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‘Nobel Prize’—Arun Kamble’s introduction to Bandhu Madhav’s ‘Aamhihi Manasa Aahot’

This is an introductory essay to the collection of short stories titled Aamhihi Manasa Aahot (We too are humans) by Marathi writer Bandhu Madhav. This story collection, published in 1981, was the author’s first published book.

Bandhu Madhav was a prolific writer with over 100 stories written during and after the Ambedkar-period. The essay translated here was written by Arun Kamble and gives the reader a sense of the important role played by Bandhu Madhav not only in supporting the Dalit movement but also his contributions to Marathi literature. Unfortunately, very little is available on Bandhu Madhav in English. The most well-known (and only perhaps?) reference is his story ‘The Poisoned Bread’ which also is the title of the collection of stories in which the story appears.

Another essay that accompanied this edition of the book has also been translated and will be available soon.

Cover of Bandhu Madhav's 'Aamhihi Manasa Aahot'
Cover of Bandhu Madhav’s Aamhihi Manasa Aahot

Good times are here for Dalit literature. It has now received recognition and many universities have incorporated it in their syllabi for postgraduate studies. Universities outside India are also conducting research on it. Foreign scholars are travelling to India to study and write articles on Dalit literature. It has turned the world’s attention towards itself. Dalit literature has now become world literature. 

It is only because of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s revolutionary agitation that the oppressed Dalit community, which had been leading an enslaved existence for thousands of years, has finally woken up. It was crippled, and now it has started walking. It was blind, and now it can see. It was mute, and now it has started speaking. It was illiterate, and it has now begun writing. And from this, Dalit literature was born. The core inspiration for Dalit literature can be, indisputably and undeniably, located in Dr. Ambedkar. Further, the close relationship between Dalit literature and the precepts and philosophies of Dr.  Ambedkar is increasingly becoming clear. 

It is in this moment that a collection of stories by Bandhu Madhav, the foremost writer of Dalit literature, is being published. This is a landmark event for this field. 

There is a critical gap in the Dalit literature currently available. A lot of the work belonging to the Ambedkar-period still remains unpublished. It is crucial that this work comes to light. This includes the work of political balladeers, poets, and songwriters. Its impact on the Dalit community cannot be overstated. Along with that, its role in the Dalit movement during and after the Ambedkar-period is unparalleled.

And Bandhu Madhav is the first-man of Dalit literature!

Bandhu Madhav’s writings is the source from which springs the lineage of Dalit stories. His writings are the revolutionary expressions born out of Dr. Ambedkar’s radiant movement for human liberation. Bandhu Madhav’s stories are of historical significance.

Bandhu Madhav’s first story, ‘Jave Tyachya Vansha’[1]Literally ‘Be born as someone else’. A more familiar English idiom would be ‘Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’. was published in Janta weekly in 1953. He has written before that as well.  We can find a poem written by him in 1942. He has been a prolific creator of varied forms of literature—poems, stories and plays. He has written over a hundred stories. Such fertile and extensive writing in the early period is unique! And truly unprecedented!! 

Many of the greatest and the biggest Dalit writers of our time have charted their paths on the trail blazed by Bandhu Madhav. 

Today, all that remains of these stories are memories; like forgotten documents of profound historical importance.

Bandhu Madhav’s stories are like the artistic records of Dr. Ambedkar’s agitation for cultural upliftment. And hence they are historically crucial. It is worthwhile to scrutinise the close and intertwined connections between Bandhu Madhav’s stories and Babasaheb’s agitation at the time. The relationship between the two is as clear as daylight!

For example, his ‘Vatani Katha’, ‘Dharmatrasambandhi Katha’ and others were all published in Janta, Prabudhha Bharat, Republican, Siddhartha, Nagsen, and Jai Bhim. This is also unique about his literature. 

Bandhu Madhav
Bandhu Madhav

Bandhu Madhav did not depend on other publications to get published. He was self-reliant in these matters as well! That could be the reason why he was unable to reach a wider audience beyond the circle of Dalit readers. Or perhaps he did reach, and was ignored by the Savarna readers, writers and critics. The works of Dalit writers like Anna Bhau Sathe and Shankarrao Kharat were similarly ignored in the beginning.[2]Here the author also mentions Bandhu Madhav along with the other authors. Since he is already the topic being discussed in the paragraph, his name is not added to the translation. 

