Children of a Lesser God?

Karukku By Bama Translated from the Tamil Original by Lakshmi Holmstrom; Macmillan India.

Following is an extract from Karukku by Bama, translated from the Tamil original by Lakshmi Holmstrom and published by Macmillan India under the title Dalit Writing in Translation. The book has won the Crossword 2000 award for Indian Language Fiction in Translation. Bama is the pseudonym of a Tamil Dalit woman, from a Roman Catholic family. Her main works include an autobiography Karukku (1992), a novel Sangati (1994) and a collection of short stories, Kisumbukkaaran (1996).

I was born in a small village as a Dalit girl, I grew up, I studied, I worked for five years, and then, as I have said before, I entered a convent. Before I entered it, though, i read about the woman who founded that order. When I learnt how this woman had loved the poor and the lowly, with what steadfastness she had educated the children of the poor and helped them to go forward, I was greatly drawn towards her. I entered the convent with a deeply felt desire that I too should do my utmost to live my life usefully and meaningfully.

It was only after I had joined that I became aware of the true state of affairs there, very gradually, and little by little. Both family members and others whom I knew outside my home had done their best to dissuade me. They had warned me that once inside, I would find that everything was different from the claims that were made. It was I who went in, dreaming that I was about to achieve something tremendous. It was only after I had entered the convent that I came to realize that what they had warned me about was entirely true. But I stayed, thinking to myself, well let me try and deal with this as best as I can.

The convent was a world in itself. We talked a great deal. We spoke about Lord Jesus, Our Lady, the disciplines of the order. At due times we ate good meals. We muttered our prayers according to our discipline. We celebrated this holy day and that; we feasted throughout the day on such occasions. There was such a variety of good things then that one could not make up one's mind what to eat and what to forego. Often, I didn't even know the names of these good things. And if I did, I couldn't even pronounce those names. The comforts and conveniences were such.

If the food was like this, the buildings were even better. All the people of my community from my village could have lived there. It was such a huge convent building, such a big school. I felt very strange about it. I felt a kind of shame. At the same time I felt as if I had gone into a Naicker house. I couldn't act or speak, or even eat independently. That was my feeling.

Then, was there the chance that you could just eat and sleep and go about your own business? Not a bit of it. There were such arguments and dissensions going on within. There were such jealousies, such competition, such arrogance that one could only survive by one's own strategies, guile and cunning. People accused you of thinking thoughts that you had not thought; of speaking words that you had not spoken. Until you made your final vows you had to run about like a young child, dance to everyone's tune, take upon your own head every menial task which they pushed at you with their feet. I became fed up with it. I asked myself, was this why I chose to come here? I too have my own goal, I thought, I came here for the sake of my people; let these others go their own way.

In time I realized there was no real possibility of this. Always the discussion was at the level of what to prepare, what to eat, what to celebrate and how to enjoy, what to build and what to break, what to buy where and how to sell it. Why do people suffer, What is the state of this country, What did Lord Jesus actually do for people, Why did we become nuns, How can we undo these injustices - such questions never came out of their mouths....

If you are inclined to think, well all right, the convent was like this, but at least the school would have been good, I have to say, no. Actually it was worse. Each class was full of children from wealthy families. They sat in rows, sleek and well-fed. All they had to do was to be light-skinned and to arrive in cars. Even the smallest children would eat meals which were brought to them by servant boys and girls, and whom they grandly ordered around.

As a token gesture they took four or five poor children into the school. These wretches usually shunned the rich ones and lurked in corners, trembling. Every now and then there would be complaints about them. The rich children would say, We don't want to sit next to these ones, they are darkskinned, they are poor, they are ugly, they don't wear nice clothes. Even in a play or a dance performance the rich children didn't want to put on the costume of the poor. it seemed to me that it was a waste of my time to teach such children. I couldn't speak of this to the others in the convent. Had I spoken about it, they wouldn't, in any case, have listened to me....

The nuns are required to make three vows, of poverty, chastity and obedience. They teach that these vows liberate them and enable them to lead lives that are centred around ordinary people. But in truth, the vows become a means of control and enslavement.

When I was outside, I had experienced poverty, and had lived among those who suffered from poverty. But inside the convent I could not see even the traces and tracks of poverty. We could only go round and round, always within our luxurious cages, trapped in comfort.

They spoke so eloquently that we should love everyone, for we are all God's children. Yet the people they chose to talk to, those whom they admitted into their schools, those with whom they claimed relationships were all rich. If we should challenge them about this, they say in explanation that God's calling is not just for the poor; the wealthy too are God's children. They explain that God had said, "The poor are with you always.'' You have to wonder whether you should laugh or cry.

