Caste, Gender Dichotomy: a Dalit Feminist Perspective - A Study of Bama’s Sangati
“When I was born/ Mother wept, saying “A row of worries/Endless trouble.” (37)
Caste and gender are the two important identity building mechanisms that create a Dalit Feminist perspective. Dalit feminism redefines woman from the socio-political perspective of a Dalit, taking into account the caste and gender oppression. This critique focuses on three aspects, firstly the oral narrative style that Bama, a Tamil, Dalit writer adapts to tell the stories, secondly the legends and songs that she has woven into her text and thirdly using the food trope to narrate an alternate "her story". Though this article focuses on Sangati, her second novel, I will also refer to Karrukku, Bama's seminal first work.
Born as Fatima in 1958 in Puthupatti village in Viruthungar district in Southern Tamilnadu, Bama wrote Karukku in 1992 which brought with it the force of whirlwind to whip the literary world with its quintessentially Dalit theme and language. Karukku which means the searing edges of palmyra leaves, discusses the life of a Dalit Catholic Christian woman in retrospect and focusses the caste based atrocities in her village, experiences of untouchability in the catholic convent and the final breaking away from the nunnery. Sangati, her next work bears the news of the plight of girls and women in her rural community. Kisumbukkaran and Vanmam are her other noteworthy works.
Bama does not have a defined women’s literary tradition in Tamil. She observes, “until recently women writers in Tamil have moulded their writing on the male literary tradition” (Kanal 30). Bama pioneers in the creation of a Tamil Dalit Feminist tradition. A.Marx, writer and critic feels that African Americans were brought as slaves to America before four hundred years and their literature is two hundred years old whereas Dalits belong to India and two thousand years of Indian history has denied them literary space. Interestingly Bama uses the spoken language of her people for her works. She says,
…every dominant literature should be inverted. This process of inversion can be seen in the Tamil oral tradition---the folklore. There are traces of the agony and ecstasy of the Dalits, the direct and emotional outbursts, the collective identity, the mockery and caricature of the immediate oppressors, the supernatural powers of oracle and the mythical heroism: these are the several elements for the construction of a conscious Dalit literature. (97-98)
Bama uses a language unfamiliar to the mainstream, upper caste society to write her works. She discards the so called “chaste” Tamil made unavailable for her people but employs the oral folk language, which is familiar to her society. Unlike other writers who have dealt with Dalit life in Tamil like Sivakami, Vidivelli and Imayam, who use the Dalit language only in dialogues between their characters, Bama writes her whole work in the language of her community.
Bama uses a language unfamiliar to the mainstream, upper caste society to write her works. She discards the so called “chaste” Tamil made unavailable for her people but employs the oral folk language, which is familiar to her society. Unlike writers like Sivakami, Vidivelli and Imayam, who use the Dalit language only in dialogues between their characters, Bama writes her whole work in the language of her community. This can pose a challenge to a reader unfamiliar to the nuances of the Dalit language.
Sangati does justice to its title by narrating the news, happenings and events in the lives of several Dalit women. Bama records the struggles, tribulations, frustrations as well as the triumphs, joys and survival of Dalit women. The narrator who is a young girl in the early chapters grows pensive due to the myriad events happening around her. As she grows into a young woman she stresses on the need for change and is calling out for action against atrocities that happen to the girls and women in her community. What we notice is that struggle and success are discussed in most of the stories that are told. Be it Vellaimma Kizhavi, the narrator’s courageous grandmother, a single mother who pawned her thali,the sacred symbol of her marital status to feed her children, Katturaasa’s mother who bore her son by herself while cutting grass or the story of Marriamma who must get back to work soon after attaining puberty, there is no romantizisation of poverty, but a brave practical approach to it. In the process of narrating these incidents Bama discusses the many atrocities committed against girls and women in her community. The fact that boys are preferred to girls in families, women are beaten up by their husbands, women are paid much less though they do the same hard labour, the sexual harassment at workplace and the injustice meted out to Dalit women in village courts.
In Sangati, Bama subverts mainstream legends and asks relevant questions pertaining to her culture. The story of Thiruvallvar, the great Tamil poet’s wife Vasuki, perceived as the epitome of chastity and devotion to husband is mentioned to illustrate the subordinate position of women in marriage. The story she feels is a reminder that wives ate after husbands even during Thiruvalluvar’s time. Bama offers an alternate folk song about Ananatamma of West street, who was beaten up for eating crab curry before serving her husband:
O Crab, Crab, my pretty little crab, who wandered through all the fields I planted I pulled off your claws and put you on a pot, I gave the pot a boil and set it down. I waited and waited for him to come home, And began eating as came through the door. He came to hit me the, the hungry brute, He pounced at me to kill me…” (30)
Veliamma’s stories about the spirits that haunted Dalit women make Bama conclude that these stories are concocted to push women to subservient position. Dalit women are an easy prey to these stories because of their repressed state. Overworked and exploited both in the family and in society, these women give vent to their mental agony in their spirit-possessed state. In her attempt to write a ‘her story’, Bama makes interesting references to food enjoyed by her people. Traditionally in most homes the kitchen is a limited space designated for women. But over the years women have transformed this space into an area of discourse that gives them a semblance of power. In Sangati, Sammuga Kizhavi’s mouthwatering description of ragikuuzh eating is thought provoking. She describes it as “nectar from heaven” (37).Every sunday, the narrator’s patti made a special kuzhambu with cow’s intestine which went well with ragi kali. There is also mention of patti’s hot kuzhambu with dried fish. In Karukku Bama brings to light the gugapusai at Chinnamalai, the highlight of the festival is slaughter of rooster, goat or pig. There is immense joy in cooking the food and feasting the delicacy. By subverting simple acts of cooking, feeding and sharing food, Bama brings the novel alive before our eyes. KanchaIlliah in his thought provoking work Why I am Not A Hindu, mentions that certain kinds of rich food like ghee and milk were seldom available for the economically downtrodden dalits in the rural areas. But Bama celebrates the food that is cooked and served by the womenfolk in her community. There is great joy in discovering other more healthy and nutritious options. The food metaphor helps in the narrating of her stories earlier neglected or misrepresented in mainstream writing.
By discussing the narratives of many women from the Dalit community Bama places before us the rural Dalit woman’s identity. Though the struggle is much owing to the double oppression of caste and gender, we notice that their strength is also revealed. The women stand by each other to help each other when there is injustice meted out not only in society but in family circles as well. Bama doesn’t shy away from describing violent domestic or street quarrels. In Sangati we hear the voices of many women, some in pain, some in anger, some in frustration and some out of courage. Sometimes the language is full of expletive with sexual undertones. Bama suggests that it is the sharp tongue of a woman that can protect her against her oppressors. The characters often break in to a song or a chant when the situation demands and there is a song for every occasion.. But what is thought provoking is Bama’s sketching a positive identity for the Dalit woman. An alternate her story as opposed to the mainstream is drawn with vivid descriptions of a marriage ceremony, attaining of puberty ceremony, joy of togetherness, singing songs, cooking and sharing food. In most rural homes the Dalit woman is an earning member, widow re-marriages are possible and tali or the sacred thread worn as a chain during the marriage is not this binding symbol as in other communities. It is interesting that the Dalit woman cannot be suppressed in spite of caste, gender oppression.
Bama, Sangati. Madurai: Ideas, 1994, Trans. Lakshmi Holmstrom. New Delhi: OUP, 2005
Karukku, Trans. Lakshmi Holmstrom. Ed. Mini Krishnan.Chennai:Macmillan,2000
“Dalit Literature”.Trans. M. Vijyalakshmi. Indian Literature, XLIII.5(1999):97-98
Imayam,“The Rattle and the Cow that Changed Hands.” Trans.M.Vijayalakhsmi.Indian Literature.193.Sept-Oct,vol.XLII.1999:37
Kanal, “Aezhuthu Aetherpunnarvukana Aayutham.”Dalit Murasu,Jun 2001:28-31