Bandhu Madhav’s stories are the great legacies of Dalit storytelling. It is the ancestral seat of Dalit literature. 

His name doesn’t even appear in the recent controversy over, ‘Who is the leading-man of Dalit literature?’ Another testimony to his publicity-averse nature! He didn’t enter his name in any competitions either. As a consequence, his name remains unknown even to those who are well-versed in the field. Then why is it a wonder that modern-day scholars of Dalit literature have no mention of him in their writings? 

Bandhu Madhav has a great contribution in literary movement during the Ambedkar-period as well. He had a lion’s share in making the dream of ‘Swatantra Dalit Sahitya Samelan’[3]Independent Dalit literary conference into a reality. In fact, ‘Dalit Sahitya Sammelanachi Avashakyata’ (The need for Dalit literary conference) written by him in Prabuddha Bharat is a landmark article which is a must-read. He was at the forefront along with Anna Ranpise and T. P. Adsul in the establishment of the Dalit Sahitya Sangh.[4]Dalit literary society 

He says while explaining the motivations of his literature, 

“….artists are the creators of the social world. Once literature starts reflecting vital intelligence, all of society also becomes conscious. We should create such revolutionary literature which is filled with vitality. It should awaken my entire oppressed Dalit community. Sparks of revolution should fly out of every word and every piece of writing. And these fires should engulf my oppressed society….”

Such a mature and rebellious understanding of literature!

Dalit life is central to Bandhu Madhav’s stories. We encounter a realistic depiction of Dalit lives in his stories. His depictions are neither exaggerated nor excessive, but are simply factual.

Bandhu Madhav expanded the horizons of Marathi storytelling. Lives which were untouched by middle-class writers, were sketched for the first time in his stories. In doing so, he painted all the hues that coloured these lives—the ugliness, the distortions, and all minuscule details. We also encounter the then prevalent Mahar-boli[5]Mahar dialect, phrases and idioms. These details are priceless ornaments of the language and give us a glimpse into the real Marathi language. (This needs a separate dictionary.) He was also acutely aware of the need to reform all that he was describing. At the time of him writing, Dalit souls and lives were undergoing a radical transformation. Bandhu Madhav was a witness to these changes. In fact, he did more. Just like the humble squirrel that assisted Lord Ram in building the bridge, Bandhu Madhav’s literature provided crucial nourishment to the Ambedkarite movement. His stories narrate the twists and turns of this far-reaching transformation. We can appreciate the trajectory of both Dalit lives and Ambedkar’s movement through his stories. And this makes his stories extremely vital, not just from the perspective of Dalit literature, but also history in general. This is because these stories chronicle Dalit lives over different periods of times—pre-Ambedkar, Ambedkar-period, and post-Ambedkar.

In order to transform the lives led by Dalits before his time, Ambedkar led them into a rebellion. Bandhu Madhav’s stories vividly and adeptly capture the internal tensions and the difficult paths they trudged in pursuit of human liberation. The scope of his writing canvas is expansive and ambitious. His stories are devoid of vulgarity and eroticism. But they are replete with compassion. 

His stories are composed like a powada[6]Marathi ballad and follow a methodical structure. It starts with the customary anguish of Dalits; then Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s unprecedented fight for liberation; and finally the backdrop of this fight that culminates into the Dalit rebellion, firmly rejecting the established order. Bandhu Madhav’s stories had a seamless confluence of all of these within its narrative structure.  

His writings on the harsh pains of Dalit life bring tears to the eyes. Instead of going into the details of the pain, his pen focuses on its intensity and prefers to offer a commentary on it. It acquires rhetorical flourish while talking about the Ambedkarite philosophy. It suggests that it is the only way for Dalit emancipation. And then an enlightened and agitated Dalit incorporates this philosophy in their rebellion. And when they do, feelings swirl and burst forth like an erupting volcano. This is the monumental function essayed by his stories during the Ambedkarite movement. At that time, his stories were read extensively and with great interest, across Dalit huts and homes. Sometimes, his stories were read out to people. Even today, readers belonging to that generation testify to this.  

