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Literary Construction of Dalit Identity:

A Critical Engagement with Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable and Sharmila Rege’s Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonios


The church bell rang

Everyone entered in

The ajan heard from mosque

Everyone entered in

The bell of temple rang

Some entered in

And some stood out.’

-Sharan Kumar Limbale, Marathi Dalit Writer.[1]

The construction of the nationalist historiography of India has been overwhelmingly dominated by the mainstream literature, overshadowing the echoes of the unheard voices that have struggled for decades to create a space of knowledge of their own. Profoundly affected by marginality, the Dalit community in India has long stood the test of time in creating its own sphere of representation in the national literary discourse.

Although Dalit writing can be traced centuries back in Indian history, it received its impetus in the 20th century, especially in the form of a separate identity as ‘marginal literature’ or Dalit literature— the term becoming a category for the Dalit rhetoric after its maiden usage in the 1958 Dalit Conference, Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Society. However, it would be noteworthy to keep in consideration that the word Dalit is a modern terminology, labelled by the community itself after the dawn of the literary movement of the 1950s-60s and the rise of the Dalit Panthers, although it is also believed that Ambedkar had coined the word in his writings in Bahishkrut Bharat in 1928. Earlier attributed the names of untouchable or harijan, the Dalit identity took a new shape with their increased literary voice. Arjun Dangle in his work Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature, defines Dalit literature as given: “Dalit literature is one which acquaints people with the caste system and untouchability in India, its appalling nature and its system of exploitation. In other words, Dalit is not a caste but a realization and is related to the experiences, joys and sorrows, and struggles of those in the lowest stratum of society. It matures with a sociological point of view and is related to the principles of negativity, rebellion and loyalty to science, thus finally ending as revolutionary.”[2]

Standing in stark opposition to the overt literary hegemony of the subcontinent, Dalit writing saw its awakening as the need of the hour to establish a unique endeavour of its own. In relation to this argument, notable literary critic Alok Mukherjee highlights the ‘Dalit way of writing’ as a significant critical intervention into the overarching literary representative.[3] Owing largely to the contributions of the undisputed representative of Dalit identity Dr. B.R Ambedkar, Dalit literature began its journey with the defining and redefining of Ambedkarite thoughts, instituting their own literary aesthetics— a combination of reality marked strikingly through flavours of creativity. However, Dalit voice has also been brought to national importance by many non-Dalit writers who have taken utmost pain as well as pleasure to reconstruct Dalit experiences. Drawing on this aspect, here an attempt is being made to retell the construction of Dalit-ism with a critical approach to the analysis of two Dalit works from two separate literary genres—Untouchable, a fictional work of Mulk Raj Anand and Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonios, an academic retelling of Dalit narratives through the “female” lenses by Sharmila Rege.

