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Tamil dalit literature

Sudhakar Ghatak

Dalit Literature: My Own Experience

Sudhakar Ghatak

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1Historically, in Indian society, Dalit people have been mangled. This has been going on for a very long time. They have been stripped of life’s basic rights in every way. And now, in the crap-shoot that characterizes so many aspects of today’s society, Dalit people’s feelings have been grafted onto the mainstream through literature, as Dalits have begun writing in Tamil, their regional language. But there is still plenty of room to doubt that modern Tamil literati ever really give their full and serious consideration to Dalit creations. It was when a few particularly sharp critics actually did pay serious attention but characterized Tamil Dalit creations as attempts that I began to write short stories.

2Short-story writing is a real challenge for me. When I started in as a writer, it was my belief that literary creations should grow from the feelings of a free mind. I still think so. But when I write in response to this generalized creative urge welling up inside me, I am sometimes rejected by critics, and even by my fellow writers, who say that what I myself, as a Dalit, create is not actually Dalit literature. I guess you would just have to say that I have penned my short stories as a kind of creative endeavor pertaining to my own (Dalit) life experiences and perspectives. Through my creations I disseminate my feelings about society, and my anger at society, in keeping with my own understandings of the boundaries of creativity, and how I can bend, and even break through, those boundaries.

  • 1 Joseph Brodsky in his poem, 1 January, 1965, in Brodsky (1973), p. 86.

3I simply cannot follow the concepts and the theories that literary critics have set out in Tamil for Dalit literature. I put this serious question to you: can an author have any success with a set of rules for a particular type of literature? It seems to me that these tangles are particularly great for Dalit writers. The challenge for Dalit literature is to untie these tangled knots. “Your life is a sheer gift,”1 one western poet wrote. But when you think about that saying in the context of Indian society, are Dalit lives sheer gifts? It is not possible to fit Dalit lives into any pattern of literature, since, basically, literary discussions are usually fictitious imaginings. But if that is the case, can you create Dalit literature in such an idiosyncratic state of mind? You have to realize that what is labeled Dalit literature in Tamil has all this confusion, as it raises questions like these and confronts them. Even when you take the published works of leftist writers, you realize that the inner calculations of Dalit literature are something totally different.

4My introduction to writing came only through small modern literary journals, and thus far I have written only twelve short stories. When I began writing, the modern Tamil literary world just seemed like a gambling den to me. I was told by everyone to follow all the pioneers who have written about everything, and I was unsure of myself. I didn’t know what to write. I still have that uncertainty. Before I came to write on my own, I had been reading all the people who are considered great Tamil writers: people like Puthumaipiththan (1906-48), Mauni (1907-85), Tharumu Sivaramu (1939-97), G. Nagarajan (1929-81), Vannanilavan, Vannadasan, Poomani, R. Sudamani (1931-2010), Rajendra Cholan (also known as Asva Ghosh), and Sundara Ramasami (1931-2006). Reading small literary journals was like an addiction, and I got the structures and the diction for the stories I write solely through reading them. But I followed the principle that the kernel of my writing, and the felicity of my language, and things like that, should come from the ways of life that I was actually a part of, and have witnessed for myself. To tell you the truth, reading seemed more important than writing. In the beginning, the short stories I wrote were filled with the miserable social conditions that are so widespread. I catalogued things that I knew about, or things that I had seen from afar, but always things that really happened, and real people themselves. Nonetheless, whether they were central to what I was writing or just peripheral, I painted Dalit people’s life circumstances only indirectly, as though I were painting soft line-drawings. I was unable to paint the full breadth of the life that I knew, and I felt guilty about that. It was a mental crisis for me. My creations bored into my mental state, took hold of me, and shook me.

5Dalit literature does not follow, and does not fit within, any of the already established kinds of literature, ones like spiritually seeing an inner light, or using a subjective perspective, or modernism, or post-modernism, or complex realism, or abstractionism. On the contrary, Dalit literature spins out of control with its harsh realistic settings, fully conscious of society. It is worth noticing that Dalit literature began to sprout in Tamil during a time when there was a loud protest throughout modern Tamil literature claiming that painting the naked truth was simply unacceptable. Earlier, when Poomani’s novel Then (Piṟaku) and Daniel’s various novels were published, they were not singled out as Dalit literature. Poomani was reviewed as an indirect leftist, and as a writer who had an excellent literary outlook. Daniel’s works were simply dismissed as relying too heavily on Marxist philosophy. Today’s Dalit literature continues and extends these earlier creations, and has made people pay attention to things that had previously been dismissed.

