Tag Archives: Dalit Literature

Dalit English Poet – Meena Kandasamy

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Recently I came across an exciting voice in Indian English poetry: Meena Kandasamy. I first read her poems in a blog and found about her through blogs, her own as well of others. This is an indication in itself that blogging is beginning to be the dominant medium for accessing poetry. Blogging has several advantages in this respect as it unshackles the poets from being dependant on publishers or magazines. It is as democratic as is currently possible. More and more poets, despite their background, can find their  readers without being subjected to the humiliating process of the publishing industry.

Meena Kandasamy has some interesting things to say about blogging. She is a Dalit writer from Tamilnadu who writes poetry in English. She is also an active translator. Her blog makes for interesting reading. A new voice in the field of Indian English Literature, she is very articulate about the aspirations of the dalits. One of her recent blogs was insightful. Here she talks about blogging, caste oppression and women. Here is an excerpt:

from: Meena Kandasamy blog

Big media houses which own the major publications rarely give opportunity to Dalit (ex-untouchable) writers, and there’s an absence of Dalit/anti-caste writers who write in English. The elitist writers want to write the feel-good stuff, India Shining myths, and that’s the work that gets into print. So, I wanted to tap the power and enormous outreach of the internet: how anyone can write and be read/heard in the virtual space. I was not writing because anyone was commissioning me, I didn’t have to follow other people’s diktats, I could speak my mind. Google and tagging ensure that I can get heard without having my own column in any newspaper. Sometimes its helped me bring some happenings to light—such as the recent inside story of Dalit students being beaten up at a law university in Chennai (the mainstream media merely reported it as a “clash” at first) and so on. Blogging on feminist issues, with a caste perspective, was also something that I set out to do, because feminism in India forgets that caste exists at all, and that women at the bottom of the caste hierarchy do suffer more.

Since the cost of establishing alternative media in India is extremely high, activist groups have taken to the Internet in a big way. There is a hunger to use the potential of this media, and human rights defenders are doing it the right way. The campaign to free Binayak Sen; the exposes on state terrorism, fake encounters and police atrocities; the virulent speed in which fact-finding reports can be circulated; the ease with which the LGBT community in India came together and organized their shows of strength in every major city—these have all been possible because of the digital sphere and the space for social networking, discussion and dissemination that it allows.

She has another blog where she has posted several of her poems. She has published a collection of her poems called Touch. Kamala Das wrote the forward where she calls Meena an exciting writer. Believe her. Or decide after reading her poems. One of them is ‘Becoming a Brahmin‘:

Algorithm for converting a Shudra into a Brahmin

Begin.

Step 1: Take a beautiful Shudra girl.
Step 2: Make her marry a Brahmin.
Step 3: Let her give birth to his female child.
Step 4: Let this child marry a Brahmin.
Step 5: Repeat steps 3-4 six times.
Step 6: Display the end product. It is a Brahmin.

End.

Algorithm advocated by Father of the Nation at Tirupur.
Documented by Periyar on 20.09.1947.

Algorithm for converting a Pariah into a Brahmin

Awaiting another Father of the Nation
to produce this algorithm.

(Inconvenience caused due to inadvertent delay
is sincerely regretted.)

While this poem is a frontal attack, there is a nuanced poem which is rich in irony yet trenchant in its critique of the caste system – varna system.

TOUCH

Have you ever tried meditation?
Struggling hard to concentrate,
and keeping your mind as blank
as a whitewashed wall by closing
your eyes, nose, ears; and shutting out
every possible thought. Every thing.
And, the only failure, that ever came,
the only gross betrayal—
was from your own skin.
You will have known this.

Do you still remember,
how, the first distractions arose?
And you blamed skin as a sinner;
how, when your kundalini was rising,
shaken, you felt the cold concrete floor
skin rubbing against skin, your saffron robes,
how, even in a far-off different realm—
your skin anchored you to this earth.
Amidst all that pervading emptiness,
touch retained its sensuality.
You will have known this.

