Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: 'No Alphabet in Sight New Dalit Writing from South India: Dossier1: Tamil and Malayalam'; Edited and Introduced by K Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu

‘I don’t think I am a poet yet. On the primordial grasslands of my people, there is poetry. I might yet become a poet when I get there. That will be my true poetry.
(Raghavan Atholi; The Poet with a Forest Fire Inside, Pg. 345)

O! My God! I have just finished reading of the 650 page ‘No Alphabet in Sight New Dalit Writing from South India’ a book edited and introduced by K Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu. I have bought this book paying money from my pocket! Its price is 600 (sorry, actually 599!), that means each of its page costs Rs 1. I picked it up when the book was released at a function organized at the EFLU campus. I wished the book to possess, for I wished the authors’ signatures on it. And I got it. When I purchased it, I soliloquised that, one day I would read it, if not today or tomorrow. Today is that day when I devoured this book. It was the time to go to Germany and I wanted some books to carry with me. I could select any of the books I had in my room, but I preferred this one. My brother frequently asked me whether I would take this book with me. It is a very heavy considering its heaviness and its content. I said him, yes, but he tried to put out of sight in thinking it would be too weighty to be carried. Actually Nehru compelled me to take this book with me! Nehru? Yes, in my seventh class, I have read a lesson about Nehru and his words about book. If we respect a book, we are actually respecting its author(s). Prof. Satya Narayana and Prof. Susie Tharu edited this book. I hoped both would guide me if I took this book with me.

me with Prof. Susie Tharu
For my MPhil, my research query was the (im)possibility of a dalit literature in Kerala and again the (im)possibility of a community formation among dalits. When I completed reading this book, I suddenly memorized my thesis. One of the tactics to disprove is, comparing Kerala dalit life with the life of Maharashtra where a strong dalit movement and literature emerged out. As the book argues that comparing a dalit life in a state like Kerala to the dalit in Bihar is very problematic. It actually reduces the issue of the entire dalit problems into a very few issues like untouchability or two tumblers system, but the marginalization of dalits are multifaceted and diverse. Anywhere in the book, they are not comparing their lives with other states of India to prove that as everywhere, the South also has a dalit literature, but it speaks only the two states, and its multiple possibilities of dalit writing. Dalits are not a homogenous category so as their stories. Everybody contributes to the dalit literature in their own way. There are sturdy internal criticisms, multiple voices and solutions to face the challenges, celebration/ demolition of the same political and social idols, a parallel dalit feminist critique, but all journeys flow for a common cause.  The book is not narrating a homogenous dalit experience or dalit literature, each page of the book is a small stream which reaches to the ocean at last. The pages are colourful, but powerful current as in a river. Don’t expect it’s only a downward river which reaches to the ocean. It also diverts somewhere and goes in search of upwards current. But whatever way it goes, it reaches to the ocean called dalit literature. This is not a simply a Dossier as the book claims. It is not a simple collection of diverse writing of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but its introduction itself is influential to make a separate book. The introduction is detailed the miniature events happened in the states. When this introduction is added to the first pages, the book broadens its length beyond a just dossier. By giving its name ‘No Alphabet in Sight’ the authors successfully overcome the issue of an alien title for the book. The title is a title of a Malayalam book, so the authors act as they have nothing added new. The description of the authors are very helpful to understand the background of the writers and their diverse life.
me with Prof. Satyanarayana
The book celebrates the dalit life, most of the writers of the book are dalits by birth, not they are thematically dalits. All the writings start from internal criticism and develop to trouble the accepted notion of establishments. They question everything, untouchability, landlessness, Hindutva agenda, law against the conversion, poverty No dalit writer says meaningless stores, but a story with a social mission. This 650 pages are impressively engraved the everyday realities of the South India States, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This book is a proof for an undeniable truth that there is a strong dalit life narrative emerging out even from extreme south of India. Can one who is not a dalit write dalitliterature? Just listen, what Vizhi. Pa. Idayaventhan says:
Well, let me give you the example of Sujata who wrote a story about hunger. I also have a story called ‘choru’. Their sadam (the Brahmin tem for cooked rice) and my choru (the lower caste term) are different. Hunger for me is my experience, but it is also that of my children and my forefathers’ (pg. 169).
Some of them inspire other dalit brethrens with the way they lived. For example, Sreedhara Ganeshan says, ‘To write Vaangal I stopped working for six months, living off a cup of tea and one meal a day. The 1000 page work was edited down to 500 for publication’