6An elder author from southern Tamil Nadu once declared that it is not literature if all you write about is tears. However, today’s younger generation believes, and with clarity, that this declaration should be pushed aside with the back of your hand, and their orientation is now pretty well established in today’s literary field. Today Dalit literature is indeed taking up the challenge of how to make a tale of tears into real art, but Dalit literature does not leave out the tears.

7My individual experiences are not fully there in my writing. In fact, I do not believe the idea that the only person who can create literature is someone with full experiences. I take my experiences and dissect them. I look at them from several angles, all the while drawing on the circumstances of my life. Through using this mental dissection, and filtering it all through my life itself, I can compare some of their core meanings. Then when I do write, clear laser rays of truth coming rapping on my creative urge, and scatter it. Really the truth is that I am somewhat the wrong person to write an essay with the title this one has, My Own Experience, since I do not fit squarely into that framework. The reason is that I just do not understand all the implications that have been given to the word experience. And besides, I know I have heard voices that say a man with no experiences cannot be a writer.

8What you could call my experience begins from a state of feeling that I do not exist, and that damages me and renders me rootless. This feeling comes up in relation to people close to me, and to things that happened that were painful, to human loves and hates. When I see, or when I hear, their happy moments, and when they come before me as on a stage, my feelings are all mixed up with theirs. Experience then brings me yet another point of view. When I think about my collection of childhood memories, when I chew on them, they appear before me as great losses in life, as tales of tears, and they upset me. Living completely immersed in the Dalit life like my mother, or like my father, did not happen to me. They stubbornly raised me so that I would not live that life. I was born and raised, and went to school, in the industrial town of Neyveli. I spent my vacations in their two home villages. It is the memories of what I saw in those days, and what I heard back then of my relatives’ situations in life, from which I make reproductions, and which I have written up as short stories. It was while I was writing these stories that I realized how true it is for a man who creates literature, that when he shakes off his fantasies, he had better shake off God as well.

9The structure of Dalit literature packs into itself stories passed along orally by these people, their stories about the gods that seem like folk tales, their confusing and brutal politics, their eternal hatred of the landowning castes, their state of having no will to resist, their hatred of the ethical structures that are crammed down our throats by way of high-born people, their violations of propriety, their irredeemable economic decline, and things like that. It arises in the soil, in the land, in speech, holding within itself many strangely different facets, and it erupts as a scream piercing the wind. These things were all bundled up inside the people I saw. I try to add these things together, and subtract some, as I paint them through their own words.

10I write my stories while I collect my social consciousness, with a desire to paint the dark side of human life, with a true and open heart, and these states of mind fill me full. There is both a springtime and an autumn in this. They are both the same to me. I write about the present, and about things that came about in the past. I don’t think I should write specifically “this,” first, and then later that I should have written “that” first. Dalit literature does not have a “first/last” categorization.

11For myself, I believe that these are the things that should serve as Dalit literature’s central links: social awareness, contemporary politics, portrayals of the straight and naked truth, a vision that cuts clean through the text, a host of oppositional questions in terse language, and a belief in the growth of decent cultural mores.

12It does not work for me to write about issues that are completely disconnected from me. I am not a clever guy who touches on unrelated topics and is beholden to the latest fashions and thrills. Through my stories I struggle to bring into the present the lives of people who have stamped an impression on the memory-scales of my brain. Bringing this out in the open carries with it nothing but grief. Then this grief is re-duplicated as I write, and I experience yet more grief. A succession of griefs is like a chain, and what’s the secret in that? But there is a thin, deceptive difference here. Along with my grief I hurl out my rage, since I, in my position, am able to reach out to many places in society. I do not intend to raise my fist, but I want there to be an awareness of the existence of the fist. Still, on a few occasions I am willing to hold an immense amount of disgusting spit in my mouth.

13Some of the characters in stories I have written have already died. Countless memories make me tremble.


14“Tomakkaiyan done died. All his life he went and saw to irrigating Kari Padaiyaatchi’s fields, but now look at his reward: when he passed, there was not one single penny in his house to place on his forehead.” I used to sit and play with Tomakkaiyan’s rice-pounding mortar and pestle.


15A long dirt street, covered with goat droppings and cow manure all mixed up together. As a kid I would be walking along that street to my grandfather’s house.

16“You Mannaarkudiyaan’s little boy? What took ya so long? Hey girls, look-a him here, he done ran off and left his wife and here he comes, all alone. Who cares, anyway, him waggin’ his chilli-pepper penis and comin’ along here.” Aunt Pavurucchi said all this, then she went and hanged herself. The flavor of the white-rice murukku that she’d give me with so much love, and of the adirasam she fried up with flour and water are still carefully dammed up on my tongue. That will never change.


