Women in Selected Dalit Narratives in India

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  • ABSTRACT

    The postcolonial project rejects colonial representation and constructs a nation with hopes of an egalitarian future. Along with it there is an awareness that all is not well in the new nation. Every power structure creates its own ‘Others’, its own subalterns. And within the postcolonial nation state, inferior classes, castes, minority groups, women, and Dalits became ‘others’. The question is how far do writings about Dalits show factors like caste, class and gender as permeable/non-permeable. This paper will look at writings by Dalits and writings by others about Dalits and analyse how such borders can be crossed. For the pupose of detailed study, the paper will deal with Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan, Sharan Kumar Limhale’s Akkarmashi, Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. The paper will focus on the presentation of gender in the above-mentioned writings. A Dalit woman is a Dalit amongst the Dalits as she suffers ‘double oppression’ ― on account of her caste as well as her gender. This paper will discuss the issue of space and voice with regard to the female figures. How much space is given to them? How far do we really hear their voice, their travails and sufferings? Taking into account Marx’s concept of ‘commodity fetishism’, the paper will discuss whether the Dalit women are valued for themselves or for the work they perform. Are they fetishized with phallic objects and reduced to a stereotype where they fulfil certain masculine needs? If we look at the family as the basic unit of society, then how much ‘space’ is given to Dalit women in the family or are they just treated as ‘objects’? What kind of treatment is meted out to Dalit women by the society or the upper caste? How far do Dalit women undergo acculturation? The paper will also discuss the issue of representation of Dalits by non-Dalits, which has often been said to lack ‘a visceral impact’. Using the concept of ‘Manichean allegory’, the paper will discuss how the upper caste/class use certain differences to justify domination, and this is true in the case of gender as well. The paper will attempt to deconstruct master narratives, interrogating systems of representation, understanding the dynamics of power and examining the role of ideology in the construction of the self, especially the female self.


  • KEYWORD

    Dalit writings , women , caste and class , marginalisation , oppression , power dynamics

  • The rise of the postcolonial nation brought with it a new set of permutations and combinations as far as power relations were concerned. In this new setup, the landed gentry, the capitalists and the bureaucrats became the ‘centre’, while others were relegated to the margins. In India, this group of the marginalised is a large one that includes the inferior castes and classes (for example, Dalits and other minority groups) and women as well. In this section is a group called Dalits who have penned their thoughts and feelings, and their work comprises what one calls ‘Dalit Writings’. This paper aims at studying the representation of women in Dalit writings ― writings by Dalit writers as well as non-Dalit writers, namely, Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan, Sharankumar Limbale’s Akkarmashi, Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Though there are Dalit women writers like Bama, Sivagami and Sugirthani, this paper looks at the popular writings on Dalits by Dalit men and non-Dalit men in order to understand their attitude and ideology.

    The term ‘Dalit’ refers to the people who are crushed, split and grounded into dust by those who are at the centre enjoying the power and enjoyments of life. It was first used by Jyotiba Phule and B.R. Ambedkar in the early decades of the twentieth century and has been used since the First Conference of the Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangha in the state of Maharashtra, India in 1958. Known by different names of Achut, Panchamas, Atishudras, Avarnas and untouchables, they constitute a huge percentage of the population of India:

    Although the caste system has been abolished in India, huge discrimination and prejudice still prevail in all respects. Indian society has a caste-based social structure, which is a form of social organization. It is based on Hindu religious mythologies/ beliefs and controls sexuality, marital status and the economic and social life of men and women in India.

    Dalit Literature is an attempt to articulate unheard, unspoken voices. It forms an important and distinct part of Indian literature. It is the literature about the Dalits, their sufferings, anguish, experiences and consciousness. It presents the fight of the underdogs of society for liberty, honour, security and freedom from intimidation by the powerful elements of society. The Dalit literary movement is a result of the struggles of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule and Mahatma Gandhi for the powerful articulation of the Dalits and the need to recognize their human identity. It can be traced back to the eleventh century in the writings of Chennaiah, but it emerged into prominence and as a collective voice from 1960 onwards. It started with writings in Marathi language and soon appeared in other different regional languages like Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil in different genres like fiction, poetry and short story, both of autobiographical and non-autobiographical nature.

