Against ‘award wapsi’: What Marathi Dalit writer Sharankumar Limbale’s acceptance of a prestigious literary prize says

Marathi litterateur Sharankumar Limbale recently made headlines in Maharashtra, when he became the first Dalit writer to win the prestigious Saraswati Samman for his 2018 novel, Sanatan. Limbale, formerly an academic with Nashik’s Yashwantrao Chavan Open University, is also the author of over 40 books, some of which have been translated into different Indian and foreign languages.

Limbale’s acceptance of the award, in the name of goddess Saraswati, caused quite a flutter as many Dalit writers and “progressive” thinkers wanted him to reject the same. What stood out was his non-confrontational approach, thoughtfully taken while defending his acceptance of this award.

Unsurprisingly, he was criticised by those known for their extremist positions, who believe that for Scheduled Caste communities or Dalits to get justice, perennially crossing swords with the so-called upper castes is a must, and for that they will have to reject established cultural symbolism and imagery, lock, stock and barrel. Saraswati, they believe, represents that symbolism.

To start with, let’s understand Limbale’s contribution to Marathi literature, especially Dalit literature. Maharashtra was the cradle of the Dalit literary movement of the 1970s, which later spread to other parts of the country, including, notably, Karnataka in the south and parts of northern India. Limbale started his literary journey with his autobiography Akkarmashi, published in 1984, which earned critical acclaim. Limbale was in his mid-twenties at that time. His gripping writing style, coupled with the use of his mother-dialect, and his honest, transparent narrative made his autobiography a milestone in Marathi Dalit literature. Akkarmashi raised many eyebrows as it focussed on the story of his struggle, filled with unspeakable anguish and distress because he was born to a so-called upper caste father and a mother who was from the Mahar community. As noted by a critical review of Akkarmashi, Limbale’s tale is different “not only on account of its candour, its bitter critique of caste and gender oppression that stands legitimised by society but more significantly on account of the writer’s eagerness to be accepted by the very class/caste that has been the root cause of his humiliation and anguish. From this perspective, Akkarmashi makes a rather problematic intervention in Dalit politics and writing.”

Unfortunately, Dalit literary circles in Maharashtra did not show much enthusiasm in acknowledging that he is the first Dalit writer to get the Saraswati Samman. Fault lines have resurfaced in these circles, albeit in an oblique manner. But Limbale courageously went ahead and disregarded the objections of a sizeable section of Dalit writers to his acceptance of the award simply because it is named after goddess Saraswati, a symbol, according to them, of “oppressive Hindu traditions”. Yashwant Manohar, another Dalit writer, had recently refused to accept an award given by Vidarbha Sahitya Sangh, objecting to the presence of an image of Saraswati on the dais.

The argument of those objecting to Limbale’s acceptance to the Saraswati Samman is flawed on multiple counts. Firstly, like the rejection of any award, acceptance too is a personal choice, something that so-called liberals advocate, and rightly so.

But more important is the reason why Limbale chose not to reject the award. In his recent speech at a felicitation function, he clearly opposed the tendency of rejecting everything (that is associated with the Hindu belief system) and always taking a seemingly rebellious stance. “… our hawkish, aggressive approach every now and then will eventually lead to our isolation and we may not be able to afford that….we have to increase the number of our friends always,” he said. He also said, “In public life, one has to use the weapon of rejection very sparingly. It is wrong to always be sceptical and suspicious if somebody recognises us (Dalits) through awards, or extends a hand of friendship. We must adopt a considerate and mature approach. The coming together of everyone will alone lead us to (the desired) social revolution.” Limbale also cautioned, “If I reject this award, chances are that in the future, no Dalit writer will ever be considered for any such honour.”

Limbale’s outspoken appeal to his fellow Dalit writers merits attention as his position is not dissimilar to that of B R Ambedkar, who had, at several times, made it clear that his opposition was to the concept of “brahmanya” (Brahmin-ness) and not Brahmins as a community. Dr Ambedkar didn’t mince words while critiquing Hindu traditions and yet hurting the sensibilities of others or imposing his own views on others was never a part of his style of functioning.

Limbale’s accommodative approach is in stark contrast to the ultra-confrontational attitude of many others. He has shown remarkable courage to take a “politically incorrect” position, given the prevailing mentality of a powerful section of so-called liberals. Compared to the “award wapsi” of the recent past, Limbale epitomises the “rejection of rejection” and empowers all who believe in building bridges.

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