Dalit writing in India has come a long way since its beginnings in the late 19th century and its flowering in the closing decades of the 20th. While in the beginning it was struggling to find a way to articulate the agony and anger of the outcastes, later it began to be more conscious of its artistic mission even while keeping the original concerns intact. It also began to take a positive look at Dalit history, myth and folklore and affirm the unique power and beauty of Dalit values and Dalit imagination. This at times meant a liberation from the realist mould through a retrieval of the mythical and folk imagination one finds in Dalit fables, songs and mythologies specific to communities. Another impact of this new turn was the breaking of the monolith called the “Dalit” and the discovery of several communities and subsects that the term had subsumed and in a way concealed. Writers now began to look at the diversity and even internal conflicts within the larger Dalit community and the specificity of each caste or group in terms of experience as well as imagination.
This new stage of social and aesthetic awareness seems best represented in two novels published recently in English translation: Devanoora Mahadeva’s Kannada novel Kusumabale translated by Susan Daniel and Cho. Dharman’s Tamil novel Koogai : The Owl translated by Vasantha Surya (both published in 2015 by Oxford University Press, the former edited by Mini Krishnan and Chetan Ahimsa and the latter by Mini Krishnan). While the first novel is lyrical and is deeply informed by folklore, the second has a mythical dimension provided especially by the mysterious Koogai, the owl-god. Both the novels ultimately deal with Dalit reality, but in such innovative ways as to help redefine the idea of the novel itself. Both the writers are blessed with a deep sense of humour, astonishing powers of observation, a markedly poetic imagination and a profound awareness of the forces of oppression and resistance that shape Dalit lives as lived in various ways by different communities. Both the works pose a great challenge to the translators as they use community slang and dialect—like the Nanjangud dialect in Kusumabale or the Tirunelveli-Kovilpatti dialect in Koogai —and have huge chunks of poetic passages and even poetry itself. Judging by the result, the translators and editors have not done badly at all and deserve our gratitude for bringing these rare works to the notice of a larger audience outside their original languages.
Kusumabale has fascinated and scared translators alike for some decades now since its publication in 1988, and the translators who aspired to do English versions, and in one case almost did one, include Polanki Ramamoorty, Rowena Hill, Judith Kroll and A.K. Ramanujan, all of whom knew that this novel did not just offer Dalit experience but represented Dalit sensibility. But it was for Susan Daniel to finally come up with a complete translation that strove to capture the nuances of the original that has already been recognised as a masterpiece in Kannada for a quarter century, whose admirers included U.R. Ananthamurthy, Sheldon Pollock and Ramanujan.
The narrative device used in the novel is based on an old faith that the guardian-lamp spirits inhabiting various homes meet at the midnight hour and exchange tales—a device that Chandrasekhara Kambar has also used cleverly in one of his plays. The novel begins where a spirit who has come back after a 12-year gap joins them and all of them begin to talk about what they have been witness to in the homes they inhabit. The world of these spirits is almost an alternative to the real world of injustice and oppression as they are guided by a strong sense of justice, as is evident from the perspectives from which they narrate the domestic episodes.
This opening is definitive in many ways: it defines the ethics underlying the narration; it also helps the narrator present the reality of the world from many points of view, always with detachment and the humour it allows. The characters are fascinating, too: the old lady Thuramma, who waits throughout the night to battle her fate about whose form she has no clear idea; Yaada, who transforms from a poor village lad into a rich man; Kuriyaiah, through whom the truth of Dalit life speaks as the Dalits get organised for justice, for example. What is important to note is the novelist’s own world view where everything in the world is part of a larger system that also includes nature. He creates a world where spirits can speak, even a cot has a living spirit within it, grief has a visible form, and Fate has a describable appearance.
The novel reaffirms the Indian narrative tradition of fables like the Panchatantra or riddlesome narrative chains like the Vikramaditya tales where objects from statues to pillows tell stories. But it does not stand out as a technique here; instead, it becomes a natural, living experience that embodies the vision of an organic cosmos where everything is interrelated.
