Originally published at ABC Arts Online, November 2014
In September 2013, the Indigenous writer and poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, was walking back to her hotel one night during a translation workshop in Kolkata, India, accompanied by Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty, facilitator of Eckermann's visit, prominent scholar and critic and the driving force behind the 2014/15 LITERARY COMMONS! project.
The pair walked past a familiar urban Indian scene: people sleeping in the street and on the steps of buildings (not necessarily homeless people, according to Chakraborty, more people who come from villages to work in the city temporarily and do not have accommodation there). The reaction from the Australian poet was a profound one.
"Ali said to me, 'I wish I could see Aboriginal people be able to sleep on the footpath in Brisbane'," says Chakraborty, a lecturer at University of Western Sydney (UWS). "It was a very astonishing comment for me, because I had never looked at people sleeping on the footpath from that perspective. For her it was freedom, the prospect of Indigenous people being able to sleep uninterrupted in a metropolitan landscape."
This merely scratches the surface of an unprecedented literary exchange between Indigenous Australians and Indians. Chakraborty has embarked on an ambitious and heartfelt journey in uniting Aboriginal writing with, specifically, Dalit writing in India, in a quest to discover synergies, exchange ideas and introduce such writing to new audiences.
LITERARY COMMONS! sees Chakraborty taking 12 Indigenous writers to India to attend literary festivals and university conferences, with the first, a trip to Bangalore Literary Festival and Mysore University with writers Brenton McKenna, Maria Munkara, Jeanine Leane and Dylan Coleman, having successfully taken place in September. In December, Cathy Craigie, Anita Heiss, Jared Thomas, Ellen van Neerven and Nicole Watson will attend the Goa Arts and Literature Festival and Madras University, while in January, Alexis Wright, Lionel Fogarty and Eckermann will feature at the famous Jaipur Literature Festival, the Apeejay Kolkata Literature Festival and Jadavpur University.
The idea stems from Chakraborty's academic interests and personal background. After several years at the University of Delhi, she spent 10 years at the University of Alberta in Canada before arriving at UWS in 2008. Her first dabbling in establishing a link between Australian and Indian writing came in 2012 when she organised the Australia India Literatures International Forum in Sydney, bringing several Indian writers to Australia.
"I found there were a lot of similarities between First Nations writing in Canada, Australia and India," says Chakraborty. "In 2012 my aim was to create an Australian audience for regional languages from India. I did not invite a single writer writing in the mainstream English literature scene in India.
"I wanted to see what synergies cropped up between those writers and multicultural writers in Australia, and I found that the deepest connections were made between Dalit writers and Indigenous writers. 2012 was the germination of the idea that there is something happening, and it can take us into a long-term, deep-impact literary exchange."
The word 'Dalit' means downtrodden, and represents an underclass of people in India known widely as 'untouchables'. Traditionally, they are the fourth rung of Hinduism's caste structure, where they are termed 'Sudras'. Their social responsibilities include cleaning toilets, cremating the dead, dealing with sewage and other menial tasks. According to Chakraborty, "discrimination against Dalits is deep and ingrained in all kinds of everyday living", and stories of attacks on Dalits and indeed murders are reported in Indian media regularly. Staggeringly, Dalits number over 200 million people in India, around 17 per cent of the country's population. It should be said, though, that times have changed to a certain degree: the late former Indian president KR Narayanan was a Dalit.
Dalit literature can be traced back to the 11th century, however the modern 'Dalit literary renaissance', gathered momentum in the 1960s, inspired by a lack of their recognition in governance in the wake of Indian independence in 1947, the Black Panther movement in the USA and of course centuries of abuse and persecution. And it is in the form and content of this relatively recent literary movement that common ground with the Indigenous writing of Australia can be found.
"Many of the first generation of Dalit writers were writing autobiographies, and this has a lot in common with what we have seen in Indigenous writing in the past 30 years - it doesn't follow the exact format of the Western autobiographical genre and is more popularly known as 'life writing'.