    It is significant to remember that Dalit literature did not first appear in the form of life narratives but mainly in the form of short poetic writings, life testimonies and short stories. We may even consider that the autobiography emerges as an extension of sorts of the very widespread practice of writing short stories. Many autobiographies actually look like a series of short narratives. What distinguishes the work of the Dalits from the non-Dalits is the figure of self-assertion and protest that is visible in their writings and a quest for construction of an identity of one’s own.

    Om Prakash Valmiki is a leading Hindi Dalit writer and his Joothan was written primarily in Hindi and later translated to English. Valmiki’s Joothan is an autobiography about the ‘excruciatingly painful’ (Valmiki vii) life he had to face due to his caste. The title Joothan means leftover or polluted food, which these poor people have to survive on. It narrates the life of oppression, of slavery, of pain, of humiliation and of victory as the writer faced and the society witnessed. He portrays, as Arun Prabha Mukherjee says in the ‘Introduction’,

    The book is one of the first portrayals of Dalit life from an insider’s eyes in North India and hence has a unique credit to its name. Valmiki breaks the age-old norms of representing the Dalits as ‘victims’ and in need of a saviour. Through his life story, brings to notice the experiences of a Dalit as a child, an adult and a mature man and his frequent encounters with society on the basis of caste.

    Sharankumar Limbale, one of the most renowned Dalit writers in India, wrote his autobiography Akkarmashi at the age of 25. Akkarmashi, or The Outcaste, is an autobiography in Marathi of a half-caste individual growing up in the mahar community and the anguish he suffers due to his lack of belongingness. Limbale says that he was inspired by the thoughts and movements of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and the pain and pangs of Indian Dalits are the subject of his writings, and he stands for human dignity. Both Valmiki and Limbale write for social change and wish to see a nation without corruption, discrimination or exploitation.

    Mulk Raj Anand started writing in the 1930s and Untouchable, written in pre-independent India, is one of the earliest accounts of a day in the life of a sweeper (the lowest among the untouchables). It is a chilling exposé of the daily life of a sweeper and the various discriminations he faces throughout the day. Rohinton Mistry is an Indian-born Canadian writer. Mistry’s A Fine Balance is set in the latter 1970s and captures social change in the time of emergency ― a political condition in India during 1975-77 when fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India were suspended and people could not enjoy democratic rights. It gives intense descriptions of extreme poverty, and shows the bond that develops between four main characters, despite the barriers created by their differences in religion and social status. Dina, a Parsi woman who refused to return to the home of her domineering brother after the death of her husband, allows two tailors, whose homes have been burned by the government because of their attempts to rise out of the caste of leather workers, to share her apartment. Maneck, a Parsi student who suffers alienation from his family (who lost their lands in the 1947 Partition), also joins the apartment. Mistry gives detailed descriptions of the lives of the characters and the hardships they endure (humiliation, torment in a government work-camp, torture, and disillusionment). Mulk Raj Anand and Rohinton Mistry have realistically portrayed the lives of the Dalits from a non-Dalit perspective.

    In postcolonial nations, much has been written about colonialist assumption inscribed in discourse, and it can be aptly applied to the new ‘Other’ ― the marginalised sections of postcolonial nations. Fanon has argued that the rejection of difference by the colonisers transforms the colonised into an alien ‘other’ (Fanon 78-82). This holds true in the case of Dalits and Dalit women. Though Dalitsare born like every other human being, they are treated differently, as the ‘Other’ by high-caste Hindus. Each of the texts chosen for discussion illustrates the ‘Othering’ of the Dalits in the name of religious practises. Talking about colonialist discourse, Bhabha says that it creates ‘knowledge of coloniser and colonised which are stereotypical’ and aspires to ‘construe the colonised as a population of degenerate type on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction’ (Bhabha 198). Though Dalit literature arose out of the anger against an age-old, indigenous system, analysing this body of literature from a postcolonial perspective helps to theorise the ideas of exploitation, abuse of power, binaries of oppressor/ oppressed in the global perspective. Generally, one could study Dalit literature with the aim of critiquing the ideology of indigenous patriarchy, but this would be a limited study. Using postcolonial discourse, one comes out with a richer theoretical base for analysis of unjust power relations and can place Dalit literature within the wider ambit of cultural studies. Moreover, the tenets of the colonizer/colonized relationship did not disappear after the demise of colonialism. It seeped in new ways into newly independent nations like India, and hence, the use of postcolonial discourse to study Dalit literature becomes imperative.

