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Title : The Portrayal of the Subalterns in Bama’s Karukku and Sangati

Author and Affiliation : Dr.S. Ganesan, Associate Professor of English, H.H.The Rajah’s

College (Autonomous), Pudukkottai – 622001 (Tamil

Nadu),India. E-mail :

Abstract : The Dalits of India have had undergone a variety of humiliations and sufferings at the hands of the hegemonic elites. Now they have become articulate enough to express the Dalit Experience in various literary forms. The paper attempts a study of the Subaltern life portrayed in the novels—Karukku and Sangati by Bama, an iconic Tamil-Dalit writer, hailing from South India.

Key words : Dalit, Subaltern, Tamil, elites

Introduction : Bama’s Karukku portrays/discusses the insults and disappointments suffered by Dalits. Even conversion to Christianity does n’t free them from humiliations. Sangati, the second novel of Bama too catalogues the unenviable Dalit predicament. Though the common thread of the novels is the Dalit-suffering, the novelist never fails to highlight the Dalit humour, pride and their ultimate assertion.

Research Methods :

Exploiting the primary literary texts and various research writings on the two novels (secondary sources) ; making use of the interviews given by the author and various critics ; making use of the knowledge offered by Culture Studies.

Findings: While the Dalits are aware of their harsh predicament, they are growing in stature ; the education they receive and their worldly experiences have strengthened their spirit to face the world boldly.

The Portrayal of the Subalterns in Bama’s Karukku and Sangati-----

Dr.S.Ganesan, Associate Professor of English, H.H.The Rajah’s College (Autonomous), Pudukkottai – 622001 (Tamil Nadu),India. E-mail


Subaltern Studies is the

order of the day, thanks to the socially liberating and

intellectually stimulating advent of

Culture Studies. Culture according to Sir.E.B.Tylor, “is that

complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” ; to Margaret Mead, “Culture is the learned behaviour of a society or a subgroup; to Raymond Williams, “Culture includes the organization of production, the structure of the family, the structure of institutions which express or govern social relationships, the characteristics forms through which members of the society communicate.”(Cult.Studies, 4-5)

The post-colonial, multi-cultural and multi-casteist (in the case of India), condition of many nations, offers fertile field for Cultural Studies. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian-Marxist has introduced the term ‘hegemony’, which is a vital tool to understand the history and the structure of a society. According to Gramsci, hegemony binds society together and culture is one of the key sites where struggle for hegemony takes place(Cult.Studies,49).

Literature mirrors the society of its times and in the words of Richard Hoggart, a critical reading of art could reveal “the felt quality of life” of a society and only art could recreate life in all its rich complexity and diversity.”(Cult.Studies, 27).

Speaking on the Indian novelistic canon, it is not merely restricted to Indian writing in English. It has had an equally glorious heritage in the regional languages. The Regional writings have been translated into English and other foreign languages. Thus they have attracted the attention of readers world-wide. These regional writings have had captured life in its varied hues; that is the social, political, cultural and metaphysical domains of human destiny have been

faithfully and imaginatively rendered in the regional writings. A compelling part of Regional writings in the Indian Literary scene, is Dalit Literature.

Before embarking on a study of Dalit Literary texts, it is pertinent to understand the historical predicament of the Dalits in India, down the ages. Though Manu, the Hindu Law- giver, classified the Hindu society into four varnas (originally based on one’s vocation), soon a sizeable section of Indians were treated as untouchables/outcastes. They have had been subjected to all kinds of humiliation; even their legitimate rights were denied for Centuries.

A chilling net-article lists out how in the name of Untouchability, Dalits face a variety of discrimination and victimization. Here are a few:

Prohibited from eating with other caste members,Prohibited from marrying with other caste members,Separate glasses for Dalits in village tea stalls, Discriminatory seating arrangements and separate utensils in restaurants,Segregation in seating and food arrangements in village functions and festivals,Prohibited from entering into village temples, Prohibited from wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of dominant caste members, Devadasi system - the ritualized temple prostitution of Dalit women, Prohibited from entering dominant caste homes,Prohibited from riding a bicycle inside the village,Prohibited from using common village path,Separate burial grounds, No access to village’s common/public properties and resources (wells, ponds, temples, etc.),Segregation (separate seating area) of Dalit children in schools, Prohibited from contesting in elections and exercising their right to vote,Forced to vote or not to vote for certain candidates during the elections, Prohibiting from hoisting the national flag during Independence or Republic days, Sub-standard wages, Bonded Labor and facing social boycotts by dominant castes for refusing to perform their “duties”(from dalits-untouchability)

Their plight has had remained just like the Centuries –old plight of the African- Americans in the Land of equality and opportunity.

