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Tamil dalit literature


Dalit Literature: My Own Experience


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1I was born in West Adanuur village. There were only forty-seven or forty-eight homes in our neighborhood. They were not separate houses, but joined together, one up against the next. Our town had nothing that you could call a street. There was not one house with a tile roof. There were just these tiny little thatched huts, like pig sties. During the daylight hours there was never anybody in the town. The men were usually doing farm labor, so they would get up and leave at dawn and only return home at night for supper. The women too would go to work in the master’s fields. Seven- and eight-year-old children would take the goats and the cattle out to graze. Only babies, blind people, and lame people stayed in their homes.

2We originally came from Kazhuthuur. My father had a little thatched house in Kazhuthuur, but his younger brother lived in that house. Since his first wife had died, my father married my mother as his second wife. Because she had no other home, my mother’s oldest sister Mottaiyammal was living in a house in West Adanuur with her baby and no husband. My father and mother came to live with her.

3My father had studied up through the eighth grade. Never even once had he gone for day-labor. That was when work was starting up on the Wellington Dam in the village of Kizhcheruvaay near Tittakkudi. He got a job there as a foreman. With the money he got from that, he bought up some land, piece by piece, a few square meters at a time. Plus, he lent out money and he acquired more land from people who could not pay back their debts. And that was not all, since he got land in other ways as well. In the street where we lived, a few of the people who had been doing farm labor wanted to quit, so he gave them some money. Within seven or eight years, he had released a great many people from farm labor. When, after many years, they could not pay back the two or three hundred rupees that he had lent them so they could quit their farm-labor jobs, he acquired their few square meters of land as well. In this way he obtained over sixty kaani of land. He was the only person in the whole village who knew how to read and write. An entire generation thought of him as God. The next generation accused him of deceitful theft of land.

4Venkattan and Sinnamma had six children: Sundrambal, Ganesan, Subramanian, Rajasekar, Damodaran, and Poovarahan. Subramanian and Poovarahan died while they were still babes in arms. Rajasekar—that’s me—could not speak until I was six years old. I was a mute. To make it so that I could speak, my father and mother went to the temple of the Lord of Annamalai mountain and spent one entire day kneeling down in penance. A year later speech came to me. Because of that, my mother would often say that my name, Rajasekar, should be changed to Annamalai. Even now, when I occasionally get mad and yell at her for something, she joins the fight by saying, “We knelt down and did penance so that you could talk, and what do you say? Do you have to talk dirty to your own mother?”

  • 1 The English-derived word “colony” came into use to refer to Dalit quarters after the state began bu (...)

5About then is when an elementary school was opened in West Adanuur. The headmaster and director of the school was a Pillai by caste. He came from Sevveeri. Adults and children alike called him the “Sevveeri Teacher.” I did not begin school until I was eight years old. At first, from our little neighborhood, it was only my older brother and myself who went to that school. There were three girls studying in the school, and they were all the teacher’s daughters. I do not recall how long I went to that school; I only remember that the teacher would never touch us to give us our beatings. Gradually, seven or eight boys from our neighborhood joined the school. Whichever of the boys from our “colony”1 was the oldest would be our teacher. If any one of us touched or hit one of the boys from the high-caste people’s street, we would all be beaten. Our “monitor” saw to that punishment. The teacher would only rebuke us verbally.

6Our school was built like a shed where you’d tie cows. There were no separate classes. Whatever was being taught to the fifth grade class was what the first-graders were taught as well. We studied the basic elementary-school primer, and learned how to count one, two, three, and so on up to a hundred, how many legs a goat has, and how many a cow has. Most of the children were not able to total up the cow, goat, and chicken legs, and they stopped going to school. Our school had only one blackboard. The teacher’s chair was right next to the blackboard. The children from the high-caste street would sit in the front. We would sit in the back.

7At three o’clock they would bring the blackboard outside. The upper-caste children would line up and sit down on one side, and the colony children would line up and sit down on the other side. The teacher would write Tamil alphabet letters on the board, and the children would use their lunch plates to smooth out sand in front of them and write the letters in the sand. If we got the letters wrong, the teacher would call on our monitor. He would take the boy’s finger who had gotten it wrong, and trace it for him in the sand. He would also smack his head really hard.

