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“Only Ash Knows
The Experience Of Burning”

By Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal & Dr. Jai Prakash Kardam

18 June, 2008

An Interview with Dalit Writer Jai Prakash Kardam

Dr. Jai Prakash Kardam, a prolific Hindi Dalit writer, was born in a poor Dalit family in Ghaziabad, UP. India. He worked as an un-skilled labour in construction and factories. He worked in different capacities in State/central govt./ Bank, and in Central Secretariat official Language Service (Govt. of India) as Deputy Director. At present, he is the Second Secretary in the High Commission of India in Mauritius. He has been editing an annual magazine Dalit Sahitya (Varshiki) since 1999. As many as 15 research works for M.Phil / Ph.D. have so far been completed on him and some are going on in different Universities in India and abroad. This major Dalit writer talks to Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal about several issues of Dalit literature in a detailed and pedantic interview.

NKA: Dalit Literature unfolds the seething discontent of the Dalits towards their age-old exploitation by the upper caste people. In a way, this branch of literature is a volcano of protest against the highly irrelevant and insignificant evil custom of untouchability. The dragon of untouchability has entered the sub-conscious/ unconscious layers of Indian psyche. It can not be easily eliminated. Dalit Literature may, in the long run, help in eradicating this caste-bias from the Indian mind. To be very honest, this literature of the marginalized has carved a niche for itself in Indian Literature. Where does this literature stand right now? What is its future? What should be done to promote it more? Your suggestions, please.

JPK: Dalit literature has become the central point of the Indian literature now. It has created an important discourse, which has raised the burning questions related to the problems of theDalits and made the society awakened about it. In spite of the fact that there are so many writers, critics etc. who still do not accept or recognize Dalit literature, it has increasingly acquired the space in the world of literature. Today Dalit literature is included in the syllabi at under-graduate and post graduation level and a large number of research works have been done and are being done in different universities in India and abroad. In fact, Dalit literature has broken the silence and non-livingness of the literature and made it living and progressive. Considering the journey of Dalit literature by now, it can be said that the future of this literature is very bright.

NKA: As a literature of the oppressed sections of the society, do you think it to be similar to the Literature of Black People in USA? Or do you find some differences between the two?

JPK: Yes, it is quite similar to the literature of Blacks in USA or Nigros in Africa. But, it has some specific characteristics also, which are not found in black or Nigro literature. These are the opposition of caste-system and untouchability. Blacks and Nigros have faced racial discrimination; they were not untouchables like the Dalits in India. This is the reason that Dalit literature is more aggressive, powerful and sharp-edged than the literature of the Blacks and Nigros.

NKA: The literary text is used as a tool in the hands of the powerful to control the oppressed. The post-colonial critics are unearthing the colonial agenda in the text of the West. They believe that the Western literary text was a weapon in the hands of the empire to control the minds of the subjects. Similarly, the feminists are revealing the male bias in the major literary texts. Do you think that there is a need for Dalit Literary theory too, which may expose the prejudices towards the Dalits in Indian Literature? Are there some Dalit theorists, working on these lines?

JPK: It is the established truth now that so called (Indian) literature has always been used by the caste hindus to oppress, suppress and exploit the Dalits. Dalits have been given the opium of religion and exploited in the name of fate and God. They have been taught the philosophy of Gita to work selflessly, not to make any demand for their hard work. Whatever is given by the master should be accepted happily as the will of God.

NKA: Are there efforts to explore Dalit consciousness in other creative arts like painting, theatre and music etc.? Please elaborate.

JPK: Of course, there are Dalit Natya Munches in existence. There are a number of Dalit folk artists, singers, musicians and painters who are doing their best to express Dalit feelings and raising the voice against inequality and exploitation through their art forms.

NKA: What difference do you find between Dalit Literature by a Dalit and Literature about the Dalits by a non-Dalit?