Fictional writing as a literary approach has played a crucial role throughout the nationalist construction of Indian identity. Some of the notable works in this relation are Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s Rajmohan’s Wife, Raja Rao’s Kanthapura and The Serpent and the Rope. However, the uniqueness of Untouchable is the author’s attempt to bring into the sphere of recognition, the Dalit dimensions (Mention must be made that for an easier understanding, the term Dalit has been used here although the term was used much later in the 60s-almost after three decades of the publication of Untouchable). Published in 1935, Anand brings out a strong reproduction of the downtrodden status of the Dalit community, the title itself signifying it in a remarkable manner. A fictional account that brings into the reader’s attention a paradoxically indefinable realistic narrative of the life of a teenage boy named Bakha who is a sweeper. Anand, according to Saros Cowasjee introduced an entirely separate voice into the literary realm that is seldom represented—that of the untouchables.[4] No wonder, it is mostly referred to as a realist fiction. Untouchable exhibits the identity of the untouchables that is characterised by the stark every day realities in their socio-political and historical existence. With the historical location of the author’s plot in the fictional town of Bulashah in the early 20th century, the novel presents the simultaneous role of Gandhi in his untiring efforts for India’s independence and also for an end to untouchability. The foremost determiner of the socio-political and economic pathos of the “untouchables” has been the centuries-old caste system which is the centrality of the novel and the development of Bakha’s story revolves around its normativity, under undue stigmatisation of cyclical oppression that comes along with cruelties for generations; an instance in relation to this is the inescapable family occupation of Bakha, that has been passed to him through generations. The lifelong repressive experiences of the untouchables are best exemplified through Bakha’s powerful dialogues like:“For them I am a sweeper, sweeper — untouchable! Untouchable! Untouchable! That’s the word! Untouchable! I am an Untouchable!” or “Why are we always abused?”, where in the former the ‘them’ refers to the high-caste Hindus in the top of the caste hierarchy. Anand’s sensitive description of the tale of Bakha is emphasized through yet another way by which he establishes the vivid examples reflecting the notions of purity and pollution and how Dalits in our country are affected by marginality in the public space and how a moral as well as physical demarcation is put forth between them and the upper-castes. The best example would be the protagonist’s encounter with a man and begging for forgiveness owing to his accidental overlooking of his daily ‘ritualistic’ uttering “Posh,keep away, posh, sweeper coming, posh posh…”— a powerful rhetoric Anand applies with the literary device of repetition to showcase public segregation. The rejection of Indian roots is in part manifested by the conversion of Indians from Hinduism to Christianity where the former is mirrored by certain dispositions of the character of Bakha of which the best depiction is the strong imagery used by the author to picturize the humiliating tone of the British on the Indian way of defecation, highlighting the filthiness of the untouchables. “Kala admi zamin par hagne wala…(black man, you who relieve yourself on the ground).” , they remarked.  Bakha’s feeling of embarrassment and modelling his opinion on that of the whites shows an important element of Anand’s construction of Dalit identity which marks a strong emulous character of some Indians who were considerably accepting the British codes and cultural cognitions, even among the downtrodden communities like the untouchables. The use of clothing as a signifier of the caste, class and religious divide is also exemplified by the author by clearly mentioning the variations in the codes of attires. The early morning scenes depicting Hindu men in plain loincloth and Muslim men in trousers is a clear divide portraying the socio-cultural space occupied through cultural symbols. The interplay of power dimensions and upper-caste identity manifested through the use of gender as an agency to crush the existing humane condition of the untouchables, if any, is also touched upon by the author in relation to Sohini, Bakha’s younger sister who is sexually assaulted. As a realist, historical fiction, Untouchable carries with it social and historical allusions of the untouchables in myriad shapes and manners. It is equipped with a number of literary devices put to place aptly, starting from vivid imagery to irony. Imageries used to give a strong depiction are- ‘the “mud-walled” houses near a fetid, rank brook filled with the filth of the public latrine’ to picturize the living surroundings in Bulashah around Bakha’s home; ‘the odour of the hides and skins of dead carcasses left to dry’, ‘the dung of various livestock heaped up to be made into fuel cakes’ etc to describe the smells of the colony and the climax of the novel narrating the public humiliation faced by Bakha on the face of the high-caste man depicted through a powerful imagery through the narrator’s words reflecting Bakha’s feelings towards the incident as an ‘endless age’. Thus, Anand creates an overwhelming narrative that remains one of the most profound works in the history of Indian literature.