    Whether it be the Dalit writers or the non-Dalit writers, these writings appear critical of the approach taken by the so-called high-castes towards the Dalits. The high-castes have taken on the role of the colonizers, and the Dalits are relegated to the exploited group of the colonized. In actuality, one can say that colonial discourse consists of power play and ideology. Power play occurs in role playing when a person controls another person’s life without his/her permission. This form is dominating and vertical in nature where people are differentiated on the basis of social hierarchy. And in many cases power plays translate into abuse, both physical and mental. In colonial India, the British occupied the higher strata and the natives were placed on a secondary level but the natives amongst themselves were a disunited group claiming different social status on the basis of their caste. While the British exploited each of the groups, the upper castes, in order to show that they too can exercise power, mimicked the colonial authority and exploited the lower castes. In postcolonial societies like India, the role of the coloniser was played by the upper castes, bureaucrats and capitalists, whereas the lower castes or the untouchables or Dalits became the colonized. Within this group, the women became doubly colonized ― due to their caste/class and gender. This paper looks at the representation of Dalit women through the notion of Manichean Allegory and commodity fetishism and also analyses issues of ideology and space.

    The notion of Manichean Allegory, derived from Frantz Fanon’s employment of the expression to refer to the dichotomy that informs the relationship between colonizers and colonized, has been extended by Abdul R. Jan Mohamed in his concept of the Manichean Allegory to embrace the economic feature of the process of imperialism. The same concept, we find, works in Indian society as far as gender is concerned.

    The dominant model of power and interest relations in all colonial societies is the Manichean opposition between the superiority of the European and the inferiority of the native. This axis provides the main fiction of colonialist literary representation: a field of diverse yet interchangeable oppositions between white and black, good and evil, superiority and inferiority, civilization and savagery, subject and object.

    The application of this concept to Dalit writings to study the position of women shows that most discourse by the high caste writers hardly focuses on the plight of Dalits, least of all on the plight of Dalit women. If the Dalits find a reference in such writings, it is at an inferior level. They are depicted as dirty, unclean scavengers. Again their characters are not developed; they are flat in nature as if the writers are insinuating that one can easily be exchanged for another. The issue of race in Manichean Allegory becomes relevant to the study of women in Dalit literature as it helps to foreground women and escape the system of representation forced by the hegemonic others. Women need an independent identity, history, self-perception and representation in the same manner in which the colonized nations need to be free from the notions created by the colonizers.

    Perception of racial difference is influenced by economic motives. It serves the interest of one section of the population (numerically marginal) to keep the other section subjugated and use them as cheap labour and for activities that seem ritually unclean. Women are constituted as women through the complex interaction between class, culture, religion and other ideological institutions and frameworks. They are not ‘women’ solely on the basis of a particular economic or political system. In India, the upper caste made use of religion and other forms of ideological state apparatus to ingrain a feeling of subservience among women and Dalits and the same subservience seeps into the minds of Dalit women, who hardly have any ‘choice’ or ‘freedom to act.’

    In all four of the books selected, at the centre of discussion are the men ― the women are relegated to the margin except in Limbale’s Akkarmashi, where he acknowledges his mother while tracing his history. ‘My history is my mother’s life, at the most my grandmother’s’ (Limbale ix). The question is how do we create the self, especially the female self? Generally the male self is created through empowerment and exercise of choice, but these options are not available to women, especially Dalit women. Right from birth the child is interpellated and taught verbal and behavioural habits suited to the female gender. The Dalit girl is taught that she is secondary not only to the high castes but also to the boys of her community. Ideology too has an important role to play in maintaining the status quo. It is an imaginary construction that represents the real world (Althusser 170-86), and we never learn to question it. The Dalit women face various kinds of violence but accept it with fatalism as fate. They, in fact, become passive victims not just to the men of their community but also to the society at large. Ideology freezes history and represents it as something unalterable (Eagleton 59). Due to this, one may say that in India the Dalits have been relegated to the margins since ancient times, and though changes are coming, the process is a slow one and involves continuous struggle against those that have economic as well as political power.

