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Tamil dalit literature


David C. Buck et Kannan M

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  • 1 Most of this Introduction was written with non-Tamil readers in mind. While we recognize the need t (...)
  • 2 Pages 5-6.
  • 3 Page 76.

1One thing should be abundantly clear: there really is such a thing as Dalit writing in Tamil. This did not used to be true. Until the past twenty or thirty years, Dalit people did not have much of a literary voice. Now, though, there are voices representing millions of Dalits—people who certainly do speak for themselves, but many of whom cannot write for themselves, and would not be published if they did. Some of those voices, translated into English, are contained in this book. A lot of people have expended a great deal of energy in trying to decide whether this Dalit writing should be (or shouldn’t be) called Dalit literature, based upon accepted literary standards of one type or another. Our answer is that while some of it is literature, of many varied types, of new and old literary forms, and of varied quality, some of it is really more like methodical, almost ethnographic, recordings of Dalit life in Tamil. Much of it, though, as Sudhakar Ghatak puts it in his essay contained in this book, “… erupts as a scream piercing the wind.”2 In any case, we agree with Bama when she says, also in this book, “… everyone now acknowledges that for the past few years Dalit writings have had an enormous impact on society.”3 Clearly, the issues raised by Dalit voices do matter, on both a national and an international stage. As you read the essays, short stories, and poems that follow, you will easily recognize the in-your-face character of much of it, but you will also see subtle nuances and carefully drawn characters and situations. Dalit literature has arrived. It is fresh and new, and old and stale, all at the same time. It arises directly out of lived experiences in an unjust world.

2On January 30, 2004, some seventy people gathered at the French Institute of Pondicherry in southern India to participate in a very lively one-day seminar on Tamil Dalit Literature: The Challenge and the Response. Out of that seminar came the collected volume Dalit Ilakkiyam: Eṉatu Aṉupavam, which is translated here. These writings are all decidedly personal, and so are our own approaches to the work. That is, both the book and this Introduction also arise directly out of lived experiences. The volume includes nine essays by Tamil Dalit writers on the theme Dalit literature: my own experience. It also includes original creative works—short stories or poems—by seven of them. Since two of them are publishers and essayists, their essays in themselves constitute their original contributions.

Background: Tamil

  • 4 Most of the authors collected here refer throughout the work to the Tamil-speaking areas of Sri Lan (...)

3Tamil is a vibrant, living language spoken by something in the neighborhood of 100 million people in southern India, Sri Lanka,4 and in a Tamil diaspora scattered across the globe. It is also one of the world’s oldest classical literary languages. Over this long time span Tamil has, of course, developed strong conventions about how literature is to be constructed, delivered, and appreciated. The process is an ongoing one: today’s Tamil literary world sees authors, publishers, and readers all bending the old rules (often well past the breaking point!), or staunchly reaffirming them, or developing new approaches and literary forms, or adapting literary forms from other traditions and other times to the current Tamil literary milieu. Of course, this kind of literary churning has taken place many times before. In fact, Tamil literary history could well be thought of as the story of 2,000 or more years of such churnings and developments. In any case, these early years of the 21st century are decidedly exciting ones in Tamil. It is out of this mix that Tamil Dalit literature has sprouted and grown.

Background: Dalit

  • 5 Kannan & Gros (2002) “Tamil Dalits in Search of a Literature” in South Asia Research. (22: 1), in G (...)

4Dalit is not a home-grown Tamil word. Rather, it comes to Tamil from Marathi, a language of central-western India. It means something like “ground down,” “oppressed,” “pulverized,” or “rejected,” but choosing to use this term always carries with it a clear sense of intentional and powerful resistance to oppression. As Kannan and Gros put it, it should not become “… a symbol of exploitation. It should bloom as a symbol which functions against exploitation, cruelty and atrocities. The meaning emphasized by the word dalit ought to be insult, shame, insecurity, and rebellion.”5

5Most people in India are hereditary members of one caste or other, and these caste groups are arranged hierarchically, so that people near the top of the ladder are defined as “cleaner,” “purer,” “more respectable,” and generally “better” than others. Dalit people are at the very lowest end of the caste hierarchy in India. They have suffered the humiliations associated with being called “dirty,” “impure,” “less respectable,” and “generally inferior,” for centuries, and this includes the curse of so-called “untouchability.” For example, one of the authors presented in this translated volume comes from a caste whose members, in years past, were expected to stay indoors during daylight hours so their shadows would not pollute the earth on which we all walk. And Dalit people in some situations were required to attach brooms to their rumps to obliterate their footprints in the street dust as they walked through upper-caste areas. Thankfully, these practices no longer hold sway in Tamil Nadu. Such attitudes and expectations have historically been used to excuse and justify the exploitation which upper-caste people imposed on those of lower castes.

  • 6 See, for example, Yalan Ati’s poem on pages 148-149 of this volume. There are also several books th (...)

6Various names have been pasted onto these people by outsiders. Some such names have been really vicious, like tῑṇṭa-takātavaṉ, or ‘somebody it is improper even to touch.’ Others have been attempts at beneficent patronizing, like Mahatma Gandhi’s term Harijan, usually translated as ‘children of God.’ The word Dalit, though, became current only fairly recently—during the 1960s and 70s in Marathi and the 1980-90s in Tamil. This time was different: nobody from outside pasted this name onto Dalit people. Rather, its widespread use started when a group of Marathi men began calling themselves ‘Dalit Panthers, ’ consciously referring to the Black Panthers of the United States. There is also a strong connection in terms of skin tone: while it is undeniably true that both African-Americans and Dalit Indians come in the entire spectrum of possible human skin tones, it is also true that both groups are standardly referred to as ‘black’ people. The thing is, this time it is Dalit people themselves who are projecting their own black identity in a self-affirming voice, again similar to the Black Panthers, who reject labels like ‘negro’ and ‘colored, ’ stuck onto them by outsiders.6

  • 7 Ravikumar in his Introduction to Bama (2008), p. xxvi.
  • 8 Jennifer is a Dalit writer featured in the July, 2010, issue of Dalit Murasu. The quote is on page  (...)

7In the Indian context, then, where caste has traditionally been the determiner of the sorts of extremely low social status that Dalits face, the question immediately arises as to who is, and who is not, a Dalit. Often, three or four caste groups are identified as being so-called “Dalit castes,” and sometimes it even seems that the word is used almost interchangeably with the term “Scheduled Castes,” whose members receive special benefits from government “reservation” programs. But there is a real danger of misunderstanding in any of these approaches to deciding who is actually a Dalit person. The best answer is given by Dalit writers themselves. For example, Ravikumar says, “The word ‘Dalit’ refers to caste when used by non-Dalits and rejection of caste when used by Dalits. If we fail to understand this difference, it will end up in others seeing Dalits as organizing in the name of caste.”7 Similarly, as Jennifer wrote in Dalit Murasu, “When a low-caste person identifies himself as a Dalit, it is not for the purposes of preserving caste. On the contrary, he says that for the purpose of annihilating it altogether! Other people should also step forward and annihilate caste!”8 And Punita Pantiyan describes how that very situation played out in his essay in this volume. If you have not been on the receiving end of this hereditary, centuries-old, caste-based humiliation, then you are not a Dalit; if you have been there, accepting the Dalit label brings with it a vision of a new, uncharted social organization, free from the barriers of caste, and free from barriers of economic class as well.

8Typically, especially in rural Tamil Nadu, Dalit people live in what is called a cēri (cheri)—a poor hamlet removed at some distance from the main village where upper-caste people live. Public services like water supplies, stores, paved roads, bus stands, and all the rest, are often located only in the main part of town, and are difficult to access from the cēri. And not infrequently these cēris are located near open sewer ditches. Some cēris, however, especially in urban settings, may be located nearer to necessary public services.

Background: History of Tamil Dalit Literature9

  • 9 The bulk of this section draws heavily on Kannan M. & Gros F. (2002) in Gros F. (2009), pp. 369-417
  • 10 See, for example, Buck (2005), pp. 18, 44-52, and Tamizhaveel (2003).
  • 11 Gros (2009), p. 374.

9Simply put, there isn’t any ancient Dalit literature available to us today. In times past the education of Dalit people, even at the level of basic literacy, was considered a crime, punishable by measures as extreme as the pouring of molten lead into the ears of a Dalit who tried to learn too much. As a result, Dalit people generally did not develop literary learning in those days. There are short descriptions of people who would today be considered Dalits in some very old texts, but they are descriptions painted by high-born people. And some people who would today be called Dalits have made major contributions to religious devotional hymnology, singing in praise of God. Then in the 18th and 19th centuries there began to appear some varieties of Tamil literature whose principal characters were Dalit people—notably the Paḷḷu and Kuṟavañci dramatic forms. Some present-day Dalits claim direct connections with the heroes and heroines of those dramas.10 This is what Kannan and Gros refer to as “a quest for ideological roots and exalted ancestors.”11 All of these works, though, were written by outsiders, and they were not sympathetic to Dalit sensibilities. In fact, the non-Dalit writers and dramatists of these forms were quite consciously witty in the ways they found to make fun of Dalit people, particularly painting them as socially inferior. The audience is expected to laugh—and usually does—when Dalit characters emerge from the wings onto the stage.

  • 12 In addition to Gros (2009), see also Ilankovan (2008) including the Introduction by Yakkan, for inf (...)
  • 13 This is one of the castes often referred to as a ‘Dalit caste’ in today’s world. Incidentally, the (...)

