It’s a humid evening in April when I meet Ashalata Kamble in her suburban Mumbai home, a short distance from the local railway station. A warm and generous host, she teaches literature at Mumbai University and regularly lectures on Ambedkarite Buddhism around the state. She also researches the early writings of Buddhist nuns and is an active feminist poet.

All these combine to make her an important addition for my research on women writers of Dalit literature. Ashalata brings rapt attention to our meeting and speaks with dignity and a measure of pride.

“I write because as a child I watched the population in anguish. I walked through thorny stretches, tall mountains and deep valleys and saw and felt the pain there. I touched that soft red soil—a pleasant touch—and experienced midday’s prickly heat. I was an eyewitness when my mother used to make bamboo baskets all night in the light of kerosene lamps, and then took them to the market in the early morning. I watched my mother and other women in Konkan go through hell. These women’s woes have been permanently inscribed inside me, and have formed a stockpile deep in my heart. I write because of their pain.”

Ashalata is one of a dozen women in Mumbai today who publish Dalit literature, though the label “Dalit” is increasingly being replaced with “Ambedkarite” or sometimes, though less frequently, “Neo-Buddhist”. Maharasthra’s Dalit feminist literary movement began in Mumbai in the 1960s. But it was not until the decade spanning 1985 to 1995 that Dalit women’s voices truly began to be heard.

When I arrived in India last year under the auspices of a Fulbright grant, I wanted to find out why women across Maharashtra are so deeply committed to social change through the political process despite persistent and severe challenges. Beginning with a four-month language course in Marathi, I was led to read the books and essays which inspire the politically active women who were the subjects of my research, and the first thing I noticed was the constant repetition of the name “Ambedkar”. Over and over I heard this name.

Gradually, the centrifugal pull of Ambedkar and his legacy made it clear to me that the only lens through which to understand women’s involvement in civic life and leadership in Maharashtra today is through that of the Dalit movement he awakened, and the women he inspired to write for the Dalit cause. In the voices of these texts I heard a freshness, strength and integrity; these writers and their writings, to a large extent unrecognised outside their immediate circle, held a powerful allure.


Ambedkar was born into the Mahar community, a sub-caste of the untouchables, which is considered even lower than the lowest caste in the Hindu Varna system. From 1927 until his death in 1956, Ambedkar was the leader of the movement to end untouchability.  One of his first actions of note occurred in 1928 when he led the public burning of the Manusmriti.  Just months before he died, in October 1956, he led the historic conversion of five lakh Hindus to Buddhism in Nagpur, Maharashtra, freeing them from the constraints of the caste system.

Perhaps as a result of Ambedkar’s insistent and resounding call to his followers—and especially women—to pursue education, a large majority of the Mahar community in Maharashtra now receives basic education, and are second only to Brahmins as the most educated community in the state. This is astonishing when one considers that in the 1920s, when notice of Ambedkar’s campaign to end untouchability first began appearing in articles in periodicals and newspapers (several, such as Prabuddha Bharat, Mooknayak, and Janata, started by himself), only an estimated three per cent of the Mahar population
could read.

From its earliest days, now almost a century ago, literature was a central pillar of the Ambedkar movement. According to several women I interviewed, “Dalit literature and the Dalit movement are two sides of the same coin.”

It was perhaps a natural progression from Ambedkar’s focus on education and literacy, then, that after the mass conversions of 1956, Dalits began to publish autobiographies and poetry. The first works, written primarily by men, sought to expose and protest their extreme exploitation. At their first Dalit literature conference in Mumbai in 1958, these writers defined what Dalit literature should consist of, and drew the many diverse yet similarly themed efforts into a cohesive literary movement. In 1972, inspired by the civil rights movement in the US, a group of men in Mumbai formed the political organization called the Dalit Panthers (named after the Black Panthers in the US). Its primary founders—Namdeo Dhasal, Arun Kamble, and J. V. Pawar—published fiery essays and articles protesting the segregation and dehumanising subjugation of Dalits. At this time, Dalit literature burst out of the confines of its own subgroup to be read by other castes in Maharashtra, and eventually by Indian society at large.