Mahadeva also finds an original idiom to articulate this vision that mixes prose and lyric. Thus the significance of this novel goes far beyond the sociological, unlike a lot of Dalit writing. It marks an aesthetic turn in Kannada narrative tradition creating a new style, design and structure for novel. Though Mahadeva’s oeuvre is not big in terms of volume—a long story, a collection of short stories, a volume of essays besides the novel Kusumabale —his impact on the younger generation has been quite remarkable as he transcended the Western narrative models of earlier Kannada novelists—great no doubt—like Shivarama Karanth and Ananthamurthy in his works through folklore and fable, thus retrieving to Dalit imagination its innate strength and native beauty. This retrieval is closer to what the Latin American writers of the great boom did to fiction than to what the European modernists had done as it enlivens fiction by infusing myth and mystery into it.
The young Kannada fiction writer Vivek Shanbhag in his informed introduction to this translation compares Devanoora to Juan Rulfo both for writing less and writing new. He could do this as he knows Dalit life and world from within unlike those who wrote about it from outside the community. That frees him from the simple conventional binaries. Almost all the communities are involved in the murder of Channa, for example, and the narrative unfolds through the tales of Yaada, Somappa and Kusuma. The death casts its shadow on every episode in the novel, and yet it is not a dark and morose world: there is plenty to laugh at and laugh about, like when by a weird logic Garesidda the Dalit not only legitimises his stealing of tender coconuts as dharma demands that the thirsty be offered water, but even earns one rupee by grabbing the one hundred and one rupees offered by the teacher as a compensation for tying up and flogging Garesidda and offering one hundred from the same money as the price of the tender coconuts claiming they may think he has just borrowed it and will repay that one day. Even the Dalit leader watching this is astonished by the subversive act and the cunning calculations of Garesidda. The narrative has no single centre and the language is a mixture of prose and poetry.
The direction of the narrative is evident in the very opening chapter, “…and so it was”: “Akkamadevi who left her parental home the very day after her husband’s last rites, returns six years later with the sprout of her womb, Yaada—born to a bond servant, ‘t was said twelve months after her husband’s death—to claim a share of the property. Furious, her brothers-in-law, Basappa Somi and Siddura, fling her on to the grazing grounds. On that same spot a hut rose around Akkamadevi. And as Yaada, coupled with his clever ways, grew in strength, this hut also grew, and the houses of Basappa Somi and Siddura in turn became its cattle sheds. This Yaade Gowda’s son Somappa is the big man of the village. Kusumabale is the daughter of this big man. Following the birth of Kusuma’s child, Kusuma and Channa’s secret affair is out in the open, and Channa is done to death, and no one is in the know. Then, while the whole village is getting ready for the fire-leaping festival, Turamma, Channa’s relative, is battling with Mother Fate to keep alive daughter Kempi’s infant child. Also Kempi’s step-sister, the forlorn Eery, is at pains to save her own wasting child. So, too, with no wind of Channa’s murder, Channa’s relatives anxiously await his return.”
The chapters that follow unfold this narrative in full through the tales exchanged by the Jothammas, the House Lamp Spirits. Some of the chapters are almost entirely in verse (eg: ‘it also came to where Kusuma lay…’) and all the chapter titles read like lines of verse. At times the novelist mixes languages—English or even French with Kannada—to good effect as in “That illiterate Kusuma in French, she said, / Je veux etre dans ma maison/ ‘I want to be in my home, be in my home’, she said.” Here is a Dalit novel that is free from sloganeering, magically capturing the Dalit spirit in its imaginative vitality and linguistic creativity.
Tamil Dalit life Cho. Dharman’s Koogai: The Owl is definitely more politically conscious, a novel of resistance which, however, like Mahadeva's work puts mythical imagination to good use and is free from rancour. The writer looks at the village community as a rhizome rather than a vertical hierarchy and is acutely conscious of the interdependence and the entanglement of various communities. The novel even has a progressive Brahmin character, Nataraja Iyer, who distributes his land among the poor and encourages them to fight the zamindar/jameendaar, thus transcending the conventional binary of Dalit vs Brahmin. Dalits are also not perceived here as a monolith; the novelist is conscious of the contradictions within the various Dalit communities like Paraiyars, Pallars, Chakkiliyars who fight among themselves and have arguments about superiority and inferiority, an argument rendered more complex by the conversion of some of them to Christianity. Dharman fights the collapsing of community identities that entails the use of the umbrella term “Dalit”, which standardises them and erases their cultural distinctions. The author himself has made a statement of his position, quoted in the highly informed introduction by the Tamil scholar, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, that gives a wholesome idea of Tamil Dalit life and the sociology and history of the Dalit movement and writing in Tamil: “Some term my writings Dalit writings. By birth alone am I a Dalit, not by what I write. I am not drawn to any of the so-called Dalit writing. This is perhaps due to the fact that I’m a Dalit, and that I have an acute understanding of Dalit society and culture. A great writer who can artistically portray Dalit narratives, Dalit distinctiveness, and Dalit social reality is yet to be born. I can only give it a try. The Dalit portraits presented to us thus far are one-sided; they portray Dalits as reeking of ‘filth’ and ‘smelly’, their women as prone to immorality, as drawn to violence, as unlettered, as footloose workers with no landholding, as slavish, and as people who only struggle for food and wages. Much of it is the result of a warped leftist perspective. Ironically, some Dalit writers too are mouthing them.”