10It was in the late 1800s, while these entertainment pieces were still performed for the titillation of little kings and big landowners throughout India and Tamil Nadu that the first authors who can properly be called Dalits strode into the social and political arena.12 One of these men, who is known to us only by his guru’s name, which he adopted as his own, was Ayothee Doss Panditar (1845-1914). He founded organizations and published magazines which are still available for literary research. His writing was not intended to be literature as an art form at all, though, and he did not utilize the word Dalit. His focus was the rights and social status of so-called Pañcamar people—those “fifth-class citizens” who fall entirely outside the fourcaste system prescribed by authoritative, Sanskrit, Hindu, Brahminical, vedic texts both ancient and modern. These are people who today would be called Dalits. In particular he addressed the caste known as Paṟaiyar.13 Ayothee Doss’ son followed in his father’s footsteps, and his brother-in-law Rettamalai Srinivasan (1860-1945) became a major political figure, included in the 1930 Round Table Conference in London, which considered questions leading toward India’s eventual independence from a couple of centuries of British rule. Srinivasan brought significant publicity to the state of affairs for Dalits when he refused to shake King George V’s hand, publicly proclaiming, “I am an untouchable.”

  • 14 Laundryman. This is another of the castes often referred to as a ‘Dalit caste’ in today’s world.

11When the 20th century came, then, there was already a movement producing printed works espousing the cause of Dalit people. Then in the 1960s K. Daniel (1927- 86), a Tamil writer from Sri Lanka, produced works that marked the development of social and political writing into an actual literature dealing with Dalit lives, although the word Dalit was still not widely used. A Vaṇṇār14 by caste and Marxist by political persuasion, he found it impossible to live in his native Sri Lanka during the long struggle for a separate Tamil state there, after he declared that such a state made no sense unless and until the rights of Dalit people were credibly guaranteed first. He lived his final years in Tamil India. His novels and short stories, while often criticized as being relatively mechanical in their propounding of his political program, are honestly rendered accounts of life as seen from a Dalit perspective, and his political program still resonates with the needs of the poor and marginalized Dalit people.

12Soon after Daniel’s literary creations appeared, Poomani entered the Tamil prose world. Like Daniel, Poomani (1947—) is very much a leftist writer, but his novels and short stories are more artistically crafted. Although he could easily claim the Dalit literature mantle, he assiduously maintains his distance from any such classification. Other writers, too, helped to pry open the door and then they held it open for others to follow—authors like the militantly Marxist G. Nagarajan (1929- 1981), Pa. Ceyappirakacam (1941—), and others. Through the 1970s, then, the door was beginning to swing wide open.

13Then came the 1980s and with it the word Dalit. As N. D. Rajkumar says in his essay in this volume,

  • 15 Page 35.

It was in the 1980s, against this backdrop as I was growing up and writing my poems, that a new word, Dalit, showed me how to open so many doors. In this context, I did not set foot in, or enter into poetry as a mere philosophical debater, or as a theorist. The truths of Dalit-ness have cut ever newer facets, as on a diamond, on the experiences that lay within myself, in the words that lay inside me, and in my cultural experiences. Today, with this newly found self, I still converse with devils, male and female, as I rebel against the higher castes, and against caste mentality itself.15

14In the early 1990s, then, as people throughout India were celebrating the Centenary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s birth (see below), Dalit literature achieved a clearly recognized status of its own, both nationally and internationally. Dalit literature in Tamil, like Dalit literature in other Indian languages, became firmly established. The authors presented in this volume are but nine of the many who have written Tamil Dalit literature during the past thirty years.

Background: Social philosophies

15Basic to any understanding of Dalit literature is an understanding of the hierarchical caste and class structure that has traditionally been part of life in India. Fundamentally like any other stratified social system in any other place, control of the means of production—land ownership, for instance, or the authority to allocate irrigation waters for rice crops—is critical. Control, in this sense, means excluding others from exercising such control. Such exclusive control is usually backed up by force, either government-sponsored force through such institutions as the police, or through extra-legal activities such as burning people’s homes or crops. If you do not have the authority to exercise such control, you will simply have to sell your labor to someone who does, in return for whatever kind of subsistence arrangement you can negotiate. Caste, gender, race, and economic class are all intertwined in defining who gets to benefit from the control of the means of production, and who is forced into subservient, often miserably poor, roles. Dalit people are traditionally at the very bottom of this social structure; their work may be absolutely necessary for society to function at all, but the livelihoods they can negotiate for themselves are usually extremely meager. This type of analysis is often characterized as ‘Marxian, ’ or ‘leftist’ analysis, but it is fundamental to any understanding of life in India, including Dalit lives. Furthermore, leftist thinkers and social activists usually take the position that exploited people should have better opportunities than they currently do, and hence ideas of casteless, classless, communal or communist social structures become very appealing. In fact, some of the Dalit authors included in this volume have close ties to leftist organizations that intend to overturn the system of social control of the means of production—that is to say, real revolution—and to usher in a more egalitarian society. They intend to annihilate both class and caste.

  • 16 Personal communication to David Buck on September 12, 2009.
  • 17 There are many resources for further study about Dr. Ambedkar. For a good short introduction, see w (...)

16But, as pointed out by many Dalit people, leftists have all too often left the caste issue under-appreciated, while they focus on issues of economic class; worse yet, there are even allegations of caste-based discrimination within leftist groups themselves. Building on the fundamentals of leftist thought, then, many Dalits have added new dimensions. For example, N. D. Rajkumar explained that, “Marxism is fundamental, but what we really have now is Ambedkarism,”16 referring to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956),17 the Marathi Dalit lawyer who, against all odds, rose through early 20th century Indian society to become the chief architect of the Constitution of the Republic of India, which was ushered in after Indian independence from Great Britain. As things stand now, caste-based discrimination is utterly illegal all across India, largely reflecting Dr. Ambedkar’s successes. Also built into Indian law is the idea of “reservation,” a kind of affirmative action program that assures significant Dalit representation in almost all educational and government positions. Nonetheless, it is also true that anti-Dalit, caste-based discrimination is still rampant, especially in rural India. Nearly every Dalit activist has a sense of close connection with Dr. Ambedkar’s struggles, and with his famous work entitled The Annihilation of Caste.

  • 18 There are various resources for further study about Periyar. For a good introduction, see www.periy (...)

17Another legendary figure, especially in the Tamil context, is the rationalist and Dravidian Movement champion E. V. Ramasamy Naicker (1879-1973), known popularly as “Periyar,”18 the “Great Man.” He himself was not a Dalit; quite the contrary, as he was born into a wealthy, upper-caste, landowning family. Nonetheless he, like Ambedkar, was unmistakably vociferous in advocating the annihilation of caste and class, but he included as well the notion of a Dravidian identity for south Indian people, separate from the Aryan identity of what he characterized as northern Indians, and of Brahmins living in southern India. Also like Ambedkar, Periyar pressed home the need for people of all castes, genders, and races to develop their own self-respect, as opposed to hoping (in vain) for others to reverse traditional prejudice and grant respect. Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement has found a permanent place in almost all levels of Tamil society.

  • 19 Personal communication to David Buck on September 4, 2009.
  • 20 See, for example, Bama (2000) or her essay in this volume.

18Both Ambedkar and Periyar saw no hope for oppressed people, like Dalits, to improve their situations within the framework of Hinduism. As an example, Punita Pantiyan, one of the authors in this collection, paraphrased them both as saying, “Hinduism has caste-based oppression coming directly out of the mouth of God—it is an integral part of the religion! ”19 Periyar’s approach was to reject any notion of religion altogether; he was a famous atheist, although he vigorously supported moves by Dalit people to convert to Islam or to Buddhism. Dr. Ambedkar’s approach was to find a different, home-grown Indian religion, and to urge Dalit people to convert. The religion he chose was Buddhism, and millions of Dalit people have heeded his call. Yakkan, one of the authors in this book, is an example. Others, like N.D. Rajkumar, while not actually converting to Buddhism, still place Buddha images prominently in their houses, consciously connecting themselves with Dr. Ambedkar’s religious ideas. Many thousands of Dalit people have also converted to Islam, which often has successfully erased their low-caste status. Dalit conversions to Christianity, particularly during the British period in Indian history, were often attempts to escape caste discrimination that did not succeed, as many Christian denominations absorbed caste feeling and integrated it right into the church’s hierarchical framework.20

Background: Problems in Translation

19In a very real sense, translation is simply impossible. If by “translating” we intend to render a piece of literature word-for-word directly into another language, then we are doomed to fail. There are many reasons for this. To begin with, words have different semantic fields in different languages. One example is the rather bland-seeming word red. This English word does not even cover the same physical colors (light-wavelengths) as any Tamil word does, including the “usual” translational equivalent civappu. Colors that look to a western English speaker as orange, or even yellow, are routinely called civappu in Tamil. Furthermore, and much more importantly for a translator, the emotional overtones, at least in some situations, also are vastly different. To illustrate, if we say civapp-āka irukkiṟāḷ in Tamil, the meaning is that a woman is being referred to as having a light skin tone, which, furthermore, habitually gets associated with good looks; occasionally it even carries connotations of upper-caste heritage. In English, however, saying she is red would very likely refer to a woman in a rather emotional state—probably anger, or possibly embarrassment. In any event, her skin tone would not be being complimented, and it would not incline a reader to expect her to look pretty.

  • 21 It was her cummāṭu that Rengaa was shaking out when the incident with Burma Chetty occurred that is (...)

20Another problem is the occurrence of words in one language that refer to things that do not exist in the usual contexts of the other language. Sometimes it is even more difficult, as these ‘things’ may exist in some geographical areas but not in others. Here is just one of innumerable possible examples. Consider a cummāṭu, a doughnut-shaped arrangement of cloth that laborers use to stabilize and cushion baskets or trays filled with heavy items that they carry on their heads—it goes between the load and the person’s head.21 There are, almost certainly, words in other Indian languages—Marathi, Kannada, or Hindi, for example—that refer to the very same cummāṭu, since laborers in other parts of India also use this method of carrying heavy loads, but there is no such word in use in the U.S. because nobody there uses such a device to carry things that way.