"Dalit writing is about seeking an identity that gives them dignity, a social space and a right to speak out in the world they inhabit, and I think that is similar to what has happened in Indigenous Australian writing."
Naturally, innovation has led to both literatures evolving away from life writing – Chakraborty notes that poetry became vital for both, due to its "immediate connection" with politics as well as the fact oral literature is so important in both domains. Now, novels, novellas, short stories, detective fiction, speculative fiction and more are crucial to both Dalit and Indigenous writing.
The greatest shared quality however, and one that LITERARY COMMONS! aims to nurture and explore, is something that transcends literary form and mediums: the sheer vibrancy and colour with which these cultures subvert and redefine their circumstances, voice and history. In Bangalore, author Dylan Coleman remarked, "Despite generations of trauma, our writing is about liberation", which Chakraborty interprets as the emancipation of individual expression, rather than a breaking of political or social shackles.
"I think indigenous writing is about the triumph of imagination," she says. "If you think of somebody like Alexis Wright and her books Carpentaria and The Swan Book, they are about this leap of faith that words can make possible. You might live in absolutely entrenched situations, yet it is the human imagination that allows you to soar beyond those conditions.
"A lot of indigenous writing is no longer limited to a just a narration of what has happened to people. For example, indigenous writers are using humour to subvert established norms and codes.
"What I'm hoping is that in these exchanges between Dalit and Indigenous writers, imagination can soar in different kinds of ways."
LITERARY COMMONS! is therefore a celebration of imagination and survival before it is a mourning over colonisation, oppression and injustice, though it must be admitted that the spectre of these things looms large over the project.
Dr Chakraborty says she has received certain questions as to why Australian Indigenous culture should be compared to 'untouchables', a label that is "not at all salubrious". The answer, she says, is that there may be plenty they can learn from each other that may lead to a "global indigenous culture", and while to some it may appear unproductive for Aboriginal culture to be aligned with a people that has been victimised and maltreated for centuries, it is undeniable they share comparable scars.
"A common scar would be the scar of colonisation, but in the case of Indigenous people it would be the colonisation by British settlers, and in the case of Dalits the colonisation by upper-caste Hindus. Hinduism has colonised Dalits in their everyday lives, in their social intercourse and how they might speak out or even be in public. I think both groups have a story to tell about what it feels like to live under the yoke of another person's perception of you as an animal, as inhuman, as property.
"The scar is about what colonisation does to the psyche of a people. It might not be the same coloniser, but the experience of colonisation is similar for both of them."
Other challenges for LITERARY COMMONS! include that of funding, particularly in regards to a proposal to bring a selection of Dalit writers to Australia in 2015, as well as media coverage. Despite healthy exposure on radio, online and through NITV, penetrating Australia's literary mainstream has been an eye-opening struggle for Chakraborty. "I've found that in the mainstream media, the spaces for literature are extremely limited in Australia, and this is a significant hurdle for a project like this. I think Australian people are very intelligent and we shouldn't necessarily think this is something they wouldn't be interested in reading about."
Nevertheless, LITERARY COMMONS! has a great deal of momentum thanks to the Bangalore trip, as the next leg of the project in Goa approaches. In terms of what the results of the program may be, its curator Chakraborty takes translations of texts from and into Indian languages as a given, with the overall objective somewhat grander than the mere proliferation of texts.
"What I would love most is for contemporary Dalit writing to benefit from the cutting-edge innovations of Indigenous Australian writing, and for Australian literature in general to learn from the Indian model of literary traditions in so many languages.
"Given the reality of dying indigenous languages, it would be great for Australia to take a leaf out of the Indian book and learn from the model of multiplicity and diversity it offers, and perhaps contribute to the preservation and regeneration of indigenous languages."
Other outcomes may rest on serendipity and the intuitive reactions of Australian writers to India's literature and culture, such as Ali Cobby Eckermann's elegant musings. LITERARY COMMONS! is nothing if not open to whatever may manifest itself as a result of Dr Chakraborty's vision.
More information about LITERARY COMMONS! can be found at http://www.literarycommons.com