Dalit Bengali poet Kalyani Thakur Charal’s I Belong to Nowhere is a collection of her poetry written over the course of her life as a poet. The book is accompanied by an informative translator’s note on Charal’s life and work, an essay on Charal’s work by Kaushal Panwar (translated from the Hindi by Nikhil Pandhi), and an editorial note.

Born in 1965, Kalyani Thakur Charal belongs to the Matua community from the Nadia district of West Bengal. She has been writing and self-publishing her work while working as an Indian Railways employee. Another Dalit writer, Yashica Dutt’s book Coming Out as Dalit is currently in the news owing to the fact that the fifth episode in Amazon Prime’s Made in Heaven season 2 features a character with a similar career trajectory as Dutt. In her book, Coming Out as Dalit, Dutt detailed her struggles with hiding her caste and accepting it. Eventually, she terms the act of accepting her original caste surname as “coming out”. While Dutt wrote about “coming out as Dalit” in 2019, Charal too wrote about her experiences – as a Dalit woman working in the Indian Railways for over two decades – in her memoir, Ami Keno Charal Likhi (Why I Use The Name Charal).

In the landscape of Dalit poetry, there is no dearth of voices from around the country, whether it is poetry in Marathi, Bengali, or Hindi. However, a lot of this literature is yet to be translated. Living in a time when heated discussions around caste tend to centre around reservations, it becomes increasingly important for Dalit literature to claim its space. The hurdle around this task is the publishing industry itself.

For years, Kalyani Thakur Charal self-published most of her works because no Bengali publisher seemed inclined to do it. Then, to see this book of poetry published by Tilted Axis Press, a British publishing house with a history of publishing phenomenal Indian translations such as Tomb of Sand, is a monumental feat. In India, Panther’s Paw Publications (run by Yogesh Maitreya) and Navayana Books are the only publishers committed to telling stories written by Dalit and Bahujan authors.

While talking about Kalyani’s work, we need to draw attention to the current landscape of storytelling, because identity, marginalisation, and representation aren’t mutually exclusive. The statement by the makers of Made in Heaven refuting Yashica Dutt’s demand for acknowledgement is quite telling. They mention that they referenced a whole canon of Dalit literature including Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants, Caste Matters by Suraj Yengde, and Sumit Baudh’s work. The terrain of publishing is challenging for every writer, especially for those from marginalised communities. And when they finally manage to cross the publishing hurdles and get the recognition they deserve, every industry sits up and takes notice.

Yashica Dutt’s book was important because it changed the way millennials talk and think about caste. Similarly, Neeraj Ghaywan did the same through his movies Masaan and Geeli Pucchi (in Ajeeb Daastaans). In the same manner, Charal’s poems unsparingly question the inhumane (and belittling) nature of the caste system in India.

Education, the only way out

In West Bengal, Charal’s home state, authors like Mahasweta Devi and Manoranjan Byapari have written about the trappings of casteism in books like Outcast (Mahasweta Devi) and Interrogating my Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit (Manoranjan Byapari). Poets across regions and languages use the medium to speak of the atrocities committed against the Dalit community, and the failure to protect the vulnerable. They also sing of the moments in history that changed the course of their lives – such as the labour movement and Ambedkarite Buddhist movement. Caste and class are intertwined in the deeply-enmeshed social fabric of our country. Education is the only way out.

When Byapari learnt to read and write, this became a way for him to speak of his pain and the life experiences forced upon him by his Dalit identity. Similarly, for Charal, education and a job in the railways was a way out. But it isn’t always that simple or straightforward. Because in India, caste doesn’t become irrelevant once you are out of the social structure of rural areas.

If Silicon Valley’s caste discrimination has taught us anything, it is that caste pervades every fabric of social interactions and conventions, even though it remains invisible to the eyes of the privileged. Having lived through such experiences during her time as an Indian Railways employee, Charal talks about the struggles of Dalit women in India – a topic that is a central enquiry in her work. In her poem, “You Who Have Forgotten the Smell Of the Soil”, she evokes the connection of her community with nature and the songs sung by them.

You who have forgotten the smell of the
soil, I know you’ve forgotten those tunes
Bhatiyali, Kabi or the Baul, if so let the past days
be replete with
the errant fragrance-resonance-drunkenness.

— Translated by Mrinmoy Pramanick.

A call to action

Charal’s poems reminded me of the Marathi poet and activist Vilas Ghogare featured in Anand Patwardhan’s documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade. Like Ghogare, her poems are also a call to action. Her straightforwardness tells us that poetry doesn’t have to be elusive or seeped in metaphors to make a point. She uses the medium of poetry but lends her own method to it – which is “say it like it is”. She brings various Dalit identities, that of the land labourers who grow the rice but never get to own the land, the ones who light the funeral pyres, prominent figures such as Babasaheb Ambedkar, Harichand, and the Dalit women whose stories would remain unheard without Charal’s words.

While reading her I wondered about why it took so long for these poems to gain a readership. The answer is simple but I wish it weren’t. Dalit poetry began long before the term “Dalit poetry” or “Dalit literature” came into existence, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were published formally. In the publishing avenues, “projected sales and numbers” are used as an excuse to hide behind prejudices. It is not the only industry that suffers from it. She writes in “The Fat Cat Gets the Cream”,

Those of you who seek to save the farmers’ lands,
or campaign for industrialisation,
I wonder, did any of your
fourteen generations ever farm?
To both of you,
the farmer is a
vote bank.

Charal’s poems highlight that it is affirmative action that can bring about change, not vote bank politics. For Charal, raising her fist through her poems is her method of affirmative action. She has lived and worked tirelessly for her voice to be heard. And with this book, she has managed to defeat every single bookseller and publisher who refuses to publish or sell Dalit literature. Her voice now carries beyond the village to which she belongs and the language she writes in. That is what literature in translation accomplishes.

So, before this month ends, think back to how many women in translation you read this year or last year. How many Dalit writers? How many women Dalit writers? How many such writers or books were published in India? How many such writers get their due credit when their life and works are referenced in cinema? No matter the number, you can still pick up this book and read “Chandalini’s Poetry”. In her own words, “It (her poetry) is a work of resistance against a caste society”.

People, shedding their sweat and blood
People, beaten up every day
My ancestors
My children, struck with malnutrition
My brothers and sisters,
hunger-threatened, My relatives, my
people, to them
I will go to them
crossing – four rivers
leaving – five towns and villages.

— Translated by Mrinmoy Pramanick.

I Belong to Nowhere, Kalyani Thakur Charal, translated from the Bengali by Sipra Mukherjee and Mrinmoy Pramanick, Tilted Axis Press.