Though few women wrote Dalit protest literature circa 1970s, their contributions can be found as early as the 1940s. In We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement, Meenakshi Moon and Urmila Pawar discuss these earliest contributions.

Dalit literature is moving from the articulation of the experience of humiliation to humanism, and from agitation to transformation.

At that time, Sharda Shewale provoked a debate among readers of the weekly newspaper, Janata, as a result of her statement that members of her caste should replace burial with the more practical method of cremation used by Brahmins. Writer Saraswati contended that birth control should be the responsibility of both men and women.

“Independent Saru,” a story written by Drapadibai Shekwal, also published in these early days, describes the life of an “untouchable woman who faces unimaginable poverty, but lives her life with self-esteem, showing no sense of servility or self-pity” (Pawar & Moon, 2008). 

There is testimony as well to the inspiring influence of Ambedkar. Nalini Balwant Salve from Satara, in an article entitled “A Living Flame”, describes the reactions of the crowds upon first seeing him: “As they meet him, the bodies which seem to shine black through ragged clothes, are filled with love till they spill over. Tears of joy mingled with the sweat on their bodies; what a sweet confluence.”

  ***

By 2010, according to Urmila Pawar, there were at least 56 known Marathi Dalit women writers. With this explosion of literary expression, readers were finally exposed to what life was like for Dalit women—a demographic that, one could argue, suffers more oppression than any other in Indian society.

The exposure of what life is really like for Dalit women coincides with a powerful shift in the emphasis of Dalit literature. This shift is key in understanding the relationship between Dalit literature and its effect on women’s social and political activism in Maharashtra.

Sharmila Rege, a sociology professor at Pune University well known for her research on Dalit women writers, wrote, “Dalit literature is moving from the articulation of the experience of humiliation to humanism, and from agitation to transformation.” What was driving these women writers to move away from life narratives to more “transformative” mediums such as theatre and short stories?

I made a list of nine writers: Kavita Morevaonkar and Shilpa Kamble, in their 30s, are the youngest in the group; Chhaya Koregaonkar, Sharda Navle, Ashalata Kamble and Padma Nikam are all in their 50s; and Usha Ambhore, Hira Bansode and Urmila Pawar, are in their 70s. I also met with a number of Marathi women writers from non-Dalit communities, as well as with various literary scholars.

This article focuses on my conversations with Kavita Morevaonkar, Shilpa Kamble, Urmila Pawar and Hira Bansode. Nonetheless, it is informed by my encounters with each of these nine writers in some way.

***

April in Mumbai is wrapped in summer heat and the smell of ripe mangoes. When I arrive at many of these writers’ homes, the security guards usher me in as if they were their personal secretaries. Inside, mantel-tops and dresser ledges are crowded with Buddhist statues, literary prizes, trophies, and photos from ceremonies in which the writers have been honoured. Invariably, overseeing the room, is the bespectacled image of Dr Ambedkar, framed and hung with a garland of marigolds.

We try to awaken society through our writing. Even today, people’s perspectives towards women haven’t changed. Although we don’t practice sati, it doesn’t mean we have stopped all similar practices.

Today I am in search of Kavita’s Morevaonkar’s home, in Lower Parel. An elderly man selling incense points me toward a staircase behind his shop. At the top of the stairs, I emerge through a doorway to the first level of a courtyard shaft, into which open hundreds of doors, each revealing its own activity.

The walls are water-stained grey and slate green, and intricate patterns of moss dance along their crevices. Each floor seems to melt into the next. Children’s screeches ricochet while light footsteps scamper up and down the stairs. Wet clothes are draped along the edges of the shaft like multi-coloured banners, sending heavy drips to its base, dampening the already thick air.  Every so often, the flapping wings of pigeons drowns out the rest of the clamour.