JPK: I would like to quote here the words of Dr. Manager Pandey, a renowned Hindi critic, who wrote in the preface to a collection of Dalit short stories edited by Ramnika Gupta that “Only ash knows the experience of burning”. This indicates that Dalits know the experience of burning-- burning in the fire of sorrows, hatred, disrespect, injustice, inequality and untouchablity. Non-Dalits do not have this experience. Dalits have specific experiences of life, which non-dalits do not have. Only Dalit writers can express their experiences in an authentic manner but not others. Non- Dalit writers may be sympathetic to the Dalits, they may be their well-wishers but their experiences about Dalits are not their self-experiences. They are the observers of torture and exploitation of Dalits, they are not sufferers. This difference of experiences between Dalit and non-Dalits makes the difference between the writings of Dalit and non-Dalit writers. Hence, Dalit literature is the literature of Dalits based on their lives and experiences.

NKA: English Language has become a global language. The translation of regional languages Dalit Literature into English may definitely give a great boost to this innovative literature, because the authors may find a larger reading public in the other countries. One of your works has been translated into English by G.W.Briggs. You must have seen how English translation of a particular work increases its readership. What efforts are being made to translate the native Dalit Literature into English Language?

JPK: No doubt, if Dalit literature is translated into English, it can convey its message to a larger mass, not only in India but at the international level also. In the time of globalization Dalit issues should also be globalized. The main objective of Dalit literature is to sensitize the society to the basic problems of Dalits and in Hindi and other languages, Dalit literature is breaking the thousands years’ silence of literature and trying to sensitize the society. Responsible persons should take initiative to translate Dalit literature into English and other foreign languages, though some short stories, poems and pieces of text (novels and autobiographies) have been translated into English, French, German and other foreign languages. My own short story and poems have been translated into English. But efforts made or being made in this direction are not sufficient, much more is needed to do. Dalit literature is included in the syllabi in a number of universities world wide. During October 2006 when I visited Germany to participate in Frankfurt World Book Fair, I was surprised to see that Dalit literature was being taught in Bonn and Humburg Universities and some students were doing research also on Dalit literature. In fact, Dalit literature is attracting students and scholars from the whole world. Scholars from US, UK, Germany, Japan, Korea etc. are doing research on Dalit literature. I personally know Ms. Saraha Baith (UK), Ms Laura Brueck (USA), Dr. Heinz Werner Wessler (Germany) and Ms Toral (Canada) who have met me in connection of their research on Dalit literature. These scholars and such type of other scholars also are advocating and raising voice of Dalit literature at different forums at international level.

NKA: What measures are being taken to introduce Dalit Literature in the syllabi of Indian Literature? Are your works prescribed at some universities?

JPK: I think a writer’s job is to write only. It is others’ job to evaluate it in terms of changing environment of society and literature and to introduce in the syllabi. Dalits themselves are not in a position to introduce Dalit literature in syllabi, as they are not at key posts in the Universities. Even they are also not members of the syllabus committees. We have raised our voice at national level through participation in the seminars/ symposiums at universities in different parts of India. It is pleasant to learn that dalit literature is a part of syllabus now in a number of Indian universities. As far as my work is concerned, my novel ‘Chhapper’ is prescribed in syllabus at MA/ M.Phil. level at Hyderabad, Shivaji, Mumbai and Kochin universities. Some of my short stories and poems are also included in the syllabus at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and other universities at BA / MA level.

NKA: Some scholars have written doctoral dissertations on you. What aspects of your personality/ writings are explored in these theses?

JPK: About 15 scholars have done their research on my life and work. Most of the dissertations are focused on my novel ‘Chhapper’ as it is considered as the first novel in Hindi dalit literature. Other works are focused on my short stories and poetry etc.

NKA: As editor of Dalit Sahitya( annual magazine of Dalit Literature), what are the major areas of concern in the growth and development of Dalit Literature?

JPK: As editor of Dalit Sahitya Varshiki (Annual) my main concern has been to introduce the socio-economic and political, religious backwardness and exploitation of dalits to sensitize the society to make their attitude towards dalits positive. My main motto through this Annual magazine is to point out the root causes of the illiteracy, unemployment, poverty and social backwardness of dalits. My humble effort is to give voice to the voiceless and sense to the senseless and at the same time to warn the privileged classes to give their due rights to dalits and treat them as equal human beings. It is in the interest of development, progress and prosperity of the society. Freedom and human dignity of dalits must be valued.

NKA: Besides this all pervading Dalit consciousness, what are the other themes of your writings?

JPK: Besides Dalit consciousness, I have written on other issues also. But my main focus has always been on social problems.

NKA: You have authored certain books for children too. Are those books also having the same Dalit voice? Or is there anything else.

JPK: No, these books are based on general subjects such as science/ scientific approach. One book is based on saints, one is on great scientist C.V.Raman and the novel ‘Shamshaan ka Rahasya’ is based on kidnapping of children and smuggling blood and parts of their bodies by a group of sadhus. Some of the books are based on Buddhist tales etc.

NKA: You worked an unskilled labourer. And now, you are the Second Secretary in the High Commission of India in Mauritius. Your career graph shows your extraordinary growth over the years. What factors (inner and external) were responsible for the exemplary rise in your career? JPK: I had nothing with me except my will power, determination and hard work. I had worked hard. There was a total darkness in my life when my father expired in 1976 and I was studying in 11th class only. Being an eldest among all my brothers and sisters, I was the only person to support my mother to run the house. So, instead of going to school I started going to work as unskilled labourer for five rupees a day. I utilized my time and energy, the only thing I had. My chacha Harpal Singh and his two friends Mukut Lal Tomar and Hukam Singh always encouraged and inspired me. Not only moral and emotional support, he supported me financially also. Had he not supported me I would not have achieved any thing in my life. Dr.Devi Singh and Sh.Ram Sahai were other persons in my village who gave me moral support. They showed me the path and I translated their thoughts into action. I wanted to become an engineer, but due to our hardship I could not take admission in B.Sc. in 1977, after passing the Intermediate exam with Science subjects, as I could not manage Rs 140/- for admission fee. Next year, in 1978 I was able to take admission in B.A. with financial help of my chacha, but my admission was for name only. I was not able to go to college, as I did not have proper clothes, shoes etc. During this period, I worked in a steel factory for Rs 180/- per month and as a Munshi with a tax advocate for Rs 200/- per month. I taught tuitions also. Due to this drawback of my life, I could not get opportunity to study as a student like others. I got first Government job in 1980 as an Ameen in sale Tax Department. In 1981, I joined as a clerk in the same department. In 1984 I joined Vijaya Bank in Allahabad and in 1988 I joined Central Secretariat Official Language Service as a Translator and in 1989 I was selected as Assistant Director, through UPSC and joined Ministry of Commerce. In 1996, I was promoted as Deputy Director and joined Department of Culture. Later I worked in Ministry of Rural Development. In 2006 I was promoted to the post of Joint Director, but in the mean time I was selected on deputation to the post of Second Secretary (Language and Culture) in the High Commission of India. With service, I continued my study and did MA in Philosophy, Hindi and History respectively and Ph.D. in Hindi. In 1978 I was selected in Indian Air Force for the post of Airman (Technical), but I did not join as my younger brothers were not doing well in their studies and my presence was needed in the family. I passed PCS (UP) also, first time I could not succeed, Second time I was selected for subordinate service, which I refused to join.

NKA: Tell us something about your present assignment at Mauritius. How is it helpful in your career as a writer?

JPK: My portfolio in the High Commission is to deal with the work of education, promotion of Indian languages and culture. I have close interaction with educational as well as Socio-Cultural institutions and persons in Mauritius. I am in regular touch with writers also and this helps me in keeping me active in writing. Moreover, I have to attend so many socio-cultural functions where speeches are also required. Some times, I prepare speeches for High Commissioner also. Experience of Writing helps me a lot in preparing or delivering speeches. I consider this assignment as an opportunity to gain some different type of experiences, which, at later stage, may be translated into literary forms. Writing has always been helpful in my career. My writing experience has played an important role in my selection to the post of Assistant Director and to the present post also.

The interviewer Dr.Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal is Senior Lecturer in English at Feroze Gandhi College, Rae Bareli.


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