8I don’t remember that I went to school over a long period of time. When school-time came around, all the children who couldn’t tally up the goat, cow and chicken legs, or who couldn’t count from one to a hundred, or who couldn’t write out the letters in the primer would sit under the tamarind tree by the sweeper’s house next to the little stream. Some of them would say, “I have to take the goats out to graze, so I won’t be going to school,” and they would take some goats and cows off to graze. Every day, I would go to the tamarind tree by the sweeper’s house. Ponnammal and Annakili were two girls who used to play underneath that tamarind tree by the sweeper’s house. Anbazhagan, Chinnasami, Thangaraasu, and I, all four of us, were in love with Ponnammal and Annakili. Behind the Vaala Gurusamy statue that stands across from the Mariyamman temple I played the mother-and-father game with Annakili. I always stubbornly insisted that I wanted only Annakili. Ponnammal was dark, so I didn’t like her. Annakili was like a little sister to me. In the mornings when school was just beginning, and in the afternoons when it began again, we would run off to the tamarind tree by the sweeper’s house. That’s when the monitor would come looking for us. The rest of the time we would be playing in the Mariyamman temple. It was only about thirty or forty feet from our house to the temple.

9If I spent my daytimes under the tamarind tree by the sweeper’s house, or in the Mariyamman temple, at night I would sleep with my aunt. She’s the one who would get me to bathe, and feed me, and do all that sort of work, but she would never hit anybody. Mother did that job, and most excellently, too. A secret relationship developed between my father and my aunt. Even though mother knew about it for a long time, she pretended she didn’t. Sometimes my mother and my aunt would get into a fight. As soon as my father showed up, my mother would get beaten and kicked. Whenever she got beaten up like that it would take her a week or more before she could get up and move around again. My father had these secret affairs with ten or twelve women in our village. In testimony to these relations, consider what happened when he died two years ago: following our traditions, my younger brother had his head shaved in mourning for our father. But when a neighbor woman named Nadu Kullammal found out about the death, her own son had his head shaved in mourning as well!

10One time a fight between my mother and my aunt, which started as an ordinary one, grew into a big one. When my aunt said, “Get out of this house,” my mother took her four children and started to leave. It was dark, time to eat supper. Pitch dark. Not thinking, and ignoring a lot of people who tried to stop her, she went out to our land and settled in there. All night long she stripped leaves from the cornstalks and burned them for light, for warmth, and to make it look like there were a lot of men there on guard. Actually it was just my older brother who spent the entire sleepless night, uncomplaining, bringing the dried cornstalk leaves and putting them in the fire. The next day my father came and took us to Kazhuthuur. Since we didn’t have our own house there, we spent two days under a tamarind tree, and cooked there. On the third day a man named Angaan invited us to stay in his house. In less than a week my aunt came and joined us there.

11My mother must have told the story of how she had spent the night out in the wilds with her four children at least a hundred thousand times or more. Depending on who was listening, she would draw her story out and shout. She has not only a good imagination, she can really talk, too. My aunt is the worker. Mother is the talker.

  • 2 An administrative term used by the Tamil Nadu state government to refer to so-called Dalit castes. (...)

12In Kazhuthuur, there was both an elementary school and a high school. After I arrived in Kazhuthuur, though, I never went to school. But since it was a school set up for the benefit of Adi Dravidars2, they gave out shirts and shorts on Deepavali and Pongal festival days. I remember two or three times that my aunt made me come along with her to the school to get them. After our move to Kazhuthuur, my father no longer farmed the land in West Adanuur, and we had a hard time getting enough rice to eat. So, my aunt and my mother pulled weeds, cut firewood, gathered coriander, and harvested sesame and millet. I would go along with them to work. I’d get a cup of corn as my wages. I could only cook rice to eat if I got grain as my wage that day. Mother would tell a lot of stories about our difficulties in getting rice, and how we had to work for daily wages. Here is one of them: One Friday night in West Adanuur, when the children were asleep a cobra slithered into the house. It fell from the clothesline onto us while we were sleeping. Before they could hit the snake it got away, but in its hurry it knocked over a lamp. The snake did get away. That is to say, ‘The snake knocked the lamp down just to show that our family was coming to ruin!’ You can’t explain anything to my mother: she just picks fights.