I sit with Kavita Morevaonkar and her mother in her living room. At 36, Kavita is poised, expressive and confident, with pleasant features. She has long dark hair and is attired in casual dress in preparation for a day of work (she teaches Marathi and history at a Marathi-medium school), and for her responsibilities as a mother of two young daughters. Her home is longer than it is wide, with a small kitchenette and bathroom that connect to a midsize living room. The walls are lined with neat piles of bedding and other belongings, tucked away during the day. The window at the far end of the room overlooks the road.

I ask Kavita, “Why do you write?”

“We try to awaken society through our writing. Even today, people’s perspectives towards women haven’t changed. Although we don’t practice sati anymore, it doesn’t mean we have stopped all similar practices. Today, if a woman is walking on the street late at night, people say lewd things. I answer back to these comments with my poems. I am trying, in my way, to raise questions and to change people through my writing. I feel that this is my
contribution.”

Kavita’s family supports her writing, and take pride in her awards and positive responses from readers. Her family is smaller than it used to be: her sister died of a terminal illness and her brother committed suicide. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Siddhartha College—that Ambedkar established in 1946—Kavita completed a master’s in Marathi literature. The first of her 70 poems appeared in 1999 and her first poetry collection, Mukta, in 2007. (Mukta is also the name of her oldest daughter.)  In 2014, Kavita published a collection of children’s poems, and most recently, she has written and directed a well-received theatre production about Jyotirao Phule, the 19th century Maharashtrian social activist.

Kavita writes in a variety of genres, but today she tells me about writing fiction. “Sometimes while writing stories and poetry we imagine things haven’t happened yet or that don’t tend to happen. We say, what would happen if this occurred? What would be the repercussions of this if it were to happen? People might start thinking about it. We cannot read their minds but if we write about our convictions, even if fictitious, it may affect people in a positive way.”

 Though Kavita’s writing reflects the main preoccupations of Dalit literature, she focuses less often on Ambedkar’s work and teachings than many of her older contemporaries do. In this respect she is like Shilpa Kamble, three years her senior.

***

Shilpa published Nilya Dolyachi Mulgi (“Girl With Blue Eyes”), her first novel, three years ago. It’s about a friendship between two girls, one of whom has discovered Ambedkar and the other who has not. Shilpa says she chose to write a novel because, as critics had noted, Dalit writers had yet to produce one. Overall the book has received positive reviews from readers and critics both inside and outside of the Dalit literary circle.

Shilpa is dressed in a purple T-shirt and multi-coulored skirt. Her thick black hair is curly and shoulder length. She is dynamic, vivacious and attractive. When I ask if I can take her photo, she steps away momentarily and returns, having applied stylish black eyeliner and red lipstick.

Shilpa began writing because, as an avid reader, she was not able to find the kind of literature that interested her. Like many Marathi women her age who had a growing interest in feminism, she enjoyed reading books by the feminist author Gauri Deshpande, whose writing reflects upon her experiences growing up in an upper caste family in
urban Pune.

“At a very young age I was very influenced by Gauri Deshpande’s writing, but then I realised, if a girl from my group starts to behave like she did or starts to copy her, that girl cannot sustain the system. In her books, the gents are very gentle, good, loving. Though they have some confusion, they are good. But in real life, if a girl from my community starts to behave like this, she will be abused, thrown out and used.”

Shilpa discovered Dalit feminism while attending a lecture at Mumbai University. She felt the topic suited her personality. “I am a social activist. Even when I am dormant, I am an activist.”

Shilpa works as an income tax inspector in Dadar, Mumbai and speaks fluent English. She lives with her husband and five-year-old son in an apartment within a housing society paid for by her government job. The flat is clean, spacious, and completely taken over by her son’s artwork, which liberally decorates the walls. A small balcony crowded by lush foliage overlooks a courtyard garden.

