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 polemic.
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 community.
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 Commission report.
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.