Essay: Karukku- A Perpetual Memoir by Monisha Raman


Monisha Raman explores Karukku, a seminal work on Dalit life by Bama, which remains the most important work penned by a Dalit woman about living in a small town in Tamil Nadu as a member of a suppressed group, even after 25 years of publication.

When Karukku was first published in 1992, it came in for much criticism from many Tamil literary stalwarts. At a literary festival, an established writer called it reportage. The colloquial language used in the narration was not welcome by many in the writing community. However, the work established itself as among the most prominent voices in Dalit feminism. The English translation by Lakshmi Holmstrom, published by Oxford India Paperback in 2000, is having a successful run with its second edition.  This work holds the credit of being the first autobiography of a Dalit woman writer from Tamil Nadu.

Experimental narrative

The characteristics of the book that gave it a differential form, though at first criticised, was later celebrated for the novelty. The original in Tamil has the Dalit spoken language as a narrative voice with liberal use of idioms, which the translation aptly captures. 

The entire autobiography is narrated in a non-linear format. The incidents vividly captured in the book are told in different ways and a few of them are even repeated from a different perspective. The chapters are grouped under different themes. In one chapter, the reader is taken through life in a village and the next into the writer’s mind and thoughts. There is no adherence to the chronology of events in the writer’s life.

For a reader, the intimate addressal feels like listening to a family member narrate her life story. You feel the narrator’s anger and bitterness; you smile at her childhood folly and laugh at the nicknames used within the village. At those recurring moments of pain, you feel your tears. 

In many ways, this work is a biography of an entire community of the suppressed rather than a memoir of a woman.

Depiction of a Dalit woman’s life

The Dalit village that Bama grew up in and the surrounding villages are heavily influenced by the Church. Religious rituals ordered by the Catholic Church are a prominent part of their day.  Festivities in a calendar year are marked by religious processions and rituals. In these pages where Bama describes her early life growing up as a Dalit woman, she subtly hints at the apathy of the religious body to their repressed state. 

However, what hits you hard is the arduous life of a lower caste woman bestowed on her by the hierarchy of her birth.  The trauma caused by poverty is gut-wrenching. Even in such trying circumstances, the women are cheerful having agreed upon their destiny. 

The women in Bama’s village, like most Dalit woman across the country, are forced to a lifetime of drudgery. The writer confesses that their minds were so consumed by the scarcity of food that they did not have a few moments to reflect on their hard exhaustive life. 

Despite the inter-Dalit rifts that get violent, there is bonhomie within the community that probably serves as an aspect of strength. From the nick-names given within the street to celebrating festivities as one big family to sharing the meat with all the households of the village to watching a movie together on the street to discussing each other’s private matters, the reader stands witness to the affability and warmth that are intrinsic to close-knit communities. 

However, what hits you hard is the arduous life of a lower caste woman bestowed on her by the hierarchy of her birth.  The trauma caused by poverty is gut-wrenching. Even in such trying circumstances, the women are cheerful having agreed upon their destiny. 

The resilience of the villagers even in the face of the storm, when they are being hunted by the police and the members of the opposing community is awe-inspiring. The united effort of the women in disguising one of their hiding men to attend his son’s funeral is heartening. Even with limited means and in a repressed state when the ground is rife for hostility and disagreement, the people stand by each other. 

Bama’s revelatory moment

After her boards, Bama stands by her decision to go to college which is against the norm conceived for a woman in her village. The freedom of higher education comes at the cost of a squabble with her father.  Her higher education paves the way for self-reflection later in her life. 

Bama points to the bigotry in religious institutions. She points out that the dignity that the poor deserve exists only in the scriptures and sermons. In many ways, this work is a lament; a dirge of a community pushed to the lowest rung of the economic and social ladder. 

In the years as a teacher in a Convent school, Bama goes on a self-discovery journey. She understands the hollowness of untouchability and recognises the rift between genuine Christian belief and its practice in her small town.  Her re-reading of both the Old Testament and New Testament disentangles the societal hierarchy.  She says in her book that she found a difference between the Jesus she discovers through her reading of scriptures and the Jesus who was revealed to her through daily pieties

Bama points to the bigotry in religious institutions. She points out that the dignity that the poor deserve exists only in the scriptures and sermons. In many ways, this work is a lament; a dirge of a community pushed to the lowest rung of the economic and social ladder. 

In the anthology, Indian Literature and the World- Multilingualism, Translation and the Public Sphere, edited by Rossella Ciocca and Neelam Srivastava, Lakshmi Holmstrom, the translator of the book calls Karukku an angry and bitter book.  The underlying tone of the book is ire at the callousness of her community, which is significant in the works of many other Dalit writers.

Anti-caste literature

Anti-caste literature in Tamil is entwined with political activism. It takes the form of a critical debate which is prompted by instigating events and is heavily influenced by Marxian thoughts. However, women who wrote against caste in Tamil Nadu highlighted the need for female equality. They wrote about how women are treated in oppressed communities. Some of the prominent names in Tamil writing that lean on anti-caste sentiments are Sivakami.P, Rajam Krishnan, Chudamani Raghavan and R. Meenakshi.  These writers spoke of domestic abuse faced by Dalit women from the male family members and sexual harassment faced by their upper caste employers. 

