‘There is no such thing as Dalit writing’

'I have to keep telling new and unusual stories,' says the famous Cho. Dharman

Updated - March 28, 2016 03:37 pm IST

Published - September 05, 2015 04:40 pm IST

Cho. Darman. Students who want to do a PhD on his work are told: ‘If you take his stories, I will not be your guide’. Photo: Roy Benedict Naveen

Cho. Darman. Students who want to do a PhD on his work are told: ‘If you take his stories, I will not be your guide’. Photo: Roy Benedict Naveen

Cho. Dharman’s novel Koogai , a stunning account of Dalit lives in post-independence India, was recently translated into English as The Owl. Cho, who is from Kovilpatti in Tamil Nadu, has authored nine books, won several awards and much critical acclaim for his novels, non-fiction and short stories.

Excerpts from an interview:

Koogaiis a work of fiction, but also accurately documents Dalit social history. How are the people faring now?

I call what’s happening now ‘ Naveena theendamani ’ (modern untouchability). There is protection under the Untouchability Offenses Act. Dalits have political movements. All this gives them a ring of protection. Yet, there still is oppression; it is different in form and no longer as visible as it once was. Take my son, who finished his M.Sc. in biotechnology, but is unable to find a PhD guide because he is from a scheduled caste. They ask: ‘What are you going to do with a PhD?’ Students who want to do a PhD on my work are told: ‘If you take his stories, I will not be your guide’.

You have written of people leaving their land and going away, 50 fifty years ago. What is it like now?

In every village today, you only see old people. All the youngsters have gone. In this region, our lives depend on rain. Earlier there was Kudi Maramathu : we took care of our own villages, repaired ponds and lakes and kept them as clean as a polished bronze vessel, ready for rain. In my hometown Urulaikudi, there were fines for cutting trees. And the rains always came! Now, because rains are failing, agriculture is no longer profitable. Water bodies are no longer being cared for.

Only when there’s water in the ponds and the wells are recharged can we can crops. If you cut this chain, as the government has done, agriculture collapses. So the youngsters leave. They go abroad, work as sweepers, cleaning camel stables and toilets. Nobody there cares about caste, only about hard work. But here? There’s a recording India and a practical India. Recording India just records that work has been done. My father too went for NREGA work. But being old-fashioned, he told people we have to work for our wages, not just sleep under the tree and take the money. The next day, he was refused work!

Is it true that only a person from a certain caste is eligible to talk about it or represent it?

When the Sahitya Akademi invited me to talk about The Story of My Stories , I spoke in English to writers from four States. I said: There is no such thing as Dalit writing. I may be a Dalit by birth, but don’t segregate my writing. Why do you need reservation in writing? When a lion writes its biography, unless it writes the biography of the hunter, its own is incomplete. So, how can I write only about myself? Do you know how much hostility I faced for writing about an Iyer in my book? (Nataraja Iyer is a character in Koogai .) But I actually knew of someone like him, who left his land to the landless, and migrated.

How difficult is it to get new readers interested in your work?

I have youngsters asking me all the time: Why should I read your work? What’s new in your book? And they have a right to ask, because they’re paying for it.

And what do you tell them?

To buy my book and read it. I know they will find something unusual. If I write regular stuff in a regular way, it will read like news. I have to create, work hard, and package the message into an art. And the writing has to become a classic. Otherwise, who will read me?

Is there an audience for your subjects?

People now have access to so much entertainment and knowledge. Everything is reported in a far more gripping and immediate way in visual media.

So, even when I’m writing about Dalits, I have to tell new and unusual stories. I cannot retell old histories and prejudices — about two-tumbler systems and inter-caste marriages.

Isn’t oral storytelling going out of vogue?

Of course. Where do people gather now? They only watch TV in their homes. I wrote a story called Marundhu in India Today . It is my life’s story, the story of a storyteller. Every night, I would tell my two sons five stories to put them to sleep. All the stories had to be new. When I was out, my wife had to tell the stories. Once my younger son had an accident; he was unconscious for three days. On the third day, when the doctors had given up hope, my grandmother visited us in the hospital. She comforted me saying, ‘Don’t worry, 50-60 years ago, your grandfather and I were sowing the field. There was a thunderstorm, lightning fell and flew like molten gold. We ran with our bulls, but one bolt felled both animals. Your grandfather and I too fell unconscious.’ As she spoke, my son woke up. I told her to continue talking, and by the end, he was sitting up and demanding another story. Everybody was shocked. That’s the power of a story.

Cho Dharman’s Koogai (The Owl) was translated by Vasantha Surya, OUP

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