21Another problem is that sentence and word structures can seem exactly backwards from one language to the next, and a Tamil sentence will often be very long, with a cumulative “building on itself” quality, in which modifying words and phrases are piled up one on top of the other, creating an intricate word-picture right within the sentence itself, finally to resolve with the finite verb at the very end. At other times, Tamil sentences are extremely short like the “sentence fragments” English writers are taught to avoid. We have to rearrange words in order to sort out sentences like these; often it is even advisable to break some sentences into smaller portions, or, occasionally, to re-combine other sentences into larger ones. As one example, consider how we rendered the first sentence of Sudhakar Ghatak’s short story A Lump of Clay:

The palm tubers stuck out of the basket, so Molavi ducked gracefully as she came inside, and not a one of them scraped on the bamboo rafters. There was
Rengaayaal, looking at herself in the half broken mirror, the one without its silver backing, jagged, with sharp edges and a bottom half just big enough to show your face, stuck up in the lamp niche in the wall.

22That translates the single Tamil sentence,

  • 22 From Sudhakar Ghatak’s short story A Lump of Clay, included in this volume.

Kūṭaḷ koḷḷāta paṉaṅkiḻaṅkukaḷai, vācaliṉ kuṟukkukkaḻi, veḷiyē nῑṭṭik koṇṭirukkum kiḻaṅkukaḷait taṭṭātavāṟu kuṉintu Moḷavi uḷḷē nuḻaintu koṇṭirukkum poḻututāṉ, racam pōy, veḷiṟi, pāti uṭaintu, uṭainta pakuti kūrākavum, ataṟkum kῑḻāṉa pakuti mukam pārkkum aḷaviṟku akalamākavum irunta kaṇṇāṭiyai māṭak kuḻiyil cātti vaittu Reṅkāyāḷ mukattaip pārttuk koṇṭiruntāḷ.22

23Here is a word-by-word rendering into English, as closely as the incompatible grammar systems of these two languages permit:

Basket-not-holding palm tubers, the entryway rafter, the tubers that stuck out so as not to scrape, ducking-down Molavi inside entering right-when-she-was, its backing gone, jagged, half-broken, the broken portion sharp, and below that portion face to see to-the-amount-of width which was the mirror lamp-niche propping-up and placing Rengaayaal her face looking-was-doing.

  • 23 There is no single word in Tamil that translates as “scavenger” in English usage in India. Rather, (...)
  • 24 For another look at cultural difficulties in translation, see Buck (2003).

24Further, many kinds ofculture differences can lead to translation impossibilities. Here again is one example drawn from many: “Scavenging” in western contexts like that of the United States means picking through old things to find whatever can be turned into something useful; it implies doing things like going through other people’s trash, or finding useful articles, or even food items, that are available out in the wilds of nature. While it basically implies poverty, it is fairly common for middle-class children to be entertained with a “scavenger hunt” at birthday parties, in which case the “poverty” aspect is forgotten in the game of finding cute party favors. In India, however, while some of that is still to the point, there is a much more specific meaning attached to the idea of scavenging. It is the cleaning up of other people’s fecal matter. This includes picking up feces and piling them into trays which you carry on your head, often using a cummāṭu (see above), to deposit in a place where they will eventually be worked into the soil as fertilizer for food crops. The implication of designating someone as a scavenger23 is clear: that person has the dirtiest, most disgusting job imaginable, and is usually shunned by polite society as “dirty,” even to the point of being “untouchable.”24

25One way to address nearly all of these problems is to think of any original work as having grown out of an underlying, perhaps wordless, wellspring of creative feeling or thought, taking on the colors and textures of language as the author brings it to the light of day. According to this approach, this “inner poem” or “inner story” is what the author really creates, and if it can be fully understood, so the theory goes, it can be brought out in a new language, commonly called the “target language” as well, taking on the colors and textures of its new linguistic home. This approach actually works very well in many instances; it is a rather more intricate, nuanced version of the translator’s more standard question, “What did the author really mean here, and how can we put that real meaning into the new language?” In fact, this approach is almost a necessity when dealing with words and language structures that will not submit to word-by-word translation. By contrast with the horizontal approach in which one language is substituted for another, this approach is more angled vertically, digging down into the original creative wellspring, and then coming back up to the light of day. Obvious holes in the theory, however, include such questions as how can we be sure that we really understand the inner wellspring of this work in the first place? And what happens when words in the new language have colored and texturized the literary piece beyond all reasonable recognition as it emerged into the new language?

  • 25 See page xxii (below) for more on the idea of a kuṟai.

26Thus, regardless of whether we take translation to be a re-creation from the creative wellspring of an original text, or an attempt at a word-for-word and structure-by-structure replacement, we must face the truth of the old saying that anything will “lose in translation.” This is a kuṟai25 that is inherent in the translation process. In the end, we must make the best artistic choice we can, so that the real meaning of a poem or a story, when it lands in the target-language reader’s consciousness, will be as close as possible to a really well informed understanding of the piece in its original language. When the Tamil is crystal clear, so must the English be; when the Tamil is sunk in angry despair and helpless frustration, so must the English be; and when the Tamil is ambiguous, so must the English be—that is, we must not replace open-ended ambiguity with an interpolated precision in translation. In this way, surprisingly, a translation takes on its own creative life, and can, itself, become a real piece of literature. There have been many such successful translation efforts in the past. In fact, on occasion, and in some specific literary environments, it would not be stretching things too far to say that translated versions of certain passages have even come out better than their originals. Even when such a serendipitous moment comes around, though, it is well to keep in mind that other passages in the same translated work will have “lost” something of importance. Any really felicitous turn of phrase must be understood as something that has grown and matured in the new language, but whose heritage is firmly rooted in the original language. And, sadly, we must acknowledge that in the end a great many translations really do present the target-language reader with nothing better than a pale imitation of the real thing. It is particularly heartbreaking when such translations derail readers’ potential interest in finding out about truly great literature in languages they do not know.

Dialect writing

  • 26 Page 9 in this volume.

27Almost without exception Dalit writers express deep concern with the language they deploy. Of particular concern is the use of Tamil Dalit dialects. Most often, we find stories and poems whose narrative portions are written in modern, standard, grammatically correct Tamil, but whose dialog portions are written in an earthy, localized, caste- and class-specific way of speaking, reproductions on the printed page of a spoken Dalit dialect form of Tamil. The difference between the two types of Tamil is of paramount importance, both for the authors and for the readers. It is as though part of the effort in drawing readers into an understanding of Dalit ways of life and Dalit sensibilities goes into drawing those readers into Dalit ways of speaking—including drawing us into understanding which topics Dalit speakers choose to talk about, as well as how these topics are spoken of. This dialect speech is not grammatically correct Tamil as is taught in school, and the topics discussed are not always acceptable in polite society. As Sudhakar Ghatak says, “Dalit literature is not for the ladies and gentlemen of this world.”26 In fact, one of the major thrusts of the entire Dalit movement, including its literary arm, is that there is a difference between the lives of Dalit people and those of upper-caste and upper-class people, and that this is a difference which readers need to learn to understand and accept as important. There is no apology for dialect usage. Rather, if some readers feel like making fun of Dalit dialect speech, they will quickly find that an untenable frame of mind for appreciating the realities of Dalit writing. Bama puts it this way:

  • 27 Page 75 in this volume.

… This language, with its life and power, pulsating with joyful vigor and liveliness, and shorn of all hypocrisy, can echo the intimacy of human relationships with fine sensitivity. Yet it also has the strength to speak forcefully about Dalit people’s anxieties and their noisy laughter, their rebellions and other dimensions of their culture. Using it makes it easy to connect myself, not only with the characters in my stories, but with the ways of life of Dalit people. In this emotional communion with my people I really do experience the well-being and wholesomeness of existence.
When my works receive approval and praise, I enjoy the thought that this approval and praise comes to the way the people really do speak.27

28This leaves the translator with an obvious problem—and, we believe, an obvious cure, although, yet again, it is a cure that introduces its own new set of difficulties. The problem is that this importance is being given to a particular kind of Tamil, whereas the translation is not being written in Tamil of any kind, but in English. The cure is to use a parallel dialect of English when translating dialect passages from Tamil.

29The demarcation between modern, standard, grammatically correct English and the dialect writing in English should be as sharp, or as blurred, in the English translation as the demarcation between modern, standard, grammatically correct Tamil and Dalit-dialect Tamil is in the original. We have chosen to use a derivative of the English spoken by less-than-affluent people in rural areas of the American mid-south to translate the dialect portions of the essays, poetry, and prose included in this volume. The demarcation can be made quite clear, and the fact that this is not the English of “the ladies and gentlemen of this world” will, hopefully, be immediately obvious. This is an English dialect “… pulsating with joyful vigor and liveliness, and shorn of all hypocrisy” which “can echo the intimacy of human relationships with fine sensitivity. Yet it also has the strength to speak forcefully…”

  • 28 Page 60 in this volume.

30One of the obvious problems with this approach is that the people who speak in ways closely related to these two dialects—one group in Tamil and one group in English—live on opposite sides of the world in vastly differing social circumstances, drawing particular sustenance from what they see as their own very localized traditions and speech. They do have in common, though, the fact that many speakers of standard middle-class language consider their dialect to be defective and unschooled, and that this defectiveness is reflected in the persons of those who speak it: that is, both the dialect and the people who speak it are very often considered “low” as opposed to “high,” or even “middle.” Further, they often live in poverty, victims of economic exploitation. That is the crucial message of the Dalit author who uses dialect, and therefore it seems appropriate to our purposes as translators as well. Of course, all of the translation problems that crop up when working with standard, grammatical language crop up here as well. Additionally, though, there are even more words, phrases, and subject matters that function in Tamil dialect quite naturally and with no need for planned consideration, but that are totally unknown in the English dialect. For example, when the women in Alakiya Periyavan’s short story curse the village headman, they shout after him that he has “drunk their menses.”28 This is a novel, previously unknown, way of verbally abusing someone as far as our English dialect speakers are concerned. We believe it works well, though, in terms of how forcefully it lands in the consciousness of an English reader.

