'Recognition For The Language Of My People Is The Biggest Award I Can Win'
Early one morning in 1992 when Bama (born 1958 in Puthupatti village in Virudunagar district in southern Tamil Nadu) walked out of the seminary where she was a nun - never to return to it again - she had little idea of what she would do with the rest of her life.
Out of job and condemned by the society and the church alike, she began writing her autobiography Karukku to ‘stop herself from dying’. When published in 1992 Karukku, with the unique manner in which it used the Tamil language and the liberties it took with the grammar, went on to change not just the way Dalit literature was perceived 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 collection of short stories in 1996 reaffirming her status as a writer with a great insight and an inimitable style. Besides writing she teaches at a school in Ongur village in Kanchipuram district. Bama spoke to outlookindia.com over the phone from her home in Puthupatti about the birth of Karukku and thereafter, the state of Dalits and Tamil literature in general.
Karukku is based largely on your childhood experiences. Is there anything from 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 them out from my first book because I felt that would deviate from the issues that I wanted 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 come across 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 of my work (short stories) written later dip deeply into details of communal clashes 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 Dalit history of Tamil Nadu. I don’t think I have contributed much in development of plot or anything. I have just written them. My contribution? I am not sure of it except 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 surrounded your childhood?
I started writing only when I was in college. My first few writings were poetic in nature. They were not poems in their true sense. I will not call them that. They were lyrical. But I didn’t concentrate on that form because they were impressionist outlets of my thoughts and were much too personal. They were not very crystallised in concept. I wrote them only to derive some personal satisfaction. I was in my 20s and poems, if you can call them that, were the form that first occurred to me. But later I changed. I started writing short stories.
As a beginner who inspired you most?
My brother, Raj Gautaman, is also a writer. He was the one who encouraged me and inspired me to write. During my childhood it was the books he used to bring home from the library or elsewhere that I first read. Thus I was exposed to Tamil writers like Mani, Parthsarthy, Jayakantan, Akhilan. When I went to college and began versifying he provided me with a lot of encouragement. He would egg me on. Besides I also came across literature from other languages when in 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 same books again and again. Tagore made a great impact on my writing skills. I liked him a lot and sometimes I tried to imitate him. Geetanjali gave me a lot of inspiration. Also Kahlil Gibran. I love Gibran. I identified with him. Later in my life I found many similarities between Gibran and me. I don’t know if I sound pompous, but he spent a part of his life in the church and I have also spent my time there. It struck me very much. It was his experiences at the monastery that provoked him to write and it was the same with me too.
Both Tagore 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…rereading many of his works. I felt among Tamil writers he was the first and most forceful when it came to creating social awareness through literature.
What do you think of winning prizes? What does winning the Crossword Award mean to you?
Winning prizes or gaining any kind of recognition does not mean anything to me. It does not satisfy me. I just experience the immediate joy of winning a prize but it is gone in a few moments. And after sometime it vanishes from my memory. One thing that gives me most satisfaction is that I used the language of my people - a language that was not recognized by the pundits of literature, was not accepted by any literary circle in Tamil Nadu, was not included in the norms of Tamil literature. But after my book Karukku was published, the attention it drew and the way it was talked about all over the state forced the critics to accept the users of the dialect into their fold. The grammar has become a part of the language. It makes me feel proud. The fact that I was instrumental in bringing about this change in Tamil literature.
The story told in Karukku was not my story alone. It was the depiction of a collective trauma - of my community - whose length cannot be measured in time. I just tried to freeze it forever in one book so that there will be something physical to remind people of the atrocities committed on a section of the society for ages.
I could not build a monument, I could not build a sculpture. I wrote a book. And luckily it did not vanish into obscurity. My community thus found a place in the mainstream media. Their history had no place in Tamil history. It was never recorded. All that has changed. I am happy. No award can bring me the same joy. It is unique and nothing can equal that. If I get the Crossword Award, it is good. Many more people will know about my work and my people. If I don’t get it, I won’t be upset.