Quite a few Dalit writers have had emerged in the Indian literary scene (writing in regional languages like Marathi, Tamil and Kannada), articulating their agony and anger. The Marathi Dalit writers are pioneers in this respect. Though Marathi Dalit Literature has several inspirations like Buddha, Chokhamela and Mahatma Phule, it is the arrival of Ambedkar as the articulate spokesperson of the Dalit cause, which gave momentum to the creative expressions of Dalits. In fact, there was an explosion of Dalit creativity in the literary sphere with writers expressing themselves through poems, shortstories, novels and autobiographies. Chronologically speaking, the term “Dalit Literature” was first used in 1958, when the first conference of Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangha was held at Mumbai(Dalit Literature, Wikipaedia 1).

Dalit literature is essentially a protest literature. Many writers have voiced the agonies and aspirations of Dalits. According to Khalid Akhter, Dalit literature’s “primary motive is to give a voice to the relentless oppression of Dalits in India’s caste hierarchy and the possibility of their social, cultural and political emancipation”(1). To Sharankumar Limbale, a well-known Dalit writer, “One who rebels against the caste system is a Dalit” and “Dalit literature is the uprising of the written word against the millennia-old social injustice manifesting itself as brutalities committed on Dalits all over the country”(Basheer,1 ). Arjun Dangle, a Dalit writer- cum-editor points out that “Dalit Literature is marked by revolt and negativism, since it is closely associated with the hopes for freedom of a group of people who, as untouchables, are victims of social, economic and cultural inequality”(vii). According to Jugal Kishore Mishra, “Dalit literature is experience – based. This ‘anubhava’ (experience) takes precedence over ‘anumana’ (speculation). Thus to Dalit writers, history is not illusionary or unreal as Hindu metaphysical theory may make one to believe. That is why authenticity and liveliness have become hallmarks of Dalit literature.”

Commenting on the term ‘Dalit’ Lakshmi Holmstorm says in her Introduction to Bama’s Karukku :

“The word ‘Dalit’ coming from Marathi and meaning oppressed or ‘ground down’ is not without problems in Tamilnadu, but it has been appropriated for particular reasons. It does away with preference to caste, and points to a different kind of nation-wide constituency; specifically it signals the militancy of the Dalit

Panthers, their broad definition of ‘Dalit’ and their professed hope of solidarity with all oppressed groups. (Who are Dalits? All scheduled castes and scheduled Tribes, neo-Buddhists, labourers, landless and destitute peasants, women and all those who have been exploited socially and economically and in the name of religion, are Dalits-Definition given by Omvedt).



Dalit writers have emerged in the Tamil Literary scene.

Bama, Sivakamy




prominent among them. They have given


expression to


predicament of the Dalits

in their novels, short stories, poetry and

other polemical writings.




Bama’s Karukku ( a critically acclaimed, modern

Tamil Dalit novel) deals with

caste based

discrimination prevalent in the Indian society. Karukku (means, palmyra leaf)


the autobiographical

first novel of Bama. In this, she reveals with brutal honesty,


plight of Dalits in

a caste-ridden society. Even religious conversion doesn’t solve

the Dalit

question to satisfaction.

As a therapeutic effort, Bama has

written Karukku, as she says :

“Karukku, written by a wounded self, has not been dissolved

in the stream of time. On the

contrary it has been a means of relieving the pain of others who were wounded.”


Holmstrom, who has translated Karukku into English, adds : “Karukku was written

out of a

specific experience, the experience of a Tamil Dalit Christian woman. Yet it has a universality at its core which question all oppression, disturbs all complacencies, and reaching out all those whohavesuffereddifferent oppressions.”

Karukku deals with

the predicament of the marginalized

Dalits of

the Tamil society.

