Dalits at Diggi

At the fifth DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, held 21-25 January, the Kumbh Mela met a five-day Punjabi wedding at the Diggi Palace, a grandiose 1860s structure owned by the Thakurs of Diggi. No one explained, or even seemed to ask, what exactly the 'DSC' stands for in the festival's title, though the organisers invariably used the prefixes of other corporate sponsors – the 'Merrill Lynch' Mughal Tent, for instance. To uncover the mystery, DSC stands for Darshan Singh Corp Limited, which calls itself an 'infrastructure developer', and claims to be creating 'infrawealth' for the nation in the shape of roads, railways, urban infrastructure and hydropower. Evidently, literature too must be added to this list. On the last day of the festival, DSC Chairman H S Narula announced that the 2011 festival would include a whopping prize of USD 50,000 for an original work of fiction about Southasia and its diaspora, written in or translated into English.

If nothing else, DSC is certainly getting the advertising bang for its buck. The latest festival, organised at an estimated cost of INR 40 million, saw some 30,000 people thronging Diggi Palace to listen to over 200 speakers and performers. Untold media ink was also splashed over this coming-together of writers, film stars and performers, all under the patronage of erstwhile royalty (which now includes new corporates creating 'infrawealth'). There is clearly a spectacle to the whole ordeal. As writer Mridula Koshy noted in a recent magazine interview, in India such launches and festivals stand in for a literary culture that does not really exist.

Yet the festival has also been able to shine a light on important issues, giving some a heretofore impossible stage. This year, for instance, the festival for the first time included a focus on Dalit literature and the question of caste. Dalit writers P Sivakami, Omprakash Valmiki, Ajay Navaria, Desraj Kali, Iqbal Udasi and Laxman Gaikwad shared the stage with non-Dalit writers, scholars and publishers – including Kancha Ilaiah, Nirupama Dutt, Christophe Jaffrelot, S S Nirupam and Himal contributing editor S Anand – to foreground questions of caste and discrimination. Spread over four days, these sessions were offered under the rubric of the 'Bhaskar Bhasha' series (again a bow to another sponsor, the Dainik Bhaskar media group). With the entire festival recording a surge in attendance, the Dalit sessions too saw overflowing audiences, despite the glitz and glamour associated with the vacuous writings of Chetan Bhagat, Shobhaa De and the queen of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck.

The official literature at the festival made no mention of the Dalit focus. Still, the festival organisers took pride in boasting that a Dalit writer could be holding forth in the grand Durbar Hall while the queen of Bhutan could be reading on the front lawns. Indeed, it is this ability to make room for contradictions and dichotomies that makes the Jaipur Literature Festival not unlike popular Hinduism, which seems to accommodate opposites in the name of 'diversity'. It had room for untouchables and manual scavengers, about whom Omprakash Valmiki read a poem, and with Vasudhara Raje, former chief minister of Rajasthan, in the audience; it also had room for Devdutt Pattanaik to peddle niceties about Hindu mythology. Particularly heartening was that, at the very first Dalit session, a consensus seemed to emerge when Valmiki, Ilaiah and Sivakami rejected the use of the term Hindu (as being too Brahminical), and agreed that there was no room for public conscience in Hinduism.

Jashn and prem
What was commendable was that speakers such as P Sivakami, the Tamil author of the novel Pazhaiana Kazhithalum (translated as 'The Grip of Change'), and Dalit-Bahujan writer Kancha Ilaiah spoke at sessions not slotted under the Dalit tag. When Punjabi writer Desraj Kali was asked by Nirupama Dutt why Dalit writing from Punjab was about jashn (celebration) and prem (love), whereas there was so much suffering in everyday Dalit life, Kali replied that songs and fiction gave one the ability to surmount the tragedies of everyday life. "When you listen to Iqbal Udasi singing Santram Udasi's political songs, her high-pitched voice has to be celebrated," Kali stated. "This ability to sing comes from the radical Sufi spirit that imbues Punjabi Dalit writing."

Particularly refreshing about the Dalit sessions was how writers such as Ajay Navaria (Hindi), Sivakami (Tamil) and Kali (Punjabi) demonstrated that Dalit writing could no longer be stereotyped as literature of protest and anger; nor in terms of form, autobiographical or testimonial, where pain and suffering were put into a narrative form. This seems to have happened because translators and publishers prioritised autobiography and the guilt it induced among non-Dalits. In contrast, today, Kali uses the literary equivalent of the hypertext in his ongoing trilogy Paratham Pauran, Shanti Parav and Thumri. Likewise, Navaria, in his explorations of identity and sexuality, seeks to create casteless characters with no nostalgia for the village left behind.

Since the Jaipur festival has been growing in strength, creating 'infrawealth' under the corporate shadow, it is hoped that by the time of the next festival Dalit writers will be in attendance as writers in their own right – sharing the stage with the rest, and not merely in special sessions.

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