    The power dynamics that work in the outside world take a parallel shape within the house. The Dalit men are victimized outside the house and in turn they victimize their women in the house. Dukhi Mochi, after being thrashed at Thakur Premji’s house, lashed out at his wife Roopa when she inquires about his injury:‘“Leave me alone,” he hissed in response to Roopa’s fearful inquiries. When she persisted clinging to his side, begging to be allowed to examine his foot, he struck her’ (Mistry 105). What we are reminded of are colonial times when the colonized native took out the anger and frustration of the outside world in the house, on his women. Similarly, Lakha in Untouchable shouts at his daughter for tea and food in order to preserve his authority (Anand 36). Abusing, shouting and beating women are means exercised by men to preserve their power and authority within the walls of the home.

    Feminist activists as well as academics have found the notion of public/private divide useful. The public/private has been the bedrock for critiques of patriarchy and liberal feminists’ strategic efforts to mobilize the legislative and juridical powers of the state to intervene on behalf of women in private spheres and to create equitable public spaces (Joseph 73). Looking at the notion of the public/private in the context of Dalit writings and life, we find that Dalit women have more mobility than the high-caste women. The high-caste women are confined to the house, but the Dalit women move in the outside world; this makes them more vulnerable to exploitation by the men of the upper castes as well as the men of their caste. In Untouchable and A Fine Balance, we find that the writers have shown the women inside the house. Whether it is Sohini or Roopa, both are confined to the house and engage in household activities. When they cross the threshold, it is not for personal gain but for the family. Both Sohini and Roopa leave home to fetch food for the family. Sohini leaves her one-room house to go to the caste-well to get water for tea (Anand 25-26). Roopa, we find, leaves the house in the middle of the night to get milk or fruit for her son, Ishwar (Mistry 97-99). There are cases when these women cross the threshold for work. For example, Sohini in Untouchable was asked by Pundit Kali Nath to come and clean the courtyard of his house at the temple (Anand 34).

    But the space these women occupy is very limited. Inside the house they are like the unpaid servant in the house whose voice goes unheard, and outside too, they are treated as objects meant to do the dirty work or objects for men to indulge their passion on. This idea of women being the unpaid servants in the house and household labour being another link in the chain of female subjugation has been the contribution of the Marxists to feminist thought, which attacks the prevailing capitalist system as sexually and economically exploitative. Roopa has no say when Dukhi decides to send his sons to live with Ashraf and learn the art of tailoring (Mistry 115). Sohini has the ability to speak ― we hear her voice when she asks Gulabo not to abuse her (Anand 29) and later when Bakha asks her to tell him what happened at the temple. But like all women she is a split subject who is watched by men and older women. And then, women turn themselves into objects because femininity itself is defined as ‘being gazed upon by men’ (Berger 47). This can be seen in the life of Santamai. Though she lives with a Muslim whom Limbale calls Dada, this man is not his grandfather. Santamai was once caught by Dada talking to an Imam, and he got angry. Whenever he was drunk, he would abuse Santamai (Limbale 34). Masamai, Limbale’s mother had to leave her husband and two small children due to village gossip. Such incidents show the vulnerable position of these women. Limbale points to this vulnerability when he mentions that Pami and Indira returned home from the in-laws’ place after completing some rituals, and they were never to go back as the in-laws had come to know that Masamai was a mahar (Limbale 109). These instances show that Dalit women are created as ‘subjects’ not naturally but through social construction. The individuals are ‘constituted’ as the bearers of positions through the effects of social relations (Lapsley & Westlake 7).