  • 29 Page 119 in this volume. He went even further in personal communication (September 5, 2009), when h (...)

31There is also the interesting question of how parallel, really, the effects are of reading this literary usage of dialect speech in our Tamil originals and our English translations. For better or for worse—worse, probably, we fear—in neither case will very many of the actual dialect speakers find themselves reading the text. As Yakkan points out,29 most Dalit people do not read Dalit literature, although there are exceptions. The same is true in the U. S. context: most rural southerners do not read translations from Tamil literature, although there will be exceptions. In both languages, it really is urban middle- and upper-class people who read this literature.

32To sum up, then, our approach to translation has been (1) to recognize its near impossibility, (2) to be as faithful as possible to word-by-word and structure-by-structure connections, but not to sacrifice meaning to this end, (3) to understand, in as fully informed a way as we can, what the authors really mean to be saying to their readers, and to render that deeper meaning into English, and (4) to reflect the authors’ use of language in the way we employ English dialect as a way of rendering Tamil Dalit written dialog.

Dalit Literature: My Own Experiencesby David C. Buck

  • 30 This appellation refers to a number of castes often referred to as ‘Dalit castes’ in today’s world. (...)

33It was in 1965 that I met my first Dalit person. Along with my father, my mother, and my brother, I had just landed in Chennai and the person I am speaking of came to work in our household. I was a naïve teenager, and had heard about this thing called caste in India, so I brashly just asked him his caste. “Adi Dravidar,”30 he replied. We gradually came to develop a relationship with his family, one which has continued, with letters, and with visits to their home every time I come, even though he himself passed away nearly ten years ago. For example, the first people I went to see when I came to India to work on this translation project were his wife, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, in their cēri in Chennai. I have always known they were considered to be low-caste, but I knew very little about what that meant, except that I did not approve of any such characterizations of human beings.

  • 31 This is another one of the castes often referred to as a ‘Dalit caste’ in today’s world.

34Then in the early 1970s my wife and I spent two years living in Madurai. During this period I often rose early and took walks along the varappu, earthen embankments that divide rice fields one from the other. During some of these walks I met a young man about my age who also rose early, but instead of simply going for walks along the embankments, he was working in the fields. We spent many hours together, and he often came to our house to eat with us. Under his tutelage I drove bullocks through wet rice fields in preparation for transplanting, and performed each of the tasks allotted to men during the harvesting, threshing, and winnowing process. His family also has been close to my heart for these decades, and I have always visited them when I have been in Madurai. Sadly, he too passed away many years ago, and it is with his extended family that I continue my friendship. Interestingly, although I thought that at one point my friend had told me that his family’s caste was Paḷḷar,31 I was never quite sure, until the third day of my stay with them in their cēri during September 2009. Discussion of my current project—translating this book—grew into a multi-faceted discussion of Dalit issues with my friend’s relatives. It became clear that, although I had known my Dalit friends for decades, I did not really know them: I had missed the crucial fact of their Dalit-ness. I did not understand oppression. I did not understand exploitation. I did not understand humiliation as you go about living your daily life. Educating myself about that was obviously long overdue.

  • 32 See Buck and Paramasivam (1997), p. 26.

35Through all these 40-odd years of connection with Dalit people, my work as a translator has dealt almost exclusively with Classical Tamil texts and commentaries, all of which are quite non-Dalit in character, and the people I worked with were not Dalit people. Besides my own very real personal connections with upper-caste people, it seems to be a common experience for westerners like myself to be totally drawn into the incredible beauty developed through the intellectual imaginings of Classical Tamil writers. Nakkiranar, one of the seminal authors/commentators in the development of Classical Tamil literary aesthetics, described this situation by saying that what is to be desired is not something that exists “in the real world… [rather, ] it is a conduct established by poets as ‘the nonexistent, the sweet, and the good.’”32 The word-pictures they present of the imagined worlds they create and the characters who populate those worlds are as intoxicatingly beautiful now, to current audiences both in India and in the West, as they have been to generation upon generation of Tamil enthusiasts in the past.

Dalit aesthetics

  • 33 Limbale (2004), p. 116. Although he was writing about Marathi Dalit literature, his remarks fit Tam (...)
  • 34 Bama, p. 76.

36With the advent of Tamil Dalit literature, though, something completely new happened to Tamil literature. That ‘something’ is clearly evident in this volume. Dalit literature, in fact, roundly rejects this Classical idea of creating imaginary worlds and populating them with imaginary people in order to develop a literary work of exquisite beauty. The old way was to write so as to develop “pleasure derived from beauty,”33 but Dalit literature is not about pleasure. It is grounded in particular realities that are decidedly unpleasant, and not at all about imaginary things that are pleasant. It is about pain, insecurity, humiliation, and rebellion. “Writing mostly hurts,” says Bama. Like most Dalit authors, she also goes on to say, “Writing is a responsibility, a struggle that I have to undertake… I have come to feel that, over time, writing is a great support for my life and my living of it.… Rebellion in the cultural sphere is essential for Dalit liberation. I have seen in my own experience how true it is that Dalit painting, Dalit arts, and Dalit writings can play a huge part in that struggle.”34

  • 35 Limbale (2004), p. 116.
  • 36 Itaya Ventan (2002), pp. 6-7.
  • 37 Page 122.

37Where is beauty to be found in this sort of literature? Can the concept of beauty even apply to Dalit literature? Clearly it cannot be measured by the same yardsticks that were developed for Classical Tamil, since the whole project of literary creation has been upended by the writers of Dalit literature. The answer, though, is a resounding yes: there is indeed beauty to be found in Dalit literature. Limbale says that “… the beauty of a work of art is its artistic rendering of reality… Dalit literature rejects spiritualism and abstraction, its aesthetics is materialist rather than spiritualist.”35 Vili. Pa. Itaya Ventan made it even more concrete when he wrote, “Eating dead cattle, segregated cremation grounds, segregated bathing places on river banks, rules prohibiting the wearing of footwear or of jewelry, rules against riding bicycles or motorbikes, prohibitions against coming face-to-face, prohibitions against scooping up handfuls of water to drink, the separate teacup problem, the cruelty of forcing people to eat feces, polka-dotting people in red and black and parading them around on donkeys, burning down huts, working like slaves for the master: it is the crumbling away of all these things and more that is the real ‘Dalit aesthetics.’”36 And Yakkan puts it this way in this volume: “The social order that Dalit art literature puts forward is a rich resource for each man and how he lives his life. It breaks down the dominance of caste that envelops people, and it develops the incredible joy of equality within society.”37 Dalit literature celebrates human freedom, pure and simple. In fact, that is its core, its only goal: whatever gets in the way is what must be rejected. This sentiment is echoed over and over again in the pages that follow.

  • 38 This is the name of a Scheduled Tribe; some people consider them as ‘Dalits’ in today’s world, and (...)

38It was in 2004 as I was wrapping up my work on a Kuṟavañci dance-drama that I began to feel a serious lack in my Tamil study. There is a Tamil word, kuṟai, that indicates a feeling of something missing, an empty hole where there should be something of substance. I came to feel this shortcoming particularly as I was speaking with Kuṟavar people38 who claim descent from the protagonist in the dance-drama: Where in literature are all of the people who do the work of keeping society going, I wondered. In fact, until Dalit literature came roaring into the Tamil literary scene, such people were rarely presented in anything other than a comic, and largely derogatory fashion.

39Besides those questions, my own background in my own country left me feeling this kuṟai even more keenly, as I have been in and out of a number of working-class and civil rights struggles over the years. I realized that I had not faced questions of caste and class in Tamil literature, and that I should have done so. There had even been several tailor-made opportunities for me to delve into these thorny problems—such as when I was translating the Song of Pāmpāṭṭiccittar and ran across clear indications that the poet rejected casteism and other religion-based prejudices, although he also displays a particularly virulent version of sexism.

  • 39 As Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin India put it, “It is not often that we encounter such an interesting (...)

40Finally, I thought, I am ready to try to face such things, and it was at that point, in May of 2006, that I attended the first of the annual Tamil Studies Conferences held at the University of Toronto, in Canada. There I met Kannan M., and bought a copy of this book. I was drawn by the basic conception of the volume—reflections by the authors on their experiences as Dalit writers, accompanied by samples of their own creative work.39

41I contacted Kannan asking if he thought that translating it would be a worthwhile project. He said yes, and we began. I did a rough-draft translation from my home in Kentucky, but it quickly became obvious that Kannan and I needed time to work together face-to-face. Eventually I was able to come to Pondicherry, where Kannan lives and works.

42Even before I came to India I knew that I wanted to meet the authors whose work is collected in this book. After all, I have met and spent considerable time with a few Dalit people before, but not really very many, and never directly facing up to issues of caste, class, and gender. One thing I had learned, though, was that my own understanding of Dalit backgrounds was considerably enhanced by being with Dalit people in their own places. Surely, I thought, it would be the same in terms of understanding Dalit authors in their own context. Those enhanced understandings would enrich our translations.

Meeting the authors

43Once Kannan and I had a good draft translation in hand, then, I set out from Pondicherry to meet the authors. They proved to be, personally, a very diverse lot. When, later on, I commented on their diversity to Bama, she broke into a wide smile. “That’s because we are human beings, each one living and writing on our own,” she said. “Still,” she reminded me, “we have a common agenda—a Dalit agenda.”