The present

paper attempts

a study of this literary text under the light of








publication of Karukku was a watershed event in

Dalit writing in Tamil. Soon

this autobiography of Bama

was translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom which fetched

the crossword award. Later, Karukku was translated into many other Indian languages.

Bama was born in Dalit community; to get rid of social stigma, she embraced Christianity. Even after becoming a Christian, she became uncomfortable with the

divisions/hierarchies within the Christian community with the Dalit –Christians being singled out and stigmatized. Thus, Bama’s Karukku reveals multiple marginalities faced by her---

being a Dalit, being a woman, being a Dalit among Christians!


is the polemical autobiography of Bama. It

narrates the story of the

metamorphosis of

a rustic Dalit girl into the writer Bama. The work is more than a life story.

It offers

a microcosmic view of the unenviable predicament of

Dalits in the Tamil society ;

the work

is at once local and

universal (considering its portrayal of the subaltern predicament)

in its appeal and


The initial chapters of the work describe the village, the streets ,

the communities

that inhabit

the self-imposed ghettos and their sporadic skirmishes with each

other. These details are presented from the view point of view of the narrative persona, her neighbors and family who share the joyous and agonizing moments of the human drama of suffering and exploitation and time old customs and traditions. The plight of the Dalit who meekly move on with their suffering in patience, the twin trials of poverty and exploitation is portrayed as a saga of acceptance of humiliation without protest.

As a back drop, there is the portrayal of a rich –throbbing culture of bold acceptance of challenges, self-help and mutual help, large hearted tolerance and respect for the basic values of life. Bama portrays a whole lot of family and social rituals even while cataloguing the woes of the so-called untouchables, their destiny and credulous acceptance of hypocritical ideologies. They become easy prey to passion and the notorious policy of ‘divde and rule’ cunningly practiced by the caste-Hindus.

Even the conversion to Christianity (which promises equality)tried out by many Dalits has failed to alleviate their woes. The new religion based on love and tolerance, still was powerless to remove the stains of untouchability. The church, the school , and the house of the priest continued to be located in the vicinity of the streets occupied by the upper castes. The Dalit students who were the majority had to trek a long distance to reach their school. They also had to bear the stigma of poverty. The children of the upper classes were well-dressed and decorated with jewels. The poor Dalit children were severely handicapped. They were mere shadows in comparison with children of the same age from other communities. In the hostels, their dress, bearing and eating habits were subjects of adverse criticism and comment. The nuns made uncharitable, unchristian remarks about the way Dalit children conducted themselves. In

addition, all menial jobs in and around the church were allotted to the Dalit converts and their children. Even when Dalits became priests or nuns, they were victims of discrimination. This is exemplified in Bama’s own experience as a nun.

Bama describes how faith was forcibly implanted in the children through bullying and intimidation. Children were told of the stories of the devil moving about with a book and a weighing scale. The nuns, Bama feels, had spoken more of the devil than the guardian angels. She is at pains to show how baptism, confession, first communion, and confirmation were more a ritual than an initiation into a new faith and spiritual responsibility. Bama frankly traces her spiritual concerns, as she says: “When I finished schooling in my village and joined the convent boarding school to study in the ninth class, the fear—bhayam that I felt towards God gradually left me and love—paasam, grew (101).

After completing schooling, Bama enrolled herself in college. By now, she has developed an independent spirit. She didn’t feel the need of others’ help in reaching out to God. To quote Bama’s words : “I felt in my heart that I could go and speak directly to God without their intervention. I could no longer believe that God could only be reached, as they had taught us, through prayer learned by rote though. Pious practices, through the novena and the rosary. I came to realize that you could see God through the mind’s eye, in nature, and in the ordinary events of everyday. So all the rituals that I had followed and believed in so far, suddenly began to seem meaningless and just a sham. The desire to become a nun, fell away from me entirely at this time(102).

As a teacher in a school run by nuns, her experiences were worse. The behavior of the nuns upset her.

They ran a boarding school which was nominally for the sake of destitute children but in fact they made those children do every menial task that was needed. They behaved as if they were the queens there, and everybody else was there only to run errands for them. The few nuns who were even slightly humane had a difficult time. And even amongst themselves there were caste divisions between the rich and the poor, and even divisions over the languages that they spoke. . . Besides the usual lessons, they could have educated the Dalit children in many matters,

and made them aware of their situation in the world about them. But instead, everything in the manner in which they directed them, suggested that this was the way it was meant to be for Dalits, that there was no possibility of change. . . .


