‘Dalit Literature: Space and Trauma’, at ECSAS 2016, Warsaw, by Daniel Bilton

‘Dalit Literature: Space and Trauma’, at ECSAS 2016, Warsaw

by Daniel Bilton

September 2016

Warsaw University Old Library

As the hot midday sun shone down upon the University of Warsaw’s Old Library, ECSAS 2016 sprang into action. This was the twenty-fourth meeting of the European Conference of South Asian Studies, and as one of the organisers noted at the ‘Welcome’ meeting, he was honoured that the university was hosting ECSAS just as much as Krakow was to be hosting the Pope, who was making his first visit to Poland during the same week. This trip to Warsaw, for me, was a trip full of firsts. Not only was this my first trip abroad, but it was also the first time I had attended a conference at this scale, and also my first time presenting a paper at a conference.

My paper, entitled ‘Dalit Literature: Space and Trauma’, was part of panel 43 ‘Dalit writing, caste and space’, organised by NTU’s Dr Nicole Thiara. As the title of the panel suggests, the theme of space was the one that connected the papers together, although every paper was truly unique. The range of papers here was fascinating, with paper topics moving from British Asian literature to Indian graphic novels, and from the depictions of city spaces to the struggles of a small, marginalised communities. My paper can be seen as an extension of my undergraduate dissertation topic, which also looked at Dalit literature and trauma. In this paper, I looked at the connections between trauma and space and analysed various trauma spaces that appear frequently within Dalit literature, such as streets and schools. Interestingly, the majority of these are public spaces. This contrasts with Western ideas of trauma which we usually pair with private spaces. Abuse in Western abuse narratives, for example, normally occurs behind closed doors and away from the public gaze, meaning that it often goes on unnoticed for years. In the Dalit texts that I studied, however, the abuse inflicted by members of the upper castes happens openly in the streets. In one instance, in P. Sivakami’s The Grip of Change, a Dalit woman is physically removed from her home and is beaten in the street by the henchman of her upper caste landlord. As this example shows, the abuse is moved from a private to a public space, firmly rooting Dalit trauma in these spaces.

Due to the vast scale of the conference, it was impossible to visit each and every panel. Amongst some of the panels that I did attend, this idea of space was also discussed in the context of wider Indian literature and society. One paper that I found interesting looked at the surge in popularity of Indian comics, and analysed how the comic form is able to represent the growing modern city space. This focus on comics is interesting, particularly in the light of a paper presented at my panel on graphic novels, as it is a growing form that is being used to present serious questions and concerns. By using this graphic form, writers and artists are able to present issues in a way that reaches younger audiences and is thus able to reach a wider audience. The graphic form is also able to use images to depict things such as city environments, eliminating the need for lengthy scene setting passages. Although moving away from literature, the city environment and its relationship to Dalits was the focus of a paper on a different panel. Here, this presentation focused on city apartment complexes in Hyderabad that are specifically for Dalits. This paper looked at how the Dalits here see the complexes as inferior to the upper caste apartments and that the supermarkets and malls in the surrounding areas are dirty. Although the presenter of this paper acknowledged that the malls in these areas did not include the same upmarket chain stores that the other malls have, she thought that these areas were well maintained. This creates questions into what the actual issues surrounding these sorts of housing developments are. The main issue that was presented here was that they entrench the lack of social mobility for Dalits. If a Dalit were to apply to rent an apartment in a building not specifically for Dalits, they would be denied if the landlord knew of their caste. If a Dalit were to lie about their caste but then is found out to be doing so, they are then evicted from the property.

Warsaw Old Town

Warsaw itself was a city that greatly exceeded my expectations. We landed at an airport that was previously a military air base, and drove forty minutes through the dark city streets with a non-English speaking taxi driver before arriving at our hotel. But as the sun rose the following morning, the beauty of the city was clear to see. The university is nestled within the heart of Warsaw’s Old Town, a beautiful area which comprises old buildings and churches. One of the most striking things about the Old Town is that these old buildings were rebuilt after being completely demolished during World War Two. Architects used the original plans for the buildings so that the rebuild of the area would look exactly as it would have before the war. It is this painstaking attention to detail that has now made the area a world heritage site. As with many places in Poland and this part of Europe, the horrors of the war feel ever present. Throughout the Old Town, one can find numerous war memorials and tributes to the soldiers that died during the war. You are also able to walk the old perimeter of the Warsaw ghetto via maps available at tourist spots. Although I only had time to walk a small part of this route, standing in the middle of the old ghetto opens up the reality of the horrors of the war.

All in all, my trip to Warsaw and to the ECSAS conference was a fruitful one. I gained valuable skills through speaking at an international conference, boosting my confidence in both my work and my presentation skills, something that I hope to build upon at future events. I was also able to speak to multiple academics researching within the field and was able to share information and findings with them. I wish to thank Nicole Thiara for giving me the opportunity to attend and present at this conference, and I look forward to participating at more in the future.