When I arrive at her house in the afternoon, Shilpa is conversing with a young woman in her living room. She’s introduced as “my friend” and the three of us sit together there and briefly drink tea. Later I learn that the young woman is one of Shilpa’s two maids, one of whom arrives in the morning and the other in time to prepare
the evening meal.

The prosperity reflected in Shilpa’s living circumstances belies a past that she does not readily discuss. She spent her adolescence living in a Mumbai slum (her childhood was spent in a Dalit locality of slightly better condition). Her only sibling, a sister, has a mental disability and their father, now deceased, was an alcoholic. It is not until the third time that I meet with her, as we sit eating fried shrimp that her maid has prepared, that she tells me about her background.

Shilpa’s husband, who has just returned from work, sits nearby on the floor, reading an English newspaper, “Tell her about the exam,” he says. Shilpa tells me she studied for and passed the Indian civil service exam, one of the most difficult exams. Academics have always come easily to her.

Each of the women interviewed has a different story to tell regarding their discovery of Ambedkar. Shilpa’s story is that she was born a Buddhist, because at the time of her birth, her parents and grandparents had converted to Buddhism and had removed themselves from the Mahar caste under the influence of Ambedkar. Even so, in order to attend college, Shilpa was required to submit a record from the Mumbai courthouse saying she had converted to Buddhism and was no longer a Mahar.

Shilpa’s mother, born a Hindu, sometimes reverted to enacting some of the rituals of her childhood. Shilpa recollects, laughing, “Once my mother tried to take a photo of me and the goddess Lakshmi; there was a little struggle.” Shilpa describes the ways in which her son is exemplary of third-generation Buddhism. “At Ganpati festival, while everyone is worshipping my son says, ‘That is not my God’. That is the third generation. My generation is in conflict, but my son is clear—he knows his God.”

Shilpa has never considered writing an account of her life. “I am not important enough to write an autobiography,” she says, “even Dr Ambedkar didn’t write one.” She feels memoirs are a dishonest form of writing because when we write about ourselves, we instinctively overlook our human failings. She also believes non-fiction is not as effective a means to bring about social transformation as is fiction. “Creative fiction has the potential to motivate people into thinking that another reality is possible. The Ramayana is an example of this—people are inspired to follow it.”

 She gives an example of her own fiction that might inspire readers to change. A play she is currently working on involves two women, Sakina, who is Dalit, and Kurmuri, who is Muslim, who lead parallel lives. The play covers a period of five days leading up to Sakina’s grandson’s birthday celebration. “In the play, Sakina and Kurmuri help each other to fight against their husbands, but in reality they would probably be too weak to do this.”

How is her play is an example of Dalit literature or Ambedkarite thought? “It is subtle—it is based on the Buddhist concept of ‘trushna’, which means desire, because the characters are intent on having a successful birthday party,” she says. “It is Dalit literature because one of the main characters is a strong Dalit woman who is working and earning.”

Shilpa admits to having a hunch about her readers. “They think I have the potential to be the next Dalit writer because I am a good reader. See, you can’t often get both combinations: you will get a person who is very good in academics—they read sociology, international relations—but then that person may not be a good fiction writer. Second thing, there may be fiction writers, but they are not upgrading their knowledge—they don’t study, they don’t read international relations. They will not be good writers. I have potential. I study and I am a skilled writer. It is like a grandmother passing something down, they think I carry their genetic heritage.”

Dalit means abuse, ill treatment, this is Dalit writing. But Ambedkarite writing is different; you are searching for an answer to this reality.

I ask her, “Do you think the Dalit community wants to see a change in Dalit literature? Do they want more women to contribute to it?”

“They encourage women. Autobiographies are over, but [readers] don’t pay much attention to the form, it is the content that is important. They are not interested in whether I write poetry or whether I write novels. I am representing Ambedkar’s thought and there they want purity.”

Shilpa wishes she were less affected by people’s criticism of her writing. “My husband helped me lot. He is a very strong-willed person, it doesn’t affect him, but I am affected immediately. But he supports me and says, ‘You stick to your ideology and you write. If you don’t want to show your ideology, then why are you writing’?”

