A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Teaching and Reading Caste in English

Anchala Paliwal


This paper explores the setting of a First year undergraduate classroom, studying a segment on Caste/Class prescribed as part of their English paper. The aim is to look at the reading strategies employed in approaching two texts in English translation, namely an extract from Omprakash Valmiki’s autobiography Joothan and Marathi Dalit woman writer Hira Bansode’s poem ‘Bosom Friend’ along with an emphasis on caste as a significant part of the cultural framework.

Valmiki’s autobiography was originally in Hindi and Hira Bansode’s poem was in Marathi. As components in an English paper, both these works are in English translation. It is important to point out that the teaching of this paper is not limited to merely literature teaching. As a paper for undergraduate beginners, the teacher is required to incorporate techniques of English language teaching for a more effective and wholesome learning experience for the students. The need for English language advanced acquisition and enhancement in its proficiency also form a twin concern.

In Translation Studies, it is common knowledge that concepts and ideas specific to the source culture are expressed in the source language and pose great difficulty in the translated language. Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi (1999) in Post-Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice point out that ‘Translations are always embedded in cultural and political systems, and in history.’ (p. 6). At the same time, translations must also be analysed as interventions in the discourse of the powerful. Saugata Bhaduri (2008) in Translating Power argues for ‘translation of resistance’ where ‘ . . . its repressive and hegemonic potential notwithstanding, translation can be subversively appropriated towards enablement.’ (p. xxiv). Caste is one such characteristic requiring a great deal of challenging and interrogating on all accounts. So English translations of Dalit literature available in many Indian languages is the need of the hour as caste enters the classroom, to be understood as a discriminatory practice.

The emergence of the Dalit discourse in recent years has brought to the fore a long overdue struggle and a very integral factor in the cultural framework of India. Caste as a category is no longer ignored, it is now being confronted and interrogated as a discriminatory practice. In contemporary times, the issue of caste is now included in the official syllabi. The language English is generally regarded as a language bereft of caste markers unlike many Indian languages which contain various derogatory words indicative of biases and prejudices pertaining to caste. In such a way, the language English can be considered to have an emancipatory potential as far as the question of caste is concerned.

In this case, the reader is familiar with the aspect of caste in the source culture because it is a part of their lived experience. So the student is engaging with the text at two related but different levels. At the level of content, the student recognises known prejudices in the fabric of the society and is able to challenge them through their tutored analysis. At the level of language, English is the second or third language for them. In a peculiar manner the familiarity of the context is somehow distanced by slight unfamiliarity with the language. The site of struggle for the student is now at the level of language. However a certain knowledge of the context lends the students an amount of confidence to use the English language. It bears testimony to the fact that they can also convey a ‘reality which is their own in a language which is not their own’ in a significant and successful way. It is this admission of ability to use a language, which is the aim of a language teaching class.It is at this juncture that the teacher has to step in with diverse pedagogical tools to teach English and indigenous cultures along with a sensitive approach to alert them to an extremely relevant issue of caste. 

For proficiency in any language, the skill of reading is an integral element. It is a commonplace observation that reading is ‘caught’ and not ‘taught’. In the Indian context, it is usual to find that most Indian languages are taught with a focus on content. And that is an approach which the student carries within even in an English classroom. For an adult learner acquainted with the second / third language English, the first stage is comprehension in reading, which because of prior knowledge of the language, they are able to achieve partly and rarely completely. The teacher’s instructions are required to achieve full comprehension by the students. Once the students develop a joy in reading, the craft of the writer and the modes of narration incite their interest and they display enthusiasm in the exercise of reading. Even though in this case, the end semester examinations demand an intensive reading; the pleasure in the practice of reading keeps their attention intact.

Simon Greenall and Michael Swan (1986) state that ‘Effective reading means being able to read accurately and efficiently, understanding as much of a text as one needs in order to achieve one’s purpose.’ (p. 1) They enlist certain features ensuring effective reading, which include extracting main ideas, reading for specific information, understanding text organisation, predicting, checking comprehension, inferring, dealing with unfamiliar words, linking ideas, understanding complex sentences, understanding writer’s style, evaluating the text, reacting to the text and writing summaries. In the undergraduate classroom, I tried to incorporate most of these features to aid the process of reading. The students were encouraged to read the prescribed texts with a keen emphasis on the above mentioned factors to inculcate reading comprehensibly as a preferred quality. However, these aims were not explicitly instructed. These ideas were introduced and instilled during the process of reading the texts in the classroom. As is obvious, these factors were immensely helpful in literary analysis of the texts as well.

