119 years of Trust THE TRIBUNE

Sunday, March 7, 1999
Bollywood Bhelpuri


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The double burden
By Usha Bande

WRITING an autobiography is the difficult art of self-portraiture in which there is a need to unify the authors’ public or social image with his or her private image in order to present an all-inclusive, true picture. Autobiography for women, in particular, is a stupendous task. They are supposed to maintain the delicate balance between the cultural mores of feminine mystique and the authenticity of the live experience.

The Dalit women in India and the Afro-American women in the United States have, however, assumed this difficult task with impunity not only to draw the attention of the society to their tormented existence, but also to undertake self-evaluation. What it is to be a female and Black, the Afro-American woman seems to ask. What it is to be a female and Dalit, her Dalit sister reverberates. Both the Black and the Dalit autobiographies communicate to the world what the male world had done to them.

One of the effective modes to approach, view and understand Afro-American and Dalit women is to study their autobiographies. When these women take to self-expression, they reveal themselves in a unique way. In his momentous work on Black autobiography, Stephen Butterfield calls the "self" of the Black autobiography "a soldier in a long and historical march" against oppression. I quote him at some length.

"The "self of black autobiography, on the whole, taking into account the effect of Western culture on the Afro-American, is not an individual with a private career, but a soldier in a long, historic march toward canaan. The self is conceived as a member of an oppressed social group; with ties and responsibilities to the other members. It is a conscious political identity, drawing sustenance from the past experience of the group.... The autobiographical form is one of the ways that Black Americans have asserted their right to live and grow. It is a bid for freedom, a beak of hope cracking the shell of slavery and exploitation."

What is said here of Black autobiography can well be reiterated in the case of the Dalit.

In India, Dalit women’s autobiographies are confined to Marathi literature mainly. With Dr Ambedkar’s call to the down-trodden to take up their fight with the caste-ridden society, and with an access to education, the Dalit literature flourished in Maharashtra. It is the literature of the oppressed, the exploited, the victim of social norms, and so understandably Dalit literature is the literature of protest, anger, resistance. It is the product of struggle.

Out of this struggle sprung up the genre of Dalit autobiography in which Dalit women brought forth their agony —the agony of being doubly oppressed, as a Dalit and female. The Dalit woman as reflected in the writings of Babytai Kamble, Janabai Girahe, Kumud Pawde, Shantabai Dani, is the hard-working, solitary, oppressed being who has to survive in the high-caste society as well as in her poverty-ridden, filthy, superstitious social environs. How does she manage to survive is a riddle in itself.

In Babytai Kumble’s autobiography, the focus is not only on the bitter-truth of untouchability, but also on the sexist bias of society. A Dalit woman is forced to submit to the lecherous advances of men much against her wishes. The scar goes deep down the psyche but she can do nothing to alter a social order which has double norms — one for the high-caste woman and another for the down-trodden. Adultery is intolerable in the case of the high-caste woman, but her more unfortunate sister is forced to indulge in it. The narrator has also depicted the ills of poverty, illiteracy and unhygienic living.

Another woman, Shantabai Kamble, has more or less same experiences. As an untouchable, she is not allowed to enter the class-room and has to go through the humiliating experience of sitting outside the class and imbibing whatever she could. She saw disgusting poverty in childhood so much so that she and her siblings had only one dress each which they washed and wore till it was in rags. As if that was not enough, she had to undergo immense torture when her husband deserted her for another woman and further humiliated her by accusing her of theft.

Kumud Pawde in her narrative entitled Anta-sphot (meaning inner explosion) records how a Dalit woman’s life is a constant fire-walk. She is taken for granted as if she were the personal property of the men those from the high-caste as well as from her own caste. She compares her life to that of worms in a ditch.

