Writing stories, righting history

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Indigenous writers from India and Australia come together at a unique event, Literary Commons!

Our suffering is a thousand-footed centipede,
it goes on forever.

Telugu writer Joopaka Subhadra’s words struck a deep chord at a recent gathering of Indian and Australian writers.

Literary Commons.Indian Link

It was a meeting of strong and diverse voices not often heard on Australia’s literary scene – that of the Indigenous peoples of two ancient lands.

The event was Literary Commons!, a unique conference convened by Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty of Monash University. It brought Dalit and tribal writers out from India to engage in reading and conversation with Indigenous Australian writers, with each other, and with the public.

The project was supported by Melbourne’s UNESCO City of Literature Office, the City of Melbourne, the Library at the Docks and the National Organising Committee for Regional Pravasi Bhartiya Divas (Sydney 2013).

Now is a particularly opportune time to be learning about Dalit literature, as India marks the 125th birth anniversary of social reformer Dr BR Ambedkar who devoted his life to the upliftment of this section of Indian society.

The authors plunged into discussions of history, ideas, language, and the formation of identities – particularly the carving out of identities from broader social and cultural milieus in which their communities were forced to assimilate. The result was intense, arresting, and at times, vociferous.

Though separated by continents, the writers were united by their stories of oppression, violence, injustice and lost identity.

Literary Commons.Indian Link

On one continent, a young woman is beaten and raped as punishment for walking on the main street (P. Sivakami’s Grip of Change); while in another, another young woman searches for years to find her mother from whose arms she was snatched (Jane Harrison’s Stolen).

Deep pain, suppressed anger and profound sadness, all came to the fore as the writers presented their tales of bitterness, isolation and the wounded pride of their communities.

Political engagement

And yet underlying all this was a deep political engagement, even when the works were not necessarily in the protest tradition, as the desire to right the wrongs of a shameful history bristled through.

This was obvious when Wakka Wakka writer and activist Lionel Fogarty and Tamil writer and Dalit activist P. Sivakami came together on stage to talk about the experiences and ideas that have shaped their work.

Literary Commons.Indian Link

“Poetry really started in terms of the political for me, not the ‘culture’ poetry,” Fogarty said. “Standing in school chanting hymns in English is not poetry – taking the fishing trap to our hunting hole, that’s poetry to us.”

Literary Commons.Indian Link
Fogarty in India

He described the colonising insertion of European cultural works, such as learning William Shakespeare and aspects of Christianity, into Indigenous culture, and traced the growing concerns of Indigenous Australian expression with political issues such as imprisonment, fines, land rights and systemic discrimination.

Sivakami didn’t always consider herself a “Dalit writer”. Writing her first book, she never considered it to be a “Dalit” novel. She was shocked to find herself branded a “Dalit writer” by another well-placed writer who had agreed to write the foreword to her book.

“I thought to myself, why should I be branded?” she exclaimed. “When (Brahmins) write (their own stories) it’s not called Brahmin writing!”

Eventually, through an awareness of the ideas of BR Ambedkar, she came to write more consciously from a Dalit perspective.

Literary Commons.Indian Link
P. Sivakami

She threw in her high-profile job as a bureaucrat in the Indian Administrative Services when she became aware of how the government continues to marginalise Dalit communities, and became a full-time writer.

Same same, but different

Of course, there was great plurality amidst the gathered talent.

Within the Indian contingent itself, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, a Khasi writer and poet from Meghalaya, drew attention to the differences between tribal and Dalit peoples, the pre-Raj experiences of both, and the diversity and oral traditions of tribal literary cultures of north-east India.

Literary Commons.Indian Link

While his own language is written in the English script, for fellow north-easterner Chandrakanta Murasing, an acclaimed writer and poet from Tripura in the Kokborok language, cultural aggression was the main issue.

Unfortunately, historically, Kokborok was shunned even by the local rulers of Tripura who privileged the more ‘prestigious’ Bengali and Sanskrit over their own indigenous language. He took the opportunity to stress the importance of the survival of every language, however few the number of speakers.

Literary Commons.Indian Link
Chandrakanta Murasing

Punjabi writer Des Raj Kali dispelled the notion that the discrimination that Dalits face in Punjab is milder than in other parts of the country.

“Dalits rarely worship at any but their own gurdwaras,” Kali said. “Indeed, the discrimination is such that even the gurdwaras they build have to be in the name of Guru Ravidas (a 15th century crusader against untouchability, himself an untouchable).”

He argued for the significance of non-Brahminical philosophies and ideologies of social figureheads as well as Sufi saints in grounding Punjabi Dalit identity, and read from Punjabi translations of their work.

Yugambeh author Nicole Watson and Hindi novelist Ajay Navaria, two very different writers, came together to discuss the restrictions and freedoms experienced by indigenous writers. They presented two starkly differing views to modern urban life and space.