17“What’s Tavamani workin’ that grinder-stone so hard for?”
“She’s a-getting’ them chillies all ground up and ready.”
“If she’s gettin’ her chillies ready now, that means we’re gonna have us some snail curry today. Can we have some?”
Tavamani would not eat any of it that day, but she’d give snail curry to everybody up and down the street. And then, my older sister was better than I was at collecting the snail shells piled up behind the mud wall.


18“That your grandson over there? Looks like he’s havin’ to pee way too much.”
“Yeah, I don’t know why, though.”
“Okay, sister Valaimeethi, take him to our Seemakkottai. She’ll fix him up some yogurt with cactus leaves and feed it to him. It’ll stop.”
When Grandma took me to Seemakkottai, she said, “Come on, boy, you dear little brat, hiding inside your Mamaw’s sari, so what if you need some cactus medicine? Nothin’ to it.”


19Aloe-cactus, aloes!
Your big sister and this guy goes
They slept together
And I saw them
Give me a piece, too, man!
“You are a naïve little kid,” Grandma worried.


20And just look how Kaarkudalaal adores her grandchildren, even when she’s mad at her daughter-in-law:

21Jingling on the ankles, jingling on the toes
Bells on the waistband
Struggle a lot, get lots of money
Baby chicks and coconut shells
Hey boy, you better salute

22Kids would gather all around Kaarkudalaal to watch the fun when she sang.


23He says he’s a-leavin’ today.
He says his school starts tomorrow.
Why don’t you go and ask Aunt Alice—she’s been listening to it all? That teacher still ain’t nowhere to be seen.
Auntie says, “I done cooked you up some rice. Go on, eat up! And then you can
sleep with my daughter, too, my little man from Neyveli!”


24He got off a bus at the Seenganuur road-signs, crossed the Manni River bridge, and look—there he comes, boy, the Deesingu Drummer! Too bad, though—he has to sing for his supper!

25And the Deesingu Raja drummer would sing out in a majestic voice,
I am
The Deesingu Drummer!
Jigu tinditthaa jigu tinditthaa!
This song has solidified on my eardrums.


26You know the last time you heard him sing, boys? That Pandaram’s no longer with us. He died. You just had to hear what he sang for the Panguni Utthiram festival:

  • 2 A kāvaṭi is a highly ornamented semi-circular wooden strip connected at both ends to a wooden rod w (...)

27Eight hundred thousand spectacular lives—
Hear! Hear!
A divine kaavadi2 has arrived—
Look! Look!
The river sand turns into sugar—
Hear! Hear!
Gorgeous kaavadis have arrived—
Look! Look!

28Now that there is no Pandaram any more, there is no song either.


29Sukkuru comes, but leaves in a hurry,
and who cries, why it’s Rayar’s wife!
Why does she cry? She’s thinking about her fate, that’s
why she cries.
Chop down a mahua sapling and
use it to make a cradle that smells of spilt milk.
The uncle who fixed up the cradle, well,
he goes away hungry.

30Uncle Sukkuru, with his handle-bar mustache, was indeed hearing that song as he came back home crying, having seen what his little sister’s life was like.


31Impossible to forget, these people’s lives can stand the test of time: those are the lives that I keep writing about.

32A Dalit writer has to have firm convictions, and critique society through his creations, and he must not sell out to the powers that be. Dalit literature is not for the ladies and the gentlemen of this world. In the Tamil context, the moment a writer thinks he is free to be himself, he is arrested. And when he raises his voice against his arrest, he is strangled. When he expresses his anger, his eyes are plucked out. And when he runs away from this situation, his legs are broken. They haul out, from some old forgotten files, a place where he said he has a determined heart, and then they stab him right in his heart. But there is not really much use in doing that, since it’s so easy to stab a crippled heart. Amongst these atrocities and struggles, the voice of the descendents of the drawn-and-quartered echoes everywhere in vengeance. The Dalit writer who travels down the paths carved out by these echoes is undertaking a journey on which he expects to face challenges.

33I feel that I must erase my own footprints, while ahead of me lie all these impressions.


1 Joseph Brodsky in his poem, 1 January, 1965, in Brodsky (1973), p. 86.

2 A kāvaṭi is a highly ornamented semi-circular wooden strip connected at both ends to a wooden rod which devotees use as they carry it to a temple on their shoulders. Kāvaṭis usually have brightly colored offerings tied onto them; they can often be quite heavy.


(1967) is a Dalit short-story writer from Neyveli in Cuddalore District. He received the ‘Katha’ prize for his short story ‘Varaivu’ [The Sketch] in 1997-98. He is a civil engineer by training and works for the state Public Works Department.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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