13One time I had gone to a town called Ariyanaachi to harvest sesame. When I finished my job, the landlady said, “He looks like a good boy, and he’s good at working with his hands. I’d give him a bushel of grain a year, and a couple of veeshtis at Pongal. There is a cow that keeps wandering off. His only job would be to take that cow out to graze. Will you let him do that farm labor?” When my aunt heard her say this, she replied, “I’ll see what his parents say, and then let you know.” But secretly she muttered, “Look whose kid she’s askin’ about takin’ that cow out to graze! That sleazy Paraiyar woman!” I went to jobs not only in town, and in nearby towns, but even to towns that were far away. I went to a town called Satthiyam where I spent more than ten days harvesting millet.

14My aunt taught me not only how to do my work well. She also taught me the best ways to steal, to tell lies, and to deceive. She showed me all the various ways to pick peanut plants, to get the husks off millet, to break off ears of corn and millet, to pick moccai and payittam beans, and spinach and other greens as well. If you get caught stealing from a landlord, all the ways you have to cleverly make up a fake true story. She taught me how to rub your eyes and trick them by acting like you’re crying. Just like you can never beat her in stealing, you also can never beat her in doing a job. She would do all by herself a job that normally takes three people. Sometimes she would even plough, like the men. She would drive carts. She would routinely load really huge sacks into wagons.

15Mother was the exact opposite of my aunt. Whatever was growing wild in whatever season, we’d have it in our house. “Taste only goes as deep as the throat,” she’d say. Mother would pick a fight with my aunt going to work, and coming home. Whatever mother said, my aunt would not pay any attention to it. If the fight got too big, she’d say, “Don’t you need anything for the children to eat?” and she would shut my mother’s mouth that way.

16In August 1976, I was going with my aunt to do some weeding. I had my hoe on my shoulder and a towel tied like a turban around my head. On the way we met my older brother Ganesan, and something suddenly came over him. He told me to come back to school, and when I refused, he started to beat me severely, and he grabbed me and dragged me. I fell to the ground and rolled over and started crying. Even then he would not let go of me. My aunt jumped in and quarreled with my older brother. She said, “You trying to ruin this well-raised boy? Ain’t it enough that you’re goin’ to school? He’d best find him some jobs now and get him some trainin’, so he can go out and earn him a living later!” The other women who were coming along with us to do the weeding also scolded him. But he wouldn’t listen to anything they said, he just kept pulling me along. It wasn’t until we got to the school that he realized I wasn’t wearing a shirt. So he dragged me right over to the hostel (my older brother was staying in the hostel there that was built for the welfare of Adi Dravidar people). He dressed me in some shorts and a shirt that belonged to a ninth-grader named Peter, and he dragged me back to the high school. At the time Venugopal Pillai was the headmaster. He was very strict. My older brother and I were standing right in front of him. “Tell me the names of the directions, in English,” he said to me. My brother saw me standing there utterly confused. “Say vadakku, therkku,” my brother prompted me in Tamil. But I did not repeat what he said. Rather, I said, “Toward the betelnut grove, toward Saturn, toward the tamarind tree, and toward Chidambaram,” as my aunt would say. The headmaster hit his head in frustration. My brother said something or other. “Where is your record sheet?” the headmaster asked. “By your leave, headmaster sir, he will bring it tomorrow,” he promised. The two of them talked for a long time. (At that time my brother was the student body president. He was in the 11th grade.) Finally, he took me with him to the sixth grade class and sat me down in it. Then he went back to his own class. I don’t know if he ever gave the headmaster the “record sheet” he had asked for or not. (But I was recorded as having been born in 1964, even though I really was born in 1966. I only found out about that when I left that school in 1981). I don’t know how I managed to pass the sixth grade examination. And in that same way through the seventh and eighth grades. It was only in ninth grade that I learned to read a little Tamil. From the sixth through the tenth grades I studied in the Kazhuthuur Adi Dravidar Welfare Students’ hostel. All those five years I had a skin rash all over my body, like a second skin. Therefore other people would not mix with the boys in our hostel. The teacher (Ramasamy) would make the boys from the hostel sit separately. And he would not hit us with his hand.

17I spent all my time with this boy named Manavaalan. The reason was that he knew a little about how to read and write. I used to give him special goodies to eat so that he would show me his test paper, and I could copy from him at test times. I would do whatever job he asked me to do. We were a pair for those five years.