While the Dalit woman’s autobiography reveals her "self" it also gives a vivid portrayal of the evils of untouchability, insult and humiliation born of that, the agony of hunger, poverty, illiteracy and superstitions. The woman we encounter is a lonely being whose lot it is to work like a beast. She cannot be the "beloved of any man but an object of desire alone who is sexually exploited and discarded. And yet, though illiterate, helpless and feeble, she is repository of inner-strength, will-power and racial pride.

That speaks for her ability to face all hardships and overcome obstacles. Once, she is educated and is able to give a clarion-call to her unfortunate sisters to come out of the lithering poverty, hunger and ignorance. These women do not deny their caste. They vow to fight it out, distilling from it caste-pride, strength and solidarity.

In the autobiographies of Black women, we get a vivid picture of the racist and sexist bias of American society. Their perspectives of themselves, first as individuals, then as individuals within the Black community, and finally within the mainstream society, determine what they demand of life and how they look at life.

Black women autobiography writers come from variety of professions. While Gwendolyn Brooks and Zora Neale Hurston are writers, Anne Moddy is a social activist and Shirley Chisholm is a congresswoman. Political fighters and rebels like Angela Davies and Ossie Guffy and even a prostitute, Delle Brehan, have written stirring accounts of their disadvantageous position as Blacks and women. They give objective facts and show subjective awareness.

In Kicks Is Kicks, Del Rehan shows how being a woman led to disrespect and being Black led to hatred. Thus, as female and Black, Brehan suffered. She writes:

"Because I am female and attractive, I had to get used to the sidewalk and subway creeps who vomit their sickness by muttering obscene words at passing girls. Some of these jerks try to patch up their mustered manhood by calling me "nigger".

Though most of the women take pride in being Black and have been taught to be proud, they seem to suffer secretly because of their colour. They struggle to be a part of the mainstream, and rejecting labels, wish to assert their identity. As Lorraine Hansberry, poet and dramatist says in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, "We were vaguely taught certain vague absolutes: that we were better than no one but infinitely superior to everyone; that we were the products of the proudest and most mistreated of the races of man...."

In the process of thus expressing their black pride, these women reveal the psychological and spiritual scars they suffered because of self-hate. As a result of lacking power, of being victims of racism, and the failure to develop a positive sense of self, they often display an agonising rage against the self.

In Dalit autobiography, the women are aware of their low self-esteem, and inferior position as compared to the women of higher classes; similarly in Black writing the woman suffers because she is judged by white standards, with blonde blue-eyed, white-skinned women. As a critic points out, Black women have been "depreciated by their own kind, judged grotesque by their own society, and valued only as a sexually convenient labouring animal." Some of them, like Maya Angelou, do not hide their self-shame and self-loathing at being Black.

Self-hatred and self-doubt result from racial oppression. When racial oppression is coupled with the state of being female, the result is double jeopardy. Since the slave era, Black male chauvinism vis-a-vis Black females has been common. Black men, though themselves exploited and oppressed, tried to place restrictions on their women, because they were females. Angela Davis is enraged when she writes in her autobiography With My Mind On Freedom that she was often exposed to sexism in the political organisations to which she belonged. Men’s reaction to her political activities was often hostile. "Women should not play leadership roles," they asserted.

Likewise, other Black women too complain of disrespect and oppressive tactics used by men, White as well as Black, to subjugate Black women, particularly political and social activists. Nikki Giovanni, who has excelled in the political field laments the "discrimination against women in politics."

In short, Black and Dalit women’s autobiographies transcend the field of being mere personal-narratives and assume significant perspectives. They tackle the issue of identity, of defining and understanding the Black or the Dalit self. These writings reveal the agony of self-shame, self-depreciation and self-hatred and the efforts to rise above these negative feelings.

They also lash out at the double jeopardy, to which they are subjected as Black and female or being Dalit and females. The authors have not always taken a feminist stance consciously, but since they place their writings within their social and cultural milieu, their works assume feminist significance. The genre of autobiography assume new dimensions at the hands of these women.Back

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