44Eventually I did meet all nine of the authors, and I found some other striking similarities among many of them as well. They are educated, and most of them live fairly comfortable, essentially middle-class lives. Their homes are not palatial, but they are pleasant and solidly built of bricks and mortar, some inside the confines of a cēri, others outside the cēri proper. Most of them use motorbikes to get around their cities, and that is how they took me to see places and meet people connected with our project. Their children are beginning with advantages most Dalit children do not have. Many of the nine also had their own advantages as children, which you will read about in the pages that follow: parents were teachers, or had education and benefits through military service, or were landowners in their own right. Very few of these nine authors had parents who were employed in the traditional, humiliating service occupations typically allotted to Dalits, although some did. Some of these authors spent their childhoods in thatched huts whose walls were in danger of collapse during the annual rainy seasons, but none of them lives in that kind of house now. However, my Dalit friends in Chennai do; rebuilding walls and roofs is something they have to tend to every couple of years at least. Further, the substantial majority of Dalit people in India today live in some kind or other of very substandard housing, often in devastating poverty.

45Sometimes, when people rise from poverty and humiliation into middle class comforts, they cut off, or severely curtail, their connection with their roots, in an effort at ‘assimilation.’ But what I saw with my own eyes is that these authors have frequent and close contact with extended family and friends in the cēri, whether or not that is where they themselves live. I was taken to ancestral homes and introduced to grandparents, mothers, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, friends, village officials, and many others who all made it abundantly evident that my host was a functioning part of the community. The authors have varied, even conflicting, approaches to how you deal with your connection to your roots and how to talk about that, but all nine write eloquently about their lives as inseparable parts of their communities. They clearly believe that it is their role to do something about it through their writing.

46Here, then, is a short description of my meetings with these nine Dalit authors:

Punita Pantiyan (essay on pages 103-114)

47First I went to Chennai and met Punita Pantiyan, editor of the monthly magazine Dalit Murasu (Dalit Drum). Here I found a scholar and a journalist. We met three times; the first time was in my hotel room where we shared a tea-time snack. I began to feel that he was conscious of the fact I was eating with him, a self-proclaimed Dalit person; I even wondered if he might at one point have engineered our meeting to make it possible for me to do so. This was some new ground for me: although I had already eaten many, many meals with my Dalit friends, never before had it been in the context of his Dalit-ness and my non-Dalitness meeting over food. Eating together defies caste; it is a bigger issue than I had previously understood. Our conversation included trading descriptions of our respective families, and also topics directly focused on this project, such as what to include in this Introduction. “Write about the lack of Dalit media outlets,” he said. “Media stories can be much more effective agents for social change than the old method of petitioning the authorities.” He has had some success along these lines with stories he has run in Dalit Murasu. “And be sure to include a description of the hierarchical nature of caste,” he stressed. We concluded with a promise to meet again, which we did, a few days later. I had read his essay in which he described some of the many trials and tribulations connected with finding an office for a magazine with the word Dalit in the title, so he took me to his current office and I met all of the people who work to bring the magazine to the light of day. We spent most of our time in a room labeled “Library/Debating Room,” which housed a huge number of books, including large collections on and by Periyar and Dr. Ambedkar. As we conversed it became clear that he has read widely, especially so on topics concerning social structure and caste. He told me quietly, but in no uncertain terms, “You must read Ambedkar.” At a number of points during our meetings I found myself thinking that, just as I was trying to understand him, he seemed to be taking my measure as well. I could not help wondering again in what ways, and on what bases. All told, I found him to be quintessentially a journalist— able to sum people up quickly and, hopefully, accurately, and to report about them in the context of his wide knowledge of social structures. He then arranged for me to meet another one of the authors in this book, Yakkan, who is also the editor of Muṟṟukai, another Dalit-oriented magazine. Before I left, he had called up two of the other Dalit authors I was to meet, and made preliminary arrangements for our meetings. Our last meeting was on the train platform as I was leaving Chennai to travel to Madurai and Nagarcoil a few days later; he brought me some copies of the latest issue of Dalit Murasu, hot off the press that morning, and a video made by a Chennai-based cinematographer that dramatizes a short story by Alakiya Periyavan, one of the two authors I was soon to meet in Ambur.

Yakkan (essay on pages 115-122)

48I met Yakkan at his printing press: he prints both his own magazine and Dalit Murasu, as well as a host of other publications of his own, and outside work as well. He is a very energetic and magnetic personality. He immediately presented me with a stack of books that he has published, and we began a serious discussion of the current state of affairs with regard to Dalit literature. Essentially his views now are very much the same as those he expresses in his essay in this book, focusing on subtle ways the publishing world has of exerting upper-caste control over Dalit literary output. In particular, he objected to Dalit authors accepting literary prizes from organizations whose top brass are high-caste people, and he challenged me to ask other Dalit authors who have accepted such prizes about how they think they can avoid being compromised by upper-caste mentality in the process. His approach seemed to be calculated to appear as a rather prickly critic of current Dalit writing. Then we turned to more immediate family matters. Some years ago, he and his entire family converted to Buddhism, following Dr. Ambedkar’s advice, and they recently had that fact recorded with the authorities in order to straighten out his children’s school registration papers. He showed me the official notification that now his family is registered as being ‘Buddhist Adi Dravidars.’ Buddhism, he says, has no necessary rituals, does not require belief in any god, and is the religion of a ‘free man.’ As part of that religious conversion, he also changed his name. The name his Roman Catholic parents had given him was Yakkobu (Jacob, in English). Since he was leaving Christianity behind, he also decided to leave this clearly Christian name behind. He combined the beginning syllable of his old name, ‘Yā-’ with sounds from the Tamil word ākkupavaṉ, or ‘someone who creates things, ’ to develop his new name, Yakkan. He, of course, creates literature. His parents are still Catholic, though, and his brother is a priest.

Yalan Ati (essay and poems on pages 137-150)

49While still in Chennai, and with yet more help from Punita Pantiyan, I made arrangements to travel to Ambur, a couple of hours’ train ride to the west. Here Yalan Ati met me at the Ambur railway station and took me to his home, where I met his parents, both retired schoolteachers. They live together in a very nice, smallish brick house, in the very same location as the thatched hut in which Yalan Ati was born, and right next door to the house in which Punita Pantiyan grew up. Yalan Ati is a quiet, thoughtful man with a gentle air about him; still, he speaks clearly and directly. His poetry is like that too: forceful and direct. He is a high-school science teacher. I felt an immediate affinity with him, and that feeling only intensified as the day progressed. He had me play tāyam on the street pavement in front of his house with other residents of the cēri —after a promising beginning, my side lost the game! Interestingly, the players ranged in age from about 6 to well over 60. Then he took me through his very large cēri, called B-Casbah, and through upper-caste and Muslim areas as well. Everywhere we went he exchanged waves with people. Easily ten or fifteen current or former students came up to him and exchanged greetings and news about their progress on various projects, or just family news and events.

50Yalan Ati estimates that over half of the people in Ambur are Muslim. On the borderline between a Muslim neighborhood and B-Casbah we passed an open-air beef market run by Muslims. He feels that Muslims in general relate with Dalit people on a more equal footing than do upper-caste Hindus; he speculated that perhaps this could be due to the fact that quite a few Dalit people have converted to Islam, with its egalitarian message. Then he took me to what he described as a typical Ambur biriyani stall, where we ate beef biriyani. He was quite particular that I eat beef as a statement of non-participation in the common upper-caste Hindu objection to eating the flesh of cows, and also as a statement that I do not mind eating what in India is considered quite low-grade meat, the kind that normally only Dalit people and Muslims eat. I had no objection at all; it was very good. He also introduced me to the Nāṭṭāmai, or President of the cēri, in this case of all the thousands of people living in B-Casbah.

51Like Yakkan, Yalan Ati also has adopted a pen-name, which functions very much like a new name for him. He developed this new name from the classical Tamil word for a kind of harp called yāḻ and the word āti, meaning original. His name also evokes thoughts of Yāḻppāṇam (Jaffna), a city in northern Sri Lanka that has been heavily involved in the recent civil war in that nation. One reason he decided to change names is that he now stands in opposition to all the Hindu gods, and his old name was drawn from one of those gods.

Alakiya Periyavan (essay and short story on pages 45-70)

52Yalan Ati then took me out of Ambur, past an Arabic-medium Muslim educational institution that he says draws people from all over the world, to Pernampattu, where we met Alakiya Periyavan. Here all three of us were served a big mid-day meal of beef curry that his wife had prepared, again after first checking with me that I had no objections. Alakiya Periyavan is the particular author that Yakkan had asked me, in his prickly way, to challenge concerning his acceptance of certain literary awards and prizes. As it turned out I did not have to ask: Alakiya Periyavan himself took me to the cabinet in which he displays a very large number of such awards, including the particular ones at issue. He feels that the people who bestow these honors on Dalit writers are learning about Dalit lives and Dalit situations, and that he is happy to be a part of that process. I could only imagine the fireworks that must explode when he and Yakkan meet and have literary debates!

53From Pernampattu the three of us went to Paaluur, the actual village site of Alakiya Periyavan’s short story that is included in this volume. I will not give the plot away at this point, beyond saying that police brutality and caste oppression figure in it. We went through the whole village. It is actually one long looped street, forming a horseshoe shape with both ends emerging at the big highway where there are some stores, and where you can board buses that take you pretty much anywhere you’d want to go in Tamil Nadu. The upper-caste areas connect right with the main highway, lining the two open ends of the horseshoe loop, but the Dalit people live in a cēri at the very farthest point from any connection to the highway. There is a riverbed behind them and a range of big hills behind that. The only way they have of reaching the highway is by going through one or the other of the upper-caste areas. The short story relates the serious disturbance that resulted in many Dalit injuries and jail time, as some of them tried to take matters into their own hands. We met and conversed with people who had been beaten to a pulp and jailed for 44 days over the incident. It was a real eye-opener for me to be right there, as Yalan Ati, Alakiya Periyavan, and I asked questions about how the real-life incident played out. In the end, there was a settlement, and the Dalit people returned to the cēri and the status quo. After all, as Alakiya Periyavan observed, the Dalit farm laborers could not till the land for the village landowners while they were in jail. Alakiya Periyavan noted, as we were leaving, that the issue is now publicly known through his story, and further retaliation was unlikely because it is also well known now that Dalit organizations have involved themselves to some extent. Both he and Yalan Ati commented with great bitterness that some of the higher-caste Hindus who live close to the cēri in this village, “look like Dalits, live in poverty like Dalits, work as landless laborers like Dalits, eat the same food as Dalits, speak the same dialect, and are in almost all ways the same. But they feel themselves to be better people because we are Dalits.”