18There were two Pillai girls in our grade, Shanti and Selvarani. All the boys in our class loved them both. If they asked to borrow a pen, we’d fall all over ourselves in competition. Same thing if they asked for ink. None of the boys would ever say no if they asked for anything. As soon as they finished the tenth grade, they got married. On their wedding day, not only me but lots of boys cried.

19From 1982 to 1984 I did my Plus Two years in a town called Cheepakkam. There was a river in that town. We boys from the hostel would bathe in that river. Beside the river was a grove of mahua trees. We would go to that grove on Saturdays and Sundays to study. One evening while I was studying, a middle-aged man began talking to me. Then he began coming every day. And then I started waiting for him every day. The reason was that he sang these folk ballads about murders really excellently. All I had to do was buy him some betelnut and tobacco, and that was enough for him to sing all day long. He would sing at Communist Party rallies. You would never see him without his red towel. He worked in the fields next to the mahua grove, cutting sugarcane for day wages. He came originally from Kacchakkudi. The day the sugarcane harvest was finished he came over and insisted, “Write me a poem, and I’ll get you a present.” So I wrote out something and he took it and went away. A month later he came back and took me to Pennaadam. There in that Communist Party crowd, at the end they gave out prizes to students. I got a prize, too. A consolation prize. It was Maxim Gorky’s The Mother. That was the first book I ever read.

20In school our Tamil teacher E. Balusamy handed out some little Tamil magazines for us to read. At the school’s Annual Day he staged George Orwell’s drama Animal Farm. I even acted in that.

  • 3 The D.M.K., Tirāviṭa Muṉṉēṟṟa Kaḻakam, is one of the major political parties in Tamil Nadu. Imaiyam (...)
  • 4 These were all Tamil nationalist groups in Sri Lanka.

21I succeeded in passing my Plus Two, and I went to Trichy where I joined in the B. Sc. Physics curriculum at Periyar E. V. Ramasamy College. I utterly did not understand the professors’ English accent and their mannerisms, so most of the time I cut class and sat out under a tree in front of the college. That was at the height of the problems for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. I joined in ever so many of the struggles and efforts that students organized on behalf of the Sri Lanka Tamils. The D.M.K.3 was encouraging these student struggles at that time. There was a lot of “movement literature” available from TELO, EPRLF, and the LTTE.4 Plus, there were books of Russian literature to read. Because they were priced low, and because they helped me show off, I bought and read a lot of Russian books.

  • 5 S. Albert (1939-) former professor of English, Jamal Mohammad College Trichy, Tamil Nadu.

22At the end of my first year in college I submitted a poem to the poetry contest run by the magazine Honey Rain (Tēṉ Maḻai) that grew out of the All-India Catholic Students’ Union. I got a consolation prize. That same year during the summer vacation the All-India Catholic University Federation conducted a 15-day writers’ workshop for students in Kodaikkanal. I took part in that. At that writers’ camp I met Mr. S. Albert5. He is really the person who introduced me to Tamil literature, and to the literatures of the world. He gave me books to read. He read what I wrote and gave me his comments. “Write about your life. Don’t write about things you’re not connected with or that you don’t know about. And don’t write imaginary things,” he said. These words not only made me look again at myself, my village, and the land, but they made me look at them very carefully. It was while I was looking in that way that my first novel, Beasts of Burden (Kōvēṟu Kaḻutaikaḷ), came to be.

23If it was Mr. S. Albert who encouraged me to read and to write, it was Mr.S. Ramakrishnan of Cre-A: who showed me how to write stories—not just telling the story, but showing what happened, how to paint a picture, and how to take a word or a sentence and, through it, go to many different levels. The things he talked to me about concerning the relationship between a writer and his language have been extremely useful.

24Beasts of Burden was written in 1987, but it was not published until 1994. When the novel was written, the word Dalit had not yet been introduced to the Tamil world. But by the time the novel came out that word was already known as a signature of oppressed people, of an urgent force, as a weapon in the struggle. Thus this novel, for political reasons, was seen as a anti-Dalit, and it was ignored. I did not care about this obscurity and rejection. That somehow Dalit magazines and thinkers should recognize my novel was not something I worried about, even for a day. I figured that it should be my work that replied to those people who ignored me. I still firmly believe that.