Watson described the “psychological terra nullius” in Australian cities, where Aboriginal history and dreaming has been made invisible. She spoke powerfully of her people’s successes and failures in “pushing back” against this process, and her incorporation of “big city dreaming” in her crime fiction novel The Boundary.

Literary Commons.Indian Link

Navaria, on the other hand, spoke in favour of the “anonymity” experienced by Dalits in the city – it allows a level of affluence and acceptance, in distinct opposition to the lack of freedom and rights experienced by the Dalit in the village, where the social structures are “stagnant”.

“I cannot wear this jacket in my village,” he proclaimed, although he had to agree with his protesting fellow Dalit writers that the urban spaces in India are still highly policed and restrictive spaces for Dalits, where caste “never disappears”.

Ajay Navaria.Indian Link

Oh yes, in the midst of the common ground, there was room for dissonance as well. Disparate views came forth on the extent to which Indigenous literature is offered in Australian universities, sparking parallel differing views on the extent to which Dalit and tribal literatures are offered in Indian universities.

The engagement with literature may have been wrought with strife for many of the Indian speakers, but it seems to have helped them in their own evolution as thinkers – perhaps because of the strife that they encountered early in their careers.

Literary Commons.Indian Link

As they wrote their stories of righting the wrongs against their peoples, they pushed the boundaries of their own creativity. Even as Ajay Navaria tore down the romantic ‘ideals’ of the simple rural life (in favour of the city where there seems to be increased tolerance) and hallowed joint family structures (which perpetuate oppressive behaviour), Sivakami spoke of experiments where she “deconstructed” her own father, the institution of marriage, even the notion of ‘sacred’ motherhood.

Why we need translation

How many words could possibly exist to describe grass? Twenty seven, discovered Ali Cobby Eckermann.

An Australian poet, writer and Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman, Cobby Eckermann was describing leading a translation class during a trip to India. She spoke fondly of her experience teaching translation as one where she and her students learnt from each other.

Literary Commons.Indian Link
Ali Cobby Eckermann

“I was amazed at how differently I was treated,” she told Indian Link later about her time with students of comparative literature at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. “The students were well-read, learned and respectful, and while I don’t want to sound flippant in any way, my own schooling was not so kind, and it was wonderful to be back in a learning environment being treated in a way that I wasn’t in Australia.”

The work there produced a book of poems, Broken by Neglect, translated into Bengali.

Literary Commons.Indian Link

“There was a sense of solidarity and honest respect amongst the 12 people that sat around that project – not this caste, this economic, egotistic ‘better than’ attitude that we often bump into the modern world. To share that solidarity and respect can only be a blessing. It produced friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. Seemantini Gupta, the other facilitator, I’m really proud to know as a sister now.”

Literary Commons.Indian Link
Ali Cobby Eckermann and Seemantini Gupta in India

It is clear that translation is much more than just finding new markets and audiences for one’s work, although that has much value in itself. It is also a vehicle for cross cultural dialogue, said Dr M. Dasan, writer and academic at Central Kerala University. He spoke of his own work in changing the mindset that translated works are poor cousins of original works, and his campaign to include them as part of English literature studies at his university.

For Jared Thomas, a Nukunu man, author and professor, translation seems vital. “We are not going to get anywhere unless non-Aboriginal people understand our stories,” he said. Yet he wondered whether translation has the power to resurrect dead languages – it is unclear whether the language it helps resurrect is the same as the one that has died.

Maria Munkara of Rembarranga and Tiwi descent and author of the award-winning book Every Secret Thing, observed that being able to speak the coloniser’s language is not a bad thing; in fact, it can be empowering. “You can turn it on them!” she said.

Jane Harrison, descendant of the Muruwari people and playwright (Stolen) declared, “Aboriginal culture is our shared history, our shared present and our shared future… And it is up to the non-Aboriginal audience to catch up.”

Jared Thomas agreed, claiming that stories featuring LGBTQIA people are vital for creating safe spaces for our children.

Jane Harrison.Indian Link

Daughters of silence: Dalit women write

Some superb Dalit women writers and activists presented their works at Literary Commons! Their CVs are so long and impressive that it one is amazed at the energy and drive that motivates these women.

It can honestly be said that they have, through their relentless writing and activism, contributed towards a change in the whole paradigm of Indian literature and the role of Dalit voices in it. They spoke about their long journeys and struggles to get their voices heard.

Literary Commons.Indian Link

Joopaka Subhadra, a Dalit writer in Telugu, who has written poems and short stories which shed light on the lives of Dalit women, spoke about their struggles against both caste hierarchy and male dominance. She said they were the “Dalits among Dalits”, “slaves of slaves”, “the daughters of silence” – marginalised both as Dalits and as women.

She bemoaned the fact that though Dalit women have played a key role in several Dalit movements, they have been relegated to the margins in the Dalit narratives written predominantly by Dalit men. Subhadra has published a collection of Madiga women’s stories among other writings, and has been instrumental in setting up the Mattipoolu Women Writers’ Forum for Dalit and minorities.

