Saturday, February 27, 2010

Untouchable prejudice: Dalit literature

A VIBRATION of sympathy ran through the audience at the recent Jaipur Literary Festival in Rajasthan as author Omprakash Valmiki, his voice trembling with indignation, spoke of the daily humiliations suffered by his community.
As one of India's 160 million ''untouchables'', Valmiki is part of an emerging genre of writers now telling their stories of centuries of abuse under the rigid and hierarchical Hindu caste system. Brimming with anger and bitterness at the injustices meted out by upper caste Hindus for more than 2000 years, the writing has a singular quality to it: raw and jagged, full of anger and pain.
His people, Valmiki told the audience, were not allowed to wear decent clothes, ride on a horse during marriage processions, draw water from the village well or remain seated while an upper caste person was standing.
Indeed, the very word ''untouchable'' hurts - denoting a status so lowly it falls outside the caste system, a system that deems untouchables too filthy for higher castes to touch, and which has in the past decreed that molten lead be poured into the ears of untouchables who tried to memorise Hindu sacred texts, and that the tongues be cut from upstarts who dared to read them.
Hardly surprising then that many of India's 160 million untouchables would rather be known by a term of their own choosing, ''Dalit'' - the word is derived from the Sanskrit for destroyed or crushed - much as African Americans rejected ''Negro'' during the civil rights movement in the US.
As Valmiki spoke, the largely upper caste audience almost visibly winced with embarrassment. Dalit children, he continued, were seated apart in school, forced to sweep the classroom and given water in different glasses. Upper caste Hindus refused to be treated by a Dalit doctor or rent their homes to Dalits for fear of ''pollution''.

Full report here The Age

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