On a wing and a prayer: Tamil Dalit writer Bama on 25 years of Karukku

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December 2017 marked 25 years of the publication of Karukku, the first autobiography in Tamil by a Dalit. Do you remember the person you were when you wrote it?
When I wrote Karukku, I was completely broken. After seven years of being in a convent as a nun, I had quit. I found that I had lost everything — a job as a teacher, a house, enough to eat and drink. I had lost my confidence, I shrank from meeting people. In that state, I began to think of my childhood, and the things that I had lost. A friend advised me to write, and I did. I wasn’t thinking of writing a book at all.
Looking back, in these 25 years, I have grown tremendously, I have become so free…25 years of Karukku has also meant learning to live alone, as a single woman. I ended Karukku by saying that I was a bird with broken wings. Now, as I have said before, I am a falcon, flying high in the sky.

You wrote in a Tamil that was different from the literary language of the time. What was the reaction?
In Tamil literary circles, they questioned me a lot about the language. They said, ‘She is an educated lady. Why has she written in dialect? Why do her characters speak in abusive, filthy language?’ That made me furious. Because who are they to judge my language? The Brahminical language is used everywhere — they accept it. They are proud to speak in their language. Then why not I then? My language and that of my people is beautiful to me. So I deliberately used it in all my novels after that.

How do you conceive of Dalit feminism?
I have talked more about Dalit feminism in my novels, Sangati, and Manushi, which is the second part of Karukku in some sense. I have written five-six stories about feminism. There is one story, called ‘Konnu Tai’. It was a very controversial story, even women did not like it. It was about a woman, a mother of four children, who leaves her drunkard husband and goes to her mother’s place. She also leaves behind an infant, who she was breastfeeding. Everybody condemned her. But she was stubborn. She said, ‘Let him know what it is to have a child. They are his children too.’ Her mother says, ‘If your husband remarries, your life is finished.’ She says, ‘No my life starts then’. She takes off her thali, sells it and starts a shop on the street. One famous male writer wrote a letter to me. ‘As a woman writer, you should have feeling for a mother. You should have ended the story like this: At night, she thought of her youngest child and wept.’ (laughs)
I have written stories about how men abandon their wives only to remarry, about a woman who, after a hard day’s work, would pretend that she has been possessed by a goddess so that the husband would stop bothering her for sex. In these very small ways, I have expressed the feelings of women in general, not just Dalit women.

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