Shilpa says the key to producing quality Dalit literature is for Dalit writers to write from a more neutral stance. “If you are a writer you have to be impartial, then only you can write truth.”

She uses director Steven Spielberg as an example of someone who has set aside his identity to preserve the integrity of his art. “I watched an interview with him in which he described how difficult it was to accept and interact with the German actors in his film. But he had to put aside his identity in order to create a good composition. If we don’t express love for the people we dislike, then one system will replace another system. There has to be communication.”

Shilpa believes that not only is the designation of the name “Dalit literature” changing to “Ambedkarite literature” but also the content of the literature being produced. “Dalit means abuse, ill treatment, this is Dalit writing. But Ambedkarite writing is different; you are searching for an answer to this reality. You will be active, you will come into collectivity and will find the solutions.”

***

When I was starting out on my project, I met my advisor at Pune University. I told her that I wanted my project to include interviews with Marathi Dalit feminist writers. She said, “Have you read Urmila Pawar? Read her. Then come back and we’ll meet.”

I did.

Urmila’s writing dances between a focus on the experience of being Dalit, and on the articulation of the challenges encountered by women in India. One poignant story is called “Palya” (a word which roughly translates to “pain”). The protagonist Jyoti is in a maternity ward, about to give birth to her sixth child. With five daughters already, her husband will leave her if she doesn’t deliver a boy.

Adjacent to her is a young woman giving birth to her first child. As Jyoti gives birth to yet another girl, the woman nearby gives birth to a boy. In desperation, before the young woman is able to see the gender of her child, Jyoti convinces the midwife to exchange the infants. When Jyoti’s husband and mother-in-law arrive and see her new male baby, they shower her with ecstatic embraces.

Later that night, still at the hospital, Jyoti hears her newborn daughter crying, swaddled next to the woman in the bed beside her own. The woman is refusing to nurse her, because she cannot afford to keep her alive. Jyoti overhears her planning to give her an injection to kill her. She picks up her daughter and holds her in the dark. The next morning, as she leaves, she desperately tries to convince the young mother to let her daughter live. Her own family finds it remarkable that she shows so much compassion for what they believe is a stranger’s child. “She must really love girls!” they exclaim.

 Urmila’s stories don’t always focus on the experiences of women. In her story “Zaab”, a trash collector named Sudam is excitedly pulling together appropriate clothing for a special celebration. For the first time in 10 years, the trash collectors of Mumbai are to be acknowledged at a public event. In honour of this, they will be given the day off from work! The story follows Sudam through the city as he tries to accumulate the necessary ingredients for suitable attire. He seeks help from his wife and his daughters-in-law, who lie limp with hunger “like rinds of juiced sugar cane”.

There was a particular degradation of being a female in her community. She discloses the confusion and humiliation of being told to sit outside her house during menstruation.

On the road, Sudam meets his foul-mouthed son playing cards, and is cursed by him. Finally he decides to unpack the clothes buried in a chest in his attic. These are clothes that used to belong to a co-worker, a man killed by the noxious fumes to which he had been exposed in his work collecting trash. His employer labelled it suicide. Proudly wearing the clean clothes of his deceased friend, Sudam leaves for the public commemoration. Upon his arrival, he is informed that the ceremony has been cancelled. He is told to return to work.

Many of the stories Urmila writes are much lighter than the ones described above, and when you meet Urmila in person, the subtle humour comes to life in her face, and in the way she talks and laughs. She is self-effacing, elegant and, refreshingly, a little silly. Urmila has a gift for writing, and is also skilled in the art of keeping in touch with people whom she has met.

