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Tamil dalit literature

Yalan Ati

Dalit Literature: My Own Experience

Yalan Ati

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1The footsteps of my creation lie all ground up in the open spaces where my voice tried to transform into words the angers that rumble around in the ferocity of my frustration.

2Writings are written inside me in the ceaseless yearning for words, melting and pungent, marionette strings that turn limp and intangible things concrete, sometimes slowly, sometimes urgently, sometimes in anger, sometimes rotten, sometimes like a burning ember covered in the ashes of a fire that has gone out. In all the directions my pen moves across its pages of poems, I make my subject matter the stinking lives of my people, or the language of their bodies, bodies turned into muddy messes smeared with sweat.

3As the raising of a demand, as a voice for a need, as a need for change, but not as the soothing for a sore—rather ripping the sore open so it strengthens into ferocity, the very opposite of a sore—it is an attempt to intensify the heat that is expressed in my creations.

4It is true that sometimes, out of necessity, words like “take,” or “grab,” or “fight” find their places in my poems, as slogans or simply to rouse empty emotions. When I say “necessity” here, I do not mean for the sake of getting published. It is simply to make myself clear. With places where the sense of beauty is disrupted, showing up as a true, bare face with no make-up, that is how poems take shape for me. My creations form themselves like a needle that lets the air out after it has been forced into a balloon or a tire.

5Without the rituals of aesthetics, and ignorant of how to adorn themselves in any way, my poems break the silence and their subject is Dalit politics. The density of the words, and their tenderness. Not whirling in every direction by the driving nature of marionette strings, but taking their own forms and whirling in one place like a whirlwind, that is how my creations are formed.

6Unable really to define the place of poetry in the whole of the Tamil context, esteemed modern poets read their enigmatic, unintelligible, extremely dark poems, poems that have seized the poetic stage by force, and without making any clear arrangement for Dalit poems or accepting them at all, they are able to ignore them by calling them “propaganda,” or “stark realism,” or “lamentation,” or “autobiography.” They call my poems, which talk about real problems, “just a jumble of words.”

7Still, since it is my duty that through my poems I must work to spread the understanding of human freedom, I am still writing.

8Returning to the roots of my beginnings in literature, here are a few reminiscences.


9Velore district, which used to be called Ambedkar district, is my district. Ambur is my town. Grasping hold of a two handled knife with both their hands and taking an animal hide they had soaked in a trough with water mixed with salt and gallnut, scraping off the hair from the hide and cutting the newly made leather carefully with knives, so as not to damage it, our forefathers built this town, bit by little bit. The reason that Ambur now shines as one of the cities that bring in the most foreign currency in all of India is the blood that our ancestors spilled. They soaked in the lime pits with the leather, like the leather, and still today their lot in life is to be coolies, or just slabs of hard work in this piece of land.

  • 1 kaspacasbha from Arabic qaҫaba “citadel” designates by extension (in European languages) (...)

10One of the many Dalit areas that has developed in this way is the Casbah.1 About two hundred years ago, it was our people who made a town out of that impenetrable, dense jungle, where wild elephants lived. There really is no Tamil root from which the word “Casbah” is derived. And in Velore District, there are “Casbah” areas not only in Ambur, but also in other places like Velore itself, in Kudiyattam, and in Arcot. It is only Dalit people who live in these Casbahs. And surrounding these areas there are a lot of Islamic households. So it could be that “Casbah” is an Islamic word.

11“Casbah” means “inner city,” or so said one Tamil scholar who came to Ambur. If so, there is the question as to how the cheri people who normally live on the outskirts of the town came to the “inner city.” But if they themselves were the original inhabitants of the place, then the question answers itself. In any case, in our district it is well known that “Casbah” just means the area where Dalits live. But why is it that only in Ambur there are two Casbahs? There is A-Casbah and there is B-Casbah. Caste Hindus live in A-Casbah; Dalits in B-Casbah. A is high and B is low, according to the usual way of figuring, so that is how the division is made. Today the situation is still the same.

12As far as today’s political-economic-social situation in Ambur is concerned, it is certainly true that Dalits are able to wield power, and that there is no place for physical atrocities based on caste to be perpetrated against Dalits. Nonetheless, the caste mentality of Hindus from other castes is psychologically in full swing. (As an example, there is the refusal to rent homes in upper-caste areas to Dalits.)

13In our Casbah, we celebrate the Goddess Ganga’s Chariot Festival every year, in the Tamil month of Aadi. On the two Tuesdays before the festival, a crier goes to every street in the Casbah, accompanied by drummers, to invite everyone to the festival. Then, on the third Tuesday, the festival begins. The festival has been celebrated for more or less 140 years now.

14When we look a bit more carefully into how this festival is constructed, it becomes clear how the people of my, of our, area express in their bodies and their souls their “opposition to caste.”

15The festival goes on for two days, a Tuesday and a Wednesday. On Tuesday there is the Pouring of the Porridge (Kūḻ/Koozh), and on Wednesday there is the Pulling of the Chariot, but only in our area. Elsewhere there is only the Pulling of the Chariot.

