THE HARD BUSINESS OF LIFE - Writer, teacher, woman, Christian, Tamil and Dalit

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By Second Thoughts / Githa Hariharan
  • Published 28.12.03

She looked like any ordinary Tamil woman in her neat and simple sari, her smooth, dark plait. But when she smiled, I knew there was something more to Faustina, better known as Bama, the writer. The smile was full-fledged, hopeful, and how precious this hope was I only realized when I read her autobiography, Karukku, then heard her speak of her life.

Bama is a Dalit. She has other identities: writer, teacher, woman, Christian, Tamil. But it is her Dalit self that shapes and brings together all her other identities. When she recalls her childhood, there is her immediate family, the village, the world of many communities and their inescapable dynamics. The immediate family explains much of the early foundation for a life of work and commitment. Bama’s father, who was in the army, was determined that his children should get a basic education. Her mother, an illiterate coolie, supported her with perceptive advice. Her brother encouraged Bama to reach for everything almost impossible for a young Dalit woman — educational achievement, independence, teaching and writing.

The village Bama remembers has beautiful mountains, tanks, fields and woods. But all this is not just “nature”. It is part of the hard business of making a living. The fields are there to be worked in, the mountain woods to be searched for firewood. The people who were part of Bama’s childhood are divided into two fundamentally different groups: those who have to work hard every single day of their lives and those who do not seem to have any such problem. But there is more than this basic division. There are any number of groups and sub-groups, and each one has an illegible name.

Perhaps this is what emerges most sharply in Bama’s written and spoken descriptions of growing up: the overwhelming sense that the village which extends just up to the bus terminus, “as if our entire world ended there”, is divided into clear pockets of caste. There is the settlement of Nadars, who climb Palmyra palms for a living; there are the Koravars who sweep streets; the leather-working Chakkiliyars; the Kusa- vars, who make earthenware pots; the Pallas, the Thevars, the Chettiyars, the Aasaaris, the Udaiyaars. And Bama’s own community of agricultural labourers, the Parayas. “I don’t know how it came about that the upper-caste communities and the lower caste communities were separated like this into different parts of the village,” writes Bama, “but they kept themselves to their part of the village, and we stayed in ours. We only went to their side if we had work to do there. But they never, ever, came to our parts. The post-office, the panchayat board, the milk depot, the big shops, the church, the schools — all these stood in their streets. So why would they need to come to our area?”

By the time Bama completed the eighth class in her village and went to high school in a neighbouring town, she knew what untouchability was very well. It meant being the children of servants, of cheap labour. It meant her old grandmother calling a little boy ayya (“Master”) and obeying his commands. It meant that the Naicker women would pour drinking water from a height of four feet into their cupped hands. Or it meant eating leftovers from the Naicker kitchens. Most of all, it meant being taunted, on the streets or in school, as a Paraya. Even a child knew what it was like to be thought of as contemptible — as a “Harijan”.

Bama studied hard. But no achievement in school or college would change what she was in the eyes of the teachers or the hostel-warden or the people in the bus. Even if she got the best marks in class, even if she was determined to earn respect, she was only a Paraya. Perhaps it was this growing realization that she would never “transcend” this identity that made her embrace it, not with resignation, but with a new zeal. She decided to become a nun so that she could teach Dalit children without the prejudice that was part of their experience in school.

Bama hoped to teach in a village school. But the religious order had other plans for her. Over the years, she began to see how romantic she had been to think that being part of a powerful institution like the church would enable her to help Dalit children. She then remembered what her mother had said when she wanted to be a nun: “They will ask you to plant something upside down to show you are obedient. And you won’t do it, I know.”

After seven years in a world unlike the real world she grew up in, the real world she hoped to help change, Bama left the convent, only to find she did not know “how to live”. It was this terrible period of isolation that forced her into doing something that would help her to survive. She began writing about her childhood; about being Dalit. She wrote about a culture of survival — the hard work, and the noise, whether of songs or quarrels. She had the women speaking in the earthy language they actually spoke in — “the only armour” these women have against both landlords and husbands. She wrote in the dialect she had grown up speaking. She called this story of a Dalit life Karukku, a double-edged reference to the stem of the palm leaf. The serrated edges of the leaf recalled for Bama not only the “social cuts” people like her got every day, but also the more important fact that they had to cut through this stifling system.

The book, when finally published, caused a furore. Her own people were furious that they had been shown as “ugly”. She was not allowed to enter her village for almost seven months. Then understanding grew, particularly am- ong the young, and she was invited to the village for the erection of an Ambedkar statue. Among the rest of her readership, there was discomfort about the subject matter of her writing; about her narrative style, and her language, which was criticized as neither beautiful nor acceptable.

But she made many others proud. In the succeeding years, though Bama was often lonely, often tired of presenting a tough exterior, Bama managed to do the unthinkable. She got herself a job as a schoolteacher; she took a loan and built a small house where she learnt to live alone; she wrote more, stories of breakthroughs people made so that they would not be broken themselves.

She is now clear about her life’s mission: to fight the “worst injustice”. And what, in her opinion, is this injustice? “Because Dalits have…been told again and again of their degradation, they have come to believe they are degraded…they have reached a stage where they themselves, voluntarily, hold themselves apart...The consequence of all this is that there is no way for Dalits to find freedom or redemption.”

As her reader and admirer, I can only hope Bama’s voice will reach all Indian children, so they learn the truth about the society they are heir to.