Books

'Recognition For The Language Of My People Is The Biggest Award I Can Win'

The Tamil Dalit writer talks about her autobiographical novel Karukku, its place in Tamil literature, the plight of Dalits and much more.

'Recognition For The Language Of My People Is The Biggest Award I Can Win'
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Early one morning in 1992 when Bama (born 1958 in Puthupattivillage in Virudunagar district in southern Tamil Nadu) walked out of theseminary where she was a nun - never to return to it again - she had little ideaof what she would do with the rest of her life. Out of job and condemned by thesociety and the church alike, she began writing her autobiography Karukkuto ‘stop herself from dying’. When published in 1992 Karukku, withthe unique manner in which it used the Tamil language and the liberties it tookwith the grammar, went on to change not just the way Dalit literature wasperceived in the literary circles of Tamil Nadu but also in the society at large.Bama wrote her second novel Sangati in 1994 and brought out a collectionof short stories in 1996 reaffirming her status as a writer with a great insightand an inimitable style. Besides writing she teaches at a school in Ongurvillage in Kanchipuram district.
Bama spoke to outlookindia.com over the phone from her home in Puthupatti aboutthe birth of Karukku and thereafter, the state of Dalits and Tamilliterature in general.

Karukku is based largely on your childhood experiences. Is there anythingfrom your childhood that you left out consciously?
Yes. There were many significant things that I chose not to recall in Karukku.I was witness to many violent incidents related to caste conflicts. I left themout from my first book because I felt that would deviate from the issues that Iwanted Karukku to focus on.

Did you save them for a later book?
Yes. Many of my short stories draw from real life incidents that I had comeacross or heard about as I grew up. Especially Sangati, my second book.When I wrote Sangati I had the problems related to Dalit women in mind.And the events depicted there are very close to true incidents. A major part ofmy work (short stories) written later dip deeply into details of communalclashes and other caste-related incidents that have taken place in Tamil Nadu.Several short stories are just pen and ink versions of events from the Dalithistory of Tamil Nadu. I don’t think I have contributed much in development ofplot or anything. I have just written them. My contribution? I am not sure of itexcept for the fact that I was the one to give them the shape of letters.

As a child did you have an urge to pen the ugly incidents that surroundedyour childhood?
No. I started writing only when I was in college. My first few writings werepoetic in nature. They were not poems in their true sense. I will not call themthat. They were lyrical. But I didn’t concentrate on that form because theywere impressionist outlets of my thoughts and were much too personal. They werenot very crystallised in concept. I wrote them only to derive some personalsatisfaction. I was in my 20s and poems, if you can call them that, were theform that first occurred to me. But later I changed. I started writing shortstories.

As a beginner who inspired you most?
My brother, Raj Gautaman, is also a writer. He was the one who encouraged meand inspired me to write. During my childhood it was the books he used to bringhome from the library or elsewhere that I first read. Thus I was exposed toTamil writers like Mani, Parthsarthy, Jayakantan, Akhilan. When I went tocollege and began versifying he provided me with a lot of encouragement. Hewould egg me on. Besides I also came across literature from other languages whenin college. I read works from English and a few other Indian languages,especially Bengali literature.

Who were the writers from among them whom you liked?
I did not have access to many books. In college I ended up reading the samebooks again and again. Tagore made a great impact on my writing skills. I likedhim a lot and sometimes I tried to imitate him. Geetanjali gave me a lotof inspiration. Also Kahlil Gibran. I love Gibran. I identified with him. Laterin my life I found many similarities between Gibran and me. I don’t know if Isound pompous, but he spent a part of his life in the church and I have alsospent my time there. It struck me very much. It was his experiences at themonastery that provoked him to write and it was the same with me too. BothTagore and Gibran influenced my writing and thought processes.

Who were your favourite Tamil writers?
I liked Jayakantan a lot. Of all the writers he was the one I read most…rereadingmany of his works. I felt among Tamil writers he was the first and most forcefulwhen it came to creating social awareness through literature.

What do you think of winning prizes? What does winning the Crossword Awardmean to you?
Winning prizes or gaining any kind of recognition does not mean anything tome. It does not satisfy me. I just experience the immediate joy of winning aprize but it is gone in a few moments. And after sometime it vanishes from mymemory. One thing that gives me most satisfaction is that I used the language ofmy people - a language that was not recognized by the pundits of literature, wasnot accepted by any literary circle in Tamil Nadu, was not included in the normsof Tamil literature. But after my book Karukku was published, theattention it drew and the way it was talked about all over the state forcedthe critics to accept the users of the dialect into their fold. The grammar hasbecome a part of the language. It makes me feel proud. The fact that I wasinstrumental in bringing about this change in Tamil literature.
The story told in Karukku was not my story alone. It was thedepiction of a collective trauma - of my community - whose length cannot be measured intime. I just tried to freeze it forever in one book sothat there will be something physical to remind people of the atrocitiescommitted on a section of the society for ages. I could not build a monument, Icould not build a sculpture. I wrote a book. And luckily it did not vanish intoobscurity. My community thus found a place in the mainstream media. Theirhistory had no place in Tamil history. It was never recorded. All that haschanged. I am happy. No award can bring me the same joy. It is unique andnothing can equal that. If I get the Crossword Award, it is good. Many morepeople will know about my work and my people. If I don’t get it, I won’t beupset.

