My language is not ‘strange’, it’s unique: Gogu Shyamala
Dalit writer-activist Gogu Shyamala is fiercely invested in moving oral stories onto the page, and in dignifying her dialect of Telugu
I first met Gogu Shyamala in her book of stories, Father may be an elephant and mother only a small basket, but…(Tilted Axis Press, 2021). Philosopher, lawyer, writer, editor, archivist, activist, anarchist, Shyamala is quite a force of nature.
Her work as an anthologist includes Black Dawn: Dalit Women’s Writings, 1921-2002, which spans almost a century of women’s voices. She is fiercely invested in moving oral stories onto the page, and in dignifying her dialect of Telugu, carrying within its folds all the richness of the life from which it springs. Excerpts from a conversation made possible with the supportive presence of Shyamala’s translator Divya Kalavala.
You write of the importance of music in the life of labour. Can we say that song also needs to be recorded as a form of literature?
Ya! Because literature is the life of the people, their culture and history, their thinking style. In the villages, each community has their own special rituals, songs, concepts, goddesses, food—all of this is a part of pani-paata (pani means work and paata means song)
People perform their own origin stories as joyful assertions of identity?
Yes. But the dominant-caste mainstream culture never allowed these assertions. This was a kind of oppression. Untouchability is seen not just in people’s actions but in their responses to knowledge and art forms. So many community singers and storytellers with so much knowledge are never identified as artists, because they are Dalits. That’s why I write stories about them, their instruments, their history preserved on palm leaf scripts.
In my village, brahmans don’t have palm leaf manuscripts, but Dalits do. Community people (not only Dalits) preserve ancient stories and knowledge (about medicinal plants, for example) on palm leaf scripts. Midwives have no education, but they have knowledge.
The organic knowledge of mantrasani vidhanam (the midwife system) is taken away by the corporate hospitals and ASHA workers, who forbid pregnant women from going to the midwives, even threatening arrest. Knowledge is taken away so easily.
Are you the first writer to write down your dialect (a variant of Telugu used by Dalits in the Tandur region of Western Telangana)?
I don’t know if I am the first. But I know how important it is to write in my dialect. Andhra newspapers never accepted my stories, saying, “This is not a language, this is not a story.” Those who wanted to publish wrote in the ‘paper dialect’ (a Sanskritised Telugu). I didn’t want to do that!
Other Dalit women writers also faced similar situations, due to the regional, caste-dominant ownership of newspaper publications. After the formation of Telangana, things have changed, even Andhra papers are publishing our dialect.
Did you feel so strongly also because of the oral nature of your stories?
Yes. I use many terms and metaphors from oral traditions. When villagers speak to each other, the language is so beautiful because it comes from labour and agricultural production.
When they talk to the landowner/landlord, the language is so powerful because it expresses their pain, suppression and vulnerability. It even includes swear words that express anger against the masters, while challenging their power. I wanted to write this down in their own words. I could because I have the alphabet. I didn’t think of myself as a writer. But this [need] made me one. Is the language in danger of disappearing?
Is the language in danger of disappearing? Was that also a reason?
Ya! [very emphatic] Industrialisation, urbanisation and Hinduisation are the reasons our language is endangered. Words and metaphors are becoming extinct—it causes a lot of pain... Agriculture is changing, commercial crops are given too much importance.
The distance between Dalit communities and their surrounding biodiversity is increasing. The transition to urban spaces leads to the extinction of the entire ecosystem—greenery, lakes, grains, millets, words—the entire culture.
When the thing vanishes, the word for it goes away…
Yes. For example, the mota bavi or field well was made by artisans out of leather, iron, rope and jute. (It has been replaced by the diesel pump.) With it gone, their occupation, position and employment has also gone. This disturbs the work/ production relationship between cidentityommunities, specifically between artisans and farmers.
Do you feel that your writing is a way of preserving what is being lost?
Yes. I wrote these stories in my mid-thirties and forties. When I read contemporary writing, it was rare to find those memories, that flavour. Because only pieces about suffering were accepted. During that time, I was influenced by anti-caste, anti-feudal struggles.
That knowledge helped me understand that being Dalit is not just an issue of untouchability; it’s about dignity of labour and identity. Always thinking about victimisation and reservation is mismatched thinking. Untouchability is not a limited definition.
Dalits are at the centre of the village in terms of agricultural production—they cultivate foodgrains. Dalits are connected to every artisanal activity—they are blacksmiths, goldsmiths, carpenters, weavers... But they are not recognised. I thought: What is Dalit life? Why are Dalits always suffocating? They have so much skill, but they don’t have the right to own land, have the identity of ‘landowner’.
They are untouchables to the title. Dalits are untouchables to the land, untouchable to a dignified identity. The caste system never grants that identity. [But] I never found that part in the definition of untouchability.
I don’t sense anger in your work, rather a kind of ‘joyful pragmatism’.
Joyful pragmatism means dignity of labour. It used to come from agricultural work and animal rearing. Now it is found in education. Modern educated Dalits seek the ‘dignity of professions’—teacher, professor, scholar, writer. Dignity of labour becomes the dignity of identity. But because of the caste system, all we have is imposed identities—scavenging and sex slavery (jogini, murali, basavi systems) in the villages.
Scavenging is needed for the hygiene of society, so why should only Dalits do this? This is the caste system—it’s mental slavery. Dalits enjoy agriculture, landowning, production and education, so that they can join the teaching department, the police department, the legal department. We must differentiate between imposition and enjoyment.
Your translators mention how Telugu readers are ‘baffled and exasperated’ by ‘the strangeness of Shyamala’s language’. When you are translated into standard English, how do you feel?
My language is not strange—it is unique. The translators of Father may be an elephant… worked hard to understand and assimilate that unique language, to reproduce it in another language. It may or may not be standard English. It is an attempt to draw English towards my Telugu. My words, my expressions are not my own—they come from other women, women without an education. But they can talk! We are losing the women’s voices—I am writing them down.
So you see yourself also as a kind of translator?
I think so. For example, the expression paska tokkudu tokkocchindi (walking on wild green grass as opposed to walking on concrete roads) is a very common expression. It’s a habit, a philosophy of life that I attempt to bring into my writing.
When I used to go to the fields with my father and my mother, they would suggest I remove my chappals and walk barefoot, aware that there won’t be any sharp objects, because it’s a farmer’s field, well maintained by grazing animals, safe for children.
So, no broken glass, like you might find in a city park!
In my village, if there are any thorns on the road, people remove them—that’s the culture, you do it without any instruction. Villages have changed now, being replaced by real estate businesses and liquor shops.
Is that also because every village wants to become a small town?
It’s not so black and white. ‘Town’ means ‘convenience’, people need facilities like the MRO’s office, collector’s office, schools and government hospitals. Instead, liquor shops are flooding the villages—men want them while women have taken up anti-arrack movements. Farmers now look at land not in terms of farming but as real estate that can be sold for money. And they have liquor to spend their money on—so now you’ll find that broken glass in the grass!
SAMPURNA CHATTARJI is a writer, translator, editor with 21 books to her credit