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 confronted with 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 came out naturally. It was more of an outpouring of all my experiences than a literary act. It just happened on its own. I didn’t even think of getting it published. Later when my brother, among others, coaxed me into publishing I conceded. Success followed and thanks to it my people have been able to assert their individuality in the society. That is the greatest award that I can get. I have 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 some attempts to get them. But living here in this village, it is very difficult. I have 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 riots that have struck Tamil Nadu like a plague. I am trying to depict the wrongs done in the name of caste and the meaningless violence that it instigates.
A civilization is wiped out completely. People, their minds, feelings are irreparably damaged. The agony that it brings with it and leaves behind have broken 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 going through since years - in my next work.
Does it involve a lot of research?
I keep visiting all those places. The southern districts. The numerous incidents of clashes between the Thevars and the Dalits. There are so many caste groups fighting with each other over trivial issues. The politics of the whole thing 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 characters around them. The affected people, the victimized people and the ones - the shrewd ones - who enter the scene as mediators, who are actually there to fish in 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, who lose their homes, families etc…in these riots, who are in the direct line of fire. The affected ones are those who are not directly involved but are innocent bystanders who leave the scene with some scars.
But their issues are not the ones that really torment me. They are, of course, part of my concerns. My troubles begin and end with the suffering of my people. The Dalits. The only disappointment I have with my current endeavours is that during each of my trips I hear a lot of stories. Listening to these stories is so much of pleasure. The spoken language has so much of richness. When I come back and write them down I lose a lot of the original flavour. Telling a story is a natural act whereas what I am doing is only artificial.
When Dalit literature first made its appearance in Tamil Nadu it was conspicuous by its contradictions. The writers came out strongly proclaiming their living conditions that were different from those of the upper caste. But these same writers were leading comfortable lives and did not live in the conditions they talked and wrote about with pride…
Why do you say that? Many say that Dalits are supposed to live like this and like 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 talk like this? Aren’t Dalits also not human beings. Aren’t they also entitled to the same comforts that are available to people of the upper castes? Why shouldn’t a Dalit writer travel in air-conditioned cars, fly by plane, sit on a sofa? They are writing. They are earning a living. They can afford it. If they can buy them, then why should they not have these luxuries? Here the question I ask is more ethical than material.
If you are writing about having travelled in a bullock cart, does it mean that you should always be travelling in a bullock cart? Would travelling by car or bus later in your life take your writing about that experience of a bullock-cart trip any farther from the truth than truth itself? These critics are commenting not on our writing but on our lifestyles. Our writings are judged not by their merit but by the way we live. This is ridiculous.
Karukku strangely seems to have stayed away from Communist references though it was a milieu conducive for such trappings.
Why? Did you do that consciously? When I was a child, the Communists I saw in my village denounced God. My mother was a very religious and god-fearing person. She had a great influence on me. So it was and is difficult to give up God that easily. For me, I do welcome the 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 of caste differences. Either it is deliberate or there are other hidden compulsions. I am not comfortable with their stand. So it never had any direct bearing on my writing. Now that you bring it up I wonder why I have not criticized it so far.
There are many who say Tamil is not a classical language. What is your opinion? 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 about other languages is minimal. I used to listen to a lot of Hindi bhajans when I was in Jammu as a nun. I like them a lot. Personally I have this urge to know other 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 is that language is to communicate. I specifically or adamantly use my people’s language. 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 whether what I have written falls in Tamil literature, Dalit literature, Dravidian literature etc…
Should Dalit literature be written by Dalits only?
Need not be. Dalit consciousness can be illustrated by people from other castes. There is no hard and fast rule. Is there one? Anyone can write about anything. But the difference will always remain. Take the example of untouchability - only an untouchable would know the pain of being one. Other people can empathise/sympathise. But the agony is always personal and it cannot be the same as something that is reflected or reported about. I don’t think anyone other than a Dalit can expose all the brahmanical lies and insult heaped upon Dalits. Others too can also write about Dalits. What is the harm? But it should always be done remembering the respectability that has been denied to us and we so rightly deserve. Their writing should be rich with the understanding of Dalits. Otherwise let the Dalits write about themselves. There are some writers who think that only the upper castes can help Dalit come up and not the Dalits and their leaders or writers. Why do they have to denigrate us if they are unable to contribute to our cause?
