Interview: A Dalit Poet's Explorations Into Discrimination and the Female Body

Tamil Dalit feminist poet Sukirtharani opens up about her childhood, her Dalit identity in poetry and the Dalit women's resistance.

Women members of Dalit Community carry a portrait of BR Ambedkar as they block the traffic during a protest in Ahmedabad on Wednesday against the assault on dalit members by cow protectors in Rajkot district, Gujarat. Credit: PTI

Women members of the Dalit community carry a portrait of B.R. Ambedkar as they block the traffic during a protest in Ahmedabad against the assault on Dalit members by cow protectors in Rajkot district, Gujarat. Credit: PTI

“Can we do this in Tamil please?” Sukirtharani requests at the beginning of the interview. “I know English, but this is the language that runs in my blood, and I am also learning to assert myself in front of people,” she says with a soft smile.

Having long shed her garb of quiet subservience and now articulating what male poets call “too bold”, Sukirtharani is no longer closeted about her freedom. For her, the recognition of Dalit literature and writers in recent times has brought her out of her shell, and provided a sense of comfort in herself and her work.

Sukirtharani has six collections of poetry to her credit: Kaipattri Yen Kanavu Kel, Iravu Mirugam, Kaamatthipoo, Theendapadaatha Muttham, Avalai Mozhipeyarthal and Ippadikku Yeval. Her awards include Thevamagal Kavithoovi Award, the Puthumaipitthan Memorial Award and the Women’s Achiever Award by the Pengal Munnani (Women’s Front).

Many of her poems are taught in colleges across Tamil Nadu and have been translated into English, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi and German. The much appreciated short film Kannadi Meen, was based on her poem Appavin Nyabagamaradhi. She was featured in the well-received documentary film SheWrite, which featured three other Tamil poets. In 2009, she organised a poets’ protest against the violence against Tamils in Sri Lanka, which saw participation by many poets. She is currently working on a book on Dalit life.

Poet Sukirtharani. Credit: Twitter

Poet Sukirtharani. Credit: Twitter

Having recently returned from a fellowship in Germany, Sukirtharani did a candid interview in which she opened up about her childhood, her Dalit identity in poetry and the Dalit woman who are learning to fight back.

Tell me a little about your childhood and growing up as a daughter in a Dalit family. 

I am from a village called Lalapet in Vellore district of Tamil Nadu. I grew up in one of the ten Dalit families of the area. Both my parents didn’t cross the primary level of education. My generation was the first to earn a degree. I have five siblings – three sisters and two brothers. My grandfather played parai (the musical instrument after which the Dalits in Tamil Nadu were named as Pariah) in events of the village. My father worked in EID Parry as a labourer. In festivals or funerals, parai is an important part of the rituals. Every year one person would be chosen to perform the task of playing parai, which he should oblige. My father protested and the panchayat called him and cast him out of the village. As my father was working at Parry’s in Ranipet, it didn’t affect him.

How young were you when you had your first encounter with inequality? 

When I was studying in class 2, there was an incident that I can never forget. A girl in my class gave me a coconut candy. I wanted to return her kindness so I bought her a sweet the next day. When I gave it to her, she tossed my hand away. At that moment I was both confused and hurt, and found out much later why she behaved so. The girl belonged to a so-called upper caste. Those days, children of such community were told not to mingle with the Dalit children. They were told, “Don’t talk to them, don’t encourage them and don’t share anything with them”.

So that awareness of caste at such a tender age must have hit you like a ton of bricks.

It still hurts me. It was my first experience of prejudice. But time wasn’t as cruel as it used to be when I was young. Fifteen years later, I became a teacher in a school near Ranipet and one fine day visited my school and the classroom I studied in. All these questions evolved into poems later.

How did your poetry progress over time? Your initial poems had the strong qualities of alliteration and assonance and gave the idea how nascent your writing is. But what was the spark and how did the subjects of your poetry transform?

A wellspring of ideas, thoughts and questions flowed, which metamorphosed into poems. That was how they took shape and the need to express arose. I wrote short poems in which I could convey how I feel, instead of reams of pages of stories. That was the form of literature I fell in love with.

What were the subjects that interested you?

I didn’t feel like writing about love or romance initially; only social issues pervaded my poetry. The first poem I wrote was about how the earth is round, but when I looked out of the window, I saw the world flailing and twitching and bending into shapes other than round. So I realised that finding my own voice will take some time.

In the book Iravu Mirugam(animal of the night), you explore caste and Dalit identity through your body. Masturbation is a release and a challenge to a power that says women should never do it. Shame turns into pride. You map Dalit history using the female body. Every experience of oppression was directly physical and the body carried it. How were you able to do so?

Yes, there weren’t many poems about it, nor did people read such writings in the 1990s. I started reading a lot of translated poems, from Kamala Das and Taslima Nasreen to some African poets. It gave me an understanding of how it feels to be deprived of rights as a woman. The poems of Kutty Revathi (a Tamil feminist poet) have inspired me. That’s where the idea of feminism kicked off. Most members of our society perceive feminism with scorn. Despite that, I wanted to write about it more.

Do Dalit women particularly go through a tumultuous relationship with feminism? 

For me, caste identity and the female body are closely intertwined. I personally think that problems of Dalit women are different from the women of other castes. Not all my writings are my own experiences; they are every other woman’s or Dalit woman’s experiences. We are all in the shackles of caste. Dalit women’s bodies are especially subjected to routine violence. Compared to the pain upper caste women undergo, in my opinion, Dalit women go through worse. We have to face internal conflicts with the men of our own class, who want to assert power over women. The men belonging to the upper caste are the next challenge, because they feel they have the right to assert their power even more. The state of women in any house is no different from the society.

For instance? 

If there is a dispute between the upper caste men over laying a road, they will fight it out amongst themselves and resolve. But if it is up against a Dalit family, female bodies are dragged into the violence, which is the most deplorable plight that still prevails. Normally, a feminine body is disrespected, but a Dalit feminine body is almost hated. When Priyanka, a Dalit woman was paraded around naked and murdered in the 2006 Khairlanji massacre, her picture surfaced all over the internet. I could not sleep for a week after seeing that. I was gripped by fear. That could have happened to me.

In order to process that fear, I started writing. My poetry has never been packed with any sort of requests or begging anyone to do or not to do something. I just write whatever has happened. There is a line in the poem Viduthalaiyin Pathaagai:

At the top of the pole

planted in my vagina

the flag of our freedom shall fly

painted in the colour of blood.

Rohith Vemula is an icon. When one Rohith Vemula dies, there will be another Rohith in the form of a Kanhaiya Kumar or a Jignesh Mevani. The flag will continue to fly. I can never be hushed, I will still rise.

I want that hope in my poetry.

But is that hope the same for Dalit women? 

Not really. For example, caste and virginity of a woman are closely connected. A woman’s body is being portrayed as a sacred thing, as a synonym of purity. I call this body-politics. According to me, there is nothing called sanctity; nothing is sacred or pure. When a woman is raped or when a Dalit boy elopes and marries a girl from a different caste, the girl is considered impure, not the boy. Since her body is no longer pure, upper caste men decide that she’s unworthy of living anymore. That is why I weave caste and body narratives together.

As a Dalit, this is very important to me. And it is the same for us women. We just have too many Dalit male voices in literature.

Your body is used as a way to express the violence over your caste – for every caste slur thrown around; there is a physical manifestation on the Dalit body of pain. Your physical and sensual awakening is juxtaposed with the assertion of your caste identity and reclamation of your history. How do you view your body after you articulate these strong thoughts?

In the poem Yen Udal (my body), it is like a discovery that after violence and risk, there is peace in the end, like the calm after a storm.

You may frame me, like a picture
and hang me on your wall
I will pour down

away past you
like a river in sudden flood.

I myself will become
The more you confine me, the more I will spill over
Nature’s fountainhead.

It’s one of my most favourite poems. Actually, the body of a woman is similar to the world because both of them create. But a woman does not have a home – her own space on this earth. The village, where I am living is not my home; it is my father’s home. Where is my mother’s home? My mother’s village is her father’s village. Where is the space for a woman if we only take after men? We are always identified only through the male members of the family in our society.

A woman’s space is only a space when it is connected to a man’s space. If I bear a child, I can’t say it is mine, it is my husband’s heir. We’ve been taught to think that way. We have been instilled with such ideas.

Do you feel a woman’s body, which has been and still is monolithically viewed as a labouring body, is liberated through the sensuality in your poetry?

The female body is never allowed to be in solitude, it is always defined by the man who possesses it, who makes love to it, or by whom it was born to. Love and sex are the same and even if they are not, the two desires emerge from the same body. It is quite normal for a man to flaunt his sexuality, but a woman can never do so: if she does, it is said to be a sin. The society censures female sexuality.

It is only in the last 2000 years that purity and sexuality have been linked, where purity is female and sexuality is male. This ideology is rubbish. It is simply a biological feeling. But when it comes to women, they are immediately cast out.

If you’re feminist, you’re damned. If you’re a Dalit feminist you are damned even more. Even in the past, lyricists like Palani Barathi and Snehan launched an attack on feminist poets. What did you really feel then? 

There was a poem I wrote that describes the female body akin to a piece of music. I got a call one night from an unknown person. It was a man’s voice. He said, “I also want to feel your body against mine.”

This is something that has happened to some prominent female poets too. When the two lyricists made a verbal attack on feminist poets, my family did not support me. If I am in this alone, I cannot expect my family to do so.

So your family couldn’t be trusted with understanding your work?

We live in a society where if a woman, like Nirbhaya, goes out, we ask, “Why did she go out?” But no one would question a man. If I tell my family about the abuse I am getting, they’ll just tell me to stop writing. It’s as simple as that. I confide in my friends and fellow writers. They came to my rescue during such issues. When we called some of the women writers, everyone was too scared to come forward. They advised us to curtail our voice and protests. There were even demonstrations against us. I am not cursing all men, but some could not take it.

The idea of the family providing security or shielding you from the world’s criticisms exists only for men. You can never expect the same for a woman. It’s an unaffordable luxury especially for the ones that talk about body politics, feminism and Dalit identity.

What were the male voices saying?

“She only writes about the vagina, she only writes vulgar poetry,” we faced a lot of backlash. They spoke in innuendoes, ostracising us for writing about feminism. “We thought her breasts would be big, but they seem to be small,” was a comment hurled over a prominent female poet of Tamil Nadu. Everyone has a problem with using the words breasts or vagina. Bharathi has written about a child drinking milk from a mother’s breast. Those words were so common in early Tamil literatures of last centuries. You can find such words in poems of Andal, Arunagirinaathar and Pattinaththaar; even more in Kamba Ramayanam, but it has never faced any backlash.

How has your personal relationship with feminism changed over time?

Feminism is supposed to be inclusive. And if there’s space for Dalit writing, so why shouldn’t there be one for Dalit women, I thought. We can never define feminism by one standard. My language of feminism is different from yours. For some, feminism may be about having the right to go to pubs and stay out late at nights. For me, feminism is having the right to be able to step out of the house, and both are equally important.

We need to understand that the feminism in New Delhi is not the same as in Kanyakumari. The feminism in Lalapet is different from that of Kanyakumari. But what is important is the common thread of women’s freedom that runs through. It is only laced externally with personal experiences. On this respect, Dalit feminism is different and important just as much.

Yes, that’s the crux of intersectionality. As a Dalit feminist, do you feel it’s important to raise your voice because we don’t have enough of them?

Be it Nirbhaya or Priyanka, both of them were seen more as female bodies than as female beings. They both went through the same kind of barbarism. But when it happens to women of lower castes, the treatment is always different as was in the case of Priyanka.

If all the women who are suppressed are treated equally, I wouldn’t make that Dalit distinction in my feminism or literature. I didn’t choose to do so; the situation of the society has pushed me to do it. My work is mainly about female emancipation and I also focus on the Dalit women.

In one of your popular untitled poems, you talk about how it was shameful to bring up your father’s occupation as a pariah labour as a child and how you would say to your friends that the leftover rice from your alms was fresh rice to hide your caste identity. Did you embark on shedding the skin of shame with this poem? Was this the start?

First let me clarify one thing, all that we writers write are not based on our own experiences. They are also from myriads of other people and places. Please don’t jump to conclusions and assumptions. I actually wrote the poem when I was 25. It was a collective experience of many Dalits. At one point of my life, I was ashamed of my caste. At my school, teachers used to ask who belonged to forward caste and who are Harijans? But I couldn’t openly identify myself with that term. If we are the children of God, then whose children are the others?

Was that shame something you had to carefully clutch on to out of fear?

As a child, I had no one to play with. My 15 years of schooling was a dark time. Can anyone bring back those 15 years I have lost? It’s the past now; I overcame my caste identity at one point. I was proud to be a Dalit and that happened during my college years. I never understood caste as a child and didn’t have the maturity to deal with it, I was confused then. Now I am free. I have vanquished the identities in every aspect, like I have said in my poem.

(Sukirtharani recites)

In their minds

I, who smell faintly of meat

my house where bones hang

and my street where young men

wander without restraint

making loud music from coconut shells

strung with skin

are all at the extreme end of our town

But I keep assuring them

We stand at the forefront.