Words without inhibition

Caste discrimination exists in India despite it being illegal, says Tamil writer Bama.   | Photo Credit: M. Moorthy

It’s sad, says writer Bama, as we walk across a long playground, that her doctor has advised her against raising her voice in speeches. “I have drawn attention to my community, only by raising my voice, and taking a stand against the status quo. Now I’m being asked to protect my vocal cords first!”

Bama is best known for her Tamil work Karukku, a book that is known as the first autobiography by a Dalit woman writer. She was in Tiruchi recently as the keynote speaker at a national seminar on feminist Indian literature organised by St. Joseph’s College.

“I started writing in 1992. Before that, there was no mention of Dalits in contemporary Tamil literature, or if at all, it would be in a derogatory sense,” she says, sipping hot coffee and warm water in a hastily arranged interview room. “Stereotyping exists, in gender and caste. By writing, you can unmask stereotypes. That’s the power of the printed word.”

Bama is a self-coined penname, of the woman born in 1958 into a Roman Catholic family as Faustina Mary Fatima Rani, in W. Pudupatti, Virudhunagar District. “My father was in the Army for 33 years,” she recalls, “and that’s the reason he was able to educate all the six of us. He used to say that only education would help us to stand on our feet.”

Education, and the difference it makes to the marginalised sections of society, is a theme that is explored through different perspectives in Karukku as well. Throughout the account, Bama returns to the central theme of how education liberates Dalits, even as institutions follow a policy of humiliating the socially disadvantaged.

Bama worked for 7 years as a teacher, before she resigned her job and decided to become a nun. “Jesus Christ fascinated me, because I felt He sided with the poor and victimised people. Since I come from a victimised background myself, naturally I felt a strong inclination towards Him,” she says. “I thought joining a convent would help me to carry out His vision.”

Seven years into her life as a nun, though, she found herself re-examining her goals. The convent seemed to be reinforcing the very facts of modern life that she had sought to change. So she decided to leave the religious order to work for the education of rural girls.

It was a decision that was to change her life forever. “My father was very angry when I came out into the world, even though nobody in my family had originally wanted me to join a convent,” she recalls. “He was upset because of the social disgrace he felt I had brought upon the family. I had gone with a definite purpose to the convent, but I gave it up, because there was no possibility for my dreams to materialise. My mother was willing to take me back, but my father forbade it.”

She found refuge in Madurai.

“It was a very difficult period, because I had no job, no place to live, and no guarantee even for the next meal,” she says. “It was almost as if my life had come to a sudden end.”

But Bama wanted to live. “I had shared my thoughts with a priest from my village, and he suggested that I should start writing them down, to heal myself. After 6 months of writing, he took a look at the draft, and said we should publish it as a book.”

After several more rewrites, the manuscript of Karukku was ready. But no publisher wanted it. “They objected to my using the local dialect, which they found offensive. Publishers also said my work was not up to the mark.”

Eventually the Madurai-based Jesuit charity IDEAS published it in 1992. The controversies that Karukku generated and the accolades it later earned for its author, took the vernacular literary world by storm. “Critics had to agree that Tamil Dalit writing was a new genre,” she says. “Karukku is about my people, their culture and my own story, even though the protagonist is never named.”

Bama’s subsequent work has found a wider readership, especially after Karukku was translated into English in 2000 and won the Crossword Book Award that year. She went on to write the novels Sangati, Vanmam and the short story anthologies Kusumbukkaran and Oru Thathavum Oru Erumaiyum.

Speaking about caste discrimination abroad draws varied responses, says Bama. “Many foreigners asked me, ‘how can you not touch another person?’” she says laughingly. “Many people have advised me against talking about caste when I go abroad. But slowly, most countries have begun to recognise that caste discrimination is a major problem in India that exists even though it is illegal.”

In keeping with her dreams, Bama founded a school in Uttiramerur, Kanchipuram district, for Dalit children and continued to balance her career as a teacher with that of a writer.

“I retired from teaching last year, so now I have lots of time on my hands. I’m planning to write a novel based on my experience with school children,” she says.

She admits that deciding to forge an identity as a single woman has been tough. “When I was younger, people were quick to make moral judgments about not just about my caste, but my also my singlehood. Now I ignore them.”

Bama is hopeful for the future of Dalit literature, as she finds more writers entering the arena. “More Dalit women authors are writing without inhibitions. Education is not just academic, but learning about society, and our survival in it,” she says.

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Printable version | Jul 15, 2021 12:19:05 AM |

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