54Alakiya Periyavan is another writer who uses a pen name. Actually it is quite common for Tamil writers, whether Dalit or non-Dalit, to use pen-names, and he says that he chose his simply because he wanted to. Periyavaṉ means ‘oldest son of a family’ or it can also mean ‘big man, ’ as in somebody of importance in the village. He is the oldest son in his family, so this portion of his new name was an obvious choice since it was already appropriate to him. Then one day, as he was reading a newspaper, he came across the whole name, Aḻakiya Periyavaṉ. Aḻakiya means ‘beautiful’ and although he read it first as someone else’s name, he liked it well enough to adopt it as his own. Furthermore, it has some Hindu religious connotations that he was ready to accept. He also confirmed what Yakkan and others had said before about yet another reason Dalit authors often take pen-names: in times past, but still in living memory, Dalit people were often forbidden to have ‘nice’ names. In many instances, naming was not to be done by Dalit parents at all, but rather by the landowners in whose fields they worked. Such people very often gave Dalit children insulting names like ‘Beggar-woman, ’ or ‘Mashed Nose.’ No wonder, then, that Alakiya Periyavan chooses to call himself ‘Beautiful Great Man.’

55Punita Pantiyan, Yalan Ati, and Alakiya Periyavan all asked me about how they would be perceived at first glance in my own country, the U.S.A. Particularly, they wanted to know which American racial niche they would find themselves occupying. My answer was that at first glance, they would likely be assumed to be African-American, but that people might take a second look and then decide that no, they could be Hispanic; and if they find themselves in an area where there already are a lot of people from India, then they might be identified as Indians. All three were very interested in connections with non-white Americans. Like many Dalit intellectuals, all three have read a significant amount of African-American literature as well as Che Guevarra and other Latin American writers, largely through translations into Tamil.

56As Yalan Ati and I waited for my return train to Chennai at the end of the day, we talked and talked about the day’s events. By this time it was no surprise to me at all that while we stood waiting on the train platform, five more former students came up to him and discussed their plans and their progress. There were two Muslim men, a Christian woman, and one other man and one other woman who did not make their backgrounds evident as we talked. It began to feel as though he must have a very comfortable relationship with just about everybody in Ambur!

N. D. Rajkumar (essay and poems on pages 21-44)

57A few days later I made my way to Nagarcoil, a city near the very southern tip of India, to meet N. D. Rajkumar. He is a poet who draws heavily on the background of his family and of his caste. Actually, his is a ‘tribe’ rather than a caste, and his family has moved to the city from a town in the hills. He describes in considerable detail his checkered educational progress, indeed his checkered youth altogether, in his essay included in this volume, but he told me much more about himself in person even than that essay presents. For example, near the end of his essay he speaks of a magician who married a ghost and had children with her. What he does not say in the essay, but which he told me in person, is that he sees his people as the descendents of that union. That is, his people are part ghosts themselves. “That’s why we’re not afraid of ghosts, goddesses, and devils, the way other people are,” he said. His essay discusses palm-leaf manuscripts that his father had inherited, and from which Rajkumar himself learned some of the family’s magical lore, but he also showed me a palm-leaf manuscript that his father himself had written. It was not in Tamil script, but in a secret, coded language, and contained numerous drawings of magical potency. He lives in a compound named “Guru’s Compound” after his father, which includes the homes of two older brothers, one of whom he says is a master magician/ sorcerer and knows martial arts and medical arts as well, and to whom he introduced me. And he showed me blocks of sandalwood and blood-sandalwood with nail holes clearly evident—ghosts and other evil spirits are captured in blocks like these with the help of the nails; usually, then, such blocks are to be tossed on a funeral pyre while somebody’s corpse is being burned. Anybody’s funeral pyre will do; there is no preference for any particular relationship, caste, gender, or anything else. He also took me to see the house in which his grandparents were living, and the next-door house in which high-caste people lived, which was where the incident occurred that is related in his essay on pages 28-29. And then we had some delicious fish curry.

58In a number of places in his essay on his experiences as a Dalit writer, Rajkumar mentions a nantiṉi, which is a sort of a stringed instrument, but one with which I was unfamiliar. When I asked him about it, he arranged for two elders from his community to come to the house and play the nantiṉi, accompanied by a pair of small cymbals, singing songs to the gods as they did so. This instrument is a prized possession of the community, as described in Rajkumar’s essay. Sadly, however, playing the nantiṉi is in danger of becoming a lost art; even the elder who demonstrated its performance that day no longer remembers what Rajkumar characterized as the most important song.

59Since his family comes from an area near the border with the state of Kerala— in fact it was only in the 1950s that this area was included in Tamil Nadu—they all speak both Tamil and Malayalam, the language of Kerala. Rajkumar himself publishes a significant amount of translated poetry from one language to the other, and the family was watching a Malayalam movie on TV during one of the two very pleasant afternoons I spent with them.

60Rajkumar is his real name: the initial N. comes from Narayani, his mother’s name, and the D. comes from Divakaran, his father’s name. Even before he began publishing his poems, he had been active in ‘people’s theatre’ troupes, making something of a reputation under his own name, so he saw no point in changing it later.

61When I returned to Pondicherry a couple of days later, I made arrangements to meet the four remaining authors included in this volume.

Imaiyam (essay and short story on pages 85-102)

62The first of these was Imaiyam. I was able to travel to his home in Virudhachalam and back in one day’s trip. I arrived considerably earlier than either of us had expected, and he was still at the middle school some 28 kilometers away, where he teaches English. I sat down on the porch of a medical shop and enjoyed watching the activities of the market street while I waited. Pretty soon my cell phone rang, and it was Imaiyam asking where I was. As I stood up to answer we both laughed, because there he was at a tea shop less than six feet away from me.

63He took me to his home and introduced me to his younger son, and we settled in to our discussion. The discussion began with his ascertaining that I did, indeed have the right version of his story and essay in this book, Dalit Literature: My Own Experience. His published story had appeared elsewhere in the meantime, and he was checking to be sure. Then he pronounced, “I am anti-Dalit!” His idea is that Dalit-ness was a passing phase. He went on to explain, “In the 1970s it was Marxism, then it was feminism in the 1980s, then child labor was the theme for the 1990s, and now Dalit-ism. But Dalit-ism has become just another dead body these days.” In Imaiyam’s words, “Literature is what is important, not caste.” I remarked that his characters’ castes are not usually made explicit in his stories, and he agreed. He said that he feels Dalit-ism has become a frame into which people try to fit themselves, or into which they try to fit him. Far from bringing him a sense of freedom and independence, Imaiyam characterized Dalit-ism as an artificial, constrictive, passing fancy, and he says that he refuses to fit in, as he charges “other Dalit writers” with doing. He also charges them with using artificial language when they portray village people’s speech, and said that because of his close work with children in the village school where he teaches, his dialect writing is more genuine than theirs.

64Imaiyam is closely connected with the Dravidian Movement and its politics, and we had a very interesting discussion as we talked at some length about the “rationalist” aspect of this association and its application to his writing. For example, he declared, “I do not believe in God! A man can help another man, like you can help me, or I can help you, but God cannot do that. When the tsunami came in 2004, where was the Holy Mother who was supposed to protect the famous Christian church on the seashore at Velankanni? And where are their gods when Hindu pilgrims fall to their death in bus rides through the Himalaya mountains?” he challenged. There is nothing unusual in his having this orientation, he said, since it comes naturally down the decades of Dravidian Movement policies and power. He did point out, however, that he is the only member of his family who rejects belief in God.

  • 40 He included some other interesting details about his name in his essay in this book.
  • 41 Bama is the other writer who has been widely translated.

65Imaiyam is a pen-name which he chose for himself in 1984 or ’85, he said. It means ‘Himalaya Mountain, ’ but he said he does not recall any particular reason for switching to that name.40 He is one of only two writers in this volume who have seen their works translated into other languages on a large scale.41

66A while later his wife and their older son returned home. She is also a school teacher, so we shared experiences about all of us coming from ‘teacher families, ’ since my wife, my parents, and even some of my grandparents and uncles have been teachers also. I could not help noticing that both of their sons marched smartly around the house at their father’s bidding.

Vili. Pa. Itaya Ventan (essay and short story on pages 123-136)

67A couple of days later I met Vili. Pa. Itaya Ventan at his home in Vilippuram. He works as a Revenue Officer in the municipal government of nearby Nellikkuppam. Of all Tamil Dalit writers, he is the most prolific. He gave a me a list of over 120 short stories and a short novel, as well as a great many literary prizes and recognitions. His initiation into literary production came through an arts group that grew up in his area, founded and shepherded along by Kalyani, an activist connected with the Maoist communist party, a ‘Naxalite’ group that has in the past advocated armed revolution. In this way his literary beginnings matched those of N. D. Rajkumar, who also began writing through the support and encouragement of local people’s theatre groups connected to the Maoists. Both men also have felt disillusioned with the Naxalite movement, citing its lack of ability to tackle the thorny problems of caste. Their experience with the cultural wing of this movement included much that was good and basic to their literary development, but in the end they left the party when it failed to stand up against caste-based oppression of Dalits in some specific instances. Both men also experienced some caste-based discrimination within the movement itself. The basis remains, however, through the Maoist appeal to end oppression based on economic class.

