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Labouring for the cause of Dalits

Her name may not yet drool off everybody's lips but Dalit writer Bama is here to stay, writing bravely about the things few dare or write. <145,4>SUCHITRA BEHAL speaks to the upcoming writer... .

Bama... a Dalit, a woman, a writer. Photo: S. Subramanium.

ELEVEN YEARS later, three books tucked under her belt, she still finds that she is something of a curiosity even in the literary world. But she remains undeterred. There is a sense of purpose in her voice, as she describes the twists and turns that her life has undertaken, leaving her on this shore today. For Bama, regarded as one of India's newest and most challenging voices, life is all about convictions. She is convinced that she has a role to play. And it was this conviction that made her leave the convent. "I trained as an educator and wanted to teach people from less privileged and marginalized society. I joined the convent... but seven years later found myself teaching only the elite. I left....''

For Bama, this was a double cross. A Dalit and then a woman when she left the convent she found herself on the road. "The future was uncertain I did not know where my next job would be...'' And then came the writing. Bama wrote from the heart. Her dreams, her aspirations and her desires. "Karukku'' was born in 1992. It created a stir. Not only was it one of the first few pieces of Dalit writing, but it also used the local dialect instead of the formalised language text. Next came "Kisumbukkaran'', her short stories and then "Sangathi'', a novel. There has been no looking back since. At the recently held UK-South Asian Women Writers' Conference in New Delhi, Bama spoke about what it meant to be a writer and that too one who has been marginalized. Excerpts:

Q. When did you start writing?

A. I started writing in 1992. That was the year I left the convent and came out. When I came out I did not have a job. There was a sense of total alienation from society because for seven years I was within the convent premises and the lifestyle was different. When I came out I was not able to fit into society. Those were terribly painful moments for me and even for the next day it was a question of how I am going to live. There was no hope of a future and even the present life was not very sure.

At that time my childhood days in the village and how I was then, how I dreamt what I wanted to be... all these feelings started to creep in. I wanted to lead that life again. I shared these thoughts with a friend of the family and he told me, instead of telling me all this why don't you write it down? So I began to write. Six months later when he read what I had written, he said this is very good you must publish it. Actually I did not write with that intention. And I refused because it was not only about me, but my people, my family, my village. Others who read the pieces insisted too. I finally agreed. "Karukku" was radical because I have used the local dialect of the people and not the formalised text. This is a departure in Tamil literature.

Q. Why did you leave the convent? Did you get disillusioned?

A. See, I joined the convent with a definite purpose. Because I am from the Dalit community and because of education I could come up and have a job as a teacher. I wanted to spend my life educating people from marginalized sections. But at the convent that desire was not fulfilled. I was with an elite school. It was of no use as a teacher for me to teach only those children. Another thing was the caste discrimination in the convent life. One more important factor was my Dalit culture and the culture in the convent. It didn't agree with them. That was a suffocating experience for me. Mine is a more alive, transparent living life to the full type of culture whereas there was all restraint.

Q. Leaving the convent must have been a painful time. Now years later how do you think you have coped?

A. Now after so many years those wounds have gone. Because now I am a free person and I am able to be as I want to be. I have my own identity, individuality and I am able to share with people my experiences. I use writing as one of the weapons to fight for the rights of the underprivileged.

Q. What are the issues that your book deals with?

A. My book talks about the condition of Dalit women and Dalit culture. The need for unity among Dalit sub groups, the need to get political power, the need to get self-confidence, to own up to their identity and be proud of their own culture.

Q Is there a danger of your being branded a Dalit woman writer?

A. No, it's not. I don't think of it as a burden already in Tamil literary world this has been categorised as Dalit literature and I don't mind.

Q. How do people react to you? Are you a curiosity?

A. Dalit people welcome me. They are curious to read my writings and for the younger generations, specially women I am a role model. But there are many who don't like me because I am writing about discrimination, oppression. This is a kind of fighting through literature and they don't like it.

Q. How would you identify yourself as a writer?

I identify myself as a Dalit woman writer...There are many writers available to write about other issues but few for Dalits and there are many issues that have to be tackled. If and when Dalits are respected and treated as equal human beings then only can I write about other things.

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