    In Marxist theory ‘commodity fetishism’ is a state of social relations, said to arise in capitalist-based societies, in which social relations are transformed into apparently objective relationships between commodities or money. It is the belief that value inheres in commodities instead of being added to them through labour. In other words, capitalists ‘fetishize’ commodities. For example, a well in a village might have been dug up by the mahars or other outcastes but these people are not allowed to use its water. The object becomes important in capitalist and caste-based societies, and this deals a death blow to interpersonal relations. This includes the labour performed at home for which the women are not paid anything:

    According to Linda Dowell, ‘For most women, the home is a site of social relations that are structured by power and inequality. It is the location of unpaid labour’ (Dowell 16). Similarly Valmiki tells us of the work his mother and sister and sister-in-law did. They worked not only in the fields but also ‘cleaned the baithaks and the ghers of eight or ten Tagas, both Hindus and Muslims’ (Valmiki 8). For all this and other work done they would be paid grains, given leftover rotis and sometimes joothan or scraps. This illustrates the devaluation and dehumanization of human labour. The chuhras are good enough to be used for the purpose of labour but too dirty to be treated with equality. The Dalit women trade their ‘labour power’ for wages, which is paid to them in the form of leftovers or joothan.

    Women are used as items of exchange. Daughters are given away for daughters-in-law. Limbale had to tolerate abuse and insults from his in-laws just because his sister was married into their family (Limbale 101). Widow remarriage is also reduced to an exchange. Valmiki narrates how Sukhbir’s wife was married to his younger brother, Jasbir (Valmiki 12). The change in partners in the lives of the women shows how they are treated as secondary beings who have no existence without men. Shyamlal Chacha’s wife Ramkatori started living with Solhar Chacha after Shyamlal left the house (Valmiki 27).

    Lukács extends the theory into the notion of reification: all human relationships and experience come to be perceived as commodities, and we treat them as things. Commodity fetishism is one aspect of the analysis of ideologyin capitalist societies: the real underlying relationships are hidden from our perception and we build our understanding of the world only on appearances (Marshall).

    In the case of women, the object might be sexual favours to the rich or the upper caste men, which leads to commoditizing themselves. Limbale’s mother sold liquor for money, but her customers would also start flirting with her (Limbale 29). And we can easily say that a phallocentric social order dominates not only economic but also sexual life. Pandit Kali Nath forgets his religiosity when he sees Sohini at the well waiting for water:

    Later in the novel, the same priest tries to molest her (Anand 69-71). When Sohini shouts for help, he starts the cry that he has been polluted. One can say that while Dalit women are considered untouchable or dirty due to the centuries old philosophy, they are acceptable by the upper caste for sexual purposes.

    Mistry in A Fine Balance shows how Dalit women are disfigured for refusing sexual favours. Dukhi Mochi’s father asked his wife if she had seen Buddhu’s wife. Hearing the negative reply, he told her, ‘She refused to go to the field with the zamindar’s son, so they shaved her head and walked her naked through the square’ (Mistry 97). Dukhi’s wife, Roopa, also had to face sexual abuse at the hands of the orchard watchman when she went to steal fruits for her sons. If she had refused him sexual favours, he would have threatened to call the orchard owners, who probably would have tortured her more ― sexually and physically (Mistry 98-99). And the Dalit men are too helpless to avenge their women’s honour. Bakha feels like killing the priest, but the servility ingrained in him overrides his feelings. Dukhi let out ‘his shame, anger, humiliation in tears’ (Mistry 99), but did not have the courage to talk to Roopa about the incident or confront the perpetrators.

    If we look at the presence of the Dalit women in the house, we find that none of the writers give us a glimpse of their ‘private’ space. The writers do not give us a view of their mental processes, their thoughts. We are presented the ‘public’ space; the woman is shown as silent and oppressed. The women lack individuality and are mostly treated as objects. Within the family as well, Dalit women are treated as sexual objects. The description of Sohini from Bakha’s perspective has no hint of what one may call a ‘brotherly’ description:

    Joseph quotes Donna Sullivan’s observation in ‘The Public/Private Distinction in International Human Law’: ‘The demarcation of public and private life within society is an inherently political process that both reflects and reinforces power relations, especially the power relations of gender, race, and class’ (Joseph 75). Clearly, from the instances mentioned, space is a site of power, and Dalit women may have the freedom to move freely, but ultimately, they are in the same subjugated and exploited space.