And he really fights this stereotype in Koogai by presenting a variety of characters who are confident, intelligent, radical, honest, morally conscious, willing to sacrifice, and fighting for human dignity more than for any material benefits. This does not in any sense mean Dharman idealises all his Dalit characters; there are also people portrayed in their weaknesses such as an urge for infighting, the fear of the cruel and cunning landlord, and the consequent collaboration with him on crucial occasions. His characters are complex as human beings really are and not mere symbols arrayed in an allegory.
Venkatachalapathy’s inputs in the introduction help the reader locate the novel in the Tamil literary tradition and finds Dharman to be an innovator of the indigenous fictional idiom like Ki Rajanarayanan and younger writers who were inspired by him like Poomani (who happens to be Dharman’s uncle), Konangi, S. Ramakrishnan and several others. Born into the caste of Pallars—Devendrakula Vellalar as they would now like to be known—Cho. Dhraman grew up working even when in school. His father was an oyil kummi dancer and Dharman grew up in a world animated by mythical characters like Rama, Lakshmana and Sita, who were almost like the members of his family. He knew even as a child that he was the inheritor of a great tradition of art and culture and not just a worker struggling to make ends meet. He began to write at a time when writers were beginning to turn away from the stranglehold of “social realism”, prompted by the fall of the Soviet Union which was no more being seen as a model either for a democratic socialist society or for imaginative literature, and turning more and more to the African and Latin American writers whose magical and mythical modes close to fables were in fact more akin to India’s own native modes of narrative imagination. It was also a moment when the Dalit question, so far subsumed within the larger non-Brahmin political movement, began to be raised by new autonomous Dalit parties like the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi and Puthiya Tamilagam which in turn produced a lot of interesting Dalit writing, both creative and critical. Caste politics was no more just an appendix to a larger class politics, it was materially and culturally foundational. Dharman first emerged as a short story writer in the tradition of the “karisal” writers, distinguished of course by the caste identity of his characters, publishing mostly in the little magazines of the period. In 1996 he published his first novel, Thoorvai , capturing the transformation of the karisal countryside that found warm reception even from critics usually hostile to Dalit writing. Koogai ’s popularity however has surpassed that of everything that he wrote before it.
Owl as an iconKoogai ’s recognition has several reasons. First, it is in tune with the Dalit oral lore and is entirely different from the mainstream modernist writing. Secondly, it foregrounds the positive Dalit values like reverence for nature and reveals the hidden power of the community instead of portraying them as just miserable beings fit only for sympathy and charity. Thirdly, it is multi-layered as against the one-dimensional, mostly autobiographical, Dalit writing that most of us are familiar with. Fourthly it raises koogai, the owl, to the level of a symbol and an icon: the old man Seeni considers it a god with rare powers to appear anywhere and turn from a stone bird to a real bird and back and guide its followers in crises. It is a metaphor for all the oppressed communities, especially Dalits, as it is mostly unsung and underrated, considered dark and ugly, hardly a bird at all. In classical Tamil writing as well as in popular belief, the owl is the bird of death, an ominous, hateful bird whose very hooting is inauspicious. It is teased and attacked during the day even by sparrows as it cannot see in the overpowering sunlight and hence prefers invisibility. But it is actually strong, as it realises at night when it is left to itself. The neglect of the Koogai temple leads to the community’s decline, though its devotees like Seeni always find the god’s help and support, and there comes a day when even Gengiya Naicker, an upper caste man, begins to respect the bird. Fourthly, it is as much about resistance as about suffering and is genuinely radical in its attitude to the status quo. Fifthly, it has all the qualities of a serious work of fiction: innovative structure, fresh idiom, memorable characters and episodes, deep sociological and psychological understanding, a profound awareness of the kinship between man and nature demonstrated several times through diverse episodes and captivating narration.
