04 February, 2010

The Jaipur Literature Festival : Twenty-First Century Identities

Himal South Asia Guest Blogger Sushma Joshi

Kancha Iiliah, writer of “Why I am not a Hindu,” talks about how Dalits are not just outcastes, they are “outwriters.” Their literature is not seen to be valid, people are not interested to read what they write. People ask and say: Can there be such a thing as Dalit literature? If there can be Vedic literature, and Bhakti literature, and Marxist literature, and Gandhian literature, why can’t there be Dalit literature, asks Iiliah.

Om Prakash Valmiki also picks up on the same thread: “We are not Hindus, we are Dalits.” The violence still faced by the majority of Dalits in India and other parts of the subcontinent is directly caused by Hindu thought. God cannot be touched by the untouchables in Hinduism, and this, says Kancha Iiliah, is spiritual fascism.

From the Current issue: L. Brueck on Dalit Literature

Art by Rumen Dragostinov
P.Sivakami, a Dalit female writer who shook up her community with her critiques of patriarchy within the Dalit community in her book The Grip of Change, talked about one incident in which she was in charge of distributing bicycles to Dalit schoolgirls. The girls chosen, the government bureaucrats exclaimed, couldn’t be Dalits—because they were too beautiful. What they meant, explained P. Sivakami, is that they expected girls who were poor, malnourished and ill-dressed.

Iiliah couldn’t resist taking a dig at S Anand, the khadi-dressed organizer of the panel—and a Brahmin. “Look at him, he’s still wearing Hindu clothes while we wear these suits that Ambedkar told us to,” he joked. “Give me your coat!” responded S Anand, pulling at Iliah’s coat in mock dismay. Illiah also points out that caste has a distinct racial history. “Why do you think he looks like this, and we look like this?” he asks. After a bit of discussion, the panel agrees that caste has become pretty mixed up and there is no longer any racial purity left–however, discrimination is still deeply entrenched. “A group of Dalits changed their names and started to use Sharma,” said Valmiki. “And now the Brahmins in that area no longer use Sharma.”

“How can you people be so backward,” exclaimed one foreign-returned Indian, who cited South Africa and his puzzlement that Indians were apparently the only people in the world still practicing such racial apartheid. Of course, this enlightened gentleman’s observation immediately brought to the room the sense that the Dalit case was not unique–indeed, racial and religious discrimination still existed all over the world still.

Next out in the front lawn, Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize winning author from Nigeria, gave a beautiful rendering of a praise song. “Praise songs are meant to be hypnotic and mesmerizing,” he said. “Sometimes people who return from foreign countries and hear praise songs of their lineages and they become dizzy. You feel your head expanding.” I for one had to press down on the top of my head for a few seconds to make sure nothing was exploding out of there after that mesmerizing moment. Wole explained that he had staged a play with a praise song and certain suggestible actors had to be asked to leave since the drumming, the incantation and all the other powerful forces was getting too much for them and they were getting into a trance. It was better, he explained, that they be off the stage. The oral storytelling power that Wole brought to his reading, the sense of a griot out on the podium hypnotizing the crowd with metaphors of the road, the search, the constant dissatisfaction…It was almost as if, like a line in his poetry, that “strange voices were guiding my feet” and the horseman galloped on to a new sense of being as I listened to him read.

Wole Soyinka, asked about the religious conflicts in his country, said: “This is a virus.And it has spread all over the world.” Two hundred people died recently, he said, in one of these incidents. He grew up, he said, listening to church bells next to the muezzin’s call for prayer. Muslims sent over meat to their neighbors on Ramadan, and the Christians sent over rice and other gifts on Christmas. “I’m right, you’re wrong has now become I’m right, you’re dead,” he said dryly. He sounded bewildered, a little bit, that those tolerant times seem to be past.

Soyinka then talked about his year of solitary confinement, and how he used bones to make pens, and coffee as ink, to write poetry in the margins of books people brought in for him and then smuggled out. “I believe in forgiveness and reconciliation,” he said. “But sometimes you have to be careful since these people are incorrigible, and you can’t be too forgiving. But most of all, I believe in restitution.”

An audience member, responding to his beautiful rendition of a poem in Yoruba, asked him: How do you maintain your Yoruba identity in this age of contamination? “You must maintain a core identity even in a contaminated world,” said Soyinka.

In the Mughal Tent, Isabel Hilton and Tenzing Tsundue debated another fragment of the global story on how to hold on to an identity in another kind of pulverizing force—a nation state intent on wiping out the identity of a people. Hilton talks about Tibetan nomads who are being resettled in barracks in the middle of the desert, with no work. They are given some compensation which they finish within the year. Then they are stuck there, with no work. Herding has been made illegal, and not just a way of life could be gone. Tibetan nomads are to be “settled” within the next two years. “It could be too late very soon,” she says. There is silence in the audience as we digest this.

“How can Obama dare to give our country away?” Asks Tsundue, who has just been asked by William Dalrymple, moderator, about that famous President’s statement that Tibet will always be part of the Republic of China. “What right does he have?”

Hilton had different views. Since China will never give up Tibet due to its strategic location, its water resources, and the sense of it being a part of larger China, she said, it may be more practical to think about ways in which Tibetans can have an easier life, and how their way of life can survive, in this reality [See The new relationship in Himal December 2009 for the evolving political relationship to Tibet in the region]. This is what we should be negotiating about, she said. “The Chinese government is not a monolith,” she said. “As somebody said, government is often a big issue run by little people.”

Tsundue, with the undying hope of the exile, didn’t agree. “Freedom cannot be given: it has to be taken,” he said simply. “It has to be worked at. It is not what China will give or not give. They will leave when their interests are exhausted.”

“It is very dangerous for Tibet,” Isabel Hilton said, “To see the Dalai Lama as the embodiment of Tibet. After his death, there will be a big void. We need more secular voices. Where is the cultural Tibet–the writers, artists and thinkers? We need to work to create a new cultural idea of Tibet.”

And this, perhaps may have been the food for thought for today—that all the discrimination faced by Dalits, all the religious terror wrought on minorities in Nigeria, all the persecution faced by Tibetans–all of this could perhaps be moderated, perhaps even shifted to another level, by bringing down the religious volume and putting more secular voices on the dias. And by creating new cultural identities of what it means to be a Dalit or a Bhramin, a Nigerian Christian or Nigerian Muslim, or a Chinese or a Tibetan of the twenty-first century.

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