Victims or Agents: Self-perception of Dalit Women in Pan on Fire


Ph.D Research Scholar, Dept. of English. Jamia Millia Islamia University. ORCID: 0000-0001-5698-6612. Email:

Volume 11, Number 1, 2019 I Full Text PDF

DOI: 10.21659/rupkatha.v11n1.03


The autobiographical narratives by Dalit authors did challenge the ‘discourse of pity’ by non-Dalit writers, by transforming the recollection of what Cornel West has called “ontological wounding” of the self marked by constant humiliation (Geetha, 2009, p.93),  into representation of Dalit subalternity as a political act of resistance. Yet within the narratives of cultural revolt of 1970s by Dalit Panthers, Dalit women remain encapsulated in the role of either ‘the mother’ or ‘the victimized sexual being’, as pointed out by Sharmila Rege (2014, p. 336). Thus, she calls for re-conceptualization of critique of brahmanical hierarchies from a Dalit feminist standpoint.  A collection of narrated stories by urban slum-dwelling Dalit women, namely, Rukmini, Chhaya, Rakhma, Sangeeta, Mangala, Ashoka, Savitri and Leela –Pan on Fire: Eight Dalit Women Tell Their Story (1988), provides an incisive account of the Dalit life-world and views on issues like Dalit family organization, culture of poverty, childhood, puberty as experienced by Dalit women and their role in the community glimpsed through relationships with family members. As they recollect and re-evaluate the most significant incidents in their lives to articulate self perception, these women dispel the myth that Dalit women are hapless victims. Struggling to overcome deprivation, discrimination and abuse, they express agency in verbalizing a desire for action.  But what emerges as a characteristic in these narratives is a ‘self in flux’ marked by doubt, confusion and a gap between the self’s image of itself and its perception by society (Bhave, 1988).  The objective of this paper is to study the dialectics between the ‘self’ and the ‘community’ in these narratives, to elucidate Dalit women’s multifaceted and contradictory self-perception, implicated within the inter-dependencies of the community, with caste and gender as contextual co-ordinates.

Keywords: caste and gender, self and community, Dalit feminism, self-perception, Dalit women, Human Rights