    The Dalit women are sexually abused by their own menfolk. Limbale narrates the story of Dhanavva whose husband had died and she was made pregnant by her own father who said, ‘I have sown the seed from which she has grown as a plant. Why shouldn’t I eat the fruits of this plant?’(Limbale 67). Women are not only objects for sexual gratification but also represent family honour or esteem. Limbale himself is guilty of beating his sister when he found her talking to the Patil’s son, Nandu (Limbale 85). Limbale mentions an incident when the Patil of Hanoor, with whom his mother was sleeping, brought home Hanmanta, Limbale’s father, and wanted his mother to sleep with Hanmanta (Limbale 60). Such objectification is insulting in the extreme, and in such situations, women must either use violence or silently accept such treatment.

    A reading of all the four texts shows that women are constituted as racialized, sexual stereotypes. Such ideas take shape due to the ideology of the indigenous patriarchy which is the same in both the dominating and dominated groups. Just as the Hindu nationalists equated women with the figures of deities, similarly Bakha in Untouchable and Valmiki in Joothan find the spirit of female gods of Hindu mythology in their mothers. When Bakha thinks of his mother, it is of someone ‘generous, giving, always giving, mother, giver of life, Mahalakshmi’ (Anand 16). Similarly Valmiki felt that Goddess Durga had entered his mother when Sukhdev Singh Tyagi refused to give her food at his daughter’s marriage and asked her to take only the leftovers (Valmiki 11). Such a paradigm deprives women of self-presence and shows how culture and religion produce certain beliefs and ideas.

    Coming to the issue of representation of women by non-Dalits, a few questions come to mind. Do the non-Dalits seek compassion or sympathy or are they truly representative of the trials and tribulations faced by Dalit women? It has often been said that the writing of Dalit representation by non-Dalits lacks ‘a visceral impact’ and that an ‘outstanding work of Dalit literature would be born only when Dalit life would present itself from a Dalit point of view’ (Mukherjee ix). Here lies the danger of falling into two traps: considering the non-Dalits as ‘a homogenous entity complicit with Brahminical social order’ (Dutt 21) and considering the category ‘Dalit’ as a monolith. Seen from the perspective of the men, the narratives by Anand and Mistry seek not to invoke compassion for the Dalits but to become agencies for resistance in the manner of the writings of Limbale and Valmiki. But the question is do women see these writings as instruments for resistance. The answer is in the negative. Women in all these writings occupy a secondary position. The readers are presented with narration of the everyday trials and tribulations of their lives but do not get to hear their voice. The next question then is who will speak for these women. If it is women, then one needs to think whether the high-caste women can speak for the Dalits? The situation here would be similar to one where the ‘White’ woman speaks for her female counterpart in the Third World countries. This ‘hegemonic feminism’ is white led, marginalizes the activism and worldviews of women of colour, focuses mainly on the Europe and treats sexism as the ultimate oppression. It ignores class and race analysis. But women in Third-World countries have issues that are different from those of women in the first world countries, the former colonial powers. In a similar manner, one can say that the issues of the Dalit women can be best articulated by the Dalit women. In short, one can say that ‘Dalit narratives’ are authentic in nature and showcase the grievances that Dalit women may have about life and society. Third-World women have needs and problems different from First-World women; similarly, the Dalit woman has needs and problems different from women who come from upper caste and class. The articulation of the feelings of Dalit women by non-Dalit writers fall into the danger of arousing pity and sympathy in the readers. On the other hand, the Dalit writers force the readers to read without feeling guilty or sympathetic for their lot. Authenticity becomes the hallmark of these writings. Egalitarian in nature, the Dalit narratives are based on experience rather than speculation and have successfully stirred thinking among the Dalit intellectuals and among the women who have started stepping out and exposing the ‘master historical narrative’ and creating localized narratives which would give an authentic portrait of their physical and mental traumas and troubles.

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