Dalit literature in Bengal has followed a completely different tradition from that of its national counterpart. While Ambedkar’s writings had a great impact on most of Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, and Tamil Dalit literature, Bengal’s Dalit literature has remained profusely influenced by Harichand Thakur. 53-year-old Kalyani Thakur Charal, whose sharp writing on Dalit feminism and Dalit women’s movements in India and Bengal has shaken the system time and again, is also an ardent follower of Harichand Thakur, who introduced the importance of education to the Matua community.

Born in the year 1965 in Bagula in the district of Nadia, West Bengal, as Kalyani Thakur, this contemporary Dalit poet has been writing since childhood. In a landscape dominated by “Bangali bhodrolok”, Thakur has published seven books on her own because no publisher wanted to take on what she wrote – an autobiography, four books of poetry, a collection of short stories, and a collection of essays.

On March 8, as the world was commemorating International Women’s Day, the “Chandalini” talked to Scroll.in about her life and writing. We met at her house in Mukundapur in the southern suburb of Kolkata. Sitting in leisurely fashion in a T-shirt and pyjamas, she spoke about her life and shared notes on Dalit women’s struggles in India.

An unstoppable quest for education

Raised alongside two elder brothers and two elder sisters, Kalyani was the youngest child of the Thakur family – their ancestors had migrated from east Bengal at the time of the short-lived attempt to partition the state in 1905. Her early life was very much like any other child’s in rural Bengal. Since the family of seven was not very secure financially, Kalyani and her siblings were often asked to sell homegrown vegetables and fruits at the nearest railway station by their mother Renuka Thakur. However, education remained the first priority for the family.

“To talk about my inspiration for education, I must talk about my parents, Krishna Chandra Thakur and Renuka Thakur who raised me like a son. My father always emphasised the importance of education. The Matua community has always prioritised education and though my father and mother did not have the opportunity to get educated themselves, they had an extreme eagerness for it. There was a time when Dalits were not allowed to enter educational organisations, and we even used to carry our own seating sheets to school and sit in the verandah outside class,” said the writer.

While speaking about the discrimination she faced in her early life, Kalyani explained that they were only taught by teachers from the upper castes and there were always a few rules and regulations that marked the line between the upper and lower caste students.

“The first thing that I sensed as discrimination was that all the upper class students in the school had a particular uniform and we had none. Even at a later age, this remained stuck in my mind. But what made me ride high on confidence was that I used to stand first in the class among all, in every academic year,” she said.

Credit: Satwik Paul

Kalyani’s quest for knowledge was unstoppable. After a preliminary education in the Bagula high school, she entered Ramkrishna Ananda Ashram, in Kolkata’s Naktala, in 1980. After Class 12, she went back to Bagula to be by her ailing mother’s side, from where she completed a BCom Honours degree in accountancy. Later she joined Calcutta University’s evening section at College Street for a MCom degree.

“I was taking several exams for a government job as I knew in order to continue my education I have to earn money. In the second year itself I got through Indian Railways Group C’s clerical post. My office was in Sealdah and I stayed at the working women’s hostel. The initial few years were a trying time for me as I could hardly get some food and was working in the day and studying in the night. This was between 1987 and 1990,” she said.

While staying in the hostel, Kalyani devoted a good amount of time to bringing out a number of magazines. She also contributed regularly to various Dalit and women-centric journals. The very first magazine that came out from under her wings was named Nir.

Everyday discrimination

Kalyani compared her time working in a traditional government office with Sita’s agni pariksha in her autobiography Ami Keno Charal Likhi (Why I Write Charal), published in 2016.

“First, I was not given any table or chair and was only allowed to sit on a bench lying in a corner of the office. Later, I was given a chair and a small table and was pushed to the furthest corner of the room, where there were no fans. Kolkata’s humid weather did not affect me as much as my so-called colleagues who plagued my sense of existence. I soon started taking medicines to fall asleep as soon as office got over each day,” she described.

“Once they had asked me to not wear an orange sari, someone said, ‘it doesn’t suit you’. I suppose I was too dark to wear an orange sari!” she added with much agitation.

However, through it all, writing and reading did not stop for Kalyani. It was her only way of escape. It was in theudbastu” (refugee) edition of Nir literary journal, published in 2003, when she first used “Charal” as her surname – her first revolutionary decision to make her identity this prominent to the world. “People have always had a number of queries about my caste and surname. I thought to use my community name as my surname,” she said.

Credit: Amita Ghose

She recalled an incident from her early days in the office, when a senior colleague publicly asked her, “Which caste do you belong to?”

“I loudly said I am Charal, on hearing which he remained a bit stunned for few minutes and then left.”

“Actually, I realised that despite being a member of a backward community, I was much more civilised than those who worked in my office. An event on Dr Ambedkar’s birthday celebration in 2010 changed my lookout. Even after being invited by one of the organisers, my name could not be spelled out on stage, for the obvious reasons of me being a Charal. When I was recommended by a Scheduled Caste RMO for a monetary reward, my colleagues left stones no unturned to assassinate my conduct in the office.”