Fellow writer Hira Bansode, a close friend of Urmila’s for many years, says of her, “She is a brave person.” The two women tell me that some years ago, when Hira was invited to Sweden to present her writing, she was too nervous to go. She thought the cold weather might make her ill. Urmila offered to go in her place, having already travelled outside India to interview women in Mauritius for a book. Recently, Urmila left the country again to lecture at a seminar at Nottingham University in London. At our meeting she shows me photos of her week in London, during which time she had had an opportunity to visit the house in which Ambedkar had lived as a student.

Urmila was born in 1945 in Ratnagiri, in the lush Konkan region of western Maharashtra. In the autobiography she wrote in 2003 entitled Aaydan (the 2009 English translation is called The Weave of My Life), Urmila details her experiences of loss: the death of her father, brother, and, finally, her son. She relates the joys of childhood and her family’s poverty. Her siblings would compete for food while their mother spent long hours weaving baskets to support the family. As a child, when Urmila delivered these baskets to buyers, customers would pour water over the baskets to purify them of her touch, and, without eye contact, dropped coins into her palm without touching her skin, avoiding any possibility of being tainted by her “untouchability”.

There was a particular degradation of being a female in her community. She discloses the confusion and humiliation of being told to sit outside her house during menstruation and the requirement to sleep in the hallway during those times, as well as the insult she experienced when her husband attempted to prevent her from writing because he felt threatened by her increasing fame.

 Early in her marriage, Urmila and her husband moved to Mumbai and began to form connections to the budding Dalit literary movement. She became closely acquainted with Namdeo Dhasal and Arjun Kamble, and formed fast friendships with women writers Hira Bansode and Jyoti Langewar. Jyoti died in Nagpur last year.

 Admirers of Urmila’s work often remark that her extraordinariness lies in her ability to understand and convey what it is truly like to be a woman. She is rare in her openness regarding sexuality, leading some critics to label her writing as “vulgar”. She points out the gender bias in their critique: “One male writer, in his autobiography, wrote about his mother and how she behaves, how his sister behaves, and sexual things, too, but nobody calls him vulgar.”

Included in college curriculums, some of Urmila’s stories have been the subject of debate. One of her stories, “Kavach”, meaning “armour”, is about a woman who sells mangoes in the market, and whose breasts are the constant subject of demeaning jests by male customers. The story is told from the perspective of her young son who, over the course of the story, changes in his attitude towards her—from being ashamed of her vulnerability to being subtly admiring of her resilience. Urmila tells me that a series of debates arose when the story discussed regarding its inclusion into the graduate curriculum at SNDT university in Mumbai, because there were those who considered it to be too risqué.

In the end, the story was added to the curriculum.

***

I meet Urmila and Hira together at Urmila’s house. It’s a heartfelt reunion for them: it has been several months since they have seen each other. Hira and Urmila met in Siddhartha College. Each day after class, they would go to work at their respective jobs— Hira at the Central Railway and Urmila at the public works department. Because their offices were close to one another’s, they would frequently join each other for lunch. 

In Urmila’s autobiography, she says over lunch, she and Hira would converse about “Babasaheb [Ambedkar], the movement, activists, organisations, literature, and many other things”.

It was at the time of these college  discussions that they hatched several groundbreaking projects. One of these was the seminar they organised in Mumbai in 1986 called Sanvadini meaning “dialogues between hearts”, designed to encourage more Dalit women to write.

Hira has constantly expressed gratitude for being able to reach the level of scholarship that she has, given the harsh conditions of her background. “I was born in a village near Saswad, near Pune. There were no doctors and children were born at home. Families would dig a small pit to bury the umbilical cord and go to the river to clean the newborns. We never had footwear or new clothes. We used to stay in the far corner of the village, away from the Brahmins and the Marathas.”

She remembers, “I was invited for lunch by one of my school friends. Her mother served us food. After we started eating, [the mother] asked me my name. I told her my name, ‘Hira’. Then she asked me my caste. I told her that I am an untouchable (that is what we were called in those times). The mother questioned my friend for inviting me and made me get up. Then she started beating my friend. I felt like she was indirectly beating me, my caste, and my society. I have had many
experiences like this.”

