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Tamil dalit literature

N. D. Rajkumar

Dalit Literature: My Own Experience

Rajkumar N. D.

Texte intégral

1One day I was walking to school with my slate and my slate-pencil clutched in my hands. I was in the first grade. A car carrying a bridegroom, all decked out on the way to his wedding, plowed into me and threw me into a hellish sewage ditch by the side of the road. I had no bruises or scrapes, but the back of my head felt like it had been hit hard; it was spinning. Some people standing on the side of the road helped me get back up. They put the broken bits of my smashed slate with my Tamil ABCs back into my torn khaki school bag and took me all the way to the schoolyard. There they left me.

2I still don’t know how this news managed to fly over and into my household, but my grandmother came looking for me, beating her fists on her calloused old breast. She was crying. Actually, even more than my own mother, she was the person who took care of me most of the time. Over and over again that black giantess tore at her jet black hair and tied and re-tied it into a bun. She sobbed, “What son-of-a-whore shoved you into that ditch?” I finally told my grandmother to leave me alone, and I walked into the schoolroom. That day the whole room was filled with a kind of tension for me. Wherever I turned, I was scared. From one side or the other the roar of a bus, or the sound of sirens clanged warnings inside my brain.

3When I got home from school that evening, the first thing that happened was that Grandma came running over and grabbed me tight and cried, “What happened?” But when she did that I felt slapped by this kind of uneasy scared feeling, so I ran over to my mother and collapsed in her lap. After a little bit Mom gently sat me up and asked me, “Dear, what did happen?” But that fear came over me again, and I tottered back over to Grandma and collapsed in her lap. Pretty soon my older brother came in, and he told them all not to ask me about what happened, just to leave me alone for a while, and with that I began to feel a little bit calmer. So I went over and collapsed in his lap. In the end my whole family came to realize that if they asked what had gone on, I would just fall apart. And so they did not ask me anything more about that incident.

4I went back to school the next day, just as I had been doing before. The teachers, both the men and the women teachers in that school, threatened us ferociously. Not only did they threaten us, but they even took five or ten paisa change, went to the market place, bought a cane stick, soaked it in a rice-cooking pot and boiled it, then rubbed oil all over it and set it out in the sun to dry. They would attack us savagely with that cane. Actually, I got more beatings from the women teachers than from the men.

5They made us dummies sit in the back, and they put the best students in the front of the room. I would go home, terrified of yet another beating, and memorize part of the lesson. But then when I went back to school and the teacher grabbed hold of that cane and snapped it through the air I forgot everything, even answers that had been on the tip of my tongue. I could not really join in the group recitations that all the boys and girls in the school room would sing out, and I never managed to produce any of those schoolchild’s eager-to-please responses to the teacher’s questions.

6My grandmother passed away when I was in the seventh grade, and my grief over that loss gave me a great deal of pain. All of a sudden, one day I blacked out and fell to the floor. It was that nerve again, in the back of my head; it hurt. That was the day my epilepsy began. And not only that, but as the disease worsened, I started forgetting everything I had managed to learn in school. Wherever I looked, I was terrified.

7Never a night passed without miserable nightmares needling me. I flunked seventh grade, and then flunked again. Actually, I flunked it three times. And then I dropped out of school altogether, and started to roam around town. The rest of the time I took my pills and slept.

8On one of my visits to the doctor he said, “What you need is some good physical exercise.” So I took his advice and joined an exercise club. Meanwhile my father kept giving me this special, memory-enhancing herbal paste, and my grandmother kept adding the same herbs in my rice. Slowly, bit by bit, my epilepsy began to ease off. I was turning into a real weight-lifter through my physical exercises. I passed tests in martial arts like wrestling, boxing, stick-fighting, and swordsmanship. My circle of friends began to grow. No longer did I spend part of my time at school and part of my time at home curled up like an idiot. Enthusiasm, and even pride, entered into my life.