When you start reading this book, you may feel as you enter into a burning forest. The fire is so powerful which burns the injustice which is done against the indigenous people. The dalits start to read everything, literature, history, aesthetics, philosophy and all types of stereotyping. Dalits are well aware that they are not attempting to interpret everything in a parallel or opposite of the excising aestheticism. . But dalit practice is not a reflection of any one unity, rather it encompasses a variety of presences, complexities, experiences and absences. The dalit manifestoes of the seventies addressed this condition in which all the elements were interconnected or mixed. (KK Baburaj, Pg. 371). The categories like opposite, alternative, secular, and parallel are delineated by western systems of thought, and the processes of pollution and invisibilization on the East are both in a state of crises. At this juncture, along with the emergence of new subjectivities, discourses of the multitudes are also taking central stage.
with Prof. Susie Tharu

Everywhere we must expect an opposite voice in between different castes, each writing may be the controversial each other, but after all, this all controversial, divergent writing are called dalit writing, because dalit life is not unilinear. Dalit studies challenges the objectivity of knowledge and endorses the view that different belief systems and contradictory interpretations are possible. For example, Mathivannam is not convinced by Ravikumar, Sivakami and others who say that Periyar is an enemy of dalits and that he retarded their development and so on. On the contrary, he feels that Periyar and the movement he initiated have done many things for the upliftment of dalits. The recovery of Iyothee Thass, a Tamil dalit Buddhist scholar in the 1990s by some dalit writers, Mthivannam argues, an attempt to uproot the inclusive ideology of Periyar. Thass belonged to one dalit caste (parayar) and he worked for that caste group. So to him, the attacks on Periyar are a result of a union between the past Brahmin and the present Brahmin. Actually this argument is not so trivial; the whole Tamil dalit intelligentsias are divided in this issue that who is the dalit hero Periyar or Iyathee Thass. Ravikumar very plainly argues that the lineage of dalit is a Brahmin one (The original Brahmin- the Buddhist who were destabilized by the false Brahmins sometimes after the 10th Century- suffered innumerable hardships, pg. 269) and he goes on for saying Periyar did not do anything for dalit and abolition of untouchability in Tamil Nadu.
He concludes his article, ‘Re-reading Periyar’
Ambedkar concludes his book, what congress and Gandhi Have done to the untouchables thus: ‘The untouchables will still have ground to say: ‘Good God! Is this man Gandhi our savour?’ if the deeds of Periyar are analysed the dalits in Tamil Nadu would ask a similar question: Good God! Is this man Periyar our savour?

Some argue dalits should grab the ‘best’ language with wonderful style and all, and other argue, dalits should write in their own languages. For example, Azhakiya Periyavan says, ‘I am a conscious stylist, but you must remember that I am also landless! People tend to believe that dalits are ugly and that we use an unrefined cheri bhasha. I want to respond to those criticisms by writing consciously in a literary style about dalit life.’ (pg. 231). Must dalit writers criticise dalit life? Still there are numerous stands about it, but Sivakami strongly bringing out a possible dalit woman writing through her novels.

If I am asked to make a choice the most striking articles/stories from the dossier, what writings would I select? It is actually very easier said than done to select such a limited number of books from a huge collection. All are much thought provoking, enthralling writings. Another problem is articles, poems and stories are not the same genre. So my selection is very much subjective the seven most striking writing are;
  1. Rock by MB Manoj (Pg: 530)
  2. The Unwritten and Writing: Dalits and the Media by Ravikumar (pg: 266)
  3. Kukai by cho.Dharman (pg.104)
  4. Narrativizing the History of Slave Suffering by Sanal Mohan (535)
  5. The Show (Abhirammi) (Pg: 75)
  6. Ghost Speech by C Ayyappan (351)
  7. Scavenger’s Son in the Collective Thinking of Tamil Writers by Mathivannan (Pg. 216)

