Acclaimed Dalit novelist P. Sivakami talks about the trajectory of her journey from literature to activism to politics. As a writer I can’t help being objective about myself or the workings of caste. Excerpts from an interview...

She stands at the confluence of many personal interests and currents in contemporary public life. One of the pioneers of Dalit writing in Tamil, she published her first novel in 1989, and has since published three more highly acclaimed novels (two of which have been translated into English and published by Orient Longman and a third one will soon be published in an English translation by Penguin) and written numerous short stories in Tamil. She was also a member of the Indian Administrative Service, having held important posts, including Secretary, Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department. She also edits and single-handedly brings out a monthly journal, Pudhiya Kodangi, dealing with Dalit and women’s issues. And, it wasn’t really a surprise to those who have read her books or followed her interests when she quit the Services in 2008 to join active electoral politics as a member of the Bahujan Samaj Party, contesting from the Kanyakumari constituency in the recent Lok Sabha elections. Though she lost, she has no regrets. She is again actively involved in the Dalit Land Right Movement which she helped start years ago and is trying to put together a women’s front in politics that would address and voice the needs of women. Excerpts from a conversation...

What were the impulses behind the trajectory of your life, from being a writer to an administrator to a politician?

I see a lot of people, writers, intellectuals, talk one thing and do something else. They are happy being two different personalities, with clear demarcations (between what one writes and what one does in actual life).

One of our MLAs now, who is also a good writer, once made a comment to me, saying, “You write about all these controversial subjects, don’t your family object?” I didn’t expect it from him because he projects himself as a progressive thinker but he is something else in practical, everyday life. When I asked him about it, he said “duality is the way of life”. Of course, life is full of such dualities and contradictions but we try to bridge it, or at least think about it...saying such contradictions are a way of life is an easy, ready-made answer.

I wanted to see to what extent I can put in practice my convictions and beliefs...it’s not easy, quite difficult in fact, but that’s the irony, pain and essence of life.

Writing itself is a political activity isn’t it? Was it a natural progression from writing to activism?

Actually when I started writing, I didn’t have the intention of addressing important issues. I just thought this is the life that I knew so I am writing about it... I knew it was going to be a different kind of writing but I never thought of it as political writing.

After I got my first novel published (Pazhaiyana Kazhidhalum, The Grip of Change), my second one (Anandhayee) was about the lives of women and even that got labelled as a Dalit novel. There was no discussion of Dalit identity in Anandhayee, and though I don’t mention or discuss caste, it was seen as Dalit writing. It was then I realised that if this different identity is there for me, then I should own it and accept it... It’s a kind of personal evolution, because initially I never thought of myself as a Dalit writer. In fact, I got offended when Rajam Krishnan called me one initially. But when I thought about it, I felt why not?

Then I started a magazine which was where the political activity began. During the Thanjavur World Tamil conference in 1995, I approached the organisers to allot some space where Dalit literature can be discussed. That was the first ever official forum where Dalit literature was discussed. There were five of us who read papers related to Dalit literature. After the conference was over, I wanted these articles to be published somewhere. I couldn’t see anybody who could publish these all at one go and I thought why not we publish it ourselves? We started a quarterly, Komal Swaminathan wrote a small introduction and an essay and the magazine initiated the first real discourse in Tamil about Dalit literature.

We had very few readers, say about 2,000. It was a small crowd of intellectuals circulating it among themselves. It didn’t really reach out to the villager. So I thought we’ll take it out to the people and try to read it out to them. So every weekend we went to the villages, six or seven of us used to travel as a group and if I talked about aspects of education, another will talk about the economic aspects, someone else about Ambedkar’s work etc.