9We started acting rowdy all over town. We took to drinking non-stop, day and night. We took people who had to work at night and dragged them along with us in our daytime wanderings. At night we were heroes to the eunuchs and the transvestites, and to the children. One time we took a beggar woman, hoisted her over the wall of my old school, and took her to the very back-row seat in the very room where I used to sit. There twelve of us had sex with her. We gave her two rupees and left. Another time we dragged her with us and had sex with her again; there in the middle of the night we cheated her and gave her nothing but a lottery ticket when we left. When we ran out of money for liquor we took stones and threw them at the street light to knock it out; then we cut some nearby telephone cables, burned off the insulation, and sold the copper wire so we could buy our pot and moonshine and get back to our wanderings. We supplied men and a safe haven to some homosexuals, took their money, and continued stumbling around in our drunken stupor.

  • 1 Mu. Karunanidhi is a politician who got his start as a poet and screenwriter in the huge Tamil film (...)

10One time when we had been smoking pot, drinking moonshine, and popping crazy-pills we went back to my old schoolyard again. It must have been about midnight or maybe one in the morning. We were acting like we were singers, but then one of my friends, in a deep and serious voice like Karunanidhi,1 read out a love poem that he had written himself. That poem captivated all of us. From then on we developed an immense respect and admiration for him—how he could write these poems in the style of the ancient Tamil traditions, then memorize them and recite them for us.

11One time I asked him to explain something about what one of the poems that he recited really meant. He stared at me like, “You’re illiterate. Even if I explained to you what it means, and how it works, you’d never understand.” That hit me like a punch in the gut.

12More and more, when I tried to approach him, he subtly let me know that he did not want me around.

13So I went home and wrote out something that I hoped might qualify as a poem, and I took it and showed it to that friend of mine. I asked him if he thought it was any good. He took it, and he read it all the way through. Then he said, “Tear it up and throw it in the trash. If you really want to write poetry, you need to read some poetry books. But somebody like you, with no space in your head for these things, wouldn’t understand about all that.” And that’s how I first started reading Dravidian literature. Specifically, I read poems, stories, essays, public speeches, and such by people like C.N.Annadurai (1909-69), Karunanidhi, Kannadasan (1927-81), Valampurijaan, Ma. Po. Sivagnanam (1906-95), Nedunchezhiyan (1920-2000), and Bharathidasan (1891-1964). When my father realized I was reading things like that, he gave me more books, like Songs of the Cittars, Iyaa Vaikuntar, Thirumoolar, Arunagirinathar, and Viveka Chintamani. And that’s not all.

14At night, when my father would come home totally drunk, he would sing the praises of our family deity. He would sing things like, “That thing that’s dancing— it’s a snake! The thing that He is wearing—it’s a snake! The thing that’s whirling around—it’s a snake! His golden waistcord—it’s a snake! His earrings—they are snakes! His armlets—they are snakes, too!” And he sang,

15My children, why, oh why did they tell us to drop the pot that the wise old people carried upon their hips, Oh Siva! Oh Lord!

  • 2 This refers to Brahmin men, who traditionally shaved their heads except for a very distinctive sort (...)

16And just because I went walking through the Bald People’s2 street,
they picked up stones and threw them at me, Oh Siva! Oh Lord!

17All of those people who wear their hair in topknots, they are the ones
who will have to run off, crying, “Oh God!” Oh Siva! Oh Lord!

  • 3 Vaikuṇṭacāmi, Ayyā (2009). Akilat Tiraṭṭu Ammāṉai. Nagarkovil, Kalccuvatu.

18While he was singing these stanzas from this mystic’s Akilat Tirattu3, and particularly from the Caattu Niittolai part, he would also give me a lot of explanations, and I somehow managed to register them in my brain. They would become good fertilizer for me later.

19My father was a fascinating man. When he was not drinking he was always very busy and stern. When he was a student, he once hit one of his teachers. But then he got scared to live in his town, or even his household, so he ran off and joined the army. When he was drinking, he would turn into a big child. When they were first married he gave my mother unbearable misery. He hit her on the nose and on the ear, and broke them. And he dumped rice and fish curry on her head.

