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A palmyra leaf that sears us

"CAN'T we read something light instead, ma'am?" A student once asked me when we were discussing a slave narrative in class. I had no way of explaining to a young boy in the space of an hour that life is rich and that, to quote Whitman, it contains multitudes. Life is suffering. It can also bring joy. But above all, life is a learning and a journey. And these are more than mere cliches.

Reading Bama's autobiography Karukku is an intense experience. Like the palmyra leaf (karukku), it sears us with its sharpness. This is writing at its finest - fearing nothing, unabashedly radical, shaped by the strength of personal experience. I would not exchange it for a "happier", less "grim" literary piece. Karukku will remain a cherished masterpiece of dalit writing and I celebrated privately when I heard that it had won the Crossword Award. It forces the reader to sit up and pay attention to the texture of the narrator's life, a texture that is startlingly different from that of urban, middle-class, upper-class life.

Karukku succeeds as an autobiography for another reason: Bama's constant self-questioning, her courage and dignity in the face of impossible odds and the process of self-discovery which causes her so much hurt and anguish. Bama looks back on her life at a point of deep personal crisis. She has just left the religious order of which she had been a part for seven long years, realising with shock that the Roman Catholic Church is as casteist and as discriminatory as the world she had left behind; that all its talk of "serving the poorest of the poor" will never amount to much. Having given up a job as a school teacher to enter the convent, Bama is out of work and out of grace with the world. She has to pick herself up by the bootstraps, find new strength in her own changed understanding of the world.

Through a series of sometimes poignant, sometimes funny reflections on her childhood in a caste-divided village in Tamil Nadu, Bama recreates for us her experiences as a dalit child. There is not a single false note or shrillness in the narrative. The innocence of the child Bama who "had't yet heard people speak openly of untouchability" is gradually shattered. When an elder from her community (the Parayas) brings a Naicker some vadais, he holds the parcel by its string - not touching it directly.

I wanted to shriek with laughter at the sight of such a big man carrying a small packet in that fashion,

says Bama. But Bama's elder brother is not amused and explains to her that the elder had not touched the packet directly because everybody believed that Naickers were upper caste and therefore must not touch Parayas. They would be polluted if they did so. Bama writes,

When I heard this, I didn't want to laugh any more, and I felt terribly sad. How could they believe that it was disgusting if a Paraya held that package in his hands... I felt so provoked and angry that I wanted to go and touch those wretched vadais myself. Why should we have to fetch and carry for these people, I wondered.

Bama also describes the gruelling work that men and women from her community have to do in order to eke out a living. However hard they may work, she writes, people from her community get the same rice gruel and same low wages every day.

Bama also writes of the oppression that dalits face from the state and a brutal police force. The core of her work, however, is her indictment of Christianity, her reflections on the low status of dalit Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. When she completes her education and goes to teach in a school, she realises that the nuns there don't care for dalit people. It is then that she decides to become a nun herself in order to truly help other dalit children like herself. Her experience in the convent is not a very happy one either. In the school that is attached to the convent, she notices that people from her community do all the menial work. Bama reacts initially by keeping quiet about her caste. She feels a great anger, however, and ultimately takes the bold step of leaving an otherwise protected environment.

That the translated text conveys this degree of intensity testifies to Lakshmi Holmstrom's felicity as a translator. My guess is that Bama's "authorial intentions", if there is such a thing, are met. A narrative such as this is not easily translated for an urban, English-educated middle-class audience but Holmstrom's efforts work. She has, it seems to me, captured the tone and the feel of the original text. Sentences such as

Even though you don't see much by way of progress or anything like that here, I love this place for its beauty

convey to us the flavour and the syntactical structures of the original language. What we cannot expect as readers is a highly literary or sensuous use of the English language for that would defeat the purpose of the original text. As readers, we too have a task to perform, a certain responsibility to Bama's vision. We have to place ourselves outside of the Great English Literary Tradition or even the Great Indo-Anglian Literary Tradition for they carry with them certain expectations of the literary. Holmstrom's contribution as a translator is not merely to the field of Great Literature. In this case, the process of translation is a specifically political one and involves opening up to English-educated readers an entirely different sensibility, a startlingly honest reality.


Karukku, Bama, translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom, Macmillan, p.108, Rs. 90.

Indian Review of Books

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