I never aspired to become a writer. In fact, I never thought of writing Karukku.After my return from the convent I had a very difficult time. I was confrontedwith all sorts of problems. I was treated like an outcast. I faced poverty,apathy and even scorn from near and dear ones. I could not take it any longer.And I began writing to stop myself from taking my own life. Karukku cameout naturally. It was more of an outpouring of all my experiences than aliterary act. It just happened on its own. I didn’t even think of getting itpublished. Later when my brother, among others, coaxed me into publishing Iconceded. Success followed and thanks to it my people have been able to asserttheir individuality in the society. That is the greatest award that I can get. Ihave never thought of winning anything else.

What do you think of the other nominated works? Have you read them?
No. I have not read any of the other works. When I heard of them I made someattempts to get them. But living here in this village, it is very difficult. Ihave heard of Mahasweta Devi and the good work that she is doing for the tribals.I would like to read all the books written by her. I wish I could.

What are you currently working on?
Now I am concentrating mainly on writing a book based on the communal riotsthat have struck Tamil Nadu like a plague. I am trying to depict the wrongs donein the name of caste and the meaningless violence that it instigates. Acivilization is wiped out completely. People, their minds, feelings areirreparably damaged. The agony that it brings with it and leaves behind havebroken the body and soul of generations. I am planning to describe that agony -the agony that I myself have at times gone through and my people have been goingthrough since years - in my next work.

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Does it involve a lot of research?
I keep visiting all those places. The southern districts. The numerousincidents of clashes between the Thevars and the Dalits. There are so many castegroups fighting with each other over trivial issues. The politics of the wholething and the physicality of the people involved. The plot is not complete yet.But these incidents are central to the theme and I am developing some charactersaround them. The affected people, the victimized people and the ones - theshrewd ones - who enter the scene as mediators, who are actually there to fishin troubled waters.

You say "affected" people and "victimized" people. Is there any difference?
Yes, the victimized ones are those who fall prey to these bickerings, wholose their homes, families etc…in these riots, who are in the direct line offire. The affected ones are those who are not directly involved but are innocentbystanders who leave the scene with some scars. But their issues are not theones that really torment me. They are, of course, part of my concerns. Mytroubles begin and end with the suffering of my people. The Dalits. The onlydisappointment I have with my current endeavours is that during each of my tripsI hear a lot of stories. Listening to these stories is so much of pleasure. Thespoken language has so much of richness. When I come back and write them down Ilose a lot of the original flavour. Telling a story is a natural act whereaswhat I am doing is only artificial.

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When Dalit literature first made its appearance in Tamil Nadu it wasconspicuous by its contradictions. The writers came out strongly proclaimingtheir living conditions that were different from those of the upper caste. Butthese same writers were leading comfortable lives and did not live in theconditions they talked and wrote about with pride…
Why do you say that? Many say that Dalits are supposed to live like this andlike that. Dalits are impure people. They are drunkards. They have no culture.Any interaction with them will defile their body and souls. Why do people talklike this? Aren’t Dalits also not human beings. Aren’t they also entitled tothe same comforts that are available to people of the upper castes? Why shouldn’ta Dalit writer travel in air-conditioned cars, fly by plane, sit on a sofa? Theyare writing. They are earning a living. They can afford it. If they can buythem, then why should they not have these luxuries? Here the question I ask ismore ethical than material.
If you are writing about having travelled in a bullock cart, does it mean thatyou should always be travelling in a bullock cart? Would travelling by car orbus later in your life take your writing about that experience of a bullock-carttrip any farther from the truth than truth itself? These critics are commentingnot on our writing but on our lifestyles. Our writings are judged not by theirmerit but by the way we live. This is ridiculous.

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Karukku strangely seems to have stayed away from Communist referencesthough it was a milieu conducive for such trappings. Why? Did you do thatconsciously?
When I was a child, the Communists I saw in my village denounced God. Mymother was a very religious and god-fearing person. She had a great influence onme. So it was and is difficult to give up God that easily. For me, I do welcomethe Communist ideology. But I have a problem with the Communists in Tamil Nadu.Many of them talk about economic uplift and equality but make no mention ofcaste differences. Either it is deliberate or there are other hiddencompulsions. I am not comfortable with their stand. So it never had any directbearing on my writing. Now that you bring it up I wonder why I have notcriticized it so far.