  • 4 This word, varmam, refers to nerve pressure points. It also refers to martial arts and a medical sy (...)

20He knew magic charms, herbal medicine, nerve-pressure points,4 and all that almost as second nature. My mother and my grandmother knew quite a lot about those things as well. They were all able to tell their stories, carefully and with feeling; they could discuss history that way as well, and also tell us about the indignities they had suffered at the hands of high-caste people.

21While my father was alive our house looked like a big tent for ghosts and evil spirits. It was filled with magic spells and with those bloodied sandalwood dolls inside which evil spirits had been captured, and with herbs and plants and roots. He had this big dream of reforming me, his rowdy son who kept getting in trouble with the police, and who started drinking when he just a kid. He wanted to make me into a magician like himself.

22One day he took out an old palm-leaf manuscript and handed it to me. “Think about your grandfather in your mind, and read out a leaf of this for me,” he said. The first page I saw was the one about casting spells upon women. My father scolded me and said I was too young for all that. He told me to come back tomorrow. Then, I don’t know what he was thinking, because he himself caught hold of me and sat me down and began to teach me the whole thing, right from the start. And so, against my will, I began to study. He took me with him to a job. I was afraid one of my friends, or anybody I knew, would see me, so I would not walk right along with him, but stayed a few steps behind. While we were going to the job, catching the evil spirits and bottling them up in sandalwood or strychnine-wood blocks, driving nails through them, carrying them to the cremation grounds and tossing them into the fire that was burning up somebody’s corpse, killing black chickens, circling the burning ghat, offering it all to The God of the Dead, and even while we were coming back home—the whole time I was watching to see if anyone I knew might have seen me. Even so, I didn’t think anyone would see me at midnight or one a.m., so I tied up the remains of the dead chickens in a gunny sack and came back home.

23The next day my grandmother took those headless and footless chickens out of the sack, plucked them, cut them into bite-size chunks, added cut pieces of wax gourd, and served them in a kind of a dry curry. I had never in my life tasted such delicious meat. My brothers and I got into a fight over who would get to eat the chicken necks.

24We’d even kill rats and bandicoots with old moonshine bottles, roast them with salt and pepper, and hold up their heads like we’d done something really clever.

25When my father was drinking toddy and moonshine he’d cook up some fresh fish and sweet tapioca seasoned with salt and a particular kind of a pepper. Eating that combination and washing it down with moonshine was like having nectar from heaven.

26I have seen some Brahmin priests pouring out ghee in order to perform their rituals in the temple. I’ve seen things like that in the movies, too. But my father, when he wanted to catch and drive off some evil spirits, would pour out moonshine to everybody around when he performed his rites. Besides, he’d be totally drunk himself. He didn’t know it, but they’d give me some of it, too.

27The two of us, in our drunken haze, would chant the spells: Great Fierce Goddess Kali, Cruel Kali, take a slice of this flesh, take it oh Mother!

28And then there were the fishermen who went out on the ocean and came back empty: they called for us, too. And people who wanted to plant a grove of trees would call us to chant the spells that keep rats from causing damage. Chanting all the while, my father would mix some kind of medicinal powder in with the rice flakes and puffed wheat he sprinkled around, or he’d inscribe something on metal bands and tie them around the legs of a pigeon so that it couldn’t fly, and he’d sprinkle it with dhal that he had soaked in honey the day before, still chanting his spells, always chanting. It was only years later that I realized what a blow it was to me, and what a loss it was for me, that he died before he could pass along to me some of those painstakingly minute tasks. He did teach me things while he was still alive. “Learn it all before I die, son. When I’m gone, you’ll find it hard enough to buy a 10-cent banana to eat.” Now it’s just like he said it would be for me.