Here, too, Dharman’s chosen region for depiction is the karisal whose lower-caste reality he understands in all its complexity. Dalits here are regularly beaten up for dressing or behaving like the upper-caste people; even eating at a proper hotel is considered an act of arrogance. The novel begins with such an incident where Muthukaruppan and Mookkan are beaten up by Muthaiya Pandian, the Thevar village watchman, as the two Dalits had dressed in clean dhotis and shirts and gone to the new eatery “the club-shop” run by Nachiyaramma where they ate a meal of the white race—“club-food”—sitting on a bench rather than squatting on the floor as they should have done. Dalits are supposed to take only “inferior” grains. If at all they wanted to eat that food, the watchman feels, they should have bought the food in a rice-pot and eaten it sitting under a tree. Only Seeni’s intervention and put-on humility finally save the “sinners”. But the same Muthaiya Pandian has no hesitation in sleeping with Karuppi, the Chakkiliyar woman, wife of Shanmugam Pagadai who is sent out by the watchman with a rupee to have a bottle of arrack. Karuppi meekly submits to this daily rape out of fear: she lies huddled on a mat “like a chick hiding from a hawk”.
Seeni’s devotion to the Koogai god even after the fall of the temple, which he wants to restore, and the Pallars’ growing resistance to oppression are central to the narrative. The Pallars of Chithiraikkudi rebel against their tormenters who have been denying them every human right and regularly violating their women. This drives them to the slums of the neighbouring Kovilpatti, an industrial town, where to their dismay they discover that the owners of the factories and the mills too are from the same upper caste that had been exploiting them in the village. The novelist does not use terms like feudalism and capitalism, but it is evident that the landlords have now invested in factories in the cities, as happened throughout the country in the last century. Nataraja Iyer, a Brahmin lawyer and land owner, however, comes to their rescue by leasing them his family land for cultivation and later, as he leaves the place, giving them each the ownership of the land that they had been cultivating. This is not an innocent act of charity; he wants to empower the Dalits to fight the intermediate castes who were now rising up against the old landlords. There are also other contradictions that come into play in the novel like that between the Paraiyars, for whom conversion to Christianity was an act of protest, and the Chakkiliars, for whom it becomes another form of enslavement.
Pallar resistance Some of the most exciting episodes in the novel are scenes of resistance, like the Pallars refusing to dig the grave for and announce the death of the upper-caste man Pandi Mama or Seeni standing up to the zamindar (Jameen, as he is called) and saying his people can no more work for him as they have work on their own land. Each act of resistance brings punishment, and these acts slowly strengthen the Pallars’ resolve. The vengeful landlord even tries to poison the only source of water the villagers had. It is in fact a ruthless class-caste struggle where the subaltern classes move forward and backward in an attempt to emancipate themselves. This struggle, however, is interspersed with poetic passages that reveal the beauty and harmony in nature: birds and beasts—owls, parrots, falcons, drongos, mynahs, cranes, yellow-billed babblers, crows (a crow even helps the brave woman Peichi by attacking the police), deer, cows, oxen—as well as trees are an important presence in the novel. Even hills like the Guru Malai and Kazhugu Malai come alive and gain the stature of characters.
Seeni is aware not only of the kinship between man and nature, but also of the different communities in the village: “However many castes there may be, there’s a very thin net that is binding all of them together. We mustn’t tear it. We have to take out the tangles in that net, that’s all.” There is a sense of the sacred that informs the whole narrative: a community is ruined when it loses that link with the larger universe and with other communities as well as trees, creepers, birds and beasts. The owl also represents that bond as the many legends about it scattered across the novel demonstrate. Seeni represents this spirit.
He also instils self-respect among his people, as when he leads the ceremonial cavalcade of Pallars and Paraiyars to pay tributes to the Headman Gurusaami Thevar led by the drummers and offers him garlands and many measures of paddy. The novelist comments: “In Seeