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Tamil dalit literature

Vili. Pa. Itaya Ventan

Dalit Literature: My Own Experience

Vili. Pa. Itaya Ventan

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1It’s a question mark every single day on our street: will the dawn come, and how will it be when it dawns? You work hard every day and come back to the house, the wife, the kids, the father, the mother, … hunger, all the effects of malnutrition and disease, it’s a regular thing to curse both the social structure and god while we suffer from all these problems.

2Continuously persecuted by people who exploit our labor, distress, interest payments, never-ending troubles with exorbitant interest rates, famine, hunger, this is life, the short-sighted weakness that makes you say, “This is my accursed life,” our people’s lives are filled with these things.

3Home by home, hovel by hovel, with all these crises and difficulties, you can never get away from hearing people lament in their anger, “Why did we get this birth? We are roaming around like dogs, or like ghosts…”

4My people have to be ready to work before the sun begins its journey. Where their day-wage, or their salary, will come from is something they will know only much later. The most fundamental jobs of the municipal government are reserved for our people. Scooping up human feces, dredging out the open sewers, sweeping the whole town to clean it up, climbing down into sewage tanks, that’s one part of the work we do.

5Another part has a bunch of us roaming all over the streets, looking for any temporary-wage work we can get to earn a little bit. Pulling a rickshaw, hefting sacks of goods, working in vegetable shops, in the fish market, in the beef-stalls, at the municipal cremation ground, at the dump, … that’s how we live.

  • 1 Cakkiliyar is the name of one of today’s so-called Dalit castes. It is often ranked even l (...)

6There are lots of Paraiyar cheris all over town, but still what you would call our Cakkiliyar1 street is built on the very edge, “How in the world did we get stuck out there?” and our life, or thing-like-a-life, lies at the bottom of the ditch that it fell into.

7Struggling just on behalf of our mouths and our stomachs is our daily lot. In our street, it was this grand dream to study in a school. Whenever four or five kids occasionally went to school, I would go too.

8Me in my torn and raggedy shirt. A sarcastic sneer showing on the teachers’ faces. In the schoolroom I was the student who was made to sit in the very farthest back seat. The little bit of interest in education that my father had, and my mother’s tireless cleaning work for the city were the reasons I showed any interest in studying, and went on to study higher and higher…

9Even if it is just a quarter-tummy-full of kanji, that’s what we drink, and drag around in the midst of all the rest of the people of the town. That is how we live.

10Even though in our lives there is plenty of suffering and misery, and even though poverty never leaves us alone, but keeps driving us, even though all of this is imprinted deep in our hearts, in order to salvage the literature that is in it all, I needed a great deal of book learning and experience.

11The end of my school years and the beginning of my college years (1980-83) was the most important period in my literary search. I began to understand how politics, and all that hangs on it, stands behind each of the sorrows that are scratching our hearts, and about the two worlds—that of the deceiver and that of the deceived— which have gone along together for centuries.

  • 2 A local movement focused on people’s folk art, literature, and culture.

12The folk literature movement Pry-bar2 (Nempukōl) served as my first trial field for literature. Stories, poetry, essays, plays… that’s where you could read all of these, and act them out, and write them and debate them. Plus, you could develop a progressive political outlook. Following directly from this, you could read all kinds of literary books that came out in those days, and then you could try to write your own. While I was in college I entered a lot of story, poetry, and essay contests, and I usually won one or another of the first three prizes.

13Within two or three years, through the political understandings that I developed, and with the help of my experiences in reading literature, I wrote my own stories and poems. Every one of them had as its entire kernel the varied, but real, problems faced by people in my circle, whom I knew—you might as well go so far as to say the people I lived with.

14Through 1990 my own people were at the center of everything I wrote. Caught in their whirlwinds of tears and lamentations, the tormented lives of my people were my creative arenas.

15Then I realized that this kind of writing does not receive social recognition. Nonetheless, my own literary circle and the progressive political movements of Tamil Nadu saw my creative experiences, which arise out of my own problems, as expressions of the class struggle, not just as caste issues, and I thought of that as a grand kind of recognition.

16In the meantime, my service to creative literature was diminished to being a writing service for politics.

17At the beginning of the Ambedkar Centenary festivities Dalit politics, literature, and culture were all being zealously talked about. At my own expense, I collected all of my short stories in an anthology called Nanthanaar Street, which came out in 1991.

18No publisher or institute came forward to publish it. Some friends helped anonymously. The characters in every one of the stories were people I lived with. I still live with them. I didn’t cover anyone up with make-up. Behind each one are their various griefs. My people, who are invisible in social reality, live in my stories with high ideals, and they keep some kind of faith in the reasons for living.

19While it is true that the short-story anthology Nanthanaar Street is entirely based on Dalit people’s problems, I would point out, by way of self-criticism, that many of the people in these stories act very naturally in ways that betray Dalits, or that they do things against Dalit people, particularly that they are anxious to turn into the bourgeois class.

20A lot of objections along these lines. Then they started sending guys to look for me and beat me up. Some days later, in connection with another Paraiyar-Chakkiliyar family problem I was brought to the Paraiyar cheri. They pulled a knife on me and threatened me with it.

21In my story A Widow’s Childbirth (Oru vitavai piracavam) (Kanaiyaazhi, May 1985), a baby was born years after his mother’s husband had passed away. Thinking about the boy’s pain, the character Muthulakshmi asks, “Did your mother really do anything all that unusual? How about if I point out women with husbands who sneak around in back alleys and off in the main part of town?”