I must explain why I select these seven writings as very unusual.
Rock is an extra ordinary dalit poem written with some unimaginable imageries and symbols. Each line of the poem is a long essay. Nobody has written what is a dalit poem in an easy way than Manoj wrote. It declares that when vein of a Muslim League activist oozes green blood and Marxist dark red, but for a dalit when s/he is stabbed s/he produces black blood! Remember the proverb, ‘better is to be a lion in day than be a rock for 1000 years’ so it  also denies the main stream idea of a valour, chivalric notions like lion and tigers and instead prises the importance of being a rock which has the years long experience, patience and it silently witnesses the fall and raise of communities. The least wanted and ever time unnoticed things like mud, rock, pebbles are never exampled in Malyalee aesthetic sense. Manoj dares to associate with it and hence goes in search of a dalit root. We see rocks everywhere but we don’t know when it emerged there. IN geography books we learn rocks are the result of powerful volcano, but we never see (but in TV of course!) in a volcano, the lava makes the rocks. In a place like Kerala this rock formation actually happened in a thousand years ago. Here the vocabulary of rock and dalit speaks the same. Both are the ancestral and inhabitants of the land. When a rock is demolished, the history, literature, poem of the rock is buried forever and only with lava the rock is created. Here the poet warns the privileged class of literary world, that if you people try to destroy the indigenous glory from the literature, the result will be powerful volcano again. In this poem there are pains of a yearlong negligence of the authority, anger of being sidelined. The poet also equates the sufferings of dalit with the sufferings of the Black people. Both are born with the disease of being unaccessed to the society. The notion of colour is also questioned here. Black is beauty, black beauty. The beauty of a rock is its colour of being black. So this strong imagery dismantles the very notion of beauty associated with any other privileged colour. And also it brings forth a new kind of beauty concepts. The image of rock is also an attempt to associate dalits to the nature. It strongly attacks the greediness of the capitalist/savarna/mainstream idea of destroying everything and exploiting everything for his/her own sake. Rocks (dalits) are the very indigenous, ancient inhabitants of the world. Its pebbles are always neglected. Because of its lack of visible power, people try to pull down or destroy it. for poet, the pebbles of the rock are the sons and daughters of the dalits.

The Unwritten and Writing: Dalits and the Media

Ravikumar’s article, The Unwritten and Writing: Dalits and the Media is quite impressive and incredible. He tries to find out a parallel media history for dalit. The immediate reason for his enquiry was the celebration of The Hindu’s 125th anniversary on 13th September 2003. In such a juncture, he traces the dalit media history in Tamil Nadu. His finding is very notable. Reclaiming against the main stream history of magazine production in Tamil Nadu, Ravikumar discovers Iyothee Thass, whose work has witnessed a revival in the post- Ambdekar centenary phase, has recorded the fact that the Parayar were the first to publish Tamil magazines in the Madrass presidency. Ravi’s history of Tamil media journeys parallel to the history of main stream publication, he problematizes all the claims The Hindu makes to celebrate. For example, see the parallel narration of both of the history,
G. Subramaniya Iyer, who started The Hindu and Swadesamitram, founded the Madrass Maha Jana Sabha in association with Anandacharyulu, Rangaianh Naidu and Ramasamy Mudaliyar in May 1884. However eight years early, Pandit Iyothee Thass had founded the Advaisananda Sabha in the Nilgris in 1876, he founded the Dravida Maha Sabha in 1891. The Hindu was founded in September 1878 with an investment of just Rs.1 and 12 annas- that too as a loan. Started as a weekly with eight pages selling for 4 annas, it initially had a print run of only eighty copies. Fifteen years later, in October 1893, Rettaimalai Srinivasan founded the magazine Parayan. It was started as a monthly with four pages for 2 annas. The total cost of production, including the advertisement, was Rs. 10. His reason for starting a magazine like Parayan was ‘So, those belonging to the parayar community should come forward openly to say, ‘I am Pariah’. Otherwise, he cannot enjoy freedom. He will lead the life of the suppressed and remain poor’. There is no doubt that The Hindu, which has not bothered to employ a single dalit in its 125 years of history, had the same ‘progressive’ attitude even during the time of Subramaniya Iyer. So he goes on saying that dalits very actively realized the importance of media as a powerful tool, but the representation of dalits in mainstream media is very minimal.
 He quotes Jeffrey who says,
‘If you ask an Indian journalist, ‘do you know any dalit journalist?’ the answer could be a long pause and then, ‘could you give me a couple of days?’ sometimes it was a considerate ‘no’. There were some dalit journalists in Malayala Manorama, but they worked in less significant position. Ravikumar ends this dalit version of media history with the hope of dalit will someday understand their ability to produce a national daily as did they hundred years ago.

