September 18, 2021

Book Review: Poisoned Bread By Arjun Dangle

“This country is broken into a thousand pieces; its cities, its religion, its castes, its people, and even the minds of the people – all are broken, fragmented”.[1] Dalit literature is a representation of Dalit voices and their courage to pen down their experiences, irrespective of its consequences. Written by a major Dalit writer and activist of the Dalit Panthers, Arjun Dangle wrote Poisoned Bread in 1992 as an anthology consisting of four parts, i.e., poetry, autobiographical extracts, short stories, and essays and speeches. It is a translation of modern Marathi Dalit Literature. What was most striking was the tone in which all parts have been written. It is not one of sadness but of anger. Dangle does an extraordinary job highlighting the oppression and the humiliation that Dalits have faced and still continue to face.

L.S. Rokade questions his own birth in the first poem, To be or Not to be Born. He depicts how even though his mother is part of the human race, she has to shed blood, struggle and strike for just a palmful of water.[2] Their exclusion is depicted in a poem wherein a man is not even allowed to sing the song of bread[3] and in a story where their greetings have to be different as well.[4] “For what they don’t say, an encounter with a Mahar in the morning, and you’re doomed for good”.[5] This line amongst many others in one of the short stories is a clear representation of the power distribution and social alienation faced by Dalits. Most short stories end with death, starvation or a sense of humiliation. Gold from the Grave by Anna Bhau Sathe describes a man who picks dead bodies to find gold on them. He is nothing less than a beast. But all these stories are a representation of Dalit voices and experiences. There are no happy endings. They are made to seem inhuman and desperate but what other choice do they have? Desperation is also seen in another story wherein the members of the community pounce at a dead animal with their knives, gathering whatever flesh they are able to. Blood is on their clothes like colour on Holi.[6] They were treated worse than animals. At least some animals were worshipped. No one cared whether the Dalits lived or died. They were even considered to be polluting a corpse if they touched it.[7] The ‘deaths’ in the stories examined here do not reflect a celebration of the fragmented subject, but a mourning, a constructed act of remembrance of those who do not ‘make it’ into the temples of modern progress.[8]

The book also successfully highlighted the issue of intersectionality. Being a Dalit is hard enough, but being a Dalit woman is even harder. For Dalit widows, it was difficult to sustain a livelihood. Once they were married, they were considered ‘spoilt fruit’.[9] They could be no one else’s without losing whatever little respect they had. Their neighbours would call them all sorts of names. However, Ambedkar had a different view. For him, the only way to bring about a social change was via education. He believed it was vital for mothers to educate their children because it was the children who would bring them out of this hole that they were stuck in.[10]

The book also highlights the deep-seated beliefs of the uneducated old villagers vis-à-vis the youth, who are unable to understand the caste system. Naïve children were not able to understand why they are called ‘polluted’ or ‘dirty’ even when they bathe, put oil and clean themselves.[11]

B.R. Ambedkar was a major influence in the lives of Dalits. It was because of him that majority of them have done away with superstition that made them believe being inferior to the rest of the society was their fate.[12] He paved the path of education for them. In the name of Ambdekar, they decide to unite to break the chains of class and caste.[13] The idea is to bring about a social change, to set up the norm of equality. The book is a warning about the emergence of Dalits with respect to social change and the reaction of the upper-castes to this emergence. Dalit literature is literature produced by the Dalit consciousness. Human freedom is the inspiration behind it.[14] Its aim is to bring about a change. Poisoned Bread is the perfect example of breaking of barriers because of suppression, anger and misery.

[1] Bapurao Jagtap, This Country is Broken. 1992

[2] L.S. Rokade, To be or Not to be Born. 1992

[3] Bhimsen Dethe, Song. 1992

[4] Waman Hoval, The Storeyed House. 1992

[5] Bandhumadhav, The Poisoned Bread. 1992

[6] Amitabh, The Cull. 1992

[7] Shankarrao Kharat, A Corpse in the Well. 1992

[8] Vemaiah Beesopugo, Poisoned Bread: Protest in Dalit short stories. 23 October 2011

[9] Sharankumar Limbale, The Bastard. 1992

[10] Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke. 2009

[11] Kumud Pawde, The Story of My ‘Sanskrit’. 1992

[12] Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke. 2009

[13] Anna Bhau Sathe, Take a Hammer to Change the World. 1992

[14] Sharatchandra Muktibodh, What is Dalit Literature? 1992

Author Details: Sakshi Chandna is a student at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal University.

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