I will now discuss the variety of responses by the students on the above mentioned chapters. It will shed light on the multiple manners in which the students approached these texts in English translation through reading. A common factor among all these texts was the familiar social setup of indigenous cultures of India, references to everyday occurrences of ‘heat and dust’, the local milieu and its beliefs, intimate names of people and places and nuances of colloquial speech patterns.

On reading Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan, after the first few queries about the English translation of the word and concept ‘joothan’ and a resulting understanding of cultural markers of discriminations and its specific referent words; the students responded to the stark reality of a life steeped in unfair practices and its ramifications on all aspects of life both in the family and in education. In the prescribed English translation, certain caste specific words have been retained to highlight the extent of caste discriminations. For learners of English, this extract from his autobiography underlines both the importance of education and an even more pressing need to make education available and accessible to all. It is frequently observed as Tapan Basu (2002) points out in the Introduction of Translating Caste that ‘The coercive aspect of caste power is apparent also in the denial of knowledge to those considered outside the pale of caste power.’ (p. xxiii). The language English is read as a medium expressing an immediate, internal experience. As an autobiography, the sense of the self is conveyed through candid conversations between the writer and the reader. 

In Hira Bansode’s Marathi poem ‘Bosom Friend’ in English translation, the poetic language brings forward another dimension to language acquisition. ‘A stone dropped in the water stirs up things on the bottom’ (p. 50). There were various responses to this line which paints a visual image while presenting a thought provoking incident. Such use of language is of special significance in a language classroom. The simplicity of the statement is accompanied with profound meaning. In the context of the poem, this particular line marks the realization on the narrator’s part about the latent caste biases of her friend who accepts her invitation to visit her house but finds faults in the presentation of food. Some of the responses to this line were about memory and its role, the invocation of memory not merely about the past but also related to current experience; the far reaching ramifications of a childhood experience and understanding of food as a cultural category. It is interesting to note that indigenous names of certain food items have been retained in the English translation, which maintains the flavour of the source culture.

As an after task induced by these readings, the students were asked to narrate their own personal memories and if they were reminded of events or incidents in their lives. They were encouraged to work in pairs and discuss their subjective experiences, anything which triggers off any remembrances. The students were actively engaged in this task and enjoyed it to a certain degree. An opportunity to express themselves was widely appreciated and accomplishing this task gave them a great sense of confidence.  Given below are two responses:

  • "I remember the time when I shared a lunch of roti and vegetables with my school friends. It was nice to eat together. Not anymore. In college we hardly eat together. I don’t have friends here."
  • "I like coming to college not school and meeting new people. I feel free. School life was strict."

These two responses were selected for their comparative analysis of school and college life. Memory is used as a tool to make sense of the present. Also there is a remarkable use of English language as an expressive medium. The study of indigenous cultures in English facilitates a bond of the individual with their surroundings, removing hesitations in using second or third language. It is also indicative of reading practice lending itself to composition abilities of the language users. 

Another aspect of language use which is worthy of attention is that of making the second or third language your own and not constantly imagining it to be the other or that of the other. Conventionally the English language is pre-determined to be a language of the elite and believed to be the domain of the privileged, by the students. However, reading English translations of Indian writings demolish this assumption to a large extent.Neeladri Bhattacharya (2001) states in the Preface of Alok Rai’s Hindi Nationalism that “When we constitute ourselves through language, we also constitute that language, marking it with the politics of the time. No language comes to us pre-formed, already constituted.” (p.viii). This is a realization that the students share and communicate their thoughts in a lucid manner.


Bassnett, S. & Trivedi, H. (Eds.). (1999). Post-colonial translation: Theory and practice. Routledge.

Basu, T. (Ed.). (2002).Translating caste. Katha: New Delhi.

Bhaduri, S. (Ed.). (2008).Translating power. Katha: New Delhi.

Greenall, S. & Swan, M. (Eds.).(1986).Effective reading teacher’s book: Reading skills for advanced students, Volume 2. Cambridge University Press.

Rai, A. (2001). Hindi nationalism. New Delhi: Orient Longman.


Anchala Paliwal is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi. She is also a Research Scholar at School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.