The desire to be different impelled her to read the scripture with devotion and she saw the futility of formal religion “ I learnt that God has always shown the greatest compassion for the oppressed. And Jesus too, associated himself mainly with the poor. Yet nobody had stressed this nor pointed it out. . . . The oppressed are not taught about him, but rather, are taught in an empty and meaningless way about humility, obedience, patience, gentleness”(104).

Finally she took the plunge ; resigned her job and joined the order. But incongruity between the vows of simplicity and poverty and the rather luxurious life of the nuns pricked Bama to the quick. She felt the emptiness of serving the rich to the exclusion of the suffering and the down trodden who were left high and dry by the organized religion. It was not as though she did not try to continue an insider in search of reform. She read the life story of the founder of the order, felt an unshakable desire to be like her. She argued with her peers only to be reminded of her vow of obedience. She was burdened by the dichotomy of saying one thing and doing another. “There is something ugly in saying one thing and doing another. How long can one play—act in this way? Anyway it wasn’t possible for me. I could only leave the order and return into the world. And I don’t know if they have become so habituated to their play-acting that they can no longer distinguish between the role and reality”(107).

Naturally she could not be at peace in the order. She chose to quit though she did not what to do. But she had her education as her armour. She was ready for hardwork, but to live as a young woman, a Dalit woman remaining single and in employment was indeed a slippery ordeal. She had to penetrate many layers of prejudice and conventional expectation before she could assert herself and face society with confidence. It is this battle that is at the heart of the autobiographical work, Karukku. Apart from being a successful teacher, Bama emerged as a writer giving expression to Dalit consciousness and sensibility. The battle was by no means easy. She had problems as a Dalit,a wman, and as a single woman. But she did succeed in the end.

Speaking of Karukku-her-creation, Bama confesses: “ I described myself in Karukku as a bird whose wings had been clipped. I now feel like a falcon that treads the air, high in the skies.(xi) Lakshmi Holmstrom who translated the work into English feels that, “Karukku was written out of a specific experience, the experience of a Tamil Dalit Christian woman. Yet it has a universality at its core which question all oppression, disturbs all complacencies, and reaching out empowers all those who have suffered different oppressions (xiv).

To sum up, Karukku is a path-breaking literary text which reveals the variegated responses of people of marginalized groups ; while some are meek the other are vociferous and rebellious just like Bama.

Sangati is Bama’s second novel. It has a different focus from Karukku. Here is a broadening of the canvas to include a galaxy of exploited victims belonging to different generations of Dalit Women. The presentation of such diverse experiences is marked by a thread of thematic continuity that is the treatment meted out to Dalits, especially the women down the generations. The narration of events and experiences is punctuated with interesting ironic and open thrusts on a society built on centuries old norms of domination, exclusion and marginalization. The narrator Fathima butts in with her critical comments and probing questions that seek to problematize every day social realities in the light of progressive ideologies and youthful idealism.

In the novel, Bama succeeds in presenting a comprehensive picture of the richness and vitality of the Dalit Society that underlies the apparent squalor and the ever present poverty that neutralizes all positive qualities leading to a passive suffering, or even acceptance of injustice as sheer fate.

The novel has an episodic plot. The various episodes are held together by the narrative voice, Fathima, the historical perspective provided by her grandmother, Vellaiyamma Kizhavi and the commentary and chorus-like voice of the other women who butt into the narrative. As a result, the novel reads like a documentary on Dalit life accompanied by interpretative comment and protesting dissent. We find three generations of characters and each presents its own typical attitude to the plight of the Dalits. As a result, Bama succeeds in presenting the evolution of Dalit reality and its contemporary state of ferment with prospective changes and reform waiting round

the corner. The community, its progress towards an active realization of its potential and a rejection of passive acceptance of sufferings as ordination of fate are focused . Thus, the novel combines photographic realism with creative interpretation and a keen perception of the refocusing of social forces. It is in part history, partially documentary and finally a search for a new ideology that would usher in a change for the better leading to the dawn of an era of social justice.