Or if you thought more variedly, about
taste, you would discount it—as the touch
of the tongue. Or, you may recollect
how a gentle touch, a caress changed
your life multifold, and you were never
the person you should have been.
Feeling with your skin, was
perhaps the first of the senses, its
reality always remained with you—
You never got rid of it.
You will have known this.

You will have known almost
every knowledgeable thing about
the charms and the temptations
that touch could hold.

But, you will never have known
that touch – the taboo
to your transcendence,
when crystallized in caste
was a paraphernalia of
undeserving hate.

Photo from: Meena Kandasamy blog.

Tamil Dalit Literature – Quotations

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This blog has seen too much of my opinions. Their worth being uncertain, I must be less liberal with them. Also because, there are so many who speak so much more sense. So here is a new category in this blog: OtherWise Quotations.

This quote comes from an article by GJV Prasad. I liked his piece for it

GJV Prasad

GJV Prasad

raises many questions about translating dalit literature into English, and the problem of a non-dalit translator’s role. But this quotation is more to give a feeling of one of the stories of Bama which GJV Prasad has translated. What the following quote relates is a fine literary representation of dalit resistance: a specific mode because unlike class related resistances, dalit resistance goes beyond political economy and invokes the ethical issues. But, I must hold my tongue now and let Ammasi speak to you:

The story is called “Annachi”. The title is the respectful term “elder brother”. The story is about a Dalit youth called Ammasi, who is quite the hero among the young and a thorn in the flesh for the elders of his community. Ammasi has a strong sense of self and asserts his rights to the face of the upper castes. There are two instances in the story when Ammasi incurs the wrath of the landowning Naickers. In the first instance, he refuses to get up in the bus to give his seat to the landlord in whose fields his father works. When Chandrashekar Naicker, the landlord, asks him to get up, Ammasi replies that

from: women'sunlimited.org

from: women'sunlimited.org

he had to struggle to get the seat and that he would get off the bus soon enough and the Naicker could have his seat then. The landlord tries in vain to get Ammasi to give up the seat reminding him of their respective status. He reprimands Ammasi, a lower caste fellow, for sitting when “Ayya” was standing–the term “ayya” is a respectful way of addressing elders, of addressing employers, landlords, upper caste men, and of addressing one’s own father. Ammasi retorts that his “ayya” is working in Chandrashekar Naicker’s fields, and the Naicker was not his “ayya” by any stretch of the imagination. When Naicker throws his caste status at Ammasi’s teeth, saying that all parayars knew how to stand in humility in front of the Naickers except this young kid, Ammasi replies that he had better mind his tongue if he wanted to keep his respect. Though severely castigated for this and beaten by his father, the old man as he calls him (it would be budha in Hindi), Ammasi does not see why he should change.

His next misdemeanor also has to do with breaking rules of caste behaviour–called to help in watering a field, he shows up in freshly laundered clothes and then gets into an argument with the landlord, Jayshanker Naicker. The landlord objects to being called “Annachi”, elder brother, by the Parayan Ammasi. The fight ends with Ammasi using an abusive word, “mayiru”, hair and abusive because pubic hair, and Jayshanker Naicker complains against him and a panchayat is called. When the narrator thinks the panchayat is for his having used the abusive word, Ammasi coolly corrects him saying that it is for his having called the Naicker “elder brother”. In the meeting he is castigated for crossing boundaries in calling the Naicker by a kinship term, and when asked why he called him “annachi”, Ammasi replies that he did so because the Naicker was older, otherwise he would have called him “tambi”, younger brother. The story ends with Ammasi saying that he cannot understand the community elders who castigated him the previous week for calling the scavenger Irulappan “elder brother” because he belonged to a lower caste, and now castigate him for calling an upper caste man an elder brother.

From GJV Prasad: Translating Tamil Dalit literature into English or how to resist one’s self (Language Forum, Jan-June, 2007 by G.J.V. Prasad)