Bama is the pen-name of a Tamil Dalit woman, from a Roman Catholic family. She has
published three main works: an autobiography, Karukku, 1992; a novel, Sangati,
1994; and a collection of short stories, Kisumbukkaran 1996.
Karukku means palmyra leaves, which, with their serrated edges on both sides,
are like double-edged swords. By a felicitous pun, the Tamil word Karukku,
containing the word hare, embryo or seed, also means freshness, newness. In her foreword,
Bama draws attention to the symbol, and refers to the words in Hebrews (New Testament),
"For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing
to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and
intentions of the heart." (Hebrews, 4:10)
Karukku is the first autobiography of its kind to appear in Tamil, for Dalit
writing in this language has not produced the spate of autobiographies which have
appeared, for example, in Marathi. It is also in many ways an unusual autobiography. It
grows out of a particular moment: a personal crisis and watershed in the author's life
which drives her to make sense of her life as woman, Christian, Dalit. Many Tamil authors,
both men and women, use the convention of writing under a pseudonym. In this case, though,
this convention adds to the work's strange paradox of reticence and familiarity. It
eschews the "confessional" mode, leaving out many personal details. The
protagonist is never named. The events of Bama's life are not arranged according to a
simple, linear or chronological order, as with most autobiographies, but rather, reflected
upon in different ways, repeated from different perspectives, grouped under different
themes, for example, Work, Games and Recreation, Education, Belief, etc. It is her driving
quest for integrity as a Dalit and Christian that shapes the book and gives it its
The argument of the book is to do with the arc of the narrator's spiritual development
both through the nurturing of her belief as a Catholic, and her gradual realization of
herself as a Dalit. We are given a very full picture of the way in which the Church
ordered and influenced the lives of the Dalit Catholics. Every aspect of the child's life
is imbued with the Christian religion. The day is ordered by religious ritual. The year is
punctuated by religious processions and festivals which become part of the natural yearly
cycle of crops and seasons. But parallel to this religious life is a socio-political
self-education that takes off from the revelatory moment when she first understands what
untouchability means. It is this double perspective that enables her to understand the
deep rift between Christian beliefs and practice.
Bama's re-reading and interpretation of the Christian scriptures as an adult enables
her to carve out both a social vision and a message of hope for Dalits by emphasizing the
revolutionary aspects of Christianity, the values of equality, social justice, and love
towards all. Her own life experiences urge her towards actively engaging in alleviating
the sufferings of the oppressed. When she becomes a nun, it is in the stubborn hope that
she will have a chance to put these aspirations into effect. She discovers, however, that
the perspectives of the convent and the Church are different from hers. The story of that
conflict and its resolution forms the core of Karukku.
In the end, Bama makes the only choice possible for her. But she also sees the
beginnings of an important change, if not in the Church's practice, yet in the gradually
growing awareness among Dalits, of their own oppression:
But Dalits have also understood that God is not like this, has not spoken like this.
They have become aware that they too were created in the likeness of God. There is a new
strength within them, urging them to reclaim that likeness which has been repressed,
ruined and obliterated; and to begin to live with honour and respect and love of all
humankind. To my mind, that alone is true devotion.
Clearly she understands that her own experience is part of a larger movement among
Dalits. Yet, it is interesting that she appears to come to this awareness of her own
accord. She does not, for example, seem to have access to liberation theologians (as does
Vidivelli, in a parallel autobiography, Kalakkal.) She refers neither to Ambedkar
nor to Periyaar, who not only attacked the caste system, but whose remarkable speeches and
writings against the oppression of women were published in 1942 under the title Pen
Yenh Adimaiynanat? (Why did woman become enslaved?) Nor indeed does Bama again
unlike Vidivelli make a connection between caste and gender oppressions. Not in Karukku
at any rate; she does so, abundantly, in Sangati and elsewhere. Karukku is
concerned with the single issue of caste oppression within the Catholic Church and its
institutions and presents Bama's life as a process of lonely self-discovery. Bama leaves
her religious order to return to her village, where life may be insecure, but where she
does not feel alienated or compromised. The tension throughout Karukku is between
the self and the community: the narrator leaves one community (of religious women) in
order to join another (as a Dalit woman). Sangati takes up the story of that new
Dalit writing as the writers themselves have chosen to call it has been
seen in Tamil only in the past decade, and later than in Marathi and Kannada. It has gone
hand in hand with political activism, and with critical and ideological debate, spurred on
by such events as the Ambedkar centenary of 1994, and the furore following the Mandal
The Tamil equivalent of the Marathi "dalit" is taazhtapattor, used in
this specific sense by Bharati Dasan in the 1930s, when he was working for the Self
Respect Movement. He uses it in the poem Taazhtapattor samattuvapaattu ("Song
for the equality of the oppressed"). Indeed the new Tamil Dalit writing constantly
refers to the anti-caste, anti-religious speeches of E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyaar),
founder of this movement. All the same, although the Tamil words taazhtapattor or odukkappattor
are used in much of the literature by both writers and critics, it is
significant that the preferred term is Dalit, implying militancy, an alliance with other
repressed groups, and a nation-wide or even universal identity. ("Who
are Dalits? All those who are oppressed: all hill peoples, neo-Buddhists, labourers,
destitute farmers, women, and all those who have been exploited politically, economically,
or in the name of religion are Dalits." from the 1972 Manifesto of the Dalit
Panthers, quoted in Tamil translation in Omvedt 1994).
