bama Faustina left the convent and wrote her own autobiography, her language was labeled unacceptable by the Tamil publishing industry. Therefore, she published her work privately in 1992. This memoir breaks traditional boundaries and is a classic example of subaltern writing. Revolving around caste-related oppression within the Catholic Church, this book is an excellent sketch of the conflicts between the individual and the community.

Even though we still have miles to go, Dalit literature is surely a step towards an equal and just world. If you’re interested in delving deeper into this sub-genre and how caste operates in Indian society, check out 6 Books On Caste To Read After Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste.