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Perspectives of Dalit Women Writers' Self-Narratives


The present paper is an attempt to focus on the dalit women writers’ self-narratives. In the Indian society, since the Vedic period, the low caste people have been the victims of sophisticated and higher class people. The Shudra were not treated well as the other three class people in the Indian society. These people raised their voice for humanity, equality and rights against the biased and orthodox Indian society through various movements and literature. Generally, women were considered inferior to the men in all the class so they were also exploited and have been the victim of the patriarch society especially, women of the low caste or dalit society. Thus, the condition of dalit women in the Indian society was very pathetic. These women express their sufferings, pains and injustice through their literature. Most of dalit literary works are autobiographical especially, women express self-experiences in their literary works. The paper gives a glimpse at the dalit women writers in brief.

Key Words

Dalit Literature, Patriarch Society, Social Phenomenon, The Dalit Self- narratives

  The early writings of a newly literate community, or a group finding its voice for the first time, have always been autobiographical – be they aboriginal, women, black or dalit. The aboriginal writers say that when their entire history is erased, the autobiographical stories they narrate will become their history. Even after many years of producing literature, aboriginal writers in Canada, Australia and US maintain this.

Autobiography - writing about the Life of Self - that is, writing one's own biography or life-story or life history is a literary genre that appears in the West in the eighteenth century. It is considered as a historical, social phenomenon characteristic, in its emergence and various forms, of the Western civilization. In this regard, the genre Autobiography is formally defined as a retrospective narrative in prose that an actual person makes of his/her own existence when he/she focuses upon his/her life as an individual, in particular upon the history, genesis and evolution of his/her personality. Thus, as a distinct literary genre, autobiography is understood as writing about the self. It is a personal narrative, where the primary focus of the author is upon his/her own life as an individual, whereby he/she charts out the journey of the self.

Dalit autobiography was born in Marathi. Unlike poetry, the novel, play or short story, it was not a work of fiction. Autobiographies were supposed to be the real accounts of the private lives of living persons. Autobiographies serve different purpose in different times and if autobiographies of Dalit writers are called as narrative of pain, it carries certain historical truth. In Marathi, a whole generation of Dalit writers has developed it as narrative of resistance against caste stranglehold. In other languages also several autobiographies were written to express sub-human living conditions of Dalits. After centuries of silence, when the Dalit writers felt the need to express themselves, they could only turn inward and talk about their own experiences. Autobiography thus became a fitting vehicle for this expression. The portrayal of the life of the Dalit individual was representative of the entire community. A public rather a private gesture 'me-ism' gives way to 'our-ism' and superficial concerns about 'individual subject' usually give way to 'the collective subjection' of the group.

The Dalit self- narratives present detailed accounts of everyday life, customs and beliefs of the communities and social practices by constantly shifting the focus between the individual and the community. Just like an ethnographer, the authors document instances of deprivation, suffering, violation experienced and also resistance posed by them and their communities. Dalit autobiographies are plain, simple tales of the private lives of people belonging to the underclass, without a heavy load of literary attributes. Another essential feature of the dalit autobiographical narratives is that they do not isolate the individual from his whole historical environment, family, community and society at large. In these texts, the subject/narrator moves back and forth between the individual ‘I’ and the collective ‘we’.

A Dalit woman is a Dalit amongst Dalits. Doubly oppressed by a patriarchal and caste tyrannical society, a Dalit woman nonetheless has exemplary endurance and the indomitable spirit to bounce back against all odds. The time has come for Dalit writers to not only lament their subjugation but also to simultaneously celebrate with pride the dauntless spirit of the Dalit women. In Dalit women’s autobiographies writers depicting their lives individually but they are all pointed to the expression of self-assertion and protest, and the ways of a quest and construction of an identity in Dalit Self-narratives.

Unlike Dalit men, only a few Dalit women have written their autobiographies. Most of these have been written in regional languages and they have hardly been translated into English. That’s why, Dalit women autobiographies are still faceless and nameless in the so-called mainstream literary circles and more so in the field of English literary criticism. In recent times, a few Dalit women’s autobiographies have been translated into English. For the development of my research paper, I have selected some Dalit autobiographies such as Karukku by Bama, The Story of My Sanskrit by Kumud Pawade, Viramma:Life-Story of an Untouchable narrated by Viramma.

Bama is the pen-name of a Tamil Dalit woman, from a Roman Catholic family. She has published her autobiography, Karukku in 1992. Karukku means palmyra leaves, which, with their serrated edges on both sides, are like double-edged swords. Karukku is the first autobiography of its kind to appear in Tamil. It is also in many ways an unusual autobiography. It grows out of a particular moment: a personal crisis and watershed in the author's life which drives her to make sense of her life as woman, Christian, Dalit. The book highlights the arc of the narrator's spiritual development both through the nurturing of her belief as a Catholic, and her gradual realization of herself as a Dalit. We are given a very full picture of the way in which the Church ordered and influenced the lives of the Dalit Catholics. Every aspect of the child's life is imbued with the Christian religion. The day is ordered by religious ritual. The year is punctuated by religious processions and festivals which become part of the natural yearly cycle of crops and seasons. But parallel to this religious life is a socio-political self-education that takes off from the revelatory moment when she first understands what untouchability means. It is this double perspective that enables her to understand the deep rift between Christian beliefs and practice.

Bama's re-reading and interpretation of the Christian scriptures as an adult enables her to carve out both a social vision and a message of hope for Dalits by emphasizing the revolutionary aspects of Christianity, the values of equality, social justice, and love towards all. Her own life experiences urge her towards actively engaging in alleviating the sufferings of the oppressed. When she becomes a nun, it is in the stubborn hope that she will have a chance to put these aspirations into effect. She discovers, however, that the perspectives of the convent and the Church are different from hers. The story of that conflict and its resolution forms the core of Karukku. In the end, Bama makes the only choice possible for her. But she also sees the beginnings of an important change, if not in the Church's practice, yet in the gradually growing awareness among Dalits, of their own oppression. Karukku presents Bama's life as a process of lonely self-discovery. Bama leaves her religious order to return to her village, where life may be insecure, but where she does not feel alienated or compromised. The tension throughout Karukku is between the self and the community: the narrator leaves one community (of religious women) in order to join another (as a Dalit woman).

Karukku breaks the established conventions of writing an autobiography. It eschews the confessional mode and avoids a linear narrative. A conventional autobiography is a connected narrative, where the author presents his/her episodes chronologically. The anecdotes and experiences in the author's life generally illustrate the narrator's journey to success. On the other contrary, Karukku is a painful journey that is open-ended and many questions are left unanswered. It is not a "complete success story" like a conventional autobiography. It is rather a revelation of the bitter reality of the social ills confronted by a Dalit woman. Karukku is a reflection of different themes like religion, recreation, and education, etc. Through these perspectives, Bama gives us a clear picture of the caste oppression meted out to the Dalit Christians not only by the upper caste society but more so within the catholic church itself. Bama has always had an inner urge to actively engage herself in alleviating the sufferings of the oppressed. She becomes a nun to fulfill her aspirations. But very soon she realises that the catholic institutions are filled with caste prejudice and hatred. The book is about Bama's inner quest for self-discovery and the resultant courage, which forces her to move away from the life of a nun to live the life of a Dalit woman.

Viramma: Life-story of an Untouchable was originally published in French in France in 1995 and later it was published in English by Verso in 1997. Viramma is an agricultural worker and midwife in Karani, a village near Pondicherry in southeast India. Viramma is a member of the caste called Untouchable. Of her 12 children, only three survive. Viramma's story--told over the course of 10 years--is a vivid portrayal of a proud and expressive woman living at the margins of society. Her autobiography is an ‘unusual’ autobiography titled after the name of its ‘first’ author Viramma to underline the evolving character of Dalit woman autobiography in particular and Dalit emancipation in general in late 1990s. It is an unusual autobiography because it is co-authored by Josiane Racine and Jean-Luce Racine – Tamil born ethnomusicologists educated in France to whom Viramma narrates her story in the first person. Struggling between autonomy and her bondage, Viramma is discriminated twice – as a Dalit and as a woman. Viramma provides a first person account of what feminity can be and combines a very traditional perception of a woman- submissive and obedient along with an image of admirable strength for facing challenges of daily life and her situation in a society. The presentation traces the struggle of dalits in towards their endeavour to express themselves. Viramma as a Dalit woman does not simply bewail and cry her Dalit identity, she seems to celebrate it, and would even like to perfect it. Dalit songs, rituals, festivals and other community-centric ceremonies are narrated with an intimacy of a participant that from the mere ‘rejection’ and ‘revolt’ against the Brahmanical order, the entire autobiographical account bristles with confidence of an autonomous being.

While concluding it is important to note that though the Indian society has been unjust to the likes of Eklavyas, Karnas and Shambuks down ages, the new phase of Dalit writing has a tone of celebration of Dalit identity. Dalit literature is moving towards to become the main literary trend. Dalit literature has become an essential component of the growing Indian literary critical lexicon. There is hope for Dalit literature. Dalit self-narratives are the inscription of pain and suffering of those who have been oppressed, exploited and tormented since centuries. And today, Dalit literature has created its own space in the canon of Indian literature. It began as a “Protest Literature”, but now it has developed manifold and established an aesthetically rich tradition of its own.  


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  2. Anand, S. Ed. Touchable Tales: Publishing and Reading Dalit Literature. Navayana Publishing, 2007.
  3. Bama, Karukku (1992). Trans. from Tamil by Laksmi Holmstrom. Macmillan, 2000.
  4. Dangle, Arjun. Ed. Poisoned Bread: Translation from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Orient Longman, 1992.
  5. Josiane, Racine and Jean-Luce, Racine. Viramma: Life of an Untouchable. Trans. by Will Hobson, Verso, 1997.
  6. Limbale, Sharankumar. Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature. Ed. and trans. Alok Mukherjee. Orient Longman, 2004.
  7. Pawde, Kumud. 1981. ‘The Story of My Sanskrit’ In Dangle, Arjun, ed. [1992]. Poisoned Bread: Translations from Marathi Dalit Literature. Orient Longman, 1994.

Hiteshkumar Narendrakumar Patel, Reserch Scholar, Gujarat University, Mo. 9537002007 Email.