Literary Commons.Indian Link
Joopaka Subhadra

Kalyani Thakur Charal from Bengal has to her credit four books on poetry, a collection of short stories, and one of essays, has edited four books and has written about a whole range of subjects. She recalled how when she collected Dalit writing in 1995 from different parts of India – especially from Maharashtra and southern India – it was impossible to find a publisher.

She spoke of her struggles to publish Dalit writing, and how she now publishes magazines and books at her own cost. She recalled especially the writings of Sushmo Moitra Sarkar who contributed enormously to Bengali Dalit movement. She hopes to write a book on the women’s movement in different parts of India.

Urmila Pawar, who hails from a village in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, was shaped by her childhood experiences of subordination as a woman and a Dalit. She is fired by a determination to overcome these forms of discrimination.  Against all odds, she published her first book several decades ago, and has now written or co-authored 10 books, including her autobiography in Marathi called Aydaan.

Literary Commons.Indian Link
Urmila Pawar

She is also a tireless activist who works through many organisations to change the lives of women. She recalled the several Dalit women who had advanced the cause of their fellow women, and how they were spurred on by the women’s liberation movement, and the ongoing struggles of Dalit women. In her reading from The Weave of my Life she spoke of backbreaking work done by thin malnourished women with hollow stomachs, who make a regular perilous journey to a bazaar to sell their meagre wares.

Literary Commons.Indian Link

Sivakami spoke eloquently about the long struggle against casteism and how it has been instrumental in forming a Dalit social construct. She argued that Dalit women have been engaged in fighting caste since the sixth century, and more recently for such basic demands such as better amenities for Dalit villages. Some of them still bear the scars of having been shackled as bonded labourers 20 years ago.

Some of the visitors from India, award-winning writers in their own languages, spoke English less proficiently, but language seemed no barrier for these advocates of human dignity.

Visual storytelling and the sound of music

Moving briefly away from the written word, artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam made a powerfully personal presentation on tribal Gond painting. He used both the spoken word and painting to take us on his own journey from his “hand-to-mouth” struggles in his village, to supporting himself in any job he could find (including rickshaw-pulling), and the influences on his artwork today.

Literary Commons.Indian Link
Venkat Raman Singh Shyam

He trained under his own uncle Jangarh Singh Shyam and Jagdish Swaminathan, both masters of the art form. His art, he explained, reflected “a confluence or a ‘sangam’ of many arts”, although he retains a “distinctly Pardhan-Gond” sensibility and awareness. He also specifically addressed the connections between Indigenous Indian and Indigenous Australian artists, citing geographical, linguistic and aesthetic crossover. He concluded that he was happy to collaborate with his “brothers and sisters in Australia with whom I share more than lines, dots, colour and form”.

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There was a similar sense of sharing for musicians Vinod Prasanna and Uncle Gnarnayaarrahe Waitairie. Their Indian flute and didgeridoo presented an ethereal fusion for the entertainment of the conference guests.

Beyond common ground

The literature of marginalised and oppressed voices not only tells hitherto untold tales, it re-writes history.

“We not only write history,” said Dr. M. Dasan, “We also right history.”

Indigenous literature gives voice to a torrent of anguish and reveals horror and atrocity, but it also corrects a history written by high caste overlords and white masters. To use Des Raj Kali’s words, “These are histories that make the heart quake, leave the mouth dry and will have you weeping tears of blood.”

But we’ll let Lionel Fogarty have the last word: “We’re now going back and decolonising through poetry to counter what the white man has written, what has been written over.”

It was at the poetry and prose readings that concluded both days of the conference, that the ‘commons’ part of the event came through strongest – a wide variety of voices presenting a common passion, a common sadness, a common resilience, and a common need to speak out and be heard.

Chitra Sudarshan, Aparna Ananthuni, Rajni Anand Luthra and Dipanjali Rao

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About the Literary Commons! Program

“Playing upon the old idea of the ‘commons’, where communities and cultures share in a co-operative space of creativity, as well as building upon much that is common between our world views, the Literary Commons! is a long-term and deep-impact project that will bring together writers and foster writing that is of special relevance to Australia and India,” Mridula Nath Chakraborty says.

Literary Commons.Indian Link

The inaugural version of the event was held in Sydney in 2012. As visiting Indian writers mingled with their Australian peers and tapped into each other’s intellectual and cultural identities, fresh pathways were opened, sowing the seeds for long-lasting relationships in hitherto unexplored terrains.

In 2014, it was time for an ‘away game’ as Aussie writers travelled to India. They visited schools and colleges, attended literature festivals, and spoke at conferences at universities. They also met with translators and publishers in a bid to seek out new audiences for their work.  For writer and poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, the trip produced a book of poems (Broken by Neglect) translated into Bengali.