“One Day There Will Be Hundreds of Us”: How Dalit Literature Breaks Barriers

A new wave of Dalit writers and publishers are shaping the literary landscape of India and beyond.

Banyan tree

Sarah Thankam Mathews


May 24, 2021


11 min

In the sphere of science fiction writing, a Hugo award is the equivalent of the Booker Prize. Its list of past awardees includes Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Kurt Vonnegut, and Isaac Asimov. In 2018, Mimi Mondal became one of the first Indian writers, and the first Dalit, to be nominated for a Hugo.

Mondal grew up in Kolkata, the child of a civil servant and a Bangladeshi refugee, and arrived in the U.S. in 2015 to study at the prestigious Clarion West workshop, and subsequently, the Master of Fine Arts program at Rutgers. Close on the heels of her Hugo nomination, she was nominated in 2020 for the Nebula, a noted speculative fiction award, for her novelette His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light

“I grew up in, studied at, and worked at a major publisher, all in India,” she shared. “And I very firmly believe that if I had spent my writing career in India, I would have achieved a very limited success.” 

At last count, India published an estimated 90,000 unique titles a year. Of these, only an estimated 150 titles in 2017, or 0.17%, were by known Dalit authors. Meanwhile, over 200 million Dalits live in India alone and Dalit-Bahujans comprise about 17% of the population. 

Literature can create, among other things, the story of a nation and its people across time. To have a people erased from it, shunted into dusty corners, leaves a national literature somewhere between an amputation and a falsehood. However, since the 1970s, modern Dalit literature has bloomed even as it has been sidelined or tokenized. First, in the wake of democratic thinkers and activists such as Jyotiba Phule, Poykayil Appachan, B.R. Ambedkar, and more recently after the oppression-driven deaths of Dalit students Rohith Vemula and Muthukrishnan Jeevanantham. “Young people are taking up the pen to vent their angst,” opined Ashok Das, the editor of Dalit Dastak. “There is a lot of anger among the youth...they are being vocal about the discrimination they face.” 

The word Dalit means “crushed” or “ground down” in Marathi. It has since been reclaimed as a political label of identity, as has the label Bahujan, which also encompasses Adivasis (tribal people) and shudras. The body of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry texts authored by Dalits across languages and spanning India and its diaspora, is a mighty, many-trunked one — a veritable banyan tree. 

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