“Tell me, how often do you find people using community words as a gaali (abusive word) in their conversations? Very often. Everywhere I hear them saying ‘you are acting like a Chamar’ or ‘you look like a Chuar’. Nobody realises that Chamar, Chuar, Dom – all of these are community names. I cannot be a hypocrite. I am a Charal and I have no shame using it as my surname. It is their shame that they use community names as abuses among themselves,” she added.

The dire need for an autobiography

History says it is Babasaheb Ambedkar’s thrust to formulate an alternative egalitarian, secular and modern identity for Dalits in India that gave the so-called backward class inspiration, and drove societal upliftment.

“Community cultures and literature are only promoted and talked about only when you hold a powerful position in the society,” Kalyani said.

Several autobiographies of Dalit men have been written in the southern part of the country, and also a few in Maharashtra and Gujarat. But when it comes to written documentation of the lives of Dalit women from Bengal, the number is close to zero.

“It was three or four years ago, during a literary meet, that I was told there is no autobiography or detailed information available on the Internet about Dalit women and writers from Bengal,” she said.

Kalyani was requested to write an autobiography to document the current era of the women Dalit writers for the sake of future reference.

Credit: Amita Ghose

“My youth came and went away in between the job at the railways and my struggle to get done with the MCom degree. However, I felt there was a need to write an autobiography. I would be approached by a number of teachers and professors or researchers for the same too. So in 2016, I tried assembling my memories – the darkest and brightest ones together,” Kalyani said.

In that autobiography, Aami Keno Charal Likhi, Kalyani writes in the preface about the political retaliation she faced while looking for a publisher. In the end, she never got one and used her own money to print and distribute copies of the book.

An endless war of words

Kalyani’s first-ever poetry book, Dhorlei Juddho Sunishchit, was published in 2003. While writing it, Kalyani could foresee that it would offend mainstream spaces, prompting her to name the book accordingly. Dhorlei Juddho Sunishchit hints at a war of words that the poems would ignite.

The books and journals published by Kalyani cover subjects ranging from Dalit folklore, poetry by Dalit women, their attempt to write and read, and short stories on prominent Dalit women activists, to water crises around the world and Bangladeshi refugees. Two of her most popular publications remain her autobiography and a three-book poetry series Chandalinir Kobita, one of which sharply satirises the babu cultures in Indian government offices and reveals how casteist and racist practices are a plague across all levels of society.

Kalyani has also anchored a number of journals that have writings from Dalit women across the state of West Bengal. It was this passion for collecting such short stories and poems that gave birth to the fortnightly journal Nir. The journal also serves as an introduction to the writers’ struggle in fighting exclusionary mainstream spaces to find one for themselves.

Credit: Amita Ghose

Kalyani said that the world of mainstream, eminent intellectuals is still reluctant to accept Dalit writers. She recollected meeting film critic and professor Sanjay Mukhopadhyay in 2012 at the Kolkata Book Fair, where Dalit writers had put up a stall of their own. She said, “I had always heard Sanjay-da speaking highly of Dalit writers and encouraging people to overcome caste barriers. I found him strolling around at the book fair and asked him to visit and read Nir’s latest edition on Dalit women. He didn’t even touch the journal and said, ‘Tomra to jaat paat muche dite chaicho’ (Looks like all of you are trying to do away with the whole caste system).”

Where is the writing by Dalit women?

Dalit literature in India has been invaluably enriched by the contributions of a number of Dalit women writers. Bengal’s Dalit writers, however, are still looking for a minimum level of recognition.

The situation of Dalit literature in West Bengal is so bleak that there are no shops in the entire state, even in Kolkata that sell Dalit writers’ books except Chaturtha Duniya on College Street. Chaturtha Duniya or Stall No. 22 College Street is run by the Dalit Writers’ Association in Bengal where Kalyani holds a powerful position. It opens once a week for three hours – at 6 PM every Thursday – and in this way has survived for 20 long years now.

“People think we have got it all and they are just not interested in listening to what we say. We don’t get a publisher to print what we write. How will Dalit literature survive, tell me? I found that most of the readers are in rural Bengal rather than the city. Let me tell you, they don’t let people read Ambedkar’s writing. Go and look for his books in the shops, you won’t get them.”

On being asked about the participation of women in Dalit literature and its significance, Kalyani said, “Though there has been a considerable amount of work done by the Dalit women all across the country – to name some, P Shivakami, Shanta Bai Kamble, S Sukirtarani, Lakshmi M, Chandraben Srimali – I still cannot say that the number is enough.”

“The intellectual clan in Bengal has always been silent about the contribution and significance of the Dalit writers and literature. Not only that, they tried to do away with the name of Jogendra Mondal who remained one of greatest Dalit activists from the pages of history. In such a situation, how do Dalit women get their due acknowledgment here? It looks nearly impossible. Still, the work never stops. Writers like Smritikotha Haoladar, Chuni Kotal or Lily Halder have inspired many and I hope the fight will continue.”