Now, you can call this writing as literature or not; we needn’t lock or bracket this literature into the traditional forms. What is certain is how this literature captures the living, breathing vibrations of humanity! Bandhu Madhav’s literature does not reek of vulgarity. Instead, it has a fragrance of purity and morality. 

Usually, Dalit literature is accused of being ‘rhetorical’. But Dalit literature is born from the cries of an anguished soul. It is an inevitable cry whose time has come. These artists who were mute until now, who were not allowed to speak, are finally doing so. And when they do express their explosive outrage, it is not necessary to keep artistic sensibilities and aesthetics in mind. This spontaneous explosion of outrage and a moulding of profound inner agony, is this or is this not literature? This is a question for the so-called gatekeepers of literature. When he who has never been allowed to speak, finally speaks, it will be howling, rapid and blurred. How will he be mindful of the limits? It is literature like this that has the capacity to push the boundaries and carries within it the potential to change the world. And when a Mooknayak (Leader of the silenced) appears and promises a revolutionary change for the entire society; the mute will wax eloquent, and the cripple will climb mountains.[7]This is part of a devotional Sanskrit verse dedicated to Lord Krishna. It goes ‘Mukkam karoti vaachalam panggum langhayyate girim. Yatya krupa tamaham vande paramananda maadhavam.’ It roughly … Continue reading At this pivotal moment, the creators of literature are both witnesses and participants in this transformation. Is it possible for them to remain detached from it?

An erroneous belief has taken root among literary scholars that any social critique of literature is a Marxist critique. They do not believe that non-Marxist literary criticism is possible. This belief must have been solidified by the fact that literary criticism is often Marxist. This compels any scholar wanting to offer a social critique of literature to think that they must resort to a Marxist perspective in order to bring academic rigour to it. But the thing is, no one has offered a perfect theoretical model of Marxist literary criticism until now. Many efforts to do so have been laughable. In the process, the literature was watered down, and all that remained was theory. Again, this is not due to the limits of the literary critics but is intrinsic to the theory itself. Because, instead of looking at the literary value of the works, the critics are more interested in evaluating the literature’s potential as propaganda. This is because the transformation they so desire is possible only through propaganda, not literature. Therefore, propaganda becomes very important in the dialectic between means and ends.[8]Original text used the term sadhya–sadhan sambandh. Literal translation would be goals–means relations. I found two references which may be of relevance. One is a Marxist approach to the … Continue reading Hence, the belief that all socially conscious literature is propagandistic has systematically been sown and nurtured, and this all has been linked with Marxism. 

Literature is a cultural phenomenon which is closely connected to all organs of the society. This is especially true for those who were until recently denied all forms of expression. For them, ‘Literature is a cultural phenomenon’ would have a significant import. Because their literature itself is being birthed out of a particular cultural epoch. This literature is not born out of an individual’s mind, but out of the society’s consciousness. When a specific system enslaves this society, we see the emergence of a remarkably similar set of emotions within everyone. That which we refer to as a person is not an ‘individual’, but is ‘divisible’.[9]Individual and divisible have been used as mentioned in the original marathi text. The category of ‘person’ no longer has any meaning, since the individual personality itself is split at its core. In this case, a person within this society does not have their individual personality. Instead, the entire society gains a conscious awakening. Therefore, the characterisations and depictions in Dalit stories are representative. It is irrelevant to accuse these stories of not having their own self-contained existence. It is simply an inevitable consequence and does not pose any risk to artistic quality or aesthetics. It is an inescapable characteristic of that life. 

Another false accusation levied against Dalit literature is that it is propagandistic. 

Now, a particular kind of propaganda is quite evident in this literature. Sometimes the tone of this propaganda is ostentatious and jarring. Objectors accuse this tone as being detrimental to literature’s natural form. However, if we are honest, all literature implies a certain kind of propaganda. The only difference is in the levels—dormant, half-evident, or visible.

Even if we look at the work of a noted, talented and established author like G. A. Kulkarni, we come across a certain propaganda. 

“Man is a puppet in the hands of destiny. In the struggle between the two, Destiny’s victory is certain.”

This aphorism in G.A.’s writing is also propaganda. This propaganda draws connections to traditional ideas and has a real impact on its readers.

Even literature that does not put forth such scholastic aphorisms suggests something else. While we find non-scholarly truths in this literature, the scale of propagandising is similar. For example, Beatnik literature[10]Referring to the Beat Generation literary movement. Members and followers of the movement were often pejoratively referred to as Beatniks. is nothing but a subtle dissemination of Nihilism. All forms of literature imply a propaganda—dormant, half-evident or visible. Even artistic masters must accept this truth. Paying attention to different forms and styles could enrich literature. 

Both Greek and ancient Chinese literature have their foundations in certain philosophies. In case of Indian literature, we find that its entire foundation is based on a specific philosophy. And this philosophy is born out of Sruti, Smriti, Vedas, Puranas and religious texts.

Ramayana and Mahabharata, which embody this philosophy, emerge as the ideals of literature. Until now, all literature has drawn nourishment, inspiration and justification from these philosophies and ideals. We are unaware of the propaganda implicit in this literature, because these are our cultural treasures. They are a part of our societal structure. 

Dalit literature has its own specific ideological basis. This ideology is based on the thinking of Buddha, Charvak, Kabir, Phule and Ambedkar. Atheism, philosophy of materialism and dynamism, a rejection of prelife and rebirth, rejection of all inequality, rejection of principles of karma and the elevation of vital principles of human centredness and compassion have been accepted by Dalit literature wholeheartedly. They wrapped these principles skin-tight around themselves! And this Dalit literature has declared a war against the inhuman varna-based culture of discrimination. Therein lies the revolutionary facet of Dalit literature. And within this revolutionary Dalit literature, Bandhu Madhav’s stories shine as its magnificent historical legacy. Maxim Gorky is famous for nourishing Lenin’s Russian revolution with his writings and preparing the masses for struggle. Similarly, Bandhu Madhav wrote literature that nourished Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s revolutionary struggle and awakened the Dalit community. And this is why some call him the ‘Maxim Gorky’ of Dalit literature, even of Maharashtra. Because of his momentous efforts!

The dormant literature of Bandhu Madhav contains immense strength. The seeds of these stories have the potential to blossom into a vat-vruksha.[11]Banyan tree His writings carry the hallmarks of a first-class literature.  And one day if a ‘Nobel Prize’ is awarded to Dalit literature, the credit for it will undoubtedly go to Bandhu Madhav’s excellent and authentic stories. 

Mumbai, Republic Day
26 January, 1981

Sirus J Libeiro is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. This is his first translation.

Notes

Notes
1 Literally ‘Be born as someone else’. A more familiar English idiom would be ‘Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’.
2 Here the author also mentions Bandhu Madhav along with the other authors. Since he is already the topic being discussed in the paragraph, his name is not added to the translation.
3 Independent Dalit literary conference
4 Dalit literary society
5 Mahar dialect
6 Marathi ballad
7 This is part of a devotional Sanskrit verse dedicated to Lord Krishna. It goes ‘Mukkam karoti vaachalam panggum langhayyate girim. Yatya krupa tamaham vande paramananda maadhavam.’ It roughly translates to ‘The mute wax eloquent and cripple climb mountains (by the grace of Divine Krishna). I extol and salute the Grace flowing from the Supreme Bliss that is Madhavam (Krishna).’ The author implies that the coming of Ambedkar had an unprecedented and uplifting impact on the Dalit community.
8 Original text used the term sadhya–sadhan sambandh. Literal translation would be goals–means relations. I found two references which may be of relevance. One is a Marxist approach to the dialectic of means and ends. The second is the  Gandhian approach to means and ends in politics.
9 Individual and divisible have been used as mentioned in the original marathi text.
10 Referring to the Beat Generation literary movement. Members and followers of the movement were often pejoratively referred to as Beatniks.
11 Banyan tree

2 Comments

  1. Is this work not under copyright protection? We- Ambedkarites are building our own world and debrahamanizing this space– why are you outsiders, savarna men leeching Mahar literature as it is this was space was leeched and dominated by socialist brahmins and Jerry Pinto forever and now we have some UPenn dude–and what same old networks, you know you’ll are stepping on the work of Dalit/Mahar/Ambedkarite community, back off!

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