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The lives of Tamil Dalit women: a study of the literary works of Bama and P. Sivakami.

Tamil Dalit literature is a relatively new arrival in the literary landscape of India. While resistance to caste exploitation by those oppressed by the social system is not a new phenomenon, Laura Brueck notes that the emergence of a "self-conscious literary genre, dominated by themes of exploitation and political awakening as well as a realist aesthetic peculiar to a modern Dalit perspective, are only about two decades old" (Brueck, 2010). Several scholars including Laura Brueck and B. Mangalam argue for the importance of developing a literary critical corpus that pays attention to the diversity within the Dalit literary movement itself. B. Mangalam calls for literary criticism on Dalit literature to transcend concerns over Dalit identity and argues that "Dalit writers merit an ideologically articulate, theorized, and critically nuanced reading of their works. Tamil Dalit studies has to chart out its critical course of intervention as a tool to aid Tamil Dalit writers' agenda of working towards Dalit liberation/empowerment through writing" (Mangalam, 2007). This essay responds to Mangalam's call and examines the work of two pioneering Tamil Dalit women writers, Bama and P. Sivakami, who have used literary works to articulate a Dalit feminist standpoint. Sivakami was the first Tamil Dalit woman to publish a novel in 1989. This novel Pazhiyana Kazhidalum (translated by the author herself as The Grip of Change) is a critique of Dalit patriarchy, and it not only examines Dalit women's lives but it does so by using an innovative form. Part I of the novel presents the narrative and the Part II, Asiriyar Kurippu or Author's Note, examines the narrator's challenges with the genre of fiction. Bama's first work, Karukku, published in 1992 is an autobiographical narrative which draws attention to caste politics in Tamil Nadu and presents a searing critique of the Catholic church as furthering caste discrimination and patriarchy. Bama quickly followed Karukku with several other works including Sangati/Events (Tamil publication 1994 followed by English translation in 2005) and Vanmam/Vendetta (Tamil publication 2002 and English translation 2008). (1) Each of these three works by Bama rethinks literary form not only by privileging Dalit Tamil as the language of narration but also by blurring the boundaries between autobiography, testimonio, and fiction. This essay argues that the writings of Bama and Sivakami use literary forms to theorize Tamil Dalit feminism. Their writing goes beyond describing the problems of caste and the critique of patriarchy from a Dalit woman's perspective to articulating through literary innovations a Tamil Dalit feminist philosophy of liberation. Both Bama and Sivakami's works explore issues that they see as central to Dalit women's lives. These include caste politics, violence and the female body, and the relationship between Dalit men and women. They differ in how they view "Dalit" as a political identity and how they articulate a feminist philosophy of Dalit liberation. While both recognize that the term "Dalit" has a national resonance, they root their feminism in the historical and cultural specifics of rural and small town Tamil Nadu. Sivakami's perspective is that terms like Dalit reinforce caste politics and that what India needs is a complete erasure of caste based identities. Bama, on the other hand, embraces Dalit as a progressive identity that articulates the need for inter-caste solidarity to overcome oppressive social practices. This essay will focus on Sivakami's Grip of Change (including Author's Note) and on Bama's Vanmam/Vendetta and discuss each author's development of a feminist standpoint through close analysis of the respective works.

The Grip of Change: Sivakami and the self-conscious examination of Tamil Dalit Identity Politics.

