Excerpts from Venomous Touch by Ravikumar, translated from Tamil…
It must be fifteen years since I first read that poem! M.A. Nuhmaan was then a research scholar at Annamalai University and I used to talk to him quite often. Our discussions, which began with literature in general moved on to Eelam literature and ended with the racist oppression in Sri Lanka. It was during one of those depressing moments that filled the air with its smell of blood that I read the poem.
It was written by Cheran, the Eelam poet and in it the image of a riot-hit street was painted in words. It uses the language of painting that fills the gap between seeing and knowing with the images of a thigh peeping out of a burnt, capsized car, stray eyes fixed on a faraway spot; clotted-blood in the eye-balls. The poem then turned toward bodies torn to pieces, a fragment of a saree that had failed to burn, a left arm thrown out. The poem pauses here and continues in a quiet restrained voice,
Everything can be forgotten, but
How can I forget, my girl?
That broken pot and the rice
Plucked and thrown out,
Scattered and dried on the land
When you had secretly waited for that meagre rice
Got after several days
To be cooked in a pot?
I could understand how the rice spilt out of a broken pot was finally more painful and important than those lost lives and burnt out objects. The dried-rice on the ground symbolised for me the death of humanness.
That poem, which had been in the deepest recesses of my mind for several years, resurfaced after I heard that the car of Dr. Ramadoss, the leader of Vanniyar community, had been attacked in a village near Pondicherry when he was on his way to hoist his party flag. The riot spread after this attack; buses and houses were burnt and two persons were killed. More than sixty homes in Aandayarpalayam and Periyakaattupaalayam were burnt to ashes.
I visited the village with the press.
The village reverberated with the wails of women; the acrid smell of ashes was everywhere: blackened walls, half-burnt books, twisted ceiling fans, disfigured pots; and witness to it all, the grinding stones. The breeze moaned through the half-burnt trees and the women sobbed. One tells the story, the other spits a curse; this is a common image of villages burnt down in riots. At Periyakaattupalayam I saw something which I had never seen before. A tarmac road running between the rice fields linked the village to the next one, and was used as a kalam, a threshing floor. Surprisingly, a dalit owned three acres of land in that village. The paddy harvested from his fields was on the road, ready to be threshed. On their way out after burning the houses, the assailants had poured petrol over the paddy and burnt it. Only a heap of ash was left in the middle of the road.
How could this have happened? Those who burnt this paddy also owned farms. What had made them do this? “Sir, take a photograph of this and publish it in your newspaper! Let the government take notice at least now,” the owner of that land said to us. I could not bear to listen any further and rushed back to our vehicle. Taking us for government representatives, several victims recounted their grievances. Some showed us the burnt-down houses; some their burns and injuries; some gave accounts of the attacks; others talked about the losses they had incurred.
As I left the village, all my efforts to shield my senses were in vain. As the wind blew, the ashes rose. The smell burned my nostrils:
Everything can be forgotten,
Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics, Ravikumar, translated from the Tamil by R. Azhagarasan, Samya Publishers, 2009.