Bama’s Karukku though classified as anti-caste literature is subtly enigmatic. Bama highlights her identity, but she seeks a solution that can dissolve that identity. The novelty is what made the book one among the most celebrated works on anti-caste literature from the Tamil region. 

In Subaltern Discourses published by MJP Publishers, T. Deivasigamani speaks of the expression of resistance in literature as a persuasive arm for the oppressed and mentions that writers like Bama have handled this weapon with ease, standing up for her community.

In the years that followed the publication of Karukku, several notable works on anti-caste literature followed in Tamil. The most notable among them are the works of Abimani, Imaiyam and Nandanar Teru. However, very few of these literary works were translated and even among those translated like the works of P. Sivakami, none were as successful as Karukku or Sangati by Bama. 

Two Decades Later

The anti-caste revolt that started with literature is more prominent in the current times with many translated works in English from other vernacular languages. Some of the vernacular works are being translated in other regional languages as well. Karukku was translated into Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada.

Apart from literature, anti-caste revolt is prevalent in other forms of art such as visual and music. In the last decade, the collective cry of the suppressed voices in Tamil Nadu has become louder across various art forms. In cinema, makers like Pa.Ranjith have rebelled against caste sentiments through their work.

The rebellion drifted into the music scene with Tamil-Indie bands like Casteless Collective creating songs that speak of inequality in the caste system and the maltreatment meted to Dalits. There are writers and activists from other communities who have raised their voice against discriminatory social divisions. Most prominent among them are T.M Krishna, writer, singer, activist and Ramon Magsaysay award winner who apart from spreading social equality through his writing and music also organises the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Festival in the suburbs of Chennai. The event hosts different art forms in one stage and its prime aim is to erase the hierarchical boundaries that exist within art.

Writers like Perumal Murugan are among the contemporary stalwarts of literature who portray the sordid side of caste-based oppression in mainstream Tamil writing. Many of his works are translated in English and Murugan is among the tallest figures in Indian literature. 

Despite these representations in art and the rise of the oppressed voices, Tamil Nadu is among the states with the most number of registered hate crimes as per the data released by Amnesty India’s Halt and Hate in the year 2018. Even during the lockdown, there were reports of the murder of four members belonging to the Scheduled Caste community in different parts of the state.  Such instances are a permanent blotch in a progressive state with good development indices.

Karukku is a timeless memoir that will continue to represent a community as long as discrimination is rife. How can the glint of amorality that denies humanity to fellow beings in the name of casteism be quenched? Perhaps the answer lies in resistance and revolution through art.


Contributor’s Bio

Monisha Raman is a content editor by profession who finds solace in words. She has been published by The Punch Magazine, The Curious Reader, Phenomenal Literature (Vol.4 No.1), New Asian Writing, Active Muse and Juggernaut (writing platform).  She live in Chennai, South India and blogs at behindthewoodendoor.wordpress.com.


References:

Book references (Quoted in the essay)

1. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=5UHTDgAAQBAJ&pg=PA145&lpg=PA145&dq=writer+Vidivelli&source=bl&ots=M3jlXUBJD-&sig=ACfU3U3yv7QtPo8a6dgy84IHzuQz6BXTYg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjWvva-2t_pAhXOR30KHeIcDvwQ6AEwDXoECA4QAQ#v=onepage&q=writer%20Vidivelli&f=false

2. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=TzmbDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA48&lpg=PA48&dq=tamil+writer+Abimani&source=bl&ots=OzqfJ2BPUN&sig=ACfU3U0zfn66VFht0SYONbwKGOEB_BsDEg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjP_9y4tf7pAhUVb30KHSFXCzwQ6AEwBXoECA4QAQ#v=onepage&q=tamil%20writer%20Abimani&f=false

Survey (quoted in the essay)

1. https://www.dtnext.in/News/TamilNadu/2019/03/06070058/1109355/List-of-shame-TN-among-States-with-highest-number-.vpf

Crimes against Dalit (quoted in the essay)

1. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/atrocities-against-scs-high-during-lockdown-in-tamil-nadu-ngo/article31558037.ece

Crimes against Dalits (reference)

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/brutal-atrocities-against-dalits-tamil-nadu-colossal-failure-dravidian-edifice-32455

Tamil Dalit Writing

1. https://go.gale.com/ps/anonymous?id=GALE%7CA165971997&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=02539071&p=AONE&sw=w

2. https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1911:tamil-dalit-literature-an-overview&catid=120&Itemid=133

General reference

1. https://feminisminindia.com/2017/02/20/Karukku-bama-book-review/

2. https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/first-person/Karukku-was-my-healing-bama-faustina

3.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240713501_Bama’s_Karukku_Dalit_Autobiography_as_Testimonio


You might also like to read the interview with author Bama by team Kitaab, featured HERE.


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