The Need for Subaltern Literature Essay
The Need for Subaltern Literature
Dear and Rev. Father Principal, respected staff, my beloved students, friends, ladies and gentlemen. I feel a bit circumscribed in to stand before you to deliver this keynote address. I feel so, because I am not a literature student, nor am I in any way connected to literary world except as a lay person who loves literature and its richness in bringing out human emotions, values, and worldviews.
But at the same time, I am honored to be here because this will help me in some way or other and indeed, did help me to pore over some solid literature works to learn more about what literature is and how I can get more involved and interested in literature. To this effect, I must thank Rev. Fr. Paul Rajkumar for having invited me to enter into the portals of literary forts and collect some pebbles to twist my tongue to tune to the richness of literature. I also am sure that if I have the patience to dive deep into the literary ocean, I can find the finest pearls that I can treasure.
I only wish that I have the patience and bent of mind for such extravaganza of the intellectual thirst for literature, the mirror of human motions and emotions. I would like to share with you something on “subaltern literature”, as it makes more sense than any other literary form today, to make literature relevant and an instrument for social change. Pondicherrry has been in the limelight, for more than two centuries as regards subaltern thinking and making impact upon the life of the marginalized.
At the turn of the last century, great personalities like Bharathi, Bharathidasan, and the then political fugitive turned philosopher, Sri Aurobindo all of whose writings both in prose and poetry forms in Tamil as well as English added beauty and splendor not only to the literary world but also to Pondicherry and whose literary genre fostered the realization of, and gave an orientation to freedom struggle and rendered a platform to work for the nation.
Even today, novelists and fiction writers like Prabanjan and Rajgowthaman make great impact upon the young minds in understanding human relationship full of complexities and complications both in the internal and external forum and try to make literature the stuff of the next door neighbor. But there is something that makes me feel intrepid because literature could be the first cousin of philosophy and I am a philosophy student and scholar. So, this feeling gives me consolation and encourages me to brave to take up this work with boldness.
There is an added reason for me to accept this as most of the best literary pieces were authored by people from non-literature disciplines. Literature – definition As I understand, literature is a tool to mirror the society and its various aspects of life, its composition and characteristics, the social landscape and mapping human reality in its internal and external layers and labyrinth. Literature is also an approach to look at the society from the point of view of different groups living in it.
It becomes much more pronounced and imperative to look at the society from the marginalized sections point of view, the race, sex, caste, creed, etc. It is the expression of human existence in all its dimensions: ugliness and beauty, woes and joys and so on. As for me there is no good literature or bad literature in the ethical sense, but only relevant and irrelevant in the teleological sense, in the social milieu. Literature is the tool to set in motion creative and critical consciousness in the society by picturing realities as they are.
I look at literature in three stages, not in the historic sense nor in its style, but in the evaluative sense. My line of thinking needs to take a complete deviation from the popular understanding of the discussion. 1. Infantile Literature: This type of literature deals with things that are completely removed from everyday realities. It is meant to amuse people, hijack them to an imaginative world with all its fantasies and fancies. Utopianism is a good example of that kind of infantile literature.
The ideal of a perfect, present, earthly society, organic, harmonious, virtuous, satisfying, world which in reality exists only in the mind. Sir Thomas Moore was too naive to imagine a perfect political and social system wherein humans are elevated to angelic, celestial world. What we see in this world, what we encounter in our day- to- day life is full of dystopian realities, events and eventualities. 2. Adolescent Literature: Adolescent literature is that which gives wings to your thoughts but no ground for your feet to stand on.
Romanticism can be one such kind. It, instead of invoking compassion and consideration about human nitty-gritty, gripping you with the chilling realities of the world and preparing you for some way out, peps you up for an aesthetic world to the subtleties of human anatomy and smacks you down in your emotional aberration. It provokes your emotions and leaves you in the lurch when you are tormented by social dilemmas and tosses upon like a rudderless sailor. 3. Adult literature is that which I call “subaltern literature”.
It is very responsible in the sense that it is concerned about what is happening in the world, to the last, the least and the lost. It condemns the absurdities of the society and tries to reconstruct socially responsible community. It looks at the society with a social lens and pores through social events with razor thin sharpness about social discontents. It is plain speak language with or without simile and metaphor, without meters and scales; it may even defy grammatical traditions and literary genre.
But it cares for the marginalized, worries about the woes of the social web, and weeps for the weak. Black literature, dalit literature, and feminist literature are this kind of literature which brings to light the darker side of the society- search for the face of the defaced, debased and deformed. Subaltern literature The word ‘subaltern’ is a military term for a junior officer, literally meaning “subordinate”. Subaltern is used to describe commissioned officers below the rank of captain and generally comprises the various grades of lieutenant.
In “Can the Subaltern Speak? “, Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (1988)encourage the efforts of the subaltern studies group, which re-appropriated Gramsci’s term “subaltern” (the economically dispossessed) in order to locate and re-establish a “voice”/collective locus of agency in postcolonial India. Speaking out and reclaiming a collective cultural identity re-inscribes the subordinate position, creating a totalizing, essentialist “mythology” that doesn’t account for the heterogeneity of the colonized body politic.
Subaltern literature has changed the landscape in South Asian literature and theoretical world. Researchers in this school have focused attention on the social relations of rural society-relations of domination and control, relations of un-freedom, relations of power and authority between landlord and tenant, master and bondsman. They have brought us to see the ways in which South Asian studies emerged within the conceptual categories of British colonial administration–the “orientalist” bias of much nineteenth-century scholarship on South Asia.
And they have brought into relief some of the neglected aspects of the social history of the sub-continent that bear most centrally on these themes-rural rebellion and unrest and the patterns of silent resistance through which the subaltern seeks to preserve his/her position. The work that has emerged from this school is very specific to South Asia-its ethnic histories, its patterns of landholding and labor, its pre-colonial and colonial history. And yet South Asia’s history is also one of a complex agrarian civilization which embodies social phenomena with strong resonances to other parts of the world.
Other areas of the world have likewise developed vigorous traditions of “agrarian histories”-historical research oriented toward the experience and circumstances of the powerless, research that questions traditional categories of politics and empire, research that casts strong light on peasant resistance and rebellion. The question arises, then, whether there is the possibility of a fruitful exchange between the subaltern approach to South Asian studies and current research in other agrarian societies.
Today subaltern literature has specific forms and focuses on very specific groups that are usually forgotten by the majoritarian literary genre. It takes special interest in the world with the marginalized people and their existential world. Black literature, Dalit literature, Feminine literature are some concrete forms of subaltern literature. Black literature African American literature is the body of literature produced in the United States by writers of African descent.
The genre traces its origins to the works of such late 18th century, reaching early high points with slave narratives and the Harlem Renaissance, and continuing today with authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Walter Mosley being ranked among the top writers in the United States. Among the themes and issues explored in African American literature are the role of African Americans within the larger American society, African-American culture, racism, slavery, and equality. African American writing has also tended to incorporate within itself oral forms such as spirituals, sermons, gospel music, blues and rap.
 As I mentioned earlier, literature depicts the nature of the society, or mirrors the society. Before the Civil War, African American literature focused on the issue of slavery, as indicated by the subgenre of slave narratives. At the turn of the 20th century authors like W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington debated whether to confront or appease racist attitudes in the US. During the American Civil Rights movement, authors like Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about issues of racial segregation and Black Nationalism. It is literature in its various forms spearheaded the movement.
The literary piece like “I have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. , or “The Souls of Black Folk” by W. E. B. DuBois even much before King, which received international acclaim and applause gave a direction to Black Power movements and Black Consciousness movements in the US. Today, African American literature has become accepted as an integral part of American literature, with books such as Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Beloved by Toni Morrison achieving both best-selling and award-winning status.
These literary productions not only attracted international attention, but also gave an impetus to the emancipation of the African Americans. African Americans have risen today very tall and stout and entered the portals of American glory and sagacity, thanks to the African American literary portraits and their impact upon the society. African American literature has also shown to the world that literature can bring radical change in a society and redefine its values, virtues, norms and standards which are in the grips of age old traditional practices such as racial prejudice and male chauvinism.
By refuting the claims of the dominant culture, African American writers weren’t simply “proving their worth”—they were also attempting to subvert the literary and power traditions of the United States. Dalit literature Today Dalit literature has also come to stay as a very powerful tool to counter the so called dominant literature, which stupefies itself in the blind alley of mythology and linguistic idiosyncrasy. Dalit literature includes autobiographies which must be treated as testimonio, atrocity narratives that document trauma and strategies of survival.
Bama’s Karukku is a classical example of dalit literature; it explores the shift between the generic conventions of individual life-writing and collective biography in this text. It analyses the strategy of witnessing in Bama’s narrative, arguing that she functions as a witness to a community’s suffering, and calls upon readers to undertake “rhetorical listening” as secondary witnesses. This act of recording trauma and witnessing, the essay proposes, is one of subaltern agency.
This is their everyday experience that closely ties them to prevailing social conventions, justifying their appalling living conditions in the name of culture and tradition. They are particularly concerned about their daughters who must be married according to strictly imposed custom and lead respectable and pious lives. This must be hard to swallow when they see that ‘they strip naked my mother, my sisters’ and ‘my own daughter’s virtue is looted in public/ my eyes look on, my blood shakes’. These are lines taken from a folksong.
But Dalit poetry is not merely protest. There are also the eternal emotions of love and sacrifice reverberating in it, as in this poem, ‘Mother’, by Warman Nimbalkar: Dark, dark slender body-this was my mother. Drudged in the woods for sticks from morning on. All we brothers, sitting, waiting, watching for her. And if she didn’t sell the wood, all of us slept hungry. And one day she died of hard work and left them wailing, through not without leaving a sweetness behind her: My eyes seek my mother, I still grieve, I see a thin vendor of wood. I buy her sticks.
Dalit literature is basically about the oppressed. It speaks about both their oppression and also about the rebelliousness that they instill in the minds of the reader. I’m the sea; I soar, I surge. I move out to build your tombs. The winds, storms, sky, earth. Now all are mine. In every inch of the rising struggle I stand erect. -J. V. Pawar: “I Have Become the Tide”. Kancha Ilaiah says that Dalit literature will bury Sanskrit under “yards of books”. According to him, Dalit literature was really post-Hindu literature, which sought to do away with Sanskrit symbolisms.
This process was set in motion by Dr. Ambedkar. Sanskrit was essentially a casteist language, anti-people and anti-production, he opines. Feminist Literature Feminist literature takes a strong exception to male dominated colonial literary genre. Themes of lament and betrayal testify that the nationalist idea of “dependent subjects” formed the core of feminine identity. Sachidanand Mohanty invites our attention to the largely forgotten female literary tradition of the early women writers of Orissa wherein a desire for learning that is forbidden brings misfortune.
Soofia Siddique’s “I-ing Ismat: Autobiographical Ismat Chughtai”, explores the processes of identity construction. Ismat struggles with the paradoxes and blurred boundaries of religious traditions in India. It also deals with the plight of the Dalit women. “Imaginary Maps” by Mahasweta Devi and translated by Radha Chakravarty recounts the life of tribals in Central and Eastern India. Her female characters have a collective voice and their songs tell a story of exploitation that rings differently from that of political rhetoric.
Suguna Ramanathan analyses stories told by Dalit women in Gujarat. These deal with sexuality, male lust and the abduction of women: female desire is deemed subservient to parental authority. M. Sridhar’s essay traces the marginalisation of Telugu Dalit women along lines of caste, class and gender. He suggests that different oppressed groups share a moral solidarity which enables them to unite in times of need. B. Mangalam observes that Bama and Sivakami have succeeded in representing the cultural history of an oppressed community in Tamil Dalit discourse.
Indian feminist literature also makes local feminine issues global. “Local to Global” examines issues with global resonances. Through a discussion of the short stories of Phul Goswami, Indira Goswami and Nirupama Bargohain, Pradipta Borgohain describes the changes wrought by insurgency in the lives of women and children in Assam. In “Feminism and Contemporary Bengali Women’s Poetry”, Sanjukta Dasgupta critiques icons of Bengali literature. We learn that Bengali women writers were marginalised because of the control exercised by intellectuals like Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.
The writings of Bengali women gradually articulated protest and moved towards a discovery of self. In her essay “Multilocality”, Malashri suggests that the processes of globalization and internationalism make feminism inevitable. This leads to a discussion of the awkwardness with which certain Indian women writers use the term “feminism”. The concept of home is redefined with relation to the changing roles of woman and man. In diasporic fiction, the act of relocating precipitates the woman’s search for self.
Some of the subaltern literatures which shook the world and also shaped the world are: “The Wretched of the Earth”- by Frans Fanon which is to this day used as the guide book in the Pentagon. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of Harriet Beecher Stowe woke up America one fine morning to utter shock about their treatment of the blacks in the plantations. “Roots” of Alex Haley “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”- Paulo Frere “Second Sex of Simone De Beauvoir “No Exit”- Jean Paul Sartre “Karukku” – Bama are some of the literary pieces that shook the social and literary map of the world.
They did not only serve as a classic piece of literature, but became to the model and set a standard for new type of literature. To conclude, literature is that which expresses what is inside one’s mind, heart and the soul. At the same time literature must be a tool to change the social fabric, sensitize the world to its better future. Subaltern literature is the invention of the oppressed and the marginalized to express their world to the world that is in need of liberation and human consciousness. Thank you. Selvaraj Arulnathan SJKeynote Address on POPELIXIR, 2009,Pope John Paul II College of Education, Pondicherry, 30012009.