22One of my very close women friends was really hurt by that. She asked me, “Writing like that is really disrespectful of us, isn’t it?”

23In the story Nanthanaar Street (Maṉa Ōcai/Sound of the Heart, October 1988), people from the cheri were criticizing the municipal government for not building a public latrine in the cheri. They would go and defecate in front of the municipal offices during the night. Seven or eight years after this story came out, some young people in a small village near Salem read the story, and collected all the villagers to do the very same thing. Eventually a public latrine was built by the Panchayat. When I heard that, I realized that writing can, in actual fact, be a tool in social struggles.

24When Suryadeepan (Pa. Ceyappirakaasam) introduced his criticisms through Sound of the Heart he pointed out the strengths and the weaknesses of each and every story. Through his severe literary principles I learned that you cannot write these things easily. I realized that writing a story is an experience that is very much like walking barefoot on a bed of hot coals.

25Like a sculptor chips away at a sculpture, these reviews chipped away at every one of my stories. They made me write them over and over again. These reviews forced me to write them over and over again. It took me three drafts to bring a story out.

26My stories speak directly about the many various problems of ignored and marginalized people like Nari Kuravars, and the transvestites and the eunuchs. In the story Hey, People! (Maṉucaṅkaṭā) I portrayed the political situation in which the government shows no concern at all about the lives of Nari Kuravar people who petition for a school; and in The Dead Tree Sprouts (Tuιirviṭum Paṭṭa Maram), I portrayed the life of a prostitute and how she suffered to get her child admitted to a school without knowing what the father’s name was.

27Many people who read the story Pain (Vali) were amazed because it felt to them that they had just watched a poor woman give birth. I wrote about Punniya Kodi, the wife of a rickshaw driver who had not come home yet, in her labor pains. Unable to go to the hospital, Pombi tore Punniya Kodi’s vagina open with her hands. Finally, at the hospital, a fat nurse asked, with horrifying severity, “ that’s how it happened, girl? It must be true, what they always say—‘Paraiyar thinking is half-baked thinking.’ Sheesh. If you can’t handle it yourself, you’re supposed to pick her up and bring her in here. Who ever told you to tear at it with your hands?”

  • 3 His own mother and his aunt were some of the people who have held this job.

28In the story Shit-Scooper (Pῑvāri) you can see the life-circumstances of the scavenger people’s sufferings, how the government department, in its circles of authority, has no concern for them, and exploits them. In this story I have forcefully recorded the indignity of our status.3

29The story Rice (Cōṟu) made its first appearance in Dinamani’s Dinamani Sudar (Special Dalit Edition) on December 31, 1994. In it I wrote, “If I got hungry and cried, my mother would always get me something to eat, and she’d cry too. That’s how she was, right from when I was a little boy.” Those lines are very important in their impression on my life. My heart still fills with tears when I remember.

30To the people who clean up excrement but are filled with hunger, new moon days and the Kirutthikai, Deepavali, and Pongal holidays mean happiness and festivities—not in our homes, but because in the streets where we work we can collect rice. “Hey, Mother! We done packed off all your shit for all these years, ain’t you got a soft spot in your heart for us now? In our poverty we’s comin’ to you abeggin’.” We put it all together, and it makes enough to feed us for two or three whole days. But then Thangaraasu died one full moon day, and we couldn’t eat the ‘full-moon rice.’ Rice is the story of how we longed for that food.

31I have heard many people say that the story AFriend (Ciṉēkitaṉ) (Thamizharasu Ilakkiya Malar—April 1997) is my attempt to portray the inner mental struggles between two Dalit friends in a new and different way.

32Short stories are not pastimes. I have a great interest in, and a feeling of responsibility for, them as a tool for the betterment of society, or for changing it. My experience in writing with that kind of involvement is still what motivates me.

33I cannot describe the struggles I had in getting my stories published. It looks like there may be a curse laid especially on Dalits. The hidden party politics of the publishers hits the author in the face. Only because of one or two publishers whose approach was honest did the books come out.

34I have met with experiences of Paraiyars who oppress Arunthatiyar people— not only in society but also in the literary world. To oppress Cakkiliyar people nobody needs any kind of “reactionary” label, nor a “progressive” label, nor any kind of a “good intentions” label.

  • 4 Pa. Kalyani alias Prabha Kalvimani is his mentor as a human rights activist. Now a retired (...)

35I often say I am just “a seed sown by the hand of Kalyani.”4 My fundamental writing experience is what’s important. It stands with me and with my earth. Wielding it as a weapon to secure freedom in the lives of the Dalit people of my earth—that is what bears witness to the meaning of my life as a human being, and to all the Dalits’ blood that spilled.


1 Cakkiliyar is the name of one of today’s so-called Dalit castes. It is often ranked even lower than other so-called Dalit castes like Paṟaiyar. Many members of this caste prefer the newer caste name Aruntatiyar. See also the Introduction, page xxxii.

2 A local movement focused on people’s folk art, literature, and culture.

3 His own mother and his aunt were some of the people who have held this job.

4 Pa. Kalyani alias Prabha Kalvimani is his mentor as a human rights activist. Now a retired college physics professor in a nearby town, he founded the Pry-bar (Nempukōl) organization mentioned earlier, as well as a number of other similar organizations.


(1962) is a Dalit writer from Villuppuram in Villuppuram District. He is a prolific writer, with over 120 published works, including novels, short stories, poetry, a folk song anthology and literary criticism. He works as a Revenue Officer in Nellikkuppam.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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