The University of Madras has removed from its curriculum two short stories written by Pudumaipithan, considered as the father of the modern Tamil short story. Thunbakkeni, prescribed for undergraduate courses, had been removed two months ago, and on Saturday, the Academic Council approved the removal of another story, Ponnagaram.
Thunbakkeni was removed on the ground that it depicted Dalits in a bad taste. It narrates the tale of Maruthi, a woman who ekes out a living as a plantation worker in Sri Lanka after leaving her native town Tirunelveli. In the story, the character is a victim of sexual exploitation.
Ponnagaram is the story of a poverty-stricken woman, who spends a night with another man to raise money for feeding her ailing husband. The story has been replaced by Oru Naal Kazhinthatthu, another Pudumaipithan story. Vice-Chancellor of the university R. Thandavan said that in the current context, the reading of the text would cause embarrassment to Dalit students and hence, the university had to take the decision. Both stories were first published in the mid-1930s in Manikkodi, a trendsetting magazine in modern Tamil literature.
“There is no justification to remove the stories from the syllabus. We should see it as literature and it is the duty of the teachers to interpret the text, taking into consideration the period in which it is set. Casteism has become all-pervasive and the vicious atmosphere existing outside has entered the university campus,” observed writer and former MLA of Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi Ravikumar. He agreed that the story would cause some embarrassment when a majority of the students studying Tamil in Tamil Nadu colleges and universities are Dalits. Mr. Ravikumar said that since Dalit students were unable to get admission in mathematics and science groups in higher secondary, they were left with little option but to join Tamil literature courses in colleges. It was wrong, he said, to see Pudumaipithan as anti-Dalit, as he had powerfully portrayed the exploitation of Dalit women.
The head of the University’s Tamil department, Prof. V. Arasu, said, “The historical context is important while reading literature; if we start removing literary works citing one reason or the other, we will ultimately deny future generations an understanding of our social history.” A.R. Venkatachalapathy, editor of the collected works Pudumaipithan, said a literary work should be seen in its totality. “Thunbakkeni is a story which fully empathises and advocates the position of a Dalit worker. It will be tragic, if it is read as an anti-Dalit work,” he added.