Listen to this article:
Chennai: Sukirtharani distinctly remembers the two years she had spent undergoing teacher’s training at her hometown, Ranipet in Tamil Nadu.
“Every single day of those two years, I encountered them. I have watched them from a distance, walked along in silence. I have been a witness to the casual humiliation they had faced on the streets and still continued with what they did – carrying shit on their heads. The image stayed with me, somewhere deep down,” she recalls.
Years later, the image revisited her when she came across a manual scavenger on a railway line. “No matter which party is in power, they continue to exist. They are forced to do the same work. If this is not caste discrimination, what else is?” she asks. “I have no power to change things for them. I honestly feel helpless and all I can do is write a poem.”
Her poem Kaimaaru translated as ‘Debt’ into English is a powerful articulation of the indignity associated with manual scavenging, a brilliant takedown of the caste structure that lent them this indignity and a sensitive portrayal of manifestation of this guilt at a deeply personal level.
A piece of hide
sewn into the base of the basket
she sets out.
The blunt-edged scrap-iron sheet
Piled with gathered ashes
is heavy in her arms.
Behind a house that’s fit to split
with too many people in it
she goes – stops there,
her eyes falling on a square
swinging from a nail.
Raising it with one hand
she throws a handful of ashes
scraping her forearm on the hole’s jagged edges, she
sweeps and scoops, sweeps and scoops from left to right
into the basket.
And when it’s full, and heavy on her head
with the back of her hand
she wipes away yellow water
streaming down her brow.
And then with easy grace
she goes her way.
what I can do for her is not to defecate once
[From The Oxford Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing, edited by D. Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan. This excerpt was translated into English by Vasanta Surya.]
According to reports, ‘Debt’ is among the two poems of Sukirtharani, along with some chapters of Bama’s novel Sangati (‘Events’) and Mahasweta Devi’s story Draupadi, which have been dropped from the syllabus of Delhi University’s English course. The other poem dropped – My Body – is an equally powerful work that draws parallels between a woman’s body and nature – both subject to persistent exploitation.
“It is how a woman’s body is either wilfully ignored and destroyed by ‘powers.’ I am definitely not surprised that these poems were dropped. We now have a Union government that believes in Sanatana. But clearly, they are troubled by what I write. I am not surprised because erasure of powerful Dalit voices has always happened. When they cannot face the truths in our works – mine, Bama’s or Mahasweta Devi’s – they try to stop us. But our works speak for themselves. They continue to be taught in many colleges and universities. It’s not just about one Bama or Sukirtharani, our works are representative of thousands of Bamas and Sukirtharanis who continue to fight oppression. It is just hard to stop us speaking,” says Sukirtharani.
Bama wouldn’t agree more. “We have a Union government that lives 2,000 years ago and we live in the present. They think women shouldn’t speak out or fight. Sangati was all about that.”
Published first in Tamil in 1994 and in English in 2001, Sangati captures the lives of Dalit women – their fights to assert their individual identity even when fighting against caste and patriarchy. “Every woman in Sangati engages in this fight. But today, we have a government that doesn’t want women to fight, that doesn’t want to even give any space to women. They are believers of Manusmriti. Their politics is too evident in what they have decided to drop,” says Bama.
As a novel, Sangati continues to be more relevant today given the struggles of Dalit women across the country. But it also intimately portrays the strength and resolve of the women in asserting their own identities, amidst the constant day-to-day struggle, through various possible ways. A paradox perhaps best illustrated by this paragraph from the novel.
“In our streets the girls hardly ever enjoy a period of childhood. Before they can sprout three tender leaves, so to speak, they are required to behave like young women, looking after the housework, taking care of babies, going out to work for daily wages. Yet, in spite of all their suffering and pain one cannot but be delighted by their sparkling words, their firm tread and their bubbling laughter.”
[From The Oxford Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing, edited by D Ravikumar and R Azhagarasan. This excerpt was translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom]
Pointing to the rape of a nine-year-old girl in Delhi recently, Bama says: “The government is incapable of delivering justice to numerous Dalit women and girls who continue to face violence and oppression, but they want to stop those who document their fights. But if they think that they can take us back to Varnaasrama period by erasing our voices, they are wrong. I am sure people would want to know more about Sangati now. Also, I firmly believe the young writers will continue our fight.”
In Tamil Nadu, leaders cutting across political lines led by chief minister M.K. Stalin have demanded that the Delhi University include the texts of Bama and Sukirtharani in the syllabus again.
In a statement, the chief minister said that the Delhi University should stop “looking at the works of Bama and Sukirtharani through political and communal lens, and should include them back in the syllabus”.
“The decision of the oversight committee to drop the works of these writers is arbitrary and unacceptable. Both Bama and Sukirtharani have consistently written on the rights of women, liberation of the oppressed and the strength of humanity. Their work shouldn’t be looked through political and communal lens.”
Congress MP Jothimani and CPI(M) leader S. Venkatesan have also demanded that the decision of the Delhi University be repealed.
Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.