Let me begin this review by making a confession. I have always been proud of my identity as a feminist, bibliophile and bibliomane.(Please excuse me if my tone sounds overweening!) Inspite of that, all these years why did I not come across ‘Karukku’ written by Bama, a Tamil Dalit feminist writer? This book was first published in Tamil in 1992, but got translated to English by Lakshmi Holmstrom in 2000 and won the Crossword award that year. Was it entirely my fault that I did not stumble upon her because I was neck deep ‘immersed’ in medical books? Or was it because that the book was not reviewed or popularised in mainstream media due to Bama’s multiple ‘disagreeable’ identities? I wish to believe that my first hypothesis is true inspite of enough evidence in favour of the second one. It was not until last week, when my bibliolater friend-cum-elder-brother figure told about his ‘discovery’ of Bama, that I became aware of the existence of Bama and her autobiography, Karukku. For him, who is an avid reader, interested in history, literature and politics since childhood, it took years to chance upon this book. He opined that this could be a reflection of the pathetic state of affairs of Dalits and anything concerned with them in our country, whether it is Dalit literature or Dalit art forms.
Bama is the pen name of Faustina Mary Fatima Rani who is a Dalit Christian from Puthupatti in Tamil Nadu. She is a mathematics teacher by profession, a novelist by passion and an activist by nature. Bama attributes education as the absolute reason for all her achievements in life and emphasises that only through education a change can happen. Bama rose to fame as the first ever Dalit woman writer in Tamil with her book ‘Karukku’, which in Tamil means palmyra leaves with serrated edges on both sides. She has to her credit three other novels, ‘Sangati’ ,’Vanam’ and ‘Manushi’ and many short stories.
In Karukku, Bama attempts to provide us a glimpse of her life as a Dalit girl growing up in a village in Tamil Nadu. Though she was a good student, she never hesitated to do household work or help her mother and grandmother earn some extra money by working in a farm. As a child she failed to understand why inspite of hard physical labour, nobody from her village was able to live like the Naickers who were well off and lived comfortably enjoying the fruits of somebody else’s labor. This book is about her journey spanning over many years of hardship, when she finally realised why it was so. I am ashamed of myself for having failed to change the conviction of some of my friends who sternly believe that Dalits are responsible for their own ‘pathetic’ state because they are lazy, spend most of their money on alcohol and do not work hard. To wish that those friends would read Karukku would be immature and ridiculous; but I do hope, at least once in their life time, they find time to listen intently to what people like Bama have to say!
Chimmamanda Ngozie Adichie who is one of my favourite authors, says in The Danger of a Single Story, that there is an inherent danger in reducing human beings to just a single story; by doing so we are dehumanising them. When Muslims are known only by a single story of being religious fanatics and terrorists , when Dalits are described by a single story of being ‘cow eaters’ and nothing more, they are being denied the consideration we all deserve as humankind. In Karukku, Bama introduces us to her people who live like any one of us, trying hard to make a living but yearning to enjoy simple pleasures in life by singing and dancing amidst all hardships. Books like this should be read and taught because they impart a deeper understanding and could make us more empathetic and humane.
Much can be learnt about a society by observing the games children play because children imitate adults flawlessly. Bama remembers their games as children where they did role play as upper caste men insulting Dalits or as men who went for work and came home to beat their wives up! For making such observations, Bama was ostracised by her own people who took time to realise that she was working for their common good. Though she had to pay a heavy price by losing her job and comfortable life style, Bama emerged as a strong woman by taking a decision to leave the congregation where she lived for 7 years because the injustice within the ‘secure walls’ of the convent became intolerable for her. Karukku is also a truthful account of Bama’s evolution as a human being and her sincerity is something which cannot be missed.
With utmost humility I realise that Dalit is a Marathi word derived from Sanskrit word ‘dala’ which means ‘of the soil or earth’ or ‘rooted in the soil’, extrapolation of which could mean ‘ground down’. Irrespective of whichever caste you were born into, if you have ever been subjected to feel unworthy of yourself by anybody( be it society, government, family or friends), then you are a Dalit. I owe it to Bama and her book for this simple realisation which has dawned in me.