Dalit literature seems to have failed to catch up in Tamil Nadu as quickly as it has in Maharashtra and Karnataka…
True. Maybe at this time you cannot push it that easily. It has never been that easy. Hardly any work by a Dalit sees the light of the day. The doors of mainstream publications are never open for us. We have had to barge ourselves in to see our names printed alongside writers who come from the dominant castes. In the 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 were some works that managed to get published. But things are still very gloomy.
The famous Tamil critic Vallikanan has said that all developments have come late 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. How can you expect a community to whom the means to read or write have been denied for centuries even think of any kind of literature? First you have to bring the written word to them. Then you can expect something from them. But surely that has been a visible change since the Ambedkar centenary celebrations.
But Irataimalai Srinivisan used to bring out a monthly journal called Parayan way 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 nothing substantial enough to change the lot of our people. This Parayan you are talking about…I had not heard about it in my childhood. I could see an issue of Parayan only after reaching college. Even now the are efforts are too small to get noticed.
Is ‘Scheduled Caste’ the right synonym for the word Dalit? Personally I don’t agree with it and that dissent has found expression in my writings. There is the reservation problem that comes with it. And reservation actually dehumanizes us rather than solving our problems. It aggravates the situation.
We are objects of contempt in public places. People say, he/she doesn’t have any talent or merit. He/she has found a way in through a quota set aside for him. It shocks us to be addressed as scheduled castes and not as Dalits as the former is derogatory. Dalit, a Marathi word, which means ‘rooted in the soil’ lends respectability to us. Utter the word Scheduled Caste and we withdraw into a shell immediately.
What is the state of Dalit writing in Tamil Nadu now?
Earlier there were a number of energetic, original voices. But now many are not writing. Mainly because of economic compulsions. You cannot sustain yourself for long if you have to wait for years to see a work written by you being published. 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 my kind and from my community only after the favourable response that Karukku received. In that respect I have been able to open a few doors for others.
But what about Dalit magazines? Can’t a few of you come together and bring out a magazine that supports Dalit writing?
It is easy to imagine all that. Should people wonder where their next meal is going to come from or think of printing a magazine or book? Never mind. I am just getting a bit cynical here. Indeed there are a few. Sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t. They are not very regular. There is Dalit Murasu from Chennai and then there is Kodangi…But not enough. Why can’t mainstream magazines devote more pages for people like us? Surely quality is not the sole deciding factor in this case.
So there is casteism among Tamil writers too…?
Casteism is everywhere. Even among writers. Many talk about it, write reams about it attend seminars and lecture about removing it but rarely has anyone shown any genuine intention to remove it. Perhaps if it is removed then they would be denied of a subject to write about (laughs).
As a writer have you faced such discrimination especially in public gatherings? Yes. I used to. Not anymore. One of the reasons is that I always assert myself. I deliberately hold my head high. Before writing Karukku I used to feel shy to reveal my caste.
I was ashamed. But Karukku has given me a divine courage. A special kind of boldness. Writing does that to you, you know.
Can you elaborate?
Karukku set off a trickle of letters to my house. There would be letters from all kinds of people. Young and old, men and women. But it was the letters sent by the youth that gave me the strength to face the world. Even now I get lots of letters. All of them praising Karukku, saying how they all identify with the book. I am planning to come out with a third edition of Karukku soon.
Su. Samuthiran is a very respected critic who has never had a high opinion of women writers in Tamil. Why is that?
I really don’t know why. But it does not bother me much. I am both a Dalit writer and woman writer. You can call me Dalit woman writer or woman Dalit writer (laughs). Women writers have another tale to tell. They are not at all recognized. We, women writers, meet and discuss about it. No matter what you say, in spite of all the westernization (or because of it), ours is a male-dominated society. So accepting woman as an equal to man will surely hurt its ego.
Does a writer have the power to change a view held by the society for centuries?
I won’t claim to have the power to change the view of the society.
But I have been able to bring about some changes. I think I have said this much too often during this interview to sound immodest. (laughs) But it is true. My lifestyle has changed. Earlier when I did not say my caste I used to suffocate. I would silently choke in my insides. Karukku has changed all that.
How much of a political person are you? Many Tamil writers have gone on to become leading political personalities...
My interest in politics is limited. I just observe the political events around me. I just watch. I don’t want to join the ranks of those who say something, mean something and do something else. And as a Dalit my voice is also feeble. I truly wish that Ambedkar’s double voting pattern was implemented. If I am right it was the Poona Pact that did away with it. That would have given us more powers. Hmmm…..I am just thinking out loud…
You sound like an activist. Do you think of yourself as one?
Not an active one. My activism does not leap beyond the edges of the pages of my book. For me mainly writing was to liberate Dalits, the women and children.
Are there young writers in Tamil Nadu who you feel are doing the same? There are many young writers. Allaguya Periyavan is very original and has a powerful voice. His book Theetu which means ugly or outcast is extremely good. But the number of young good poets far outnumber the fiction writers.
You broke the norms of Tamil literature. Are there any other writers who indulge in such experimental writing? I do that. There are many others who have done the same since Karukku. Sivakami, Imayan, Abhimani, Pablo Aruvikuyil are a few… But there is a difference between them and me. They use the language of the people only in conversations, in the dialogues. The entire narrative that I write is colloquial in nature and form.
How do you see the future of Tamil literature?
Right now it is not bright. There was a time when it was soaring. But a strange stagnancy has struck it. One of the reasons could be the critics. They have been very harsh and unkind. Even I was upset. Why write? I have asked myself several times. Karukku also received many negative reviews. Especially its narrative. Then there was the anger unleashed by the church. Though they did not come out very strongly, the small expressions of resentment hurt me. I could feel their hostility. I would get some letters from known followers of the church castigating me.
I was not chastised publicly, but I was chastised enough that it upset my writing. Similar things are happening with other writers too. A word of encouragement is a tonic for any artist.
Do you think as a writer in Tamil you are handicapped. Not many people outside Tamil Nadu know you or have any chance of coming across your works. Do you feel bad?
I do feel bad.
One goes to sleep seeing English getting undue importance in the day-to-day life. Even in my village it makes the parents happy if their child says mummy instead of amma, daddy in place of appa . English has become a superior language. It is disgusting. It is painful.
Haven’t the Christian missionaries contributed to this? After all, most of the schools impart education in English medium…
No. That is not true. There are many schools that teach in the local language. But more important than that is the fact that if it had not been for these Christian missionaries people like us would never have seen a school. When foreign missionaries came to India they treated us equally. Things took an ugly turn after the Indians took over. So we became Christians, but the caste did not go off. Even today Dalits are not allowed to sit with other castes inside the churches in Kanchipuram district. Even the graveyards are separated. You know there is one thing about Karukku that brings me immense joy.
They are using it at the Theological College in Bangalore. That is a matter of great triumph.
What do you think of the English translation of Karukku?
Lakshmi’s effort is admirable. She visited me many times trying to understand the meaning of many incomprehensible words in my book. She was not to blame. How can she when even the readers found it difficult initially understanding it? And there were many words I had used that had no equivalent in English. But she has been able to capture the essence. She has done a good job despite the Tamil terms that were alien to her.
You once said: ‘Young people in India are not a single body…Who are we writing for?’ What did you mean by this?
I was attending an international seminar conducted by Tara publishing and Max Mueller Bhavan. The point I was trying to make is that youth vary from place to place. There are social/political/cultural differences. What I was asking writers to do is that when you write you must have the background of youth in mind. They have a very impressionable mind. So one has to be very careful. I will illustrate with my own case. When I write, I think of the dominant group and the dominated group. I want the youth from the dominant group to do a self-analyses of themselves and to the youth from the dominated group I intend to provide courage to proclaim their identities. I hope I am clear enough. I want the oppressed youth to rise from their marginalised state.
Are you married?
No. I am a single woman. And you can imagine how difficult it is to lead a single woman’s life in a village in Tamil Nadu. It is not easy. There are all kinds of myths surrounding you.
Is that a comfortable situation to be in?
(Laughs) I am both comfortable and uncomfortable.