While Anand delivers to the audience a fictional account enmeshed in creativity, Sharmila Rege’s work Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonios is an exemple of a collection of a few Marathi Dalit women’s biographies through the process of “retelling” their personal accounts. These retellings were set against the backdrop of the upsurge of Dalit women’s testimonios, which challenged both the Dalit movement and the women’s movement as a counter narrative to the selective memory and univocal history of both. Her foremost argument is that caste has been considered as an over generalizing metonym for the conventional structures that are easily visible like the traditional forums of villages, rituals etc and a lack of social visibility of caste beyond them. While examining curricula of universities in Maharashtra, it was found that there was a near total absence of the politics of lived experience of caste in the courses and Rege makes an attempt here to address this void. With a critical eye as a response to the challenges put forward by the Dalit feminist articulations of the 1990s towards the concepts of ‘genderless caste’ and ‘casteless gender’, the author particularly brings into the light the larger separation of gender dynamics as a category of analysis from the framework of caste/ caste studies. The broader invisibility of women’s issues within the readings on caste in the area of Gender and Dalit studies is what Rege takes as her standpoint to construct this work consisting of her own effort at translating the lived experiences of caste as articulated in Dalit women’s autobiographies. Moreover, despite the contributions of women’s studies lately to the questioning of the marginalisation of gender as a category of analysis in mainstream disciplines, the hegemonic control of the classical frameworks of caste over it has been overpowering. Rege argues how the construction of academic curriculum of both undergraduate and postgraduate course in some universities in Maharashtra was characterized by the lack of presence of the “Indian women” by caste and that the feminist construction of their identity and experiences were limited to mere issues of divorce and other similar issues. The problem of invisibility of Dalit women as a unique category for analysis under caste issues is another objective by which the author proceeds with the significance of the “women question” in reconstructing the notion of caste so that the dichotomies of ‘genderless caste’ and ‘casteless gender’ can be overcome.

In reference to this, Rege in her next argument, attempts to present the spurt in the publishing of Dalit life narratives in English in relation to the political scenario behind it that determines the construction of Dalit identity. Among them are the prioritisation of certain type of literature and control of publishing by some Non-Dalits and also the politics of selecting the translator and his/her selected work. Rege brings out the major characteristic of the reader’s construction of the Dalit narratives as merely narratives of pain without having to engage in critical study of Ambedkarism, a reason that perhaps justifies their popularity. We see a diverse layer of arguments in this regard as to how Dalit identity is constructed in the narratives—while one is in context of a mere presentation of individual dispositions and their failure in representing a collective pain, another argues the relevance of the construction in regards to the acceptability of the readers, keeping at par with the larger socio-cultural, political and economic transformations; for example, it is reasoned that the Dalit autobiography that flourished under liberalism holds no adequacy for the cultural taste of the Indian middle class under neo-liberalism. In context of the spatial and temporal aspects of Dalit life narratives, Rege brings into emphasis the different ways by which Dalit scholars have contested for their epistemological construction—while some have argued in its favor with focus on the political importance of the genre and its ability to promote human freedom through its historical emphasis, some others have criticized it as the process of “digging out stench from hateful waste bins of the past.”

In the collection of the biographies, Rege along with Maya Pandit bring into life the richness of the oral narratives of the different Marathi women, each signified by their uniqueness and elements of life experiences, from a common Dalit feminist standpoint. It should be kept in mind that the arrangement of the accounts has been done chronologically and thematically from which we can infer that Rege and Pandit had a historical approach to reconstructing them. The retelling of the autobiographies through careful articulation of the chronicles results in a highly sensitive yet rich description of the subject’s worldly understandings. To do so is not an easy task as it requires skillful comprehension of the narratives and both Rege and Pandit have done full justice to it. While the commonality lies in the context of the ‘women question’ within the Dalit consciousness and the general grounds of socio-economic experiences within the political space, each story however is marked by a unique sense of the subject’s immediate space, cultural upbringing and locating herself within her own ideological perspectives. As a result, the inner dynamics with the same overarching element of Dalit identity vary from one to another. The accounts also give an impression that the differences in geographical distribution of the subjects merged with the cultural implantations also have an impact on their insights into their personal experiences. One of the most important aspects of these accounts is the construction of the identities through the subject’s recollection of memory which had in it the histories of humiliation, resistance and domination. Another important component that forms a common symbol of their representation is their association with food and memories of poverty that manifested through the symbolic feeling of hunger. The characteristic descriptions of the unique items in Dalit food habits which are also at times representative of their poverty are a striking feature in their identity construction. For example, in the retelling of the autobiography of Baby Kondiba Kamble, Jinne Amuche (Our Lives), Rege writes, “Early morning tea with leftover bread from the night before was a feature unique to Babybai’s home. For other households, there was no morning tea. Whether or not other homes had food depended on the bags of stale bread and fermented curry that the children received as alms in the village. Their mothers would light the fire and put the fermented curry and stale bread together to boil in the earthen pot.”[5] Similarly, the notions of purity and pollution as an everyday experience are reflected through a powerful sequence in the narrative of Shantabai Dhanaji Dani as an incident of separate dining in the cattle shed that stunk of urine and dug, a reminder of their impurity which she had to follow along with her father during a Holi feast. The conversation between her and her father in relation to this incidence is given below:-