25Whether in Beasts of Burden, which came out in 1994, or in Arumugam, which came out in 1999, or the collection of short stories called Pressed Soil (Maṇ Pāram) that came out in 2004, in no respect did I record anything that was alien to me, or that concerned someone else’s life with no connection to my own. My language is like that, too. I did not craft my creative language from the language I learned through education. My writings take their shape from my real life. My creations are pictures of the social times in which I live. It is only life that creates great literature—not beliefs or theories.

26I am not someone who began writing because I got the urge to do so out of the indignities that have come my way because of my birth. I have no desire to exaggerate these indignities that have befallen me, looking for advertisement, even given the current political climate. But you can’t ignore the fact that the insults I have met might be a source of strength for my writing. I don’t believe in writing with the baggage of a literary theory. I have not a drop of respect for writing that is written to make use of some situation.

27If I speak of my aunt as the root of the world of my stories, the person who gave me the words for that world is my mother. I have not recorded even one thousandth of what she has said in her life. Because I know how to read and write, I became a writer. Because she does not know how, my mother, as ‘educated’ people would say, is illiterate. Like my mother, or even more than my mother, I know many women who live with speech as dear to them as their very lives. Like Ponnamma in my short story, Ponnamma’s Family Tale (Poṉṉammāviṉ Kuṭumpak Katai).

28In the 1990s in Tamil Nadu the word Dalit made its introduction. Importantly, it began to set its foot down forcefully right in the midst of the literary scene. Through the impetus that word bestowed, many people set about writing. They were engaged in changing the face of Tamil literature from what it had been up to that time. It is particularly worth noticing that before the 1990s most of these people had had very close relationships with Marxist philosophy and Marxist literature. All of these people had the intention to put forward their thoughts and their theories instead of putting experience in the forefront of their writing. Because of political reasons, these people received a lot of attention and praise.

29Putting the word Dalit center stage is not a philosophy, nor is it a theory. It brings a way of life to the forefront. That word is a force, an awakening, an urge, and you could go so far as to say it is a dream, a fire. And it is just that fire that stimulates us to think independently, or to come to an understanding of the reasons for the insults of today, and that is the reason we are creating a new way of life. Protecting that fire, that dream, so that it does not go out is the foremost duty of Dalit thinkers, writers, and people. That’s because that word is the identity of a people, of liberation. With no identity and no liberation, how many centuries can a people continue living?

30Literary creation does not progress with any particular goal in mind. It is rather just the start of a long journey. It opens just a few doors. Each person can make the journey as they wish. But politics is not like that. It has an aim, a goal. It appears that Dalit writers think of literature and letters as a gateway to turning into political leaders of Dalits.

31Today’s Dalit writers do not seem to be simply recording Dalit people’s lives. A mask. That’s all. Dalit writers must record how they keep on living, with all their entertainments, their games, their performing arts, their language, their rituals, their conversations, their joys, all this and more like it as well. Looking solely at the degradation that is a part of Dalit people’s lives, and recording only that, is a tremendous betrayal that has been done to those people.


1 The English-derived word “colony” came into use to refer to Dalit quarters after the state began building low-cost projects of concrete housing for Dalits. Where the word “cheri” (cēri) brings mud huts to mind, the word colony brings to mind simple but substantial houses. Both words refer specifically to the Dalit part of town or village.

2 An administrative term used by the Tamil Nadu state government to refer to so-called Dalit castes. See also the Introduction, p. xx—footnote 30.

3 The D.M.K., Tirāviṭa Muṉṉēṟṟa Kaḻakam, is one of the major political parties in Tamil Nadu. Imaiyam has close personal and family ties with this political party.

4 These were all Tamil nationalist groups in Sri Lanka.

5 S. Albert (1939-) former professor of English, Jamal Mohammad College Trichy, Tamil Nadu.


(1966) is a Dalit writer from Virudhachalam in Cuddalore District. He has published three novels, Kōvēṟu Kaḻutaikaḷ (1994), Āṟumukam (1999), and Ceṭal (2006) and two short story collections, Maṇ Pāram (2004) and Video Māriyammaṉ (2008). He works as a schoolteacher near Virudhachalam.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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