Hira was only 13 or 14 when she got married. “My mother-in-law was against my education and forced me to do all the household work. Though I could not learn, I wrote poems about love, the moon, the sun, and the stars.” Through the support of her husband, Hira was finally able to convince her mother-in-law to let her attend school, as long as she finished her chores first.

“My mother-in-law would not let me study. We had a small house then, so I studied in the common balcony under the municipality streetlight. Once, while my matriculation exams were going on, our neighbours went out of town and kept their keys with us. My husband and his friends let me sit in that house to study. But when my mother-in-law heard about it just before the last exam, she locked me in that house. I could not appear for my last exam and I failed the year.”

Ambedkar was the first great leader to declare in language everyone could hear, 'Women are important. Women should be educated.' And, perhaps most significantly, 'Untouchables are not untouchable'.

Hira experiences fulfilment when she is able to help other women through her writing. “I used to go to the village to recite poems to women there and tell them the meanings of the poems. They would tell me that I have written about their pain and suffering.”

 Even as we all speak, Urmila’s 10-year-old granddaughter is racing around the room in bursts of energy. She opens her journal and breaks into a soulful rendition of the theme song from Titanic—in perfect English—“You’re here, there’s nothing I fear/ And I know that my heart will go o-on.”

Urmila says they get courage from the writer’s movement, the Dalit movement, and other writers. “Dr Ambedkar said, ‘If you are speaking truth, you do not need to worry, you go ahead.’  He said to women, ‘You should study, you are also clever.’” She touches my arm lightly. “Are you impure? Am I impure? No, these are just ideas. And Ambedkar was the one who told us that.”

***

A

t the time of the 2011 census, there were over 20 crore Dalits (labelled in the report as Scheduled Castes) living in India. Of those, 1.3 crore were living in Maharashtra. This is an overwhelming number—very close, in fact, to the number of African Americans living in the entire United States at the time of the American civil rights movement.

In order to fully comprehend the significance of Ambedkar, one might consider that since the 2nd century BCE, when the laws of Manu established and codified the rules that the untouchable caste had been forced to live by ever since, Ambedkar was the first great leader to declare in language everyone could hear, “Women are important. Women should be educated.” And, perhaps most significantly, “Untouchables are not untouchable.”

Today these women sit at the cross-section of two eras. Ambedkar, who once set the trajectory and future for the Dalit movement, now influences its unfolding from the past. As these writers look to the future, they watch the once inescapable hold of Untouchability lessen its grip on them; they see the literature that once drove the Dalit movement assume a new international form; and they behold their grandchildren experiencing all the benefits that they once longed for. They also look back to the man who told them this was possible, but was not able to see it manifest. Ambedkar’s outlook and guidance remains pure, untainted by a modern world. He is a reminder of a life without hope, a memory of what it was like to realise an impossible vision, and the inspiration to carry that vision forward.

“When I was talking about hope for the newer generation, I have an example right at home,” Ashalata tells me. “My daughter has been to the UK for her higher education. She crossed the boundaries of caste, religion, country, languages, etc. She made friends from all over the world there. She cannot remain stuck in the realisation of Dalit-hood. Even she writes now. Both my daughters write in English. But we can’t bind our children to our own experiences.  We need to trust change just as Buddha and Ambedkar did. Ambedkar began a revolution without even spilling one drop of blood. New women’s Ambedkarite feminism shows the relation between the whole universe. I am happy, at the very least, to know that when these women connect to the world, they connect as people and as individuals. Their writing is connected to a global writing. We need to trust this kind of change.”

It seems as if in every interview, there is always a tone of finality, completion, and a sense of pride. They have told me their story and there is nothing more to add. Asa mala vatla, they say. This is what I feel.

                                                                      The writer thanks Nirmala Phatak for her work with translation; Swati Dyahadroy for her academic advisory;
and these writers, for sharing their time and stories.

(Published in the November 2015 edition of Fountain Ink)