Sivakami's novel focuses on Kathamuthu, a political leader and a man of consequence in the Parayar community, who is very influential in local politics. In the beginning of the novel, Kathamuthu meets Thangam, a Parayar woman, who has been beaten and injured by upper caste men connected to the family of Paranjothi Udayar. We learn that Thangam, a young widow, works for Udayar and he had been repeatedly raping her. The men who beat up Thangam did so because of Udayar's wife who sees Thangam as a threat to her marriage. Kathamuthu immediately begins working toward justice for Thangam. However, Kathamuthu is not without his own flaws. He has two wives and the polygamous family structure is a source of constant stress. He has two children, and his daughter, Gowri, is a perceptive young woman who watches the Thangam situation evolve and comes to an understanding of caste and gender politics in the family and community and how these politics shape her life. In the second part of this work, the Author's Note, we learn that Gowri is the author of the novel The Grip of Change and in the latter work, Gowri self-consciously takes apart her role as author, daughter, Dalit woman and examines through this analysis what it means to be a Dalit feminist. It is necessary to note that Gowri and Sivakami have significant concerns about the very idea of a Dalit identity and also resist labels such as Dalit and feminist thus engaging in a debate about identity politics.

Sivakami's novel addresses a familiar theme in Dalit literature and politics--caste based violence. The Dalit characters are victims of violence (for example, Thangam) and the resistance to caste oppression also includes talk of violence against the upper-caste by men of the Dalit community who gather in Kathamuthu's home or who participate in his nephew's union politics. Hugo Gorringe (2006) in his study of violence in Dalit Movements in South India notes that violence (both physical and rhetorical) is a part of Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu. He argues that when Dalits hold demonstrations and give fiery speeches filled with violent imagery such violence helps bring the group together and to also clearly define "boundaries between 'us' and 'them.' These divisions are reinforced by acts of physical violence either by or against Dalits" (Gorringe, 2006, 118). While Gorringe's study looks at public experiences and expressions of political violence and identity formation, Sivakami explores violence within the Dalit community from the perspective of the lived experiences of the women. When Thangam arrives at Kathamuthu's doorstep, she tells him about her plight. Her story is very complex. We learn that she is a childless widow and her husband's brothers would not let her have a share in the family lands. Consequently, she had to work for Paranjothi Udayar. Her in-laws spread the rumor that she had become Udayar's concubine and then Thangam narrates how she became his mistress:

"Sami, is there anywhere on earth where this doesn't happen? I didn't want it. But Udayar took no notice of me. He raped me when I was working in his sugarcane field. I remained silent, after all, he is my paymaster. He measures my rice. If you think I am like that, that I am easy, please ask around in the village. After my husband's death, can anybody say they had seen me in the company of anyone, or even smiling at anyone? My husband's brothers tied to force me, but I never gave in. They wouldn't give me my husband's land, but wanted me to be a whore for them! I wouldn't give in. Each time one of them came near me I brandished the broom. After that none of them came anywhere near me. I am a childless widow. There is no protection for me." (Sivakami 2006, 7)

This passage speaks volumes about the connections between a Dalit woman's body, her reproductive status, her economic situation, and the commodification of her body in the process of survival. Thangam being childless has no status in her husband's family and is not allowed to claim a piece of their property, but she is expected to submit her body to her brothers-in-law in exchange for protection. When she refuses and works for Udayar, she is raped and has to submit to him because she needs the job. She reports her problem to the community leader, Kathamuthu, not because she was raped but because she was attacked by Udayar's wife's male relatives for her involvement with the Udayar. So the proximate agent of the beating of Thangam is Udayar's wife--woman upon woman violence--precipitated by Udayar's assumption of authority over Thangam's body because of her poverty and her caste. Thangam becomes accessible to Udayar only because her brothers-in law denied her property rights and pressured her to cede her body to them in exchange for protection. As Sivakami builds the narrative, we recognize that violence experienced by Dalit women is not simply the issue of upper caste men's violation of their bodies. To read Dalit women's experience as a problem of caste with an overlay of gender is simplistic; the effects of caste oppression, gender identity, patriarchal practices within and without Dalit castes, and poverty reinforce one another constantly and the psychic and physical effects on Dalit women are devastating.

While Kamalam, Udayar's wife, is the instigator the beating of Thangam, Sivakami's brief portrayal of Kamalam reveals her difficult position within the gendered economy of the patriarchal household. Kamalam would not have known about Udayar's infidelity if one of her brother's had not seen him having sex with Thangam in the field. Kamalam tries to deal with the issue within the family, but the place of the wife is subordinate to the husband in such a household and she can only express her anger indirectly to Udayar through insinuations. Sivakami writes "Kamalam addressed the issue at home by referring to it indirectly. Udayar pretended that he did not understand any of Kamalam's angry insinuations" (Sivakami, 2006, 34). Because Udayar ignored Kamalam's anger and outrage, she decided to find justice in her own terms. Udayar had not expected his wife to exercise agency; after all, Tamil culture enjoins a woman through stories of women like Nalayini (2) to accept the husband's inadequacies and be virtuous. Kamalam cannot attack her husband physically, so she bargains (3) with the patriarchal structure of the family, calling upon her brothers to avenge the injustice like the legendary Nallathangal before her. (4) Neither Thangam nor Kamalam recognizes that they are each victims of the same patriarchal system. Thangam perceives Kamalam's caste and marital status as granting her power and Kamalam views Thangam as being immoral because of her caste.

Thangam's narration of her experience does not simply present her situation as that of a victim. She also expresses agency although her agency is somewhat limited by class and caste. It is important for Thangam, despite her broken and wounded body, that Kathamuthu recognize her as a person of honor. She claims her chastity as a widow by noting that she did not keep the company of men or even smile at anybody else. She is emphatic in declaring her refusal of her brothers-in-law and to stress her dignity and honor.

However, she is helpless against the Udayar because he simply claims her body as his in return for "measure[ing] her rice." The brothers-in law had propositioned Thangam and had offered her a deal--her body for their use in return for her claim on the land. Udayar raped her and later in the narrative we see the events from his point of view. He justifies his intended assault on Thangam by rationalizing that "She was his servant. Besides, Thangam was no princess or minister's daughter. For that matter, she didn't even have a husband. There would not be a soul to rescue her if he imposed himself on her. Moreover, she was only a low caste labourer" (Sivakami, 2006, 32). Udayar's assessment of Thangam's vulnerability is measured by her class (his servant) and her caste (lower caste laborer--a Parachi). When Kathamuthu files a police report on behalf of Thangam, Udayar is more concerned about his reputation of having consorted with a Parachi than about the legal difficulties that would follow him should the case go to court. Although Udayar worries that the news of his sexual contact with a Dalit woman would damage his reputation, the reader already knows that Kathamuthu had deliberately altered Thangam's story in the FIR (First Information Report) filed with the police. Kathamuthu insists that Thangam file the complaint as a caste based violence against her by Udayar's wife because she had traversed the upper caste street. Neither Gowri (who is the scribe for the FIR) nor Thangam understands why but both of them acquiesce to Kathamuthu. While Kathamuthu suppresses Thangam's sexual exploitation and restates it as a caste violence issue, he takes a story that might be dismissed by authorities because of the seeming culpability of the woman in the relationship with Udayar and recasts it for public consumption as a caste oppression situation. Why does he do this? Is it that Kathamuthu chooses to ignore sexual violence? Perhaps, he was in his own chivalrous way preventing further sexual violation of Thangam by the police in their inquiry into the matter. Or he might have been manipulating the story to serve his own larger political ambitions and representing himself as an advocate for Dalit autonomy and political power. On the surface, it is easy to read Kathamuthu's changing of Thangam's story as a patriarchal dismissal of a woman's exploitation. This is how Gowri who is writing the report seems to interpret the situation. She also links his manipulation of Thangam to Kathamuthu's polygamous household and the abuse of her own mother. However, as the plot unravels, the reader sees how politically astute Kathamuthu is and how he foregrounds caste issues because of his need to get justice for Thangam. He also gets leverage against Udayar and prevents Thangam from falling victim to police corruption and he rallies the Parayar community in her cause. Had he allowed the original story to be reported, Thangam would not be seen as one oppressed by the Udayar but as one who received her due reward from Udayar's wife and relatives for her adulterous relationship with Udayar.

