Caste in books

Updated: 18 April, 2020 08:21 IST | Sukanya Datta | Mumbai

On the occasion of Dalit History Month, The Guide invites authors, editors and illustrators to share their reccos of Dalit literature for young readers.

Bhimayana uses Gond art
Bhimayana uses Gond art

Although caste continues to be a lived reality in India, school classrooms and textbooks tend to offer a limited understanding of the same to kids and young adults; it is most often reduced to a single chapter on the caste system, a reference to untouchability, or a mere mention while learning about the Constitution of India. This further alienates children from the truth of an oppressive social hierarchy that manifests itself in our day-to-day lives, and makes a lot of them feel that their lived reality is not seen or heard. Against the backdrop of Dalit History Month, we reached out to some voices in Indian literature to curate a reading list that can serve as an introduction to caste for children.

Getting rid of biases

An illustration from The Adventures of Young Ambedkar
An illustration from The Adventures of Young Ambedkar

Publisher S Anand of Navayana recommends No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons 1932-1956, by Unnamati Syama Sundar, for young adults. "The book was written in response to the 2012 NCERT Ambedkar cartoon controversy which had led to protests by Dalits. Sundar's book is a catalogue of over a hundred cartoons of Ambedkar from leading publications. All students should read it to know history," says Anand. He also recommends Bhimayana, co-authored by him and Srividya Natarajan, and illustrated by Pardhan-Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. "It's for those aged between eight to 80. It not only introduces one to Ambedkar, but also connects them to the presence of caste and untouchability in the present world. It can make one rethink their privilege."

Finding Ambedkar

Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar and S Anand
Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar and S Anand

Illustrator-designer Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar's first pick is Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why by Sowmya Rajendran. "It acts like a primer to Ambedkar and to caste. We look at Ambedkar in a way that we never see him — as a child, learning and questioning," says the author of Aamu's Kawandi. "You might find books for children that address class, but there are few books that address caste," she shares, also adding Bhimayana to her list
of recommendations.

Stories with a difference

Radhika Menon and Yogesh Maitreya
Radhika Menon and Yogesh Maitreya

"We talk about differences — skin colour, disability, gender, body image — in children's books, but caste is something that is not dealt with enough," admits Radhika Menon, publishing director, Tulika Books. She urges kids to read I Will Save My Land by Rinchin, a story on an anti-land grab movement that offers us an insight into caste norms. "It won the Neev Book Award. It is a really different book that schools have started introducing, too." Menon also recommends The Magical Fish by Chandraka Jagat. "The story is from a Gond tribal who was a daily wage labourer and a storyteller and features a woman who could well be her own feisty self. It was translated by Rinchin and Maheen. The illustrations are by a young Gond artist called Shakunlata."

For citizens of the future

Yogesh Maitreya, poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, says The Adventures of Young Ambedkar by Devyani Khobragade introduces the creator of the Constitution to children from their own imagination. "It is a significant book for the citizens of the future to develop a keen sense of fraternity and justice in public life; that's something missing across generations in India, due to lack of sensible literature for children," Maitreya adds. The poet also suggests picking up the semi-historical and fictional work, Savitribai Phule and I, by Sangeeta Mulay.

"It is the story of a young Dalit girl for whom the fictional diary of Savitribai Phule becomes an inspiration. It's the first work of fiction on Phule."

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First Published: 18 April, 2020 07:19 IST

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