29Then too, my mother and grandmother had plenty of stories to tell. One time, Grandfather left our village of Kulasekaram, with its hills and streams and forests—all the beauties of nature—and bought a house in Nagercoil. It was right next to the home of some high-caste people. Whenever they’d catch our hens or our chicks coming over into their house garden to scratch up some food, the old lady who lived in that house would grab sticks or stones and beat them, and she’d kill them, carry them back and hurl them into our courtyard, or even right into the house. My grandfather and grandmother lived there for a while in fear of that old woman.

30Then too, if anybody in their household happened to see my grandmother or my grandfather when they were waking up from a good sleep, they’d nag at them all day long. They just never quit; it like to killed them.

31On top of all that this little girl of theirs would call my grandmother by her name, she’d call her Mother Iswari. But then the old lady over there would come up and chew her out for that. “Since when does she go and get to be called your mother, this Mother Iswari? You don’t have to add ‘Mother.’ Just call her Iswari and be done with it!” she’d holler. Your father was the only person these people were afraid of. He’s the one who smacked that teacher up side the head, back in his school days, and then he ran off to the army. And not only that, but he was this magician who would wander all around the cremation grounds, and there he scurried about and he didn’t care if it was day or night, your father didn’t. And when he came back he really taught those people a lesson!

32Father went out to the cemetery where they bury the dead orphans and picked up this human head, partly rotten, partly not rotten. He carried it right up to the back doorstep of that high-caste woman’s home in the dead of night and set it down. He mixed a red cloth and some red kumkum powder in water and washed the head with it and then he squatted down next to it and took a shit. When he had everything fixed just right, he set out toward home, his village of Kulasekaram. Nobody saw my father come, and nobody saw him leave. Next morning, that old high-caste lady got up, swept her courtyard and set everything in order, then she went out back to sweep around the back doorway. She was shocked, and she fainted and fell down. A few days later she went crazy, and then she died.

33And after that we let our house go, and moved to another place in town.

34As time went by, two or three other families tried to live in our old house, too. Suddenly, just like that, one of their women would go crazy and start meandering around. Or one of the men would go out back at night to take a pee and he’d start coughing up blood, and die.

35When they kept seeing this kind of thing go on for a while, that high-caste family finally moved out too.

36Some time later, a man who was living in our old house came looking for my father and invited him to perform all the necessary rituals. He did. He smashed the stone lamp-stand in the back yard, and released my deceased mother’s sister, who had been inside it, and also the Lord who had been made to live in the Ayani tree, and brought them home to our house.

37And so my mother would just relate to me these incredible happenings, like this one, as though they were purely natural. And my grandmothers too, they had lots of stories.

The Dance of the Lord of the Magic Spells

38If you want to talk about our caste, there is really a great deal to say. But will any of it catch the attention of children these days? In any case, these are our true gods: The Lord of the Palm-Civets, the Snake People, The Fierce Lord, the Lord in the Ayani Tree, the Lord of the Magic Spells, Black Kali, the Ghost with the Dancing Leg, the Demon of the Mountain, and so on. And that’s not all: if we summon them, they will come. Now and then, just on our own, we feel we must give them something as well. If we have no money, we roll up a wick and light it, and set out a couple of flowers we get from somewhere, and that’s that. If the family is in danger from some direction or other, the Lord of the Magic Spells will come to us in a dream in the form of a dog, and he will speak. For good things or for bad, that’s how it happens. She said that once when my father’s father was coming home exhausted after finishing up a job of magic spells, out from a wetland field, a figure came into view carrying a burning torch. It looked like it was dancing. They say you could hear anklets jangling. He went closer and watched. There was the Lord of the Magic Spells, dancing and dancing and dancing. He took the puffed rice and puffed wheat from your grandfather’s outstretched hand and vanished into the grave of your ancestors. That is when he realized that this apparition was actually our own ancestor, and that he had come to us dancing, and in a form that looked like the Lord of the Magic Spells.