The novel is set in the village of Perumalpatti inhabited by Dalit communities, each having its own streets or location. The chief communities are Parayars, Pallars, Koravars and Chakkiliyars. Among these, the first have embraced Christianity. But there has only been a change in nomenclature. Conversion had not spelt social redemption. As the narrator remarks, it had only led to deprivation of the government concessions due to Scheduled Castes. The attempt made by Christian priests to educate children also proved a failure. The children dropped out of school to supplement the family income. Thus, poverty chained the Dalits to their enslaved status. They labored for the landlords as mere vassals. They had a poor self image inspite of the fact that they were doing useful work in the farms. They were victims of oppression. They were low paid and treated with contempt. Naturally the men returned home tired and desperate. The women too worked in the fields but for lower wages. After returning home, they had to mind the house attend to the children cook the supper and yield to the whims of their husbands who were often drunk. Wife bashing was common and very often domestic quarrels spilled over to the streets and were watched with dismay by those in the streets. They could do very little to establish peace. Women were universally accepted as slaves. They were victims of not only social and economic oppression but also domestic oppression of varying kinds. The Dalit women were subjected to torment from the landlords. In such cases, the criminal very often turned the accuser in the village panchayat and justice was heavily tilted in favour of the rich. The poor Dalits and their pleas fell on deaf ears. Thus the panchayat itself was a stooge of the landlords. This is what happens in the case of Mariamma, daughter of Samudrakani with whom a youth misbehaves. On listening to Mariamma’s presenting her case, the Nattamai(the Panchayat chief) retorts: “Do you hear that? Slut of a girl; In order to get out of it, she promptly sticks all the blame on the Muthalali. These creatures will come and dig out your eyes even when you are awake(24). The picture that Bama gives is one of the dominance of economic forces in the engines of oppression that humiliate the Dalits.

Still, the Dalits are proud of contain aspects of their life. As the paatti avers: “Why should we lose all the better customs that are ours and end up as neither one thing or the other? It’s like forgetting the butter on one’s hands and going in search of ghee”(89).

In the novel, one can also find the young awakening to the need to get over superstitions.

According to the narrator, “if we lose the courage in our hearts, we lose our strength and become good for nothing. If we are brave enough, we can dare to accomplish anything we want. . . Just as we work hard so long as there is strength in our bodies, so too, must we strengthen our hearts and minds in order to survive”(58-59) Such perceptive comments serve to put the events narrated in a broad canvas of social ideologies unconsciously arrived at through burning personal experience. Bama is no idle ideologue ; she is an organic intellectual and her presentation is experiential tinged with sympathy and concern.

In the words of Meena Kandasamy,”Tamil Dalit literature is characterized by the call for self-identity and assertion. It tramples all conventions with its intensely personal expression; is concerned with the life of the subaltern, and deals out a stark brutality. This literature should be viewed not as a literature of vengeance or a literature of hatred, but a literature of freedom and greatness”(Muse

Thanks to the bold literary articulations of the agony and aspirations of Dalits and their asserting their identity, dramatic improvements have taken place in the Indian society. Today, the presence of Dalits in the Indian socio-political scene is conspicuous. Who can deny the emergence of Dalits in the social,political and cultural fronts (The former Indian President K.R.Narayanan, current speaker of the Indian Loksabha Meira Kumar, creative writers like Bama, Arjun Dangle, Om Prakash Valmiki etc., are quite a few eloquent examples to quote) !?

Works Cited

Bama.Karukku. Tr.Lakshmi Holmstrom II Edn., New Delhi: OUP, 2012.

----.Sangati. Tr.Lakshmi Holmstrom VI Edn., New Delhi: OUP,2012.

Dalit Literature. Wikipedia, 1.

Dangle, Arjun Ed.Homeless in My Land : Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Short Stories.Bombay : Disha Books, 1992.

Holmstrom, Lakshmi. Introduction Karukku II edn., New Delhi: OUP, 2012. Kandasamy, Meena. “Brief Introduction to Dalit Literature.”

Mishra, Jugal Kishore. A Critical study of Dalit Literature in India

Sardar, Ziauddin and Borin Van Loon. Introducing Cultural Studies. Cambridge:Icon Books Ltd., 1997.