About the Book
Raj Kumar's pioneering book primarily examines Dalit autobiographies. It is a historic breakthrough because till recently, Dalit in India were voiceless. These narratives thus symbolise how Dalits are breaking down the age-old barrier of silence. Focussing on multiple marginalities pertaining to caste, nation and identity, the author has followed and inter-disciplinary approach across disciplines such as history, sociology, law, religion, philosophy and gender studies apart from English literature, to bring to the reader the remarkably different personal narratives of both Dalit men and women. The autobiographies are located against a socio-cultural background, along with the emergence of Dalit literature, Dalit life-narratives, while revealing their everyday caste and class exploitations that call for the restoration of dignity and self-respect. In itself the very emergence of Dalit autobiography is an act of resistance because Dalits are using this opportunity to assert their identities through their writings. Through the autobiographies, one gets a glimpse into the life of a community struggling against deprivation, discrimination and exploitation at the hands of a society ridden with caste biases and unequal opportunities.
It also traces the origin of autobiographical writing in the west and follows its development in the West and follows its development both thematically and structurally by analysing the autobiographies of Saint Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau Benjamin Franklin and J.S. Mill. Also discussed are autobiographies of upper caste Indian public personalities, including M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The personal narratives of upper caste Indian women, however-like Rassundari Devi, Binodini Dasi and others-reveal their under-privileged status in a patriarchal system.
Dalit Personal Narratives will add significantly to the growing corpus of scholarship on caste in India, particularly Dalit and gender studies. Raj Kumar's realistic yet simple style of writing grips the reader immediately. It is also a valuable reference for students of literature, history, sociology, and those interested in the genre of the autobiography and studies on ethnicity, culture and society.
About the Author
Raj Kumar is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, University of Delhi. His research areas include autobiographical studies.
Dalit literature, Indian writing in English, Oriya literature and post-colonial studies. He has been a Fellow at the Indian institute of Advanced Study, Shimla in 1999 and has published in journals such as Social Action, Sateertha Bulletin, The Fourth World, Creative Forum and Language Forum. Raj Kumar has also translated literary texts from Indian languages, especially from Oriya into English.
Autobiographies may not have been a traditional literary genre in Indian culture, but from the nineteenth century onwards we begin to find texts that narrate personal lives. Critical studies of these personal narratives have been slow to emerge in India. The reasons are obvious. Literary critics in India have not felt drawn to this, otherwise, important genre. The few Indian autobiographies which have widely drawn attention of the researchers are: M. K. Gandhi's An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927), Jawaharlal Nehru's An Autobiography (1936), and Nirad C. Chaudhuri's An Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951). Gandhi, Nehru and Chaudhuri-individually represent different world views, but socio- culturally they belong to a common category, i.e., they were upper caste men and hence they were quite privileged to have an audience worldwide. Since their autobiographies were available in English quite early, the critics working on autobiographies naturally picked them up to evaluate their lives and writings. In recent times, there have been a considerable number of critical studies on Indian upper caste women's autobiographies. On the other hand, Dalits, who have been raising their voices for quite sometime, through their respective personal narratives were rarely heard of and thus systematically neglected in the academic circle. One possible reason for this neglect could be the fact that these voices challenge the hegemony of the upper caste and make way for the assertion of the marginal self. The recent interest among the scholars to study the autobiographies of Dalits and women, though marginal, is a positive direction for their proper rehabilitation.
My attempt in this book has been to contribute to the proper critical evaluation of Indian autobiographies in general by examining the specific dimensions of gender and caste with particular emphasis on the autobiographies of Dalits. While doing so, my focus has been more on autobiographies as a narrative rather than autobiographies as a historical document, because all personal narratives are shaped by certain unspoken priorities of the 'self' in its negotiation with the society. Before analysing the selected texts, I have made an attempt to define the very term 'autobiography' by splitting it into its three components: auto-self, bio-life, graph-writing. Thus, while defining the gente, emphasis has been given on the problematic of all three terms by posing the following questions: what is self, in what way is the shape of a life determined and recorded, what is considered worth recording and whether this is conditioned by existing literary paradigms or social priorities? And on the act of writing: who can write, who learns to write, for whom autobiography is written, etc. The answers to all these questions mentioned above will definitely lead to the broad understanding of the criticality of autobiographical studies.
Autobiography has become an important gente for literary-critical discourse. Its boundaries are unlimited in the sense that the form can be discovered both in literature and non-literature. Even within literature, autobiographical forms can be found in poem, fiction, drama, travelogue, etc. Therefore the simple generalisation of the genre will invite trouble of what is known as 'literary textualisation.' It is, therefore, important that we have clear-cut views of the genre itself relating to its origin, development, function and views of the literary critics. This will help us to state our objective in studying autobiography.