39And then there is our Kuttan’s son and his family. He left everything he had and went to Madras. He didn’t let anyone know his caste, and he didn’t even think about our gods. He wouldn’t even come back for holidays. They were leading a comfortable life, and his wife bore their one and only son. Kuttan’s son was a good man. It seems he was out one day in his vehicle, when a black dog as big as a man came running and crashed into the vehicle and stopped it. He died of fright right then and there. And he was so young, but that didn’t matter. And then his wife, too, who had been doing so well, became bedridden. Then some astrologer or other over there told them they should go and light a lamp in worship to their family deity. The moment she came back to our own land all her diseases went away for good. And that’s why we say, son, “Don’t lose your head while you’re massaging your body.” Even if you do play with good, truthful people, this is still how it goes.

Old Lady Kundaamandi

40There is an old story about “The Ribbon-fish that Bites Even after it Dies”

  • 5 The fish-seller considers Old Lady Kundaamandi to be unlucky, and wants to avoid starting his day o (...)

41There was this old woman in our caste called Old Lady Kundaamandi. We were actually related—she was like a grandmother to me. She loved everybody. She lived in a little thatched lean-to. Her house was a veritable army of cats and of dogs. She had only this one raggedy old tatter of a towel to wear, and on her top as well, she just had one towel. If you looked at her front yard, all there would be was chicken mess, dog mess, and cat mess. And there she would sit, in the middle of her courtyard pouring out the water she had just used to clean a fish, with all the fish bones and scales. The place would be swarming with flies. Still, even though she looked like a crazy woman, she really was a great magician. Even high-caste people would get a little scared when they saw Old Lady Kundaamandi. One day when she was coming back from the market, a dog started barking at her. So she cast a spell on it that tied up its mouth. Then a few days later she saw that same dog wandering around whimpering and felt sorry for it, so she removed the spell and sent it on its way, or so they say. And once when she went out to buy some fish in the market, there was this man who was just unloading his basket of fish. Right off, when Old Lady Kundaamandi gave him some coins and asked for some fish, he tried to run her off. He said, “I just unloaded my sack, and I still ain’t sold my first fish for the day.5 Don’t just stand there waiting to be the first to buy a fish, go on, git, you old Kaniya woman!” Now, Old Lady Kundaamandi always took her wand with her wherever she went. She tapped the basket of fish once in her anger, and intoned, “All, all, turn into snakes!” And then she went home. Then, whenever anybody reached a hand in that basket, the ribbon-fish that were in it would turn into snakes, raise their hoods and get ready to strike. And so it went, with all the baskets of fish sold except this one. A crowd gathered and saw where the ribbon-fish in this basket had turned into snakes. They went as a body to Old Lady Kundaamandi, where the fisherman asked her forgiveness, and would she please turn the snakes back into ribbon-fish. Eventually, she picked up her cane, tapped the basket and spoke some spells, and finally the snakes turned back into ribbon-fish. And he sold off his whole basket of fish. From that day onwards, so the story goes, whenever Old Lady Kundaamandi went near anybody’s basket of fish, they would immediately give her one.

42That old lady had a son, they say, who went on to become a great magician and astrologer in his own right.

The Wheel in the Heart of Lord Padmanabhan

43Once upon a time the king’s chariot ran into a ditch and the wheel got stuck. They pressed some big, strong men into coming to dig it out, and they tried, with their sticks and their crowbars. But the wheel wouldn’t budge. “Hey boys, what’s the matter?” the king asked his secretary, and his Brahmins. “Nothing we try will take hold,” they answered. Then, it seems, an old woman’s son saw the king and said to him, “You ran the wheel into Lord Padmanabhan’s heart. Unless you dig out the idol that’s buried in this mud, take it to the temple, and beg forgiveness, your chariot will never move.” The king looked this old woman’s son over and said, “Cut this idiot up, boys! If he’s lying, impale him on a stake!” And so they arrested him and slapped him in jail. As time went on, then, and they kept digging around that miredin chariot wheel, they really did come upon a statue of Lord Padmanabhan. So they immediately transported it to Lord Padmanabhan’s temple and worshipped it there. And the king set the old woman’s son free; they say he granted him land to build houses on both sides of the river, and presented him with a copper-plate grant to proclaim, “From this day forward this man shall be first among the Kaniyars.” The families who are known by such a title are the Ponmanam, the Koottuur Koonam, and so on. One day, then, while he was traveling out of town, he saw a Brahmin girl, pretty and very fair, and he wanted her. So, they say, he went up and said, “I am a Brahmin, too.” When she realized his skill in astrology, she fell in love with him too. She accepted him, they got married, and he brought her home to his village. When she got here, she was astounded. She thought, “How could there be such a clever man in such a caste as this?” And he sat his Brahmin wife down and learned from her the Sanskrit slokas and the Brahmins’ own magic spells. And so, most will agree that our people are actually greater magicians than the Brahmins. After all, they only know their own spells, but we know all the spells. Well, to put it in their language, we know evil spells and good spells, too.