16The Chariot is over 60 feet tall, but that is not all the height it has. However long the poles are that grow in the Odukatthuur forests around Ambur is how tall that year’s chariot is. While the chariot is being pulled, all the electric wires and telephone cables in Ambur are disconnected. All of Ambur is plunged into darkness that night. And that night is unchanged from the way it used to be for centuries.

17When you look at the route the chariot takes, it goes through all the streets in Ambur where the upper-caste people live, into every lane and alley. Historically our ancestors did not have the use of the wheel, but they hoisted this huge chariot up and carried it along by hand.

18During the procession of this chariot, the flag of the Scheduled Caste Federation flew from its pinnacle, with a star on it. In later days when the revolutionary Ambedkar began his Republican Party, the chariot procession continued with its blue flag. Once, when they blocked this heroic chariot circuit through caste Hindu streets, chanting the names of their gods, our ancestors rose up and fought in a great struggle toward the eradication of caste; it is their voice, perhaps, that gushes forth in my poems.

19My mother and my father are retired teachers. My mother comes from a beautiful village called Katthampakkam near Walaja in Velore District. Her grandfather was a famous poet in those parts named Pangaaru Paavalar. Her father was the local school teacher, Krishnasamy. So her natural familiarity with literature, and the stories and songs she would tell us, all nurtured her abilities in me as well, you might say. I acquired my concern for language from her.

  • 2 The official D.M.K. party newspaper. See also footnote 3 on page 93.
  • 3 The suffix –dasan means something like “follower of” or “disciple of” so this poet’s penna (...)

20In the eighth grade I began going to a tea stall. The tea stall owner was a D.M.K. sympathizer, and Murasoli2 would always be there to read. Every day I would read it in its entirety. My Tamil teacher was an ardent Dravidian Movement enthusiast. I guess all those question-arrows that he shot at this society hit me too, and pulled me to his side. He often spoke of Periyar (1879-1973) and of Bharathidasan (1891-1964).3 With furious zeal he would sing Bharathidasan’s song, “Hey boy, this world is shut up in a darkened room/ There still are people who believe caste is real…” A bit later I joined the library. I read a great many books of poetry. I wrote a lot. But at that time I did not know whether it was poetry or not.

21The first novel that I read was Kurinji Flower (Kuṟiñci Malar) by Deepam Naa. Paartthasaarathy. I read it on my mother’s recommendation. Even now Aravindan and Poorani live in my heart. I gradually succumbed to the grip of literature.

  • 4 This pen name indicates that he was a disciple of the Dravidian Movement.
  • 5 This was a Tamil Tiger in Sri Lanka who fasted until he died, protesting the actions of bo (...)

22Everything I wrote during my first stages was poetry for the Dravidian Movement. I loved Bharathidasan better than Bharathi. I wrote a lot under the penname “Dravida Dasan.”4 I ran the journals Moon (Nilā), and Roar (Muḻakkam) and I wrote a lot of poems for them. A great many of the poems that came out then focused on people like Nelson Mandela, Suu Kyi, Periyar, and Ambedkar. During the years of the Eelam struggle, up until the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, I published a lot of poems in support of Eelam. Everybody praised the poem that I wrote when Thileeban5 (1963-1987) died.

23After the Revolutionary Ambedkar’s Centenary celebration, the awakening that swept through India’s Dalit community turned me toward Dalit poetry. However necessary freedom was for the Eelam’s Tamils, that is how it is for India’s Dalits as well. Whatever I wrote, “human freedom” was my core meaning.

24I turned away from my connections with the Dravidian movement and began looking through the long history of our people, turning myself into a Dalit enthusiast and creative writer.

25During this stage, my poems continued appearing on the back cover of the journal Manitha Urimai Murasu [Human Rights Drum]. That journal served as my field of work. Eventually my poems began coming out in Dalit Murasu, Koodaangi, and other journals as well.

26Through thinking about Dalit writers who have come before me in Tamil and other languages, and through continuing to read their works, I am continually increasing my literary rejuvenation.

27Even though my subject matter may be the publishing of Dalit anger, it is my current goal to try to move my poems a few steps beyond mere anger. In my way of expressing myself, and in my poetic devices, I am continually strengthening my attempts to be appropriate to modern poetry, and to prove that Dalits can establish their pen in the modern literary world.


1 kaspacasbha from Arabic qaҫaba “citadel” designates by extension (in European languages) Arabic quaters of the city spread around the casbah.

2 The official D.M.K. party newspaper. See also footnote 3 on page 93.

3 The suffix –dasan means something like “follower of” or “disciple of” so this poet’s penname indicates that he followed the famous early 20th-century poet Bharathi.

4 This pen name indicates that he was a disciple of the Dravidian Movement.

5 This was a Tamil Tiger in Sri Lanka who fasted until he died, protesting the actions of both the Sri Lankan and Indian governments.


(1970) is a Dalit writer from Ambur in Velore District. He publishes poetry in many monthly journals, and has published four poetry collections, Icaiyutir Kālam (2003), Cevippaṟai, (2004), Neṭuntī (2006), and Kaspā (2008).

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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