In the past, the critical studies of autobiography have stressed on several issues. Out of many some of the broad areas which are in the focus are: autobiographical expression as a source of truth, reading personality development through autobiography, autobiography as a valuable historical source, invention of literary structure, autobiography as a source for historical investigations, study of psychological development through autobiography, reading gender through autobiography, reading of subaltern experiences through autobiography, the language of autobiography, aesthetic autobiography, criticism as autobiography and autobiography and post-modernism, etc. The changing perspectives in autobiographical studies are due to change of time, society and the priorities given on the subject concerned.
The change of the subject in autobiography is an important issue in autobiographical studies. Though for different scholars an autobiography will mean different things but what is important about autobiographical writing is that it is an act of a conscious self which is documented through the active help of memory. Since human memory is short, the autobiographer tries to make up the forgotten past by inventing things which suits the narration. Thus, the emergence of a 'self in autobiography is the making of the author. It is quite interesting that out of infinite topics the narrator has choices to choose anything and everything he/she likes. Of course, it is natural that the narrator selects those episodes of his/her life which fits into his/her intended project. In other words, there are priorities to narrate those events of life which the narrator thinks are significant. Thus, writing an autobiography is a political act because there is always an assertion of the narrative self.
The location of the narrative self is also an important subject of investigation in autobiographical studies. The identity of a person will be based on the location to which he/she belongs. Accordingly, the person will undergo the experiences in life. In order to understand the life-experiences of a person several disparate identic criterion can be put to test. It can be caste, class, ethnicity, language, religion, region, gender, etc. Each one of these criterion has to be thoroughly investigated while studying an autobiography so that we are able to understand the person's affiliations to a particular universe and its world-view. Because of different locations of individuals it is not good to generalise the experiences of lives while studing autobiographies. It is, therefore, important that we try to discuss all aspects of life, such as, social, political, economic, religious, psychological, philosophical, etc. This will help us understand how the narrator has coped with his/her life, time and society.
A section of critics believe that writing autobiography is a privileged act because there is always the glorification of self. Since autobiographies flourished after the emergence of capitalism, they argue that the aim of writing one's autobiography is to set the record straight of an individual's achievements. But this seems to be too general a statement because not all autobiographers celebrate their selves. Take for example Dalit personal narratives. Here, instead of celebrating self the Dalit narrator has to record a life which is full of pain and suffering because of the caste system. Since Dalits in India live marginalised lives their autobiographies are bound to be different from others. By writing their autobiographies Dalits are mobilising resistance to fight against all forms of oppressions which they have been experiencing for ages. It is therefore important that before we give a very general statement on autobiographies, we try to locate the text in its socio-historical context and understand its meaning. Otherwise the very purpose of writing an autobiography will be lost.
Since autobiography as a well established literary genre has its origin in the West, I have historically traced out its foundation and followed its development both thematically and structurally. Out of the several texts available I have chosen Saint Augustine's Confessions (AD 397-98), Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (1789), Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography (1818) and J. S. Mill's Autobiography (1873) for critical analysis in Chapter One. This has helped us understand the issues involved in studying autobiography both in theory and practice.
Compared to the western autobiographical tradition, writing about one's life-story is a relatively recent one in India. Though there existed several self-narratives from the ancient times, Banarasidas' Ardhakathanaka (1641) is considered to be the first full-fledged Indian autobiography. At this point several questions can be asked- for e.g., why did it take several centuries for the genre to emerge in India as compared to its earlier emergence in the West? Does it need a specific cultural space for its emergence, which was not available in India then? Does a literary genre depend upon certain philosophical pre-conditions? These questions have led us to take a closer look at the nature of Indian caste society and its dominant Hindu world-view, which shapes the mind of an individual. There are numerous Indian autobiographies written in many different languages and it is not possible for any single researcher to look at the entire field. In my study I have primarily used texts available in English, but I have also referred to those written in Indian languages and subsequently translated into English: I have restricted myself to texts that call themselves specifically autobiographies and not included novels and other forms that use the autobiographical mode.
Autobiographical Practices: Examples from the West
The Public Self: Indian Upper Caste Men's Autobiographies
The Private Self: Indian Upper Caste Women's Autobiographies
Caste, Culture and Politics: Towards a Definition of Dalit Autobiography
The Marginal Self: Dalit Men's Autobiographies
Beyond the Margin: Dalit Women's Autobiographies
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