The Palm-Leaf Manuscript Retrieved from Across the Seven Seas

44Once there was a wetland field filled with strength by a mountain torrent, and by the forests and the groves of trees through which it flowed. In it there was a little lean-to hut, thatched with palm-leaves. To go there, and to come back out, there was only one path, on which people needed to travel in single file. There lived a very poor old woman, with her granddaughter, beautiful as a betel-leaf box filled with bundles of leaves. One time a Brahmin came wandering by; he had left his home and was now wandering from town to town trying to nourish his starving guts. It was getting dark when he arrived, and then it started thundering and lightning, and the rain began to pour down. What I mean is, it really rained—a devil’s rain. So the Brahmin came running, looking for some place to get in out of the rain, and the old lady made room for him. When the old lady’s eyes drooped and she fell asleep, the Brahmin man got up and came over to her granddaughter, and made love to her, or so they say. Gradually the storm subsided, and eventually dawn broke. As he was getting ready to leave, the Brahmin spoke these words to them: “Across seven mountains, across seven seas, there is a pond. Go to that pond and immerse yourself thrice in it. On your third immersion, you will discover that you have a palm-leaf manuscript in your hand. Take that book and keep it: use it to make your livelihood.” And so she went and immersed herself, and found the manuscript in her hand. So she brought it home. One day, it seems, a cow came along and ate up one of the palm-leaf pages of the book, and then it ran off. The page that cow chewed up turned out to be the very page that detailed the portents concerning human birth and death. That is, you can see what happens to a person all life long, but you cannot predict birth and death, or so they say. And yet to our people it is second nature to know that as well. That’s because we are born with an understanding of magic, astrology, medicine, martial arts, and all.

  • 6 The nail is to be driven into a voodoo-like doll’s nerve-center.

45Still, our people do know all about birth and death, and all about the past. That’s why we are masters of things that even the Brahmins don’t know, like the art of stabbing someone’s shadow, reading the signs in a person’s face, predictions, pulse-reading, and so on. Wherever a man might be, if we set his day and his star, just sit right here, and drive a sharp nail into his nerve-center,6 he will die no matter where he is, will he not? And if anyone other than us were to take up these palm-leaf books and start to read them, they’ll break out in rashes and boils and they’ll itch; they’ll get dizzy, and it will start to feel like snakes and scorpions are biting them all over. Once when your grandfather was away, your father took all these things up and pored over them, studying carefully. And he became a really big person as a result. Then, when your grandfather died, they took all those old palm-leaf books and buried them with him in his grave. Even today, every Friday and every Tuesday, if we light a lamp at his grave, play the nandini, and sing hymns, it will only result in good things for us. That is why it is that the men in our caste are particularly knowledgeable, clever, and full of courage.