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There are many who say Tamil is not a classical language. What is youropinion?
I won’t agree. Tamil is a very rich language. It goes back to centuries.Here I don’t want to do any comparative study. Because my knowledge aboutother languages is minimal. I used to listen to a lot of Hindi bhajans when Iwas in Jammu as a nun. I like them a lot. Personally I have this urge to knowother languages. Tamil to my knowledge is as diverse as it is rich.

So you are a part of Tamil, Dravidian or Dalit literature?
In Tamil there are many differences related to the language. My belief isthat language is to communicate. I specifically or adamantly use my people’slanguage. So if I have to write about my people it has to be in their language.That is the way I would like it. Now it is for the readers to decide whetherwhat I have written falls in Tamil literature, Dalit literature, Dravidianliterature etc…

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Should Dalit literature be written by Dalits only?
Need not be. Dalit consciousness can be illustrated by people from othercastes. There is no hard and fast rule. Is there one? Anyone can write aboutanything. But the difference will always remain. Take the example ofuntouchability - only an untouchable would know the pain of being one. Otherpeople can empathise/sympathise. But the agony is always personal and it cannotbe the same as something that is reflected or reported about. I don’t thinkanyone other than a Dalit can expose all the brahmanical lies and insult heapedupon Dalits. Others too can also write about Dalits. What is the harm?
But itshould always be done remembering the respectability that has been denied to usand we so rightly deserve. Their writing should be rich with the understandingof Dalits. Otherwise let the Dalits write about themselves. There are somewriters who think that only the upper castes can help Dalit come up and not theDalits and their leaders or writers. Why do they have to denigrate us if theyare unable to contribute to our cause?

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Dalit literature seems to have failed to catch up in Tamil Nadu as quickly asit has in Maharashtra and Karnataka…
True. Maybe at this time you cannot push it that easily. It has never beenthat easy. Hardly any work by a Dalit sees the light of the day. The doors ofmainstream publications are never open for us. We have had to barge ourselves into see our names printed alongside writers who come from the dominant castes. Inthe past literature was the personal fiefdom of a few from a particular segment.But Ambedkar’s movement in the 1930s brought about some changes. There weresome works that managed to get published. But things are still very gloomy.

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The famous Tamil critic Vallikanan has said that all developments have comelate to Tamil language. Can this view be applied to Dalit literature as well?
Yes it is true. The reasons I have stated above have caused that delay. Howcan you expect a community to whom the means to read or write have been deniedfor centuries even think of any kind of literature? First you have to bringthe written word to them. Then you can expect something from them. But surelythat has been a visible change since the Ambedkar centenary celebrations.

But Irataimalai Srinivisan used to bring out a monthly journal called Parayanway back in 1893 that took up the issues of the oppressed and the downtrodden…
Of course there have been solitary efforts here and there. But nothingsubstantial enough to change the lot of our people. This Parayan you aretalking about…I had not heard about it in my childhood. I could see an issueof Parayan only after reaching college. Even now the are efforts are toosmall to get noticed.

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Is ‘Scheduled Caste’ the right synonym for the word Dalit?
Personally I don’t agree with it and that dissent has found expression inmy writings. There is the reservation problem that comes with it. Andreservation actually dehumanizes us rather than solving our problems. Itaggravates the situation. We are objects of contempt in public places. Peoplesay, he/she doesn’t have any talent or merit. He/she has found a way in through aquota set aside for him. It shocks us to be addressed as scheduled castes andnot as Dalits as the former is derogatory. Dalit, a Marathi word, which means‘rooted in the soil’ lends respectability to us. Utter the word ScheduledCaste and we withdraw into a shell immediately.

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What is the state of Dalit writing in Tamil Nadu now?
Earlier there were a number of energetic, original voices. But now many arenot writing. Mainly because of economic compulsions. You cannot sustain yourselffor long if you have to wait for years to see a work written by you beingpublished. You cannot imagine how difficult it is to enter mainstream magazines.Even for me it was so difficult. Publishers and editors woke up to writing of mykind and from my community only after the favourable response that Karukkureceived. In that respect I have been able to open a few doors for others.

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But what about Dalit magazines? Can’t a few of you come together and bringout a magazine that supports Dalit writing?
It is easy to imagine all that. Should people wonder where their next mealis going to come from or think of printing a magazine or book? Never mind. I amjust getting a bit cynical here. Indeed there are a few. Sometimes they come andsometimes they don’t. They are not very regular. There is Dalit Murasufrom Chennai and then there is Kodangi…But not enough. Why can’tmainstream magazines devote more pages for people like us? Surely quality is notthe sole deciding factor in this case.

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