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Tamil dalit literature

Yalan Ati

Poems

Yalan Ati

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Untitled Poem

Don’t poke through my words
looking for anything at all
to give you pleasure:

Half burnt bone ashes
and the souls of ancestors
long since dead lie still
in those words,

and in the stench of these lines
you will smell blood,
blood oozing out
of scratched fingers,

and mud,
mud in front of our house
where never has there ever wafted
the fragrance of a flower,

and you can see Uncle Munirattinam’s abuse
when he came home from work,
exhausted and drunk,
my words do have
all that.

Our soulful music is lost
in monstrous shrieks, and you can poke
and you can search but it will not
be found. Our lamplight
is overwhelmed by
murderous flames.

It is nothing but the fecal soup
our ancestors were made to drink
that I gag on and vomit back up,
and call it a poem.

Grampaw’s Sickle and His Handlebar Mustache

That high caste man who raped
Katthamutthu’s little sister
(even now if we so much as say the name of his caste,
our hut-homes go up in flames)—

well, back behind the Mariyamman Temple
Grampaw Chinnasamy cut his penis off
and chucked it out, or so they say.

Then this cop in his starched khaki shirt
figgered out where he lived, called out his name
to register a formal complaint, but
Grampaw picked up a simmering pot of beef curry
and poured it all over his face

1And on the day of the Chariot Festival, when some guy said, “The Paraiyars’ chariot is not to enter the town,” Grampaw peed on him and said “Drink this, boy, it’s from the goddess!” and he took a staff, threw it in the air and dazzled the crowd with his martial arts.

2Gramaw Ponniyamma would tell all these stories and many more like them.

In my dreams, I walk on and walk on, looking for me a place, looking to find me a place to live and to die, and Grampaw comes into those dreams

with his handlebar mustache, and with his sickle.

The Formation of Redemption

I save myself
from the rubbish heaps
of decay and the fury of my rage
boils over.

From wherever it was
where you brought me down
I now rebuild myself.

In the very last scene,
trickling out of my eyes,
the jumble of my memories
will bring about this formation
of my redemption,
and when you step into it
I will test the point
of my pen on you, or the stick I use
on my parai-drum, why yes,
even my sword.

You’ll know…

I do not hold out my hand and say I am hungry.
Worse than that,
you cram crap
down my throat.

  • 1 Ethnographic note: It used to be that tea shops throughout rural Tamil Nadu, and even India as a wh (...)

You hang like that
separate cup,1 and force me to realize
that my kind of freedom is in
your hands.

Just to make sure I know you’re my brother,
you punch me in the gut from time to time.

With words of consolation, you bring in
the government, billy clubs
in their hands and boots
on their feet.

You’ll say it is all God’s work, you’ll offer up
camphor, but the dancing camphor flame
is really your tongue.

You set that fire
to roar through our lands,
seeded with beads of
perspiration.

On the day when we understand
who you really are, you shall witness
the miracle of our eyelashes
turning into
spears.

You, and Me

The dead voice of hunger kindles
and burns inside you,
and inside me too.

  • 2 Ethnographic note: In times past, Dalit people were sometimes made to drink cowdung water as punish (...)

Rotten eggs, or cowdung water2
those culinary cruelties
were crammed
down our throats.

There they wore gloves, here they
just don’t touch us, but it’s the same thing
all the way through!

Your big lips that could not speak in protest,
our paralyzed life which lost everything,
in one moment it was all lost and sank.

You and I were beaten and driven
from our land, our land covered with the sweat
boiling up in the hair follicles of our hardworking,
black skin, with enslaved hands
cuffed together.

What’s the difference when we’re shackled?
Who cares if you call it casteism
or racism?

Untitled3

  • 3 This poem appeared first in Dalit Murasu (May, 2010), p. 3.

Life is all upside down, the sun
casts off its shadow,
and we get it
when we beg,
the sheer weight
of our life hides in it,
and that unbearable moment stretches on

and on.

Well, we sure have worked out
a whole lot of tricks we can do
just within our bodies,

tricks
to turn people’s stares, to arouse
their sympathy

but our heads are covered
with grime from the street,
our faces leak caked snot,
our bodies have
no clothing, and
people

don’t even think we’re
human beings.

We’ve been tossed into gutters
like garbage, our very life freezes in terror,
unable to answer the screams
of our stomachs pinched
by hunger.

No matter what we do we cannot heal
this putrid sore,
this life, where we wriggle
like maggots.

So we toss our arms
and our legs and do
acrobatic stunts—not
to redeem what we lost, nor
to grasp after what is not there,
but just
to drive away this damn swarm
of flies!

Notes

1 Ethnographic note: It used to be that tea shops throughout rural Tamil Nadu, and even India as a whole, commonly had a separate cup, sometimes dangling on a string, for Dalit people to use so that their touch would not pollute the other people’s cups. This practice is now punishable by law.

2 Ethnographic note: In times past, Dalit people were sometimes made to drink cowdung water as punishment. This practice is now punishable by law.

3 This poem appeared first in Dalit Murasu (May, 2010), p. 3.

Auteur

(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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