Ten-Heads Ravana’s Nandini

46There was a war going on here on earth, between the asuras and the gods. At one point the gods went to God to ask for a boon to help them out, right? And so they started killing asuras and heaping up their corpses. Out of that crowd, one asura, with his head throbbing, ran back to Ravana and cried, “Ravana, all our men, the gods are cutting them to pieces, they’re killing us all! Only you can save us now, you have to come!” When he heard that all his beloved subjects were dying, Ravana got boiling mad, and came storming out in his anger. You know what it was like? He had ten heads and twenty arms flailing. But when I say ten heads, it was not ten heads, but he had the intelligence of ten heads. And when I say twenty arms, it was not twenty arms flailing, but the strength of twenty arms. And so he came, flexing his biceps, and stone mountains crumbled. There was a monkey who got stuck right in the middle of one of those crumbling stone mountains. “Help, Ravana! I’m caught in the middle of this rubble! Save me! Save me!” he cried. Ravana, furious as he was, and on his way to war, turned back and took the trouble to save that monkey. He uprooted a great beech tree that was growing nearby and stuck it in the pile of mountain rubble to pry away the rocks and save the monkey. The monkey hugged and kissed Ravana and asked over and over again, “O Handsome Black Ravana! You showered so much pity on me, and you did not say ‘Oh, it’s just a little monkey.’ How can I ever repay your kindness?”

47Ravana snapped that beech tree trunk in two, then as in a trance he ripped open his own wrists and pulled out two of his own tendons, which he twisted into a single thread. He strung that thread delicately into the nandini and tuned it. Then Ravana played that nandini in a religious fervor and woke up the sleeping Paramasivam. He sang his song, praying for a boon to save those tormented and dead asura people.

48Singing, and raising up that very nandini, Ravana declared, “My dear people, you shall play this henceforth, and you shall sing.” The Elder Kaniyaan of Ponnumangalam received it, and that is what feeds us our rice even today. Do you know how many times the high-caste people and their men have come asking for this nandini? But no one will give it to them. In any case, only if we sing in their temples will their own gods come alive. It is only our people who can make them dance. Nowadays some of their own people sing to the gods, but there is no power in that. The most important of the songs is the Song of the Virgin. That is the only song that must be sung inside, with the doors shut. Nobody but us has the knowledge of all this. Do you have any idea how much struggle there has been over this?

The God of the Ayani Tree

  • 7 One incarnation of Rudra Siva.

49During the war between the gods and the asuras, the blood of the dead asuras flowed like a river in flood. Some of it pooled up in one place and clotted, sort of like a chunk of flesh. That bloody chunk then gazed toward Lord Siva, and for twelve years it performed penance sitting on the point of a needle. Finally, Lord Siva came in person, and the bloody chunk said, “I need blood to drink, and I need to eat meat as well!” Lord Siva granted this wish. Then hey, you know what happened next? It went to Parvathi and kept watch over her for twelve more years, sitting on the point of a single needle, or so they say anyway. Finally Parvathi came in person, too, and revealed herself. “I need to go to earth and drink blood. There is a lot of bad stuff going on down there, and I must protect my people. I need to eat human flesh!” it implored her, or so the story goes. Parvathi tried to dissuade it, but it stood fast, so she granted this wish as well. At that moment, the bloody chunk was transformed into the Fierce God Ukkira Moorthy7. Ululating three times and howling like a banshee, accompanied by the screaming Black Goddess Kali, he came down to this earth. All along the way he grabbed cows and goats and bullocks, and gobbled them up. And as they descended, roaring with laughter, night fell upon the earth. Then hey, you know what happened next? Climbing up a great Ayani tree that was standing nearby, the Black Goddess Kali and the Fierce God Ukkira Moorthy touched each other and enjoyed one another carnally. Then they entered into a great hole in the tree trunk. A huge crowd of Vellala landowners gathered and saw this all happening, and they said to each other, “This has got to be the work of a sorcerer!” They were terrified, so to get a remedy, they ran to Padmanabhapuram and brought back two Brahmins, riding on an elephant.

50Then, so they say, the Brahmins tied the elephant to the Ayani tree, closed their eyes, chanted their spells, and commanded the elephant to pull it out. At first nothing happened. Then Ukkira Moorthy and the Black Goddess Kali spoke and said, “Will an elephant pull out this Ayani tree where we are living? I will fix you!” Then they smashed the elephant, devoured all its flesh and tossed out its bones. When the Brahmins opened their eyes they saw nothing but a pile of elephant bones strewn about before them. They fled. Along the way, so the story goes, one of the Brahmins died. As for the other Brahmin, the moment he set foot inside his house he began spitting up blood, and he died, too.

51After that, the Vellala landowners who lived in the town of Kadukkarai, where this all took place, gathered together and prayed, “Henceforth we will honor and worship and feed you. Please do not take revenge upon us!” Ukkira Moorthy accepted this assurance, and transformed himself into the God of the Ayani tree. Since he had shown Himself to be God right there in that spot, the Vellalas who lived in that area gave Him that land and had a temple built and dedicated to Him. And even today we are still the only ones who sing hymns to God in that place.

52There is a mountain trail leading from Kadukkarai to Kulasekaram, and from Kulasekaram to Kadukkarai. It’s an easy walk. If we see the Lord of the Spells coming, or going, or just playing around, even we are afraid. Whenever the Lord of the Spells comes, there is a sound like a stick being swished through the air. And when we hear anything like that, well, yikes!... we scatter!

The Magician Who Married a Ghost

53One time, when our Elder Kaniyaan was coming back home after a performance of magical feats, he went to a cremation ground. He stopped to get some burnt hair from the eyebrows of the still smoldering corpse of an eldest son, to make a magic paste. Then, with all his work finished he was heading home for the day, when what should he see but this gorgeous, beautiful woman, wearing a red sari, with jasmine flowers piled all through her hair, walking toward him. She asked him for some lime to put on her betel leaves. Now our Elder Kaniyaan was as tall as a single palm tree and to look at him he looked just like the God of the Cremation Ground. He realized that this woman who had come along was a ghost. So he made a motion as though he was going to give her the lime, but instead he took that magic paste, barked out a magic spell, and daubed it on her forehead, whereupon she instantly fell in love with our Elder Kaniyaan. He immediately took a nail and drove it into her head, brought her home and set her up in her own living quarters as a second wife. He and she had children together, and they say she was very happy, playing with their children. One day, when the Elder Kaniyaan was on his way out of town for another performance of magical feats, this second wife went next door to visit and talk, and her neighbor began checking through her hair for lice. Then she suddenly felt something odd in the second wife’s head. “What is this, in our elder’s wife’s head?” she suddenly asked.

54She said, “One time while I was playing with the kids, I fell down, and a nail went into my head. I couldn’t get it out, so I just left it there. If you can, go ahead and try to get it out,” she said. After a lot of difficulty, the neighbor woman eventually pulled the nail out of her head, and suddenly the elder’s second wife, who really was a ghost, grew as tall as a single palm tree, uttered a terrifying shriek, and beat the neighbor woman to the point where she coughed up blood and died. But then she got scared, and figured she had better get out of there before the Elder Kaniyaan came back, and so she ran off.


55It 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.


1 Mu. Karunanidhi is a politician who got his start as a poet and screenwriter in the huge Tamil film industry. He has served many terms, off and on, as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

2 This refers to Brahmin men, who traditionally shaved their heads except for a very distinctive sort of top-knot.

3 Vaikuṇṭacāmi, Ayyā (2009). Akilat Tiraṭṭu Ammāṉai. Nagarkovil, Kalccuvatu.

4 This word, varmam, refers to nerve pressure points. It also refers to martial arts and a medical system developed from knowledge of those points.

5 The fish-seller considers Old Lady Kundaamandi to be unlucky, and wants to avoid starting his day off with a sale to her.

6 The nail is to be driven into a voodoo-like doll’s nerve-center.

7 One incarnation of Rudra Siva.


(1968) is a Dalit writer from Nagarkoil in Kanniyakumari District. He has published a number of poetry collections including Teṟi (1997), Oṭakku (1999), Iratta Cantaṉa Pāvai (2001), Kāṭṭāḷaṉ (2003), Kal Viḷakkukaḷ (2004), and Patanīril Poṅkum Nilā Veḷiccam (2010).

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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