Kukai by cho.Dharman

This long short story is a mixture of different imageries and metaphors. The central character is an owl which comes as the savour of the poor people of the village. The relation of a child and its protection by an owl is very powerful. The new generation would be saved by the alien, dirty night bird. The owl also becomes a mother/sister figure of the story.  The couple, Cheeni and his wife were thinking to grow crow, but accidently they discovers an owl and understand owl is very much related to their life. The village is dry and un-rainy and Cheeni’s act again suspected the villagers, and they are doubtful of such a sinful act of worshipping an owl, instead of accepting the socially normed deities and this intensifies their anger. Cheeni and his wife are adorning their dresses with owl shaped.
Cheeni with his wife go for a journey forever. Then he gets chance to prove that owl is the protector of the village when he come across the Gengaiah Nayakkar.
‘Why then you want to leave?’
Dont you know everything? I can’t but worship the owl!’
‘You silly fellow! Who would ever worship mudevi in one’s house?’
‘Even if it’s mudevi, was it not the owl that saved my child and ensured my progeny?’
‘You are right. I take that point. For so many generations my family has only one child, and that child too happens to be a male. Ask your owl god to give me another child. Or at least ask it to make that one child a girl. If that happens, I build a big temple for the owl, in this very village, and consecrate it’.
‘Here smear it on your forehead. Apply some on your wife’ as well. Next year you will have a son. Then year after it will be a girl, but it will not live as a girl.’
This girl also very important, she embodies the owl life and saves the people.
When Cheeni comes back to his village after long years, everything is changed. In a village where not a blade of grass could be seen except during monsoon, there was greenery everywhere. The appearance of the owl is described as ‘Suddenly, the din of birds clamouring could be heard. The branches rustled as the birds flew out. They circled around one tree and cried out. Akkaiah Nayakkar stood up and walked towards it. Cheeni followed him. On a newly cut branch,, freshly sprouting at the edges, sat an owl. All the birds attacked the owl and to tried to chase it away. The owl fled jumping from trees to trees in search of a hideout. The birds kept chasing it away.
‘What’s this bird? I have never seen it here.’
‘Saami, this is the night bird. We call it kukai, the owl. This bird is the real owner, the authority of this forest. This primeval bird knows not swift flight. Nor can it hide to escape attack. The colourful birds which came later drove it out of the forest. The owl lamented and cried for justice. You do not know how to sing. Or cry. Or speak. You do not have colourful plumes. Nor can you dance with feathers fanned out. You are the sinner that eats flesh. The other birds drove away the owl with these words.

The story suddenly speaks about the dalits who were the first inhabitants of the earth. And despite their strong history and knowledge they forgot to retaliate to the late comers of colourful birds. The story is very powerful and written in a very skilful way. The translator of the story admits, Kukai is a challenging novel to translate. If the words peculiar to the karisal region pose difficulties for translation into mainstream standard language, the metaphorical brilliance and the narrative structure, which is not slotted into chapters and sub-sections, puts demands on creative abilities that academic translators may not posses’. (pg. 104)

Here I point out some absents in the text. Lackness and silence are always projected in any work. Firstly for some dalits, this book is literally a ‘no alphabet in sight’. When it’s a strong word against the marginalization and sidelined, some dalit writers did not get a space in the book. At least skipping of two dalit writers is not justified. The absence of Kandal Pokkundan and Kaviyoor Murali raises some serious questions.
Who is Kallen Pokudan? Pokkudan is a dalit, in its true meaning. He rejected his autobiography for its imperfection. If we can consider a book is a child of an author, Pokkudan considers his first autobiography (incidentally it is the first new-dali autobiography of a dalit ever written in Malayalam!) as premature birth. After publishing, Kandalkadukalkkidayiel Ente Jeevitham was widely recognized. In its zenith of publicity Pokkudan recognized the silence of a dalit life in the autobiography. He understood the way the interviewer diverted the issue of caste over the idea of class. He disowned Kandalkkadukalkkidayil Ente Geevitham (My Life among the Mangroves). Thaha Madai, the chronicler, was accused of diluting the political aspects of the Dalit environmental activist’s life. To allegations that it paid little to no attention to Pokkudan’s Dalit identity and concomitant political implications, Thaha Madai retorts that the intention from the start was to focus on Pokkudan’s struggles as a local environmental activist, not his caste identity. After a controversy the publisher, DC Book decided on Pokkudan’s version and came out with a more comprehensive and more authentic version, titled Ente Geevitham (My Life), transcribed by his son Sreejith. That moment he started to write the dalit part of his life. As a reader, one has the right to see Pokkudan in the book. In the last pages of the book, Yesudasan pains saying there is no dalit autobiography born yet.
It is very significant that the dalit community in Kerala has not produced a single autobiography yet. I am not sure if this observation is true. The inference that only a community which has self-confidence can produce autobiographies may perhaps be true. Literacy and politics might play important roles as well. We must not forget the fact that Ayyankali, the greatest dalit of Kerala, was himself illiterate. (Emphasize added)
(TM Yesudasan; Towards a Prologue to Dalit Studies, pp. 625)