More recently, Raj Gautaman (1995) points to the different functions of Tamil Dalit
writing, and the different local and global readerships it addresses. First, he says, it
is the function of Dalit writing to awaken in every reader, a consciousness of the
oppressed Dalit, and to share in the Dalit experience as if it were their own. (Karukku,
he says, is a singular example of a piece of writing which achieves this.) At the same
time, according to Gautaman, the new Dalit writing must be a Tamil and an Indian version
of a world-wide literature of the oppressed; its politics must be an active one that
fights for human rights, social justice and equality .
I think that it would also be true to say that while much of the new Tamil Dalit
writing does indeed function as Gautaman claims, and is centrally concerned with raising
an awareness of the Dalit experience, Bama's work is among those (like the work of
Vidivelli, Imayam and Marku) that are exploring a changing Dalit identity. There is, in
this writing, a very powerful sense of the self and the community as Dalit, which rejects
outright the notion of varna; and which on the other hand refuses to
"sanskritize," to evaluate Dalit life-style according to mainstream Hindu
values. But there is also a powerful sense of engagement with history, of change, of
changing notions of identity and belonging. Bama captures a moment that contains a
paradox: she seeks an identity, but seeks a change which means an end to that identity.
I must conclude by commenting briefly on Bama's use of language. Bama is doing
something completely new in using the demotic and the colloquial regularly, as her medium
for narration and even argument, not simply for reported speech. She uses a Dalit style of
language which overturns the decorum and aesthetics of received upper-class, upper-caste
Tamil. She breaks the rules of written grammar and spelling throughout, elides words and
joins them differently, demanding a new and different pattern of reading. Karakku also,
by using an informal speech style which addresses the reader intimately, shares with the
reader the author's predicament as Dalit and Christian directly, demystifying the
theological argument, and making her choice rather, a matter of conscience.
As well as this subversion of received Tamil, all Dalit writing is marked by certain
other characteristics. It reclaims and remains close to an oral tradition made up of
workchants, folk-songs, songs sung at rites of passage, as well as proverbsand some
of this tradition belongs particularly to the women's domain. Karakku, very
interestingly, also tells a story of Tamil Dalit Catholicism in the vocabulary that it
uses, particularly in the central chapter which describes her spiritual journey from
childhood faith to her return home after departing from the convent. There is often a
layering of meaning in certain words, where a Tamilized Sanskrit word is given a new
Catholic meaning. For example, Tamil mantiram (sacred utterance, but also popularly, magic
charm or spell) from Sanskrit mantra becomes "catechism" in Catholic use. Hence
often there is a spin or a turn-around of meaning; a freshness in some of the coinages,
and different routes and slippages in the way Catholicism has been naturalized (and
sometimes not) into the Tamil of the text. It is also important to note that Bama
consistently uses the language of popular Catholicism, eschewing very largely, the
terminology of theologians.
Bama's work is not only breaking a mainstream aesthetic, but also proposing a new one
which is integral to her politics. What is demanded of the translator and reader is, in
Gayatri Spivak's terms, a "surrender to the special call of the text."
This is certainly not comfortable reading for anyone. Bama is writing in order to
change hearts and minds. And as readers of her work we are asked for nothing less than an
imaginative entry into that different world of experience and its political struggle.
A part of chapter three, and an earlier version of the introduction appeared in Kunapipi,
volume XIX, number 3, 1997, edited by Dr. Shirley Chew. My thanks to the author Bama,
and to Sr. Dr. Alies Therese of Quidenham, Norfolk, for reading this translation and
commenting on it in detail.
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