They go on and on about the vow of "obedience" and force us into submission so that we can scarcely lift up our heads. We are not even allowed to think for ourselves in a way that befits our years. They want to think for us, and instead of us. We are not allowed the independence and rights that even small children are entitled to. When I thought to myself, towards the end of my time with them, never mind, let it all go, and asked only to be sent to a village or anywhere to a school with ordinary and poor children, they intimidated me by talking of "obedience" and "faith." They insisted I could go only where I was sent, I must only do as I was told. They exhorted me to see with the eyes of faith. All I could see was their authority flying high like a flag. People like me were to be sacrificed in order to maintain it. I simply could not understand how I could see all this with the eyes of faith.

In fact all three vows of theirs serve only to separate them from ordinary people, and the reality of ordinary lives, to put them at a great remove, as if they belonged to a different world.

There is a lengthy training and preparation before one becomes a nun and decides to stay in the convent. What they taught us at that time was truly admirable. They told us each one of us is different, each is unique, there is no one else at all like us in the whole world. It was good to hear that God created each one of us in a very special way.

But when it came to actual practice, it was not like that at all. They expected us to behave as if we had all been made from the very same mould. Nobody was allowed to think differently or speak differently. We had to accept only what our superior told us, as if it were God-given Scripture. If you didn't accept it, or spoke differently, then that was the end of you. They said there was something wrong about your childhood, some gross mistake in your upbringing. They said there was some fatal flaw in your family, as if they were looking at your horoscope.

And what is more, in the end they discovered that "obedience" and "humility" did not apply to you because God had not called you after all. In all, it seems as if they wanted to change us to fit various ideas into which they had been indoctrinated during their studies in Europe and in America. If we could not fit within the framework that they had devised, then they concluded that it was doubtful whether we truly had a vocation. We had to change. In the final analysis, we could not be ourselves. They wanted you to be destroyed utterly and remade in a new form. Where else can you find such madness?

Many people in the convent did not even know what was meant by Dalit. And those few who knew had an extremely poor opinion about Dalits; they spoke ill of us. When they spoke about Dalits in such terms, I would often shrink into myself. They did not know then that I myself was a Dalit, and in those early days, I did not have the courage to tell them. I was afraid of how they might talk to me or behave towards me if I told them. When I heard them speak in such a way about the oppressed Dalit people, I used to wonder how these people could bring into being God's kingdom where there are neither the high nor the low. Some of the things they said about Dalits:

"How can we allow these people to come into our houses! In any case, even if we were to allow them, they would not enter our homes. They themselves know their place."

"There is nothing we can do for these creatures. And we shouldn't do anything for them. Because to do so would be like helping cobras.

"Even if we were to do something for them, they will never make progress. Their natures are like that."

"These days these people go about reasonably dressed. So you can't even make out who they are, sometimes."

"The government goes and gives these people all sorts of privileges. Why do illiterate people need all these things?" If ever they had to speak about something unpleasant or ugly they tended to categorise it as Harijan. What service can people with such tainted minds render? And all the time, my conscience kept hurting me that although I heard, observed, and experienced all this, I too lived a privileged life like an upper-caste person.....


Almost seven years after I wrote Karukku, I have read it now, in English translation. The emotions that I had felt during its writing, rose up once again, in a great flood. And I could not help but reflect upon many changes that have taken place since then: the turning points in my life during these past seven years, many startling events, sorrows, achievements; my perspectives about my own life and about society.

In 1995, my beloved younger sister met a violent death. Within the very next year, both my parents died, one after the other. Because I live by myself in this society, without supports of any own such as a family, a husband and children, I have to face many problems. But even though there are a thousand difficulties which beset a Dalit woman living on her own, yet the truth is that in my position as an independent woman, there are many opportunities for me to spend my life usefully, and especially, to work for the liberation of Dalits. This fact is both a consolation and an encouragement to me. It is for this reason that the urge grows the greater day by day that I should carry quietly in my heart all the sorrows that followed one upon the other, and to live a life that has meaning and dedication....

I have met several people who work with zeal for the single objective of Dalit liberation. And it has been a great joy to see Dalits aiming to live with self respect, proclaiming aloud, 'Dalit endru sollada; talai nimirndu nillada' (Say you are a Dalit; lift up your head and stand tall). To see them joining ranks in order to gain political, economic and cultural strength. To see a fighting spirit gaining ground among people who have been accustomed, throughout the years, to being beaten down. To see them resisting those who have attacked them in an unjust and inhuman way, for so long. At the same time, I have also been crushed by the growing violence, cruelties and repressive measures directed towards Dalits in recent times. Beyond all this there stands firm a fierce anger that wants to break down everything that obstructs the creation of an equal and just society, and an unshakeable belief in that goal.

I have met many friends during the course of my life's journey. They have shared my sorrows and helped me in ail things. They have inspired me to engage m my work with close attention, with an awareness of my responsibility, and an understanding of the community's needs. They have helped me to identify my own strengths, and made me put them to use. Many Dalit women, for whom toil is their very life-breath, who lead vigorous lives in spite of all their weariness and anxieties, have been a great inspiration as well as a constant help to me. I have been restored by the love, friendship, support and advice of all these people, and enabled to live with fresh courage and resolution....

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Referred by: Sashi Kanth
Published on: June 4, 2001
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