As caste divides fade, a fresh crop of writers is emerging. By Andrew Buncombe in Delhi
ajay navaria, a writer of novels and short stories, cannot help but laugh as he reflects on the nature of his "other" job teaching Hindu ethics and scripture at a leading university in Delhi. The 39- year-old is a Dalit, a so-called "untouchable", and little more than a generation ago, for him to have even been discussing Hindu texts would have been an offence that could have cost him his life. The fact that he now teaches them brings a smile to his face.
"Fifty years ago it would have been a crime. I think about this and think that if I had touched those scriptures I would have been killed," he says, perched in a booth in a decaying coffee house in Delhi's once grand Connaught Place. "But democracy has given me power. It has given power to the depressed classes and helped to make a more modern society."
In his own way, Navaria is at the spearhead of a quiet cultural revolution sweeping India's literary establishment. Having long been confined to writing only in their own, local languages and largely ignored by the literary mainstream, Dalit authors are now being swooped on by some of the country's biggest publishers, such as Radhakrishna Prakashan which is translating their work into Hindi, the lingua franca of northern India and beyond.
Novelists, poets and writers of short stories are receiving both exposure and opportunity in the market-place that they have never before received. There are Dalit magazines, Dalit literary forums (there are two competing groups in Delhi alone) and Dalit workshops. And as further proof of the rising importance and clout of "Dalit lit", Mr Navaria was this year a guest at the influential Jaipur literary festival, an annual gathering and networker's paradise of Indian and international air-kissing types.
Indian society can sometimes seem harsh or even brutal. Nowhere is this more evident than in its caste system, a centuries-old hierarchy of categorisation based on ancient Hindu teachings that groups people into one of four main castes (and thousands of sub- castes). Traditionally, the caste someone belonged to decided where they would live, what job they would do and even what they would eat. People outside of these groups were considered unclean and not true Hindus, fit only for tasks such as cleaning toilets, making leather and sweeping the roads.
Dalits have suffered centuries of abuse and even today, despite legislation to protect them and an increasingly urbanised society, they are still the victims of widespread prejudice, discrimination and violence. A recent report by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, a coalition of human rights groups in southern India, revealed a bewildering degree of discrimination, both in scale and form.
Among the various abuses detailed by the authors of the report, Dalits were not allowed to use a mobile phone in the presence of upper-caste people. They were also prevented from having their clothes washed, permitted only to drink tea from coconut shells while squatting on the floor, barred from entering temples, forced to eat faeces, raped and burned alive.
Yet Dalits total more than 150 million people - around 20 per cent of India's population - and the realisation has slowly come that with such critical mass, this community could have considerable leverage. In India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, low-caste voters have on three occasions elected a Dalit chief minister, Mayawati Kumari.
The size of the population has also been a factor in the emergence of Dalit literature as publishers have woken up to the potentially massive market. As Navaria says: "They are doing their business, they are not missionaries. If they get a profit, they will do it. If they do not, then they won't."
A key figure in the emergence of low-caste writing is Ramnika Gupta. …