As Sivakami unravels the many facets of Thangam' story and reveals how it becomes a catalyst for political posturing, inter-caste violence, and police corruption, she also develops her Dalit liberation philosophy by showing the limits of individual justice and the need for social reform. Thangam gets her due in terms of her land rights from her brothers-in-law but she also becomes Kathamuthu's third woman and part of the already complex polygamous household. Social reform, however, comes from the younger generation. Kathamuthu's nephew Chandran comes back to his ancestral home from Malaysia and after a bitter family feud over land and property becomes a union leader at a local mill. He promotes literacy and encourages unity of workers and transcendence of caste, but the narrative reveals how caste politics make union politics murky. Kathamuthu's son, Sekharan, grows up to be an acolyte of Chandran's and openly rejects his father's philosophy of corrupt political change and exploitative sexual practices. It is Gowri, however, who becomes the revolutionary example of change. She refuses early marriage, goes to college and experiences how caste based scholarships and reservations dehumanize Dalits. She gets a Ph.D. and at the end of the novel, she is proudly single and a career woman. At the end of the novel, Kathamuthu still harbors visions of becoming an elected leader to the State Assembly although he has lost several elections and Thangam manages his financial and public life with a firm hand and shrewd management of people including Kathamuthu and his other wives.

The narrative of Grip of Change is radical not only as the first novel by a Dalit woman written in Tamil but also because it provides a very careful analysis of the complex intersections of caste, class, gender, local and national politics and refuses to romanticize Dalit liberation. For all of these reasons Sivakami's work is noteworthy; however, Sivakami's addition of The Author's Note is even more significant because it compels the reader to examine the politics of writing a novel as the vehicle for Dalit liberation. Written some years after the publication of the narrative, The Author's Note, explores Sivakami/Gowri's role as a Dalit woman writer. She notes that the literary work altered reality in many ways including crafting the character of the father in light of a daughter's prejudice against him for his polygamy and his corrupt politics. In showing the differences between the author's real life and her changes of the lived reality in the fiction, Sivakami underscores the importance of reading Dalit fiction as fiction. The reader should not expect that a Dalit writer would not make aesthetic choices in the same way that a non-Dalit writer would. The discussion of real life and its transformation into fiction reminds us that writers who resist dominant ideology must not be shackled by the expectations of those who wish to see the novel as simply a political or sociological treatise. The novel is first and foremost a work of art and as such allows the Dalit woman writer as much license and freedom as it does any other practitioner of the form.

Sivakami also address the criticism she receives from Dalit readers: her portrayal of corruption, alcoholism, and exploitative sexual practices within the Dalit community is a betrayal of the community. She apparently confirmed the negative view of Dalits that is prevalent amongst the upper castes. Sivakami remarks on her story of Thangam. She notes that the experience of a great aunt who was the concubine of a Reddiar and the experience of another aunt who had been almost raped by a Gounder helped her shape Thangam's story. She addresses the different renditions of Thangam's story within the novel. She notes that the upper castes had constructed Thangam's relationship with the Udayar as a manwoman issue and that Kathamuthu's intervention had rendered it as a story of a caste specific violence against a lower caste woman. She asks "How did the novelist dare to distort history with such impunity?" (Sivakami, 2006, 155).

Sivakami also addresses the idea of a solution to the social problems presented. She looks at the different ways in which the novel presents remedies to the problem of caste: Gowri and Chandran, the next generation emerge as social revolutionaries; the unity between working classes (Vanniyars and Parayars) transcending caste; the small episode of inter-caste marriage of two minor characters. In working on such novelistic solutions, the author had represented herself as an intellectual with solutions. She notes that many novels and films portray sentimental solutions such as revolutionary intellectuals who enter villages and raise the consciousness of the people and establish schools and clinics and how the villagers resist oppression irrespective of caste and creed. Such formulaic stories also have a "sprinkling of female spice the preparation" (Sivakami, 2006, 179). She then looks at her own presentation of class and caste as interconnected where the poor are of lower caste and the rich of the upper caste and laments/critiques her own analysis of the situation in the novel.