 “What is pollution” I asked.

 “We cannot touch them.”

“What will happen if we touch them?”

“What else will happen— the one who touches and the one touched will become sinners.”

“What is sin?”

“That which is not a good deed.”

“What is a good dead?”

“Good deed is a good thing and sin is a bad thing.”  Father summarised in simple words.

“Are we not human beings?”

“Yes of course we are.”

“Then these people touch cats and dogs then why not us?”

“Do not ask so many questions. Eat quickly.”[6]

This dialogue is a mirror to the thousands of Dalit sentiments that lie in the root of questioning their own identity and social status. The role of education that played a significant role in the lives of majority of these women, however saw different shades in its light. For example, while in the story of Shantabai Krishnaji Kamble, her memories of school in her childhood is a reflection of both stigma and success, on the other hand Janabai Kachru Girhe recalls her struggles in her family as opposing stands that her parents took. An excerpt from Shantabai’s experience as the authors have translated:

“Shantabai recalls how Kamble Master registered children from the chambarwada, maharwada and the mangwada. Many of the children had no shirts or caps but Kamble master understood all this and taught with passion. Kamble Master’s commitment and rootedness in the community is obvious in the incidents that Shantabai narrates. She recalls how when they were in the second standard, Dharmya, a student from the mangwada, came late to school with a stained shirt. When Kamble master asked him about this he said that he had been eating ‘gudsa’ and that his shirt had got stained while he was breaking it. Kamble master who knew the importance of such a rare meal for the child told him that it was a good thing that he ate ‘gudsa’. However, he underlined the importance of washing hands and feet after a meal and before coming to school. But things changed as they had to go to a different school in the third standard where Patil master would make them sit outside the class and they were not allowed to touch him…[7] On the other hand, a first person narrative in Janabai’s account as translated by the authors reflect stigma and oppression:

“Don’t at all remember the exact date and time now. God knows what Ba was thinking about. One day he just got up in the morning, shook me awake and said, “Girl, wash your face, have tea and come along. You’re going to school.” So I brushed my teeth with ash in the chul, threw some water on my face, drank black tea without any milk and holding his hand, set out to the village. But no sooner had we started than Aaji (grandmother) pounced on Ba, “Hey you, what the hell do you think you are doing? Slipping out with the child! That girl goes after a buffalo, goes begging; and instead of letting her work, what bloody thing are you making her do now? You got a bloody swollen head, haven’t you? Then it was Maay’s turn. She pulled my hand away from Ba’s roughly and dragged me away.”[8]

Dalit music also played a crucial part of their identity construction. It was an integral part in many of the occasions in their lives-be them marriage rituals and festivals or as a symbol of political protest. Babytai recalls one such folk song during a marriage ceremony sung to bid farewell to the bride by her family:

Zhalubai Zhalu, in the courtyard,

There were trees, full of berries,

On them sat the son-in-law, the thief,

The one to whom she belonged, took her away,

The maddening affection all gone waste,

Zhalubai Zhalu, in the courtyard were the flowers of Jaijui,

Do not cry oh dear crazy mother,

Zhalubai Zhalu, in the courtyard was a white Champak tree,

Do not cry oh dear crazy father,

Zhalubai Zhalu, a pack of birds flew in,

Do not cry oh dear crazy brother…[9]

