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Tamil dalit literature

Alakiya Periyavan

Dalit Literature: My Own Experience

Alakiya Periyavan

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1At first, I began writing only poetry. My very first poem was about poverty. Little huts with holes all over. Rays of sunlight and strings of rain boring right through, without needing to find pathways. Wind and chilly dew. Emaciated people. The gaunt humanity of people like this, whose bodies never developed fully. I crafted that poem with images of scenes like this.

2The publication of that poem gave me a huge urge, and I began writing more poems like it. Female infanticide, unemployment, hunger, life’s uncertainties and deprivations—this kind of thing is what formed the core of these poems. At the time, I believed that life’s problems were the fundamental feature of literature, and that they were the only things that should be written about.

3Then I began reading all kinds of works, in all the various genres. Nothing was left out: stories about magic, comics, ghost stories, detective stories, titillating stories about Balakumaran and Sujata and the rest of them and the opiates of the masses, and the works of poets like Kannadasan, Vaali, Mettha, Rahman, Kamarasan, and Suradha. Beyond all these, though, the literary awakening that was happening inside me was more connected to the people. When I think back on that now, I find it surprising. It was simply the idea of a people’s literature that was naturally engaging my mind, and that’s all there was to it. Just my own life. Repression, poverty, hunger, not having enough of things: days went past with all this and me bottling it up, and that was my life. While I was reading those disconnected printed words it was just the character of my life, and of the lives of my own people that engaged me far more than anything else. Most particularly, it was the literary offerings that spoke in a public setting about the problems of a Dalit life that held the most attraction.

4I realize that in those days my mind was fully influenced by ideologies that these works presented, like Marxism, Periyar’s movement, Tamil nationalism, and so forth. And not only then. Even now their impact is still there, as it was then. To put it another way, I moved away from the simple perspective of stark reality, and kinds of literature that were grounded in a more oppositional perspective came to have influence inside me.

5Even before the introduction of the new literary movement called Dalit literature, with its inherent expressions of an oppositional character, its rebellious character, its protests, its revolution, its speaking out plainly, its mockery of things, its colloquial speech, and such, it felt natural for me to take hold of a writing style that had its own confrontational point of view, or critical character, and it was helpful to adopt this new way of writing.

6Through seeking out life’s miseries and describing them, through thoroughly examining the reasons for the existence of those conditions, through thinking about how to spot them and weed them out, and most importantly, through selective criticism, these books sowed the seeds for my own writing. Literature that brings out people’s disjointed lives takes on a special urgency through such an oppositional ideology. And because Dalit literature says these things too, it affected me very deeply. Even if it is criticized by some people as simply complaining, these overt recordings that describe Dalit life silently point out the horrifying cruelty of that life and raise questions inside me. They are still raising those questions. What a Dalit short story, or a novel, or a poem creates in the reader is not merely a reaction of pure shock. It raises questions as well. When a careful reader or one who is stirred into activism reads Dalit publications, he comes face to face with these questions.

7Today there is a general criticism of Dalit stories as ones that inspire sympathy, that arouse pity, or that make you feel guilty, but that do not go beyond that. The critics try to come to this kind of a conclusion based on just a few stories. It is certainly true that if a story creates a sense of personal guilt in a reader, it will go deep into his heart and be very intense. I believe that stimulating this feeling of guilt is a particularly appropriate way for Dalits to function, and that these stories also inspire people to work in support of Dalits.

8At first in Dalit stories, when they began with a great deal of overt cruelty, there was anger, inquiry, and bitter satire. When I began writing stories I had been reading this kind myself. More than in other kinds of literature the anger in these types, the blatant telling it like it is, and the straightforward mode of address easily captivated me. Because those stories held in them my own life, and the lives of the people in my cheri, they were very close to my heart.


9I suppose you could think of my reading and my writing like a long train that leaves the terminal and stops at every station along the way. At every station some of the old passengers get off and new ones get on, and some passengers never get off, as the train continues on its way.

10My reading began back in my school days as I read the great Tamil classics and then it continued and included some new people. I was influenced by the forms of the performing arts—drama, dance, and music.