68Itaya Ventan took me to the site where his short story included in this volume is set. He showed me the erstwhile pond—now a muddy plot overgrown with weeds—and introduced me to his family, who live right there. This is where he himself was born and raised. In fact, one of his aunts is the person on whom the protagonist in the short story is based, and I met her. She is now retired from her work for the municipality, which consisted of cleaning up the dirt and mess left behind by other people all through the village. This includes cleaning up feces after people have defecated along the sides of road, or wherever else they could find, since indoor plumbing has been a rare luxury throughout much of India until recently. Itaya Ventan emphasized that such “scavenger” jobs should be eliminated entirely with the introduction of good plumbing, and that it was the responsibility of the government to provide new, better jobs for people like his aunts who would be thrown out of work as a result. We had tea in the house where he was born, along with members of his extended family. As we were getting ready to leave, he indicated the weathered bamboo framework of a hut, long since abandoned, as the ‘Shadow House’ in his story in this volume.

69Itaya Ventan also chose a pen name. Literally it means ‘King of the Heart, ’ to which he has prefixed two things. One is ‘Viḻi’ referring to the town of Vilippuram where he lives, but which also serves as the first two syllables of the Tamil word for ‘waking people up, ’ or ‘making people see things.’ The ‘Pā’ in his name is the initial of his father’s name. His twelfth-grade daughter explained in English, “We don’t have surnames here as you do, like ‘Buck.’ Instead, we have our own names, to which we prefix the initials of our mother’s and father’s names.”

70Their caste name also has undergone a change. They have been called Cakkiliyar, and still are in many places, but often these days their caste is referred to as ‘Aruntatiyar, ’ after a goddess who found her final resting place as a star in one of the heavenly constellations. Itaya Ventan clearly indicated that to him there is no difference between these two names for the caste, their use being simply a matter of local convention.

71After visiting his home, and the small cēri of which it is a part, he took me through a much larger cēri a couple of kilometers down the road. When you combine the contiguous neighborhoods of all three major Dalit castes who live in this larger cēri, he estimated that some 15,000 people probably live here. Based on the number of people we stopped and spoke with during this short tour, it is clear that he is a well known figure, and a part of life here.

Bama (essay and short story on pages 71-84)

72A few days later I was on my way to Uthiramerur to visit Bama, whom I had met at the Tamil Studies Conference in Toronto, Canada, two years before. She delivered the keynote address at that conference. She, in fact, was one of the first Tamil Dalit writers who really put Tamil Dalit autobiographical writing in the public eye.

73It quickly became apparent that there was more to this trip than the visit itself. When I got off the bus at the Maduranthakam roadside bus-stop, it hit me that, although I had spent much of my time outside of major metropolitan areas, I had nonetheless been visiting people in large towns; when I would arrive in town it would be at the central bus-stand. My transfer bus this time, however, was leaving from a location marked on the side of the road only by the collection of people waiting for a bus. It took a bit longer, too, for a bus to arrive that would take me to Uthiramerur, where Bama lives. Still, I don’t think it was more than about 20 minutes before a bus arrived that was heading in that direction. I got on and bought my ticket as the bus was turning off the two-lane main road onto a one-lane road that quickly began winding in and out among fields, fruit and coconut groves, and very small hamlets of very small, thatched huts. Every square inch of land seemed to be being intensively farmed, and there was no trash along the road. It was all green and lush, but most of the people and what I saw of their living conditions looked extremely, perhaps desperately, poor. For all the time I have spent in India and all the things I have done there, I was painfully aware of my lack of direct, personal exposure to village life. We stopped for about 10 minutes in one village along the way, where it looked like supplies were being trucked and bused in, to supplement the subsistence foods. There didn’t look to be all that much of it, and I wondered how it was going to be distributed and consumed.

74Then the bus headed on to Uthiramerur, and as we got closer to it, I realized that this also was a town—perhaps smaller than most of the ones I had been visiting recently but in that same league. It also has a central bus stand, which is where I got off. Bama had told me that her house was right behind the Post Office, and that I should ask for the Post Office in order to find her, so I did. I could not remember if I was supposed to call her when I got to the bus stand or not. Anyway, I asked directions at various places along the way to the Post Office, and when I was pretty sure I was getting close, one young man pointed out that the Post Office was closed—that it was the Ramadan holiday. I replied that I knew that, and that really I wanted to go meet someone who lived close to it. He asked who. I said, “Bama,” and his face lit up and he took me there. As we came close to a very nice, new-ish small house on a nice plot of ground near the edge of town, I saw that it had BAMA inscribed on the front gate-post. The man who had brought me there smiled and left before Bama herself came out of the house to greet me. As it turned out, she had been expecting me to call when I arrived at the bus stand, and so I appeared a bit suddenly for her. She invited me in and served us some big mugs of delicious tea.

75We talked for a while about her job as an elementary school teacher, and about our previous meeting in Toronto, then we got down to the business at hand, discussing places in her essay, and in her short story, where I had specific questions. Then she read the whole story through—she had already read the whole essay through—and said she was quite pleased with the way it had come out. Many writers use dialect when they present actual dialogs that would occur in that dialect, but keep the main narrative portion of their writing in standard, grammatically correct, Tamil. Bama, however, uses dialect throughout, which gives an effect something like a written version of sitting and listening to a woman relate the story at hand. We discussed the ways dialect enters into the translation. For example, Bama’s first reaction was, “There are a lot of mistakes in this English!” However, the moment she saw it as a “slangy-Tamil-dialect-to-slangy-English-dialect” rendition, she gave it her approval.

76Because I brought it up, she also spoke at some length about the concept of bonded labor, and about child labor, which she sees as growing out of unbearable poverty, but also growing out of the general notion that Dalit people are subservient to caste Hindus, and that they exist to be ordered around. The most common form of bonded labor occurs when a desperately poor family accepts some money as advance payment for work they promise to perform, but then finds that the interest builds up so fast that they can never hope to pay the loan off. It is not uncommon for people to inherit such binding debt from their parents, and pass it along to their children. All the while the poor family is laboring for the wealthier family, trying in vain to pay off the loan. This situation can occur for non-Dalit families as well as for Dalit families.

  • 42 See Gros (2009), pp. 409-412, for Kannan and Gros’ fuller account of women Dalit writers in Tamil.

77I asked her about the imbalance in the gender of the writers in this volume: there are eight men and one woman. Her answer was, “Yes, it’s true. But what can we do?” It is true that there are many more Dalit men writers than women writers, but that gender imbalance is true among mathematicians, business executives, government officials, and a host of other activities as well. The lack of educational opportunities often hits women harder than men, and it often hits Dalit people harder than non-Dalits. Even when such opportunities are there for the taking, it can often be impossible to organize family and work situations so that really good educational advancement is possible for Dalits, and for Dalit women in particular. Nonetheless, Bama was able to find ways to struggle through these roadblocks, and many people count her first novel, Karukku, as the real ground-breaker in terms of establishing true Dalit literature in the Tamil literary scene.42

78She also pointed out that she, Yakkan, and Father Mark, S.J., all come from the same village, Va. Pudupatti, in Virudhunagar District. Mark was the person who encouraged Bama to begin her writing in the first place, and Bama said, “Although he is not a Dalit himself, he works for Dalits.” Punita Pantiyan had told me earlier about Mark, portraying Mark’s first novel as “the first Dalit novel, even though he is not a Dalit himself.”

79Like most of the other Dalit authors presented in this volume, Bama has chosen a pen-name. Here is her own account:

  • 43 Note: Tamil pronunciation of an initial ‘F, ’ as in Fathima, very often sounds like an initial ‘B’ (...)

Oh, I gave myself that name! You see my real and full name is Faustina Mary Fathima Rani. Now Faustina is a Latin name. Mary is overtly Christian, Fathima could also be a Muslim name, and Rani means ‘queen’ which doesn’t appeal to me.
I wanted a different sort of name. So I took the first and last syllables of Fathima and made up this name, Bama.43

Sudhakar Ghatak (essay and short story on pages 1-20)

80As luck would have it, the last author I interviewed was also the very first one I had interviewed: I had actually spoken with him for a short while as I was attending a symposium a year and a half earlier. Sudhakar Ghatak comes from a Dalit family with a certain amount of wealth. His father’s father owns some land in their village, and enjoys a position of some importance: he is educated, he speaks well, and people respect him. Even if they are not happy about something he might have done, people still say, “Go ask him,” to get good information on a whole host of topics. He and his wife work their own land, except for specific jobs they hire out. One of the things the family has done with that position was to move Sudhakar’s branch of the family to the city of Neyveli, where the humiliations and deprivations associated with caste status were much less pronounced. It worked, they said: Sudhakar’s mother, his father, and he all agreed that they faced very little caste-ism in the city. Sudhakar has three sisters, but no brothers, and as a result, his childhood playtime was spent in reading, and in listening to stories told by his parents and grandparents. He took that background and immersed himself in reading and writing, to the extent that he hoped to pursue a degree in literature. But his mother was more practical; she shepherded him into studying engineering. Now he has a good job as an assistant engineer in the Public Works Department, implementing projects connected with groundwater conservation and use. People know his caste, because it is part of the public record in his government employment position, and they must come to him from time to time for certain required signatures. He still pursues his literary activities when he can find time.

81He refuses to publish anywhere except in very small, dedicated literary journals—never in popular magazines—so that when he received his first major literary prize, people all over Tamil Nadu began asking, “Who is this Sudhakar Ghatak?” By the time of our interview, he had published sixteen short stories, and was completing a seventeenth.