This song also reflects the cultural importance attached to different symbols of Dalit identity. For example, the berry trees, the Champak tree and the Jaijui flowers of the courtyard create a strong imagery of the inanimate representations of her immediate environment. Likewise, several other thematic elements constitute these testimonies providing a deep vision of their lives. These oral narratives of the women are not only a portrayal of the individual’s life alone but it is in relation to her larger surrounding and how she communicates with herself and her community. However, it would be worthwhile to pay attention to the fact that the pattern of construction of these women’s identities is also largely affected by the authors’ approach of translation because here again, the political dynamics influence the choice of words to be used to substitute the original expressions. Moreover, also in the process of translation, the writer’s manner of selecting from amongst the narrations is also a crucial indicator of how the identities are constructed.

On a comparative note in relation to both the works, it can be argued that while Anand takes a fictional stand which is however based on real life situations and his powers of empirical observations, Rege takes the advantage of her position as an academician to mark the gaps and also oral narratives as a tool to provide an inclusive identity to Dalit women within the arena of the study of Dalit movement and caste analysis. The relevance and importance of retelling the Dalit experiences of these women lie not only in the fact that they are being able to achieve an added advantage of being women along with the Dalit identity but also because of the fact that Marathi is not only the language spoken in Maharashtra by the majority of the population but it is also the vehicle of one of the most ancient literatures of the Indian subcontinent, which knows a tremendous modern development since it started interacting with western literary genres in the middle of the 19th century.[10] Rege comments how these testimonios seek to engage not only with the inherent identity of Dalit women as a unitary group but also its process of evolution in the context of individual experiences of struggles.

In conclusion, it would be necessary to conceptualise that today Dalit literature is a comprehensive revolutionary category that represent all the marginal voices that are in quest to be heard of. For radical Dalit thinkers like Baburao Bagul, it is constructed and extended as to carry the history of the revolutionary struggles of all oppressed people, and has the ‘ontological ability to define itself with all the lower castes, tribal people, toiling classes and women.’[11] Thus,‘Dalitness’ in India is multi-layered and becomes an organic part of all the people belonging to mass society.



[1]Sajjan Singh, “Dalit literature in India: An Agitation to a Genre.” International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities. 2016. Pg. 230.

[2]Babubhai J Chaudhari, “Dalit Inscription in Indian Literature: A New Stance.” International Journal of Innovative Knowledge Concepts. 2015. Pg. 18

[3] Babubhai J Chaudhari, ibid. Pg. 18

[4]Dr. Prakash M Joshi, “Social Aspects in Mulk Raj Anand’s ‘Untouchable’.” Research Scholar.2013. Pg. 2

[5] Sharmila Rege. “Babybai Kondiba Kamble (1929)- Jinne Amuche; Our Lives(1986) ”Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonios. 2006. Pg. 202.

[6]Sharmila Rege. Ibid. “ Shantabai Dhanaji Dani (1919-2001)- Ratrandin Amha, For Us-These Nights and Days (1990)” Pg. 100.

[7]Sharmila Rege. Ibid. “Shantabai Krishnaji Kamble (1923) - Majya Jalmachi Chittrakatha; The Kaleidoscope Story of My Life (1998)” Pg. 168.

[8]Sharmila Rege. Ibid. “Janabai Kachru Girhe (1958) -                 Marankala; Deathly Pains (1992)” Pg.326-327.

[9] Sharmila Rege. “Babytai Kondiba Kamble” Op cit. Pg. 201.

[10] Guy Poitevin, “Dalit Autobiographical Narratives : Figures of Subaltern Consciousness, Assertion and Identity.” Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences. 2002. Retrieved from:

[11] Guy Poitevin, Ibid.

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