11I think of my starting in to write as a way of functioning that opened myself up, that identified me, and that demanded that I pay attention to myself. These days there are a few other ways of functioning that I have worked in with that one as well, but at first, my writing was all about that sense of “me.”

12This “I”/ “me” is a collective personality. Moreover, whether it is really insisting on its power or just idly demanding attention, the self, looking to redeem its lost identity, demands a special place for itself. We know that this self is a voice that runs throughout Dalit literature, and that it is something that critics point to as a characteristic of it.

13My early poems, which were published in magazines like Putiyana, Putiya Kural, Saaradaa, Samarasam, and Arumpu, have this sense of “me,” and also very overt signs of opposition.

14My first short novel, Pollution (Tῑṭṭu), came out in Kanaiyazhi as my first story. The life of a sex worker in that story was very close to me. When I thought about writing it, I would write a few loose pages now and then. Then when I decided I should submit it to Kanaiyazhi I gathered them up and sent them all together.

15There are a lot of Tamil stories about sex workers. I have read ones by the older generation of writers like Mauni, G. Nagarajan, T. Janakiraman (1921-83), and Jeyakanthan, and also my contemporaries like Cu. Venugopal. But my story has a background setting and a kind of character development that those stories lack. All of the people in those stories are too obvious, with no intricacies at all. Many stories by people like J. P. Chanakya, however, are written in a multifaceted way showing the background setting for today’s sex workers, the milieu that creates them, and the shadow world that controls them.

16That story brought me a lot of recognition. Helplessness because I felt I had to tell everything welled up inside me, but so did my determination. That story had a lot of characters, and it grew into a long story. I do not go looking for stories. As parts of my own life, it is issues from right around me that turn themselves into basic themes for my stories.

17It is not appropriate in today’s world to want Dalit stories simply and impassively to record studies of Dalit life and suffering. They are swords. In our fiction, at the same time that we record our contemporary situations we should also talk about our past history, and about visions of the future that show entirely new situations.

18We know about the fraud that Puranic history has committed for a very long time, in creating false histories through literature and establishing them. Like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and today including Brahminical caste politics, these stories have been written down. So as to turn these around and consider them very carefully, Dalit people also must bring their history into their fiction and into other literary forms as well.

19My novel, My Father’s Flag (Takappaṉ Koṭi), is a little attempt in that direction. Dalit people have owned large tracts of land. And the government has given them land as well. Those lands have been stolen from them by tricks and attacks. Around us there is the story of a Dalit who inspected his hundred-acre tract every day on horseback, carrying a gun. Lots of stories like this one are current in lots of different places. I wrote a story like that, based on the lives of my ancestors. One of my ancestors was a sorcerer. The people from the surrounding villages would tremble with fear if they even happened to see him. There are a lot of Dalits who went to Burma, Malaya, and Sri Lanka and never returned. They stayed right there. In that way they are related to the stories of Eelam. And it was they who did the work when electricity, railways, and all the conveniences of the modern world first arrived. And so, they have stories that go back for centuries. Some portions of these are in that novel.

20There is reason to hope that through looking for the ancient situations of Dalits and writing them down, these stories can help in creating a new history.


21Critics of my stories point to one aspect in particular, the language that is used in them. There is an idea that has been around since Dalit literature was first introduced in Tamil. It is that Dalit stories need to be in colloquial language, or that the language that should be used in them should not have any particular character and should be simple and direct. In Tamil, both Dalits and non-Dalits when they are writing stories about Dalits even today write them in colloquial dialect. (There are some exceptions to this rule.) In my stories it is only in dialog that I use my local Dalit people’s dialect. In narration and in just telling the story, I have complete independence. For me there is always the allure of language and a poetic impetus. Those are the features that determine the language I utilize in my stories. I like to examine language and use it with a poetic character.

22And there have been critiques that really understood my stories and are sympathetic to them. We can collect a few reviews by other authors and list them here:

‘This story is written with a social consciousness, but its description and details are a little excessive in many places—would that detract from the story’s ability to affect us? I cannot avoid worrying about that.’
Bama – Dalit Murasu – May 2001

‘Exquisitely polished prose… ’ in a review of the short story The Forest that appeared in Canatarum Poothini.
Raj Gautaman – Kaalacchuvadu

‘His careful attention to language, and his zeal throughout the story that he created in weaving together his delicate threads… ’
Ravikumar – India Today, Special issue on Literature 2002

‘Because he uses inappropriate verbs in pursuit of a poetic impact, it is difficult to read Alakiya Periyavan’s novel.’
Brahmarajan – Kaalacchuvadu – December 2003

‘They are written in the fine fabric ofprose developed by Mauni, Pudumaipithan, Asokamitran, and Sundara Ramasami.
Jeyamokan – Indian Express – January 2003

23Plus, we might note that some others have said that language that is utterly inappropriate to a story’s social feeling lacks vitality.

24Because I am simultaneously operating in modern poetry and prose, I am unable to avoid mixing a certain amount of poetic language into my stories. And although Dalit literature is thought of as socially reformist, or even as propaganda, because it is one of today’s Tamil literary genres, it is necessary to examine its language and give that careful attention. I think that serious attention to, and concern with, the language used in literature is imperative. Even if Dalit aesthetics is an aesthetic that ignores aesthetics, I also think that it is necessary to mix Dalit colloquialisms in with modern literary prose. We need to develop a new language by way of Dalit publications.

25A lot of Dalit stories are being written these days in a very simple style, aimlessly and with no literary concern whatever. It is possible that these stories fail, because they do not demand that the reader really pay attention in any way at all. Instead, there is nothing wrong in bringing in neatly elegant Dalit stories with elegant language. They should be strong enough to stand with other modern prose, and they should be written with gravity. That is the need of the day.

26There are too many Dalit stories today that give attention merely to the external events in the life of a Dalit. These are stories that push aside the soul of a Dalit, the mind of a Dalit, and Dalit psychological characteristics. Most of the stories ignore the fact that a Dalit has a heart. “Caste is a psychological problem as well,” said Ambedkar.

27It is possible that a Dalit’s heart, after meeting with incessant repressions, indignities, and suffering, reaches a changed emotional state. Just imagine how it is: the heart-rending shriek of death after a revolt, the fear of death, and the silence of a corpse. A Dalit’s heart, caught in this situation, is like a churning ocean. Very few Dalit stories try to capture that mental state with clarity.

28I want my stories to be framed in such a way that they make room for the flow of introspective thoughts, and for an attempt to capture clearly a Dalit’s state of mind.

29I can say that some of my stories, like Stench (Vῑccam), Birds Coming Home (Kūṭaṭaiyum Paṟavaikaḷ), An Expanse of Water (Nῑrpparappu), and Meat (Kaṟi), are attempts to function fundamentally as the flow of a Dalit’s thoughts.

30Aravind Malagatthi, the Kannada Dalit writer who wrote the autobiography A Government Brahmana, writes that he received a great deal of criticism from his friends and from other people.

31Almost all Dalit stories are written with anger, spite, and criticism being central. The truth is that nobody is willing to tolerate stories that criticize themselves, or accuse them, or ridicule them. This is the general situation for Dalit writers. There are threats against Dalit writers who write principally about caste Hindus, or about people with power, or even in self-criticism.

32And just as they (the writers) meet with this sort of external threat, these writers also find themselves meeting internal crises. In this world where we have been taught to say, “Do not speak of your poverty, even with your friends,” it requires great courage to put forward your own indignities, sufferings, and filth. You must understand that your very words will stamp your identity.

33Words are useless when you bring up anger and weariness. That is the work in digging through your shame as you write. We understand this as we read the majority of Dalit autobiographies. The mental maturity involved in writing them is especially necessary for Dalit writers. In that sense their individual personalities are particularly evident.


(1968) is a Dalit writer from Pernampattu in Velore District. He has published a novel, Takappaṉ Koṭi (2001), short story collections including Tīṭṭu (2000), Aḻakiya Periyavaṉ Kataikaḷ (2002), and Nerikkaṭṭu (2004), and three poetry collections, Nī Nikaḻnta Pōtu (2000), Arūpa Nañcu (2006), and Uṉakkum Eṉakkumāṉa Col (2008). He works as a school teacher in Pernampattu.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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