82It was in 1994, after he had published his first six short stories, that he added the name “Ghatak” to his own name, Sudhakar. He decided to make the name change because he felt that his name appeared too ‘plain’ as it was, and that he needed some kind of marker for who he was. The additional name he chose was taken from the Bengali film director Ritwik Ghatak, who was the Director of the Pune Film Institute and trained many talented film directors there. Two of Ghatak’s principles particularly struck Sudhakar: ‘The camera cannot lie, ’ and ‘Art is not for commercial purposes.’ “I really liked that,” he said, “and I still do.” He feels that his short stories, like Ghatak’s films, must not lie, and that his publishing must be free of all commercial impulses. Like Ghatak, Sudhakar maintains an uncompromising attitude in showing society the way it really is.

83Sudhakar Ghatak appreciates the approach of the leftist social activists, and thinks of them as initiators into true social criticism, but like many Dalit writers, he is left disappointed in their lack of attention to caste-based prejudice.

Tamil Dalit Literature: The Future—by Kannan M.

  • 44 François Gros, “Why Dalit literature on the premises of the French Institute?”, in Kannan M. (2004) (...)
  • 45 Teltumbde (2010), pp. 44-46.

“… one should not feel satisfied simply by suggesting that Dalit writings are defined and characterized as the echoes and the reflection of the culture of Dalit communities...
Ultimately, and in an ideal world, each Dalit writer is expected to stand as a unique creator and as a witness for globality...
This could be the greatest achievement for Dalit writers: instead of just identifying themselves with the present aspirations of their community they are to find within themselves their own truth and their own voice, which transcend the barriers of society and language to reveal to any receptive reader the unique message of hope they carry for the future”44
“On 20 July, manual scavengers of Savanur, a small town in Haveri district of North Karnataka, protested against their conditions of living. In a country with a roiling, often violent history of dissent and protest, the fact that they protested is perhaps not as striking as the way in which they protested: They gathered before the municipal council office and in public, smeared themselves with human excreta...”45

Dalit literature arrived quite late in Tamil (in the 1990s), decidedly after its rise and fall in Maharashtra. In the beginning, there was some hope, as we saw a flowering of literature and politics together, promising new dimensions in the literary and political culture of Tamil Nadu. But that hope was short lived. Dalit politics separated itself from literature and went its own way, to lose itself in elections and electoral alliances. For its part, Dalit literature managed to get itself consecrated by popular magazines and culture. After some significant initial opposition it went on to become a profitable brand name for large publishers; it now has a niche for itself in the market. The publishing boom in Tamil which started at the end of 1990s and still continues today is, however, not completely and truly explained, not withstanding some often cited reasons such as the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, a new consumer culture for books, and new upper middle class readers. Government owned public libraries remain the major buyer of books, and writers still struggle to find publishers. Commercialization and promotion seem to be the order of the day.

  • 46 Bharathi (2009).
  • 47 Sivakami’s Camūka Camattuva Paṭai (Army for Social Equality).

84Dalit literature is now being taught in the Tamil and English departments of universities. Numerous run-of-the-mill doctoral theses on Dalit literature are coming out of these departments. Works from Tamil Dalit literature are being translated into English and published by leading Indian publishers. At present more than thirty Dalit writers are at work in Tamil.46 Some Dalit writers have gone on to become professional politicians (one has launched a political party of her own).47 Meanwhile, Dalits continue to be discriminated against, raped, tortured, made to eat shit and killed.

85Now, nearly twenty years after the arrival of Dalit literature in Tamil, if we ask whether Tamil Dalit literature lived up to the hope expressed in the Tamil edition of this book in 2004 (see the quote above), an honest answer will be no, it has not. Reasons are simple and universal in a sense, as outlined above: the Tamil cultural world was able to swallow this arrival without discomfort and file it within its wide margins. We see a Dalit literature in Tamil that remains in its infantile phase, full of anger and slogans, sometimes just realism, with cinematic aesthetics. Dalit writers, dictated to by the market, remain full of themselves as they relentlessly pursue fame and glory in their magazines and blogs. With very few exceptions, they display a total disregard for the commitment and passion, or for the language and style, that really trace the challenges faced by Dalit subjectivity in the present social context.

86Dalit ‘intellectuals’ are busily re-interpreting and re-inventing their past and history as if the present were not enough; their fight stops with an attack on windmills. We are still waiting for a Paul Celan, a Raul Zurita, or a Patrick Chamoiseau to emerge out of Tamil Dalit literature.

87The personal essays and creative offerings translated here represented hope at a certain stage in Tamil Dalit literature when they were originally compiled in 2004. That hope now is

  • 48 Kundera (2010), p. 107.

88“… the form that projects a lamented past into a distant future, that transforms the melancholy evocation of a thing that no longer exists into the heartbreaking sorrow of a promise that can never be realized”.48


1 Most of this Introduction was written with non-Tamil readers in mind. While we recognize the need to supply this kind of backgrounding to such readers, we also apologize for stating things that most Indian readers—and certainly most Tamil people—already know, and we apologize also to the nine authors translated here for inserting such a big piece into the book.

2 Pages 5-6.

3 Page 76.

4 Most of the authors collected here refer throughout the work to the Tamil-speaking areas of Sri Lanka as Eelam, a name publicized widely by the Tamil Tigers, or “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” the LTTE.

5 Kannan & Gros (2002) “Tamil Dalits in Search of a Literature” in South Asia Research. (22: 1), in Gros (2009), p. 379 footnote 11.

6 See, for example, Yalan Ati’s poem on pages 148-149 of this volume. There are also several books that address this topic. See, for example, Aston (2001) and Rajshekhar (1995). See also Limbale (2004), pp. 82-102.

7 Ravikumar in his Introduction to Bama (2008), p. xxvi.

8 Jennifer is a Dalit writer featured in the July, 2010, issue of Dalit Murasu. The quote is on page 31.

9 The bulk of this section draws heavily on Kannan M. & Gros F. (2002) in Gros F. (2009), pp. 369-417.

10 See, for example, Buck (2005), pp. 18, 44-52, and Tamizhaveel (2003).

11 Gros (2009), p. 374.

12 In addition to Gros (2009), see also Ilankovan (2008) including the Introduction by Yakkan, for information on some of these pioneers.

13 This is one of the castes often referred to as a ‘Dalit caste’ in today’s world. Incidentally, the English word pariah comes directly from this caste’s name, and its connotations are very a propos, considering the traditional treatment meted out to Paṟaiyars in Tamil Nadu.

14 Laundryman. This is another of the castes often referred to as a ‘Dalit caste’ in today’s world.

15 Page 35.

16 Personal communication to David Buck on September 12, 2009.

17 There are many resources for further study about Dr. Ambedkar. For a good short introduction, see, particularly his life story,

18 There are various resources for further study about Periyar. For a good introduction, see

19 Personal communication to David Buck on September 4, 2009.

20 See, for example, Bama (2000) or her essay in this volume.

21 It was her cummāṭu that Rengaa was shaking out when the incident with Burma Chetty occurred that is related on pp. 17-18 in Sudhakar Ghatak’s story.

22 From Sudhakar Ghatak’s short story A Lump of Clay, included in this volume.

23 There is no single word in Tamil that translates as “scavenger” in English usage in India. Rather, there are several ways of describing the situation of such a person, almost always employing a euphemism: the person is said to “sweep”, or to “clean.” See, for example, Rengasamy (2007), p. 822.

24 For another look at cultural difficulties in translation, see Buck (2003).

25 See page xxii (below) for more on the idea of a kuṟai.

26 Page 9 in this volume.

27 Page 75 in this volume.

28 Page 60 in this volume.

29 Page 119 in this volume. He went even further in personal communication (September 5, 2009), when he said that Dalit people do not even need to read Dalit literature, since they already know what it’s about. Dalit literature, he maintains, must be aimed at an urban middle-class readership, since they have the power to change things, but do not understand the basic situation.

30 This appellation refers to a number of castes often referred to as ‘Dalit castes’ in today’s world. He later told me that his caste was specifically Paṟaiyar.

31 This is another one of the castes often referred to as a ‘Dalit caste’ in today’s world.

32 See Buck and Paramasivam (1997), p. 26.

33 Limbale (2004), p. 116. Although he was writing about Marathi Dalit literature, his remarks fit Tamil Dalit literature perfectly as well.

34 Bama, p. 76.

35 Limbale (2004), p. 116.

36 Itaya Ventan (2002), pp. 6-7.

37 Page 122.

38 This is the name of a Scheduled Tribe; some people consider them as ‘Dalits’ in today’s world, and others do not include them. Their social status is extremely low, and their life circumstances would certainly qualify them as Dalits, should they choose to use that term themselves.

39 As Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin India put it, “It is not often that we encounter such an interesting osmosis between real life and creativity.”

40 He included some other interesting details about his name in his essay in this book.

41 Bama is the other writer who has been widely translated.

42 See Gros (2009), pp. 409-412, for Kannan and Gros’ fuller account of women Dalit writers in Tamil.

43 Note: Tamil pronunciation of an initial ‘F, ’ as in Fathima, very often sounds like an initial ‘B’ instead. This excerpt is her answer to a question about her name posed by the interviewer R. Azhagarasan. It is published in Bama (2008), pp. 160-161.

44 François Gros, “Why Dalit literature on the premises of the French Institute?”, in Kannan M. (2004), pp. 14-15.

45 Teltumbde (2010), pp. 44-46.

46 Bharathi (2009).

47 Sivakami’s Camūka Camattuva Paṭai (Army for Social Equality).

48 Kundera (2010), p. 107.


(1948) is a translator of Tamil works into English. He works as a community college mathematics professor in Kentucky, USA.

(1968) is a Researcher in Contemporary Tamil in the Department of Indology, French Institute of Pondicherry.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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