Yet, it was a kind of disjointed effort. The villagers were suspicious and would say, “Yes, it’s nice knowing about these things, but what ultimate purpose does it serve?” We’d go to the same village after a year, and people would have forgotten everything. So we thought our efforts had to be linked, it had to be a movement. We thought we should concentrate on one single issue and that’s how we started focussing on land rights. Because the issue of land links all the villages and links all the Dalits because either they are landless or houseless. This is a basic issue and nobody talks about it. That’s how we started the Dalit land right movement. There was an enthusiastic response from the Dalits and that’s how we built up a movement in 28 districts in Tamil Nadu.

We thought we should also address another issue because we had met a lot of women during the land rights issue and we felt women’s issues need to be taken up too. About 60 of us sat together and it was suggested that we start a political party. In September 2007 we organised a meet in Madurai which was attended by more than 1,00,000 women. In February 2008 we had a rally in Tiruchi which was attended by more than 2,50,000 women. Women and politics was the theme of the conference. We wanted women to enter parliamentary politics and contest the elections. But our resources were very scarce so we approached the BSP. I thought it would be nice to work with the BSP because Mayawati was also addressing the same issues I was concerned about: women’s issues and Dalit land issues. So I thought I’d join the party because it is very difficult to function independently and I didn’t find any other worthwhile parties that could realise these goals.

You were also a senior bureaucrat, part of the government. Didn’t that provide a viable medium for you to bring about changes?

It’s quite difficult actually. When I was made Secretary of the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department, at first I didn’t want that because this is one department that doesn’t get much money and I had seen how much the previous Secretaries had struggled. And if I call for a meeting, the rest of the IAS officers won’t turn up. Knowing all these I didn’t want the post. But I still took up the job. I prepared a lot of schemes and when I asked for more funds, I was accused of being communal because I was a Dalit asking for more funds. See, I didn’t even want this particular post and I would have fought equally hard if I had been appointed Secretary of any other department. If somebody is communal, you are communal, not me... and I knew I would be shifted from the department... [When she quit the services in November 2008, she was Special Commissioner, Directorate of Stationery and Printing.]

Again, in Dalit and tribal areas the government appoints nurses, teachers but they don’t go there because the remote areas don’t have the necessary infrastructure. So I proposed setting up a training school so that at least basic teaching, midwifery and nursing skills could be taught to the tribals themselves and they will stay there and serve the people. But the cabinet turned it down. See I don’t understand, they don’t even discuss it and I can guarantee that these issues will never be discussed. So it is very difficult to bring about changes from within the government. Now, my presence outside the system is going to remind them of their pitfalls, their step-motherly attitude to tribals and Dalits. It doesn’t matter whether I am going to be personally successful or not. I am going to keep these issues alive.

What was your experience of electoral politics like?

Actually I needed this experience because, see when you join a party like the BSP you add strength to it and you also gain strength. But I also found that working with a party is quite different from working with a movement. I could really understand the difference. With a movement, there is a vision, there are no extraneous expectations, you know that you are going to invisible yet you continue to work. But in electoral party politics you need visibility, you need victory and you need to be in power, people work with these expectations in mind.

Unlike Anandhayee, In The grip of Change, it comes across as if you are trying to be a little too objective about the dynamics of caste, in the way you look at hierarchies within Dalit groups...

When I wrote that I didn’t have much exposure to caste Hindu society. I never had gone to their houses or seen how they lived or talked... In the village I had only seen the Dalit portion, so I could only write about that...

As a writer and person I can’t help being objective about myself, my own father [perhaps the basis for the character Kathamuthu] or the workings of caste. May be even now, literary appreciation needs to come from the other groups. May be unconsciously I am aiming at them.

Pazhaiyana Kazhidhalum was the first Dalit novel and only after its publication the discussion of Dalit literature was opened up. In the light of the discussion the novel opened up, I needed to look at it again. That’s why I wrote the sequel, as an attempt to look at how my own subconscious mind worked.

Is there still a space for writing in the future?

Of course. A novel I’ve been serialising in Pudhiya Kodangi will be published soon. Anandhayee is going to be published in English by Penguin. The Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore is translating Kurukkuvettu into five languages now. And now I’ll allocate more time to writing and translating.

More In: Books | Arts