The Author's Note deconstructs what is a radical narrative that refuses to romanticize the Dalits or to present them as a community that is always a victim. In doing so, Sivakami shows the importance of Dalit writers working toward Dalit liberation to be honest about their analysis of the Dalit community. She also underscores that the novel is a work of art and not a sociological treatise, and ultimately pushes toward transcending caste labels (Dalit, Brahmin, Vanniyar, Parayar) to a vision of a common humanity. For her the embrace of labels such as "Dalit" and by extension "feminist" or "Marxist" subsumes art to ideology and takes away the agency of a writer to be unfettered in her creative agenda. As a literary critic, one sees that for Sivakami, art is a tool for resistance and liberation only if the artist is not fettered by ideology. The Author's Note while a self-conscious examination of these issues by the writer also acts as a guide to the reader/critic to look at the text from multiple perspectives and to not impose a particular ideology on it.

Bama's Vanmam/Vendetta and Dalit feminist liberation

If Sivakami works at deconstructing labels and pushing for a humanist view, Bama embraces Dalit identity and demonstrates the importance of engaged literary production as a vehicle for revolution. Bama's Vanmam/Vendetta (Tamil publication 2002, English translation 2008) is set in a fictional village Kadampatti in Tamil Nadu. Kadampatti's socio-economic life is determined by caste as is the geography of the town with different castes residing in different streets and making contested claims on public and private spaces for their communal life. The narrative of Vanmam/Vendetta focuses on the rivalry between two oppressed castes--Pallars and the Parayars. The former are predominantly Hindu and the latter are predominantly Christian. Mixed into the Pallar-Parayar dynamics is the role of the Naickers, the upper-castes, who own the lands and provide employment to Pallars and Parayars. The predominantly Christian Parayars have fared a little better in terms of education and several of the young men have received high school or college education, thereby forsaking manual labor for the Naickers and creating a labor problem in Kadampatti. Additionally, the narrative examines the challenges of the first generation of Parayars who get an education and find themselves caught between the world of their childhood in Kadampatti and the larger world that promises economic opportunity and social advancement through education. The Pallar and Parayar youth at first organize to erect a statue of Ambedkar in the village and then fall out over whether Ambedkar should have been honored and if they all believed in Ambedkar's philosophy of "Educate! Organize! Agitate!" (Bama, 2008, 61). The conflict escalates leading to beatings, murder, and revenge attacks. The intervention of the police and the political maneuverings of the Naickers exacerbate matters and neither the Pallars nor the Parayars benefit. Eventually both communities come together with the help of their community elders and negotiate an ending of hostilities. They further agree to overcome their conflicts and to forgive each other for the violence (and to manipulate the legal system) and to join together to fight the Panchayat elections. It is the building of coalitions across oppressed castes and the discovery of a common political agenda that signals the adoption of a progressive Dalit politics of liberation in the novel.

While the above plot summary might seem simplistic, Bama's narrative provides a much nuanced understanding of caste oppression, inter-caste problems, male-female dynamics, and Dalit agency. Bama's delineation of caste oppression while cognizant of the larger national debates on the issue (in other parts of India and also the work of Ambedkar et al), also foregrounds the specificities of the Dalit experiences in Tamil Nadu. Her characters while raising a statue to Ambedkar because of his national and historical status are equally aware of the contributions of Tamil Dalit leaders like Iyothee Thass and Rettaimalai Srinivasan. Thus, Bama notes that contours of the caste issue locally need to be addressed in order for there to be Dalit liberation at the local level. The importance of Vanmam/Vendetta in delineating the local aspects of the experiences of Tamil Dalits emerges in Bama's candid discussion of the inter-caste rivalry. She emphasizes how economics of labor--who works the fields, who gets a job, and who owns the fields--underpin inter-caste rivalries and lead to violence. Her Dalit characters are both victims of violence when they are beaten up by landlords, other Dalits, or subjected to police brutality. However, the Dalit characters are also perpetrators of violence and neither the Pallars nor the Parayars are blamed by Bama in the narrative. Instead she underscores how the ideology of vendetta is formulated and promulgated through caste identity and furthers the cycles of violence in Kadampatti. Bama's depiction of inter-caste violence confirms Hugo Gorringe's analysis of violence as strategic in the formation of Dalit identity; however, Bama also recognizes that inter-caste violence is manipulated by those in power such as the upper-caste Naickers and the state represented in this narrative by the police. The Naickers use a "divide and rule" philosophy to ensure that they have a constant supply of cheap labor, and the state replicates the caste biases of society and fails to protect the vulnerable.

Although Bama presents a nuanced analysis of violence in this novel, Vendetta / Vanmam is a narrative whose primary focus is Dalit agency and the narrative showcases Dalit agency in multiple ways. From the outset, we see Bama recognizing education as an important aspect of Dalit agency. While she playfully caricatures the posturing of Jeyaraju, the college student who returns to Kadampatti and wears fashionable clothes and sunglasses and pretends to have forgotten the route home, she also presents him as the emerging youth leader. He founds the Kazhani Arts Troupe which gives the local youth a sense of pride in their cultural heritage. It is Kazhani Arts Troupe that puts up the Ambedkar statue and also holds an arts festival in which Dalit arts are celebrated. Even as Jeyaraju and his friends are organizing, they are challenged by the young women of the community who are at first excluded from this group. In this narrative, Bama's lens is not exclusively focused on women as it was in her earlier narrative Sangati/Events but she is aware that Dalit women have to overcome not just caste oppression but also fight Dalit patriarchy within the community. Dalit women's agency is not limited to the young alone. During the cultural festival, the young women perform the kummi dance and are challenged by the older women who refuse to be sidelined by the youth of the community. They step forward to show the young people how kummi should be performed and how much better they were in their knowledge of the art form. In this friendly challenge, the older women stake their place within community life. Similarly, when the riots occur and the men run away from the village and hide in the fields, the women are left to fend for themselves. They are first tricked by the police and arrested because the police believe that by incarcerating the women, they would flush out the men who are in hiding. Instead the women undergo extraordinary hardship. However, the women also come together to find their way and bury their dead, care for their children, and provide food and access to school for the young. Bama depicts the women as strong and able to come together to fend for themselves even in acute political crisis because they are abandoned by the men. Additionally, when the novel opens, we are told that women are not allowed in the chavady (public square) because it is an exclusive male space; however, as the narrative progresses and the community organizes, we see the women come to the forefront of the struggle and take their places as actors in the life of the community. For Bama, Dalit feminism is intertwined with Dalit liberation; her narrative demonstrates that for Dalit women, liberation requires transformation of both caste structures and of patriarchy.

The English translation of Vanmam/Vendetta by Malini Seshadri and edited by Mini Krishnan is very attentive to the need for providing the reader unfamiliar with Dalit issues and with Tamil culture a critical context for understanding Bama's work. Included with the narrative is an interview with Bama by R. Azhagarasan. This interview functions as Bama's critical response to her own work as did The Author's Note in The Grip of Change by Sivakami. Bama is very clear about her place as a Dalit feminist. Unlike Sivakami who deconstructs "Dalit" and "feminist," Bama wholeheartedly embraces her role as an intellectual in the Dalit community. She is critical of Indian feminist movements and notes that Dalit women are marginalized by Indian feminists. She notes:

I have written stories focusing on women and caste. But I can definitely say that between "Dalit patriarchy" and "caste in feminist movements," the latter is more cannot even talk about it. In Dalit patriarchy there is at least some recognition for a human being. But in feminist circles, "Dalit woman" is not even considered "subject," and caste was never considered to be a subject for discussion. (Bama, 2008, 158).

For Bama, then, her work is not just for Tamil readers or Dalit readers but for a national discussion amongst those who see themselves as pursuing liberatory goals. She also notes the transnational links between her work and the work of Black feminist writers like Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. The Dalit movement in India in recent times, especially with the Dalit Panthers, has consciously drawn connections between the civil rights movement in the United States and the Dalit liberation movement in India. Like Alice Walker and Maya Angelou, Bama sees the need for feminist theorizing to include a critical sense of the intersectionality. For Bama, Dalit feminism must examine the intersections of caste, class, gender, sexuality, religion and nation. Her interview demonstrates how each of her works while focusing on one aspect (religion in Karukku, women's experiences in Sangati/Events and inter-caste violence in Vanmam/Vendetta) does so with a strong commitment to the importance of intersectional analysis.

Bama is unabashedly Dalit and feminist. She sees herself as a Dalit intellectual. She says:

I speak to you as "Bama", with the impact made on me by these events and writings. Without these things we would not be sitting here talking. Before 1993, I was unknown. Today when I say, "I," it includes people like me. All these things together form our collective identity and help us all act together. I cannot claim for myself the identity of an individual, a Dalit woman, I am part of a collective awareness. I carry their voices. (Bama, 2008, 151).

Bama's contribution to the genre of the novel has been to transform a genre that emerged in bourgeois, middle class Europe as a form that foregrounded individual subjectivity and to convert that genre to represent the collective awareness channeled by the entity, Bama. Vanmam/Vendetta is not about Jeyaraju or the Pallars or the Parayars; it is the narrative of the Dalit collective of Kadampatti.

The plot elements of Vanmam/Vendetta bears a striking resemblance to events that took place in Pudhupatti village in March 1999 between Pallars and Parayars over the erection of a flag pole by the Pallars that leaned against an Ambedkar statue erected by the Parayars, which the Parayars demanded be removed and then tore down themselves. The Pallars and Parayars subscribed to different Dalit political ideologies (Puthiya Tamilagam and Liberation Panthers respectively), and a Liberation Panther activist was attacked and the hut he took refuge in was set on fire. The riots that followed led to five deaths. The relationship between the two groups was irreparably damaged. (5) However, Bama's writing is not presented as a historical narrative about these events nor as a politically partisan piece on supporting one or the other political group. Instead the narrative blurs the boundaries between journalism, political treatise, and fiction and presents a Dalit feminist narrative that articulates a philosophy of liberation that emphasizes inter-caste solidarity and Dalit agency as the means to transforming caste politics in India.


This comparative study of the work of two Tamil Dalit feminist writers attempts to fill a gap that exists in Dalit literary scholarship. Not only is there a limited focus on Dalit writing in the discussions of Indian literature, there are also not many discussions of Dalit literary works as literary works which examine how Dalit writers are transforming the literary landscape. Additionally, I would argue that feminist literary scholarship of Indian literature needs to address the significance of Dalit women writers and their understanding of feminism and literature. Feminist scholars must take seriously Bama's critique of the erasure of Dalit women in feminist studies and work toward redressing that problem. Hopefully, such work will also take into account the need for recognizing the diversity in feminist philosophies and agendas as demonstrated above in the discussion of Sivakami and Bama. Finally, such work cannot be restricted to local or national discussions alone; there must be an engagement with transnational feminist scholarship.


Bama. 2000. Karukku. Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom. Chennai: Macmillan, 2000

--. 2005. Sangati/Events. Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

--. 2008. Vanmam/Vendetta. Translated by Malini Seshadri. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Brueck, Laura. 2010 "The Emerging Complexity of Dalit Consciousness." Himal SouthAsian Dalitconsciousness_nw3952.html

Das, Soumyashree. 2009. "Translation as Transformation of Writing: Discussing Bama and Sivakami." Icfai University Journal of English Studies. 4: 43-49.

Gorringe, Hugo. 2005. "'You build your house, we'll build ours': The Attractions and Pitfalls of Dalit Identity Politics." Social Identities 11: 653-672.

--. (2006). "Which is Violence? Reflections of Collective Violence and Dalit Movements in South India." Social Movement Studies 5: 117-136.

Iyer, Nalini and Bonnie Zare, eds. 2009. Other Tongues: Rethinking the Language Debates In India. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Kandiyoti, Deniz. 1988. "Bargaining with Patriarchy." Gender& Society 2: 274-290.

Mangalam, B. 2007. "Tamil Dalit Literature: An Overview." Language Forum. /print/PrintArticle.aspx?id=165971997. Accessed April 3, 2010.

Sivakami, P. 2006 The Grip of Change. Translated by author. Hyderabad: Orient Longman.

Sivanarayanan, Anushiya. 2004. "Translating Tamil Dalit Poetry." World Literature Today. May-August: 56-58.

Nalini Iyer

Seattle University

Seattle, WA 98122


(1) This essay uses the English translations of all the texts mentioned here because the translated texts are readily available to a global audience. The politics of such translation of Dalit literature into English are complex and not the subject of this essay. However, readers interested in this issue can consult Nalini Iyer and Bonnie Zare, eds. Other Tongues: Rethinking the Language Debates in India (2009); Soumyashree Das (2009) "Translation as Transformation of Writing: Discussing Bama and Sivakami" and Anushiya Sivanarayanan "Translating Tamil Dalit Poetry" (2004).

(2) The story of Nalayini tells of the chaste wife who endured her husband's many tests of her fidelity and virtue. She cares for him even when he is diseased of body and carries him in a basket to the home of a prostitute so he can find his sexual pleasure elsewhere. When she is cursed by a sage that she will be a widow before sunrise because she unwittingly inflicted pain on the sage, the power of her virtue allows her to command the sun to never rise. Eventually the gods proclaim her virtue and save the Earth from a sunless end.

(3) Deniz Kandiyoti (1988) in her essay "Bargaining with Patriarchy" argues that women strategize within the constraints of patriarchy to enable their survival. She notes that patriarchal bargaining varies according to class, caste and ethnicity and is not timeless or immutable. Instead it is a form of active or passive resistance to constraints that is contingent on extant circumstances. Kamalam, in this novel, demonstrates how patriarchal bargaining works in her situation.

(4) Nallathangal's story is a popular one in Tamil culture. Nallathangal and her seven children sought refuge from a severe drought in the home of her brother. Her sister-in-law who resented the woman and her brood, drove her away. Unable to bear the dishonor, Nallathangal throws her children in a well and kills herself. Before killing herself, she brings down a curse on her brother's family. The story of Nallathangal is well-known and circulates in several versions and Tamil brothers, fearing the accursed fate of Nallathangal's brother, often jump to the aid of distressed sisters.

(5) For a detailed discussion of Tamil Dalit politics and for a discussion of Pudhupatti riots, see Hugo Gorringe (2005), "'You build your house, and we'll build ours': The Attractions and Pitfalls of Dalit Identity Politics."

Nalini Iyer, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English at Seattle University where she teaches postcolonial literatures. Her publications include essays on Meena Alexander, Shyam Selvadurai, Lalithambika Antherjanam and Bharati Mukherjee. She is co-editor (with Bonnie Zare) of Other Tongues: Rethinking the Language Debates in India (Rodopi, 2009). She is currently co-authoring a book (with Amy Bhatt) Roots and Reflections: South Asians Map the Pacific Northwest (under contract with University of Washington Press).
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Author:Iyer, Nalini
Publication:Pakistan Journal of Women's Studies: Alam-e-Niswan
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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