That means he has not at all aware about the fact that a dalit called Kallen Pokkudan has written his dalit life! His autobiography was published in 2007 by the prestigious publisher DC Books and it was celebrated for being the first of its kind of genre. Though the autobiography skipped the very serious life experience of Pokkudan, and projected his political and environmental activism, still the ill treatment of the caste people came in the book here and there. The important thing was his denial of a good name. Dalits were prohibited to christian their child with a good name. Why Pokkudan was named as Pokkudan, because his pokkil (umbilical cord was too long), so he got that name, Pokkudan right from his birth. He again wrote his dalit life with the help of his son and other dalit writers. But to him, at least the title of the book is very meaningful; ‘No Alphabet in Sight’.

Anyway when the reading comes to the Malayalam section, one feels the powerful current of the dalit writing has just stopped or at least faded away. In Tamil Nadu, the dalit creativity is very powerful, it is multi-faceted, sharp, poly-linear, colourful, but when we reaches to the ‘Malayalam Sector’, the whole dalit issue revolves round a single issue of land reform. Re-reading of much acclaimed Land Reform, the land issue itself,  and the govermentality of the Kerala government are very vital and these should be questioned, but when it is a dossier of dalit writing, it suddenly reduces its focus to this issue. For example, CK Janu gets a space in the book though she is not a dalit in a ‘literal sense’. If we consider the Maharashtra Dalit Panther’s definition, all adivasis, landless, women are coming under the category of dalit nad here CK Janu comes in this all these three category, but in her interview the difference between dalit and adivassi are more obvious. Each line of her interview says dalits and adivasis have different issues to look after. She says:
True, after Muthanga, a distance (between dalits and adivasis) emerges. With the build-huts protest, it is only the adivasis who get land, right? I think part of the problem was that even though there was a huge dalit presence in the protest, land was only given to adivasis. Also, the build hut protest happened in the heart of the governemtn, in the city. It also got the attention of and supprto fo the media. It was a struggle that got international recognition. But Muthanga was basically a different kind of a struggle. The build-huts protest was a symbolic struggle. The Muthanga protest was based on actually acquiring land. I have my doubts how  the dalit friends understood both these protests. Muthanga was more risky. There was the possibility that clashes, fightsand conflict would emerge. It is to be determined how many people have the stamina to go through with such a struggle.
(CK Janu, We Need to Build Huts all over Kerala, Again and Again, pp 444-5)

Here she actually raises serious psychic problem of dalit who attends any of the struggle. Dalits are afraid the situation wherever a stamina needs to go with a struggle and are suspecting the outcome of the struggle and its benefit. I was saying that Janu’s interview is included because she is talking about land struggle. Apart from this, if dossier really wants to include any adivasi, it must be Narayan who wrote the first adivasi novel in Malayalam literature and it got the  Kerala Sahitya Akademy Award.

Dalits are not a single, homogenous category. It spreads through different religion and castes. When a reader goes through the Malayalam section, s/he wonders the least depiction of the multiple dalit lives there. Comparing with Tamil Nadu section, this section is more linear and homogenous. Most of the writers are representing the Dalit Christians (true, their marginality is also very central, but when it is about the Malayalam dossier, all other sections are marginalized in the book). The 90% of the authors are either from South Kerala or Dalit Christian! It is not incidental. The life of northern Kerala dalits is minimal and silenced. Raghavan Atholi, Pradeepan Pampirikkunnu and M Kunhaman are the three lone representatives of the North Kerala. One wonders that do they have nothing to say in this discussion. And the description of some authors are irrelevant. For example, when Lovely Stephen is described, the descriptions goes on, ‘It was during this period she met TM Yesudevan, then president of the CSI Youth Movement and close to Dynamic Action. She married him in 1985 and both decided to continue their social activism. However, Lovely and Yesudevan maintained their contacts with the friends at Thiruvalla even after they shifted to Kurichi.


  1. The main rule of writing is that, if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing)

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    1. thanks Anees-ji for your valuable comment.. You always inspire me with your words...

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