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Tamil dalit literature


Dalit Literature: My Own Experience


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1It was during the worst period in my entire life that I began to write. For seven years I had been working as a schoolteacher, but then in 1985 I handed in my resignation. I entered a convent and become a nun. I believed that would give me a really good chance to do something of use for the Dalit people. But that desire came to nothing, so in 1992 I stepped back into this world, loaded down with my disillusion, my pain, and my misery.

2I was unemployed, I had nothing saved in the bank and no money in hand. And what was waiting out there to welcome me as I came back was poverty, gossipy lies, and nothing else. Plus, it was no little thing for me to pick up normal relations with people again, and that really hurt. After all, I had been used to convent life— seven years of it. It was very painful. True, coming back out granted me a measure of freedom, but deep down I felt afraid and unprotected. Lying pent up inside an ascetic convent seemed protected and healthy. And even though I was really happy and satisfied, from the bottom of my heart, to take all that and throw it out the window, this huge fear that I might not be able to figure out how to live this new life lay thick on my heart and in my mind.

3At this point I met with Father Mark, S. J. I talked and I talked to him, desperate in my grief. “Get yourself a notebook and write everything down, just the way you’ve been telling it to me. It will probably make you feel somewhat better if you do,” he said. Eventually what got written down just for the sake of my own solace came out, five or six months later, as a published book, with the title Karukku.

4Pushed to these depths of bitter frustration, I certainly did not set out to write with giddy inspiration, nor was I overwhelmed by any happy experiences. Quite the opposite. I was alienated, bereft of all human warmth. And then I started to write down, with nostalgic longing, my life as a little girl growing up in the cheri— the delights and the ecstasies that I kept hoarded up, the human relationships, the liveliness, the playfulness, the uninhibited and innocent games, the ready repartees, the teasing and banter that filled our hard lives. Writing like this made me rediscover myself and my identity. Hope sprouted in me once again, and my shattered self was made whole. It transformed me. It freed me from the perplexing cultural crisis brought on by my life in the convent, that life that had eroded my identity. I sank my roots in my own culture once again. Deep within my alienated self, there welled up a sense of belonging to my people and my soil, and it flooded all over me. That is what healed me. That is what strengthened me. That is what merged me once again into the ebb and flow of social relationships.

5At first I had not even one drop of desire to have what I was writing be printed up as a book. But some of my friends pushed me into doing it, so it really did come out, as the published volume Karukku. I was deeply affected by both the welcome and the opposition that it received in the Tamil literary world, and also in Christian religious circles. In my village, my own caste members did not like it, and since they did not feel they could criticize me directly, they went after my aged parents. That really hurt. While those word-arrows were piercing my family and myself, I swore I would never write anything again. But eventually, many months later, the young people of my village came to understand what my writing really meant. And they then accepted both me and my writing.

6In the Tamil literary world many people spoke in many different ways about Karukku. Still, the welcome and the praise that it received overall fed a kind of excitement and a sense of determination in me. Writing is not only for myself. It is a must for this society as well. It has developed into a kind of duty. I do not continue my writing for literary pleasure, nor through some dream that I might become a famous author. In fact, to tell the truth, writing often mostly hurts.

7It was an unforgettable moment when the organization “Voice” recognized Dalit literature by giving Karukku their literary prize. It was only then that I began thinking about the place of Dalit literature in the Tamil literary milieu. There were a lot of critical assessments of the way in which Karukku came to be written. Lots of people discussed in their many different ways the literary devices I had deployed, the style and diction that I used, and my dialogues, and they wrote about that. Some even sneered, “What kind of literature shall we call this?” In the end, they decided that this is Dalit literature, that it is a new arrival to Tamil, and that this is a book that speaks in Dalit language about Dalit culture. Through all these varied reviews, I developed a sort of stubbornness, and a belief in myself. By the time I wrote my second book, Sangati: Events, I was known to many people with a new adjective: I was called “Karukku Bama.” Some of the people who read Sangati: Events attacked me as if I were a person of dubious character. But by now I knew a bit more about the Tamil literary scene, and I didn’t let that bother me quite so much. Much more important was the huge impact that the women’s experiences I recorded in Sangati had on me. It nurtured in me the mental will to live a life of resistance, living the culture of a liberated Dalit with no tricks, no guile. So it was much easier to handle both praise and slander, or even being ignored, whenever they came my way.

8I learned quite a few things as all these people, in all their varied ways, have talked about Dalit literature, written about it, and critically assessed it. Oftentimes Dalit people’s deep and abiding experiences, their sense of morality, and their perspectives have given me feelings of awe and wonder. It makes me very happy to see that Dalit literature is created by a lot of different people, yet it strikes me that it has not yet attained its full reach. But, still, we can appreciate, to some extent at least, the power of the written word. Writing is a responsibility, a struggle that I have to undertake. It feels like a duty that I must perform, with no eye toward business or fanfare. I have come to feel that, over time, writing is a great support for my life and my living of it.

9My works are not usually about the life of an individual. They are constructed to portray, rather, the collective experiences of a group of people as a whole. The feeling that I am a part of that group often reassures me. When I write about Dalit women who are caught in their life and death struggles in this patriarchal casteist society, about their strength of heart and their human relationships, my own mental scars and the burdens of my own life are made a little easier. An obstinate determination to live my life, come what may, and in moral outrage to annihilate anything that diminishes and disfigures the human boils up within me like a flood. There is no space any more between me and the realities of life. In today’s society, where people are put on their own separate islands, it is my recording in my works of the Dalit feeling of community, of tradition, of joint strength, of joint effort, of joint struggle, of being with people that makes me into a woman throbbing with life.

10A lot of people have said a lot of things about the style and diction I use, and what using that style and diction says about me, but I am still using it. 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.

11When my works receive approval and praise, I enjoy the thought that this approval and praise comes to the way the people really do speak. And yet I do not worry myself when my works are criticized for not being of some type that has already been accepted in terms of literary figures or enjoyment. Nor do I think I should strive to have my work receive this kind of praise. I have not compromised myself in order to fit into anything.

12When Dalit literature is translated its reach can extend to a national and even an international level. And while there are many people who think that Dalit literature does not have high standards or is not needed, we can see that when it is considered on an international level there is approval, and praise, and interest. For a lot of people, even just talking about Dalit literature or about Dalit feminism is something they cannot bear. For the past ten years or more, a lot of people in a lot of situations have been debating whether or not Dalit literature is needed, who may write Dalit literature, whether or not there is such a thing as Dalit feminism, whether we should or should not write about the internal caste divisions among Dalit people, whether people who create Dalit literature should write only about Dalit people, whether Dalit literature should be like this, or like that, and on and on. And they have questioned whether or not anything that is written by Dalits automatically becomes Dalit literature. It gripes me that it is only when Dalits write something that they pile up all these questions. There is an unwritten law in society that Dalits must operate within the expectations of those people who have power, and it is certainly true that this law is brought to bear on Dalit literature as well.

13In any case, though, everyone now acknowledges that for the past few years Dalit writings have had an enormous impact on society. There are a great many Dalits whom I have met during my life who have had so many experiences, and have real talent as writers. If we offer them constructive criticism and at the same time identify and encourage these upcoming and gifted writers, then surely Dalit literature will grow even stronger and reach even wider. 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.


(1958) is a Dalit writer from Va. Pudupatti in Virudhunagar District. She has published three novels, Karukku (1991), Caṅkati (1994), and Vaṉmam (2002), and short-story collections including Kicumpukkāraṉ (1996) and Oru Tāttāvum Erumaiyum (2003). She works as a schoolteacher in Uthiramerur.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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