Siddalingayya’s Ooru Keri is one of the most important dalit autobiographies in Kannada. Other notable ones include Arvind Malagatti’s Government Brahman, Ramayya’s MaNegara and Govindaraju’s Manavilladavara Madhye. I think Siddalingayya’s autobiography is important not only because he is an important dalit poets in Kannada. I think his book has a larger importance for dalit literature as a whole.
Among dalit autobiographies we see two distinct types: autobiographies by those who are already notables in the society; by those who became notable because of the autobiography they have written. Siddalingayya was already an important public persona – an established kannada poet, a mass leader, a major figure in the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti (DSS), – unlike some of the Marathi authors of autobiographies, who came to obtain social notability through their autobiographies. In this respect autobiography is not the means through which individuality is claimed by Siddalingayya.
Ooru Keri means ‘neighbourhood’ roughly, it refers to residential colony anyways. In this respect it is similar to Vasti an autobiography by the Marathi writer Vasant Moon. It has been pointed out by many that dalit autobiographies, contrary to other autobiographies, focus on the collmunity rather than the individual. That is, an autobiography also becomes ethography as it were, but one from within.
The remarkable feature of this book is that it is less a record of pain and suffering than of joy and success. The reader will perceive the oppression that Siddalingayya and his community go through but the author makes the reader see the power of dalits too. Dalit solidarity, struggle become frequent motifs here. No wonder in his afterword to this book D R Nagraj speaks of the ‘power of poorman’s laughter’. The reader of this book is repeatedly invited to laugh out at the naughtyness of the protagonist, or his friends, at the humorous side of occurences.
While the narrative does not trivilise the experiences, it nevertheless does not become a record only of the power of victimisers but tells how dalits wrest power for themselves. Importantly it relates the determination and the commitment of the dalits to shape their own life even when they are caught in highly subjected situations.
The language used is standard kannada unlike some of his revolutionary poems which use dalit dialects. It has been translated into English by S. R. Ramakrishna and published by Sahitya Academy. Availability is thus an issue. But you can easily get it on Flipkart here.