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Dalit writing makes its mark

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Next month, an autobiography called "Untouchables: My Family's Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India" will hit American shores.

The author, Narendra Jadhav, head of economic research at the Reserve Bank of India, is also a Dalit or "untouchable," a member of the bottom rung of India's centuries-old caste system. His tale, which spans three generations, is an act both of political and literary assertion, he says.

"It is the story of my family, but at another level it is a story about the enormous social changes of the past 90 years and how it has liberated minds," he says of the book that was published in India as "Outcaste: A Memoir" in 2003.

Mr. Jadhav's book is at the crest of a growing wave of Dalit writing that has been translated into English from various Indian languages and offered by mainstream publishers.

These books are often searing narratives of pain and suffering in the form of autobiographies, novels, and critical discourses. They bear testimony to the fact that today, as India marks its 58th anniversary of independence from British rule, as much as one-quarter of its population still faces discrimination and even violence resulting from caste divisions.

In rural India, Dalits cannot draw water from the same well as those from upper castes or inhabit the same spaces. Even in urban areas, where education and economic class increasingly override caste, discrimination continues in subtle forms.

Indian law guarantees political and social equality to all citizens, but many Dalits - who fall outside the four-tier caste system - say they still are made to feel inferior. Poverty and social stigma, they say, tail them everywhere.

But Dalits increasingly are banding together against an ancient hierarchy they deem unjust and inhuman. One of the strongest rejoinders to this history of oppression comes from Dalit literature, or what Dalit author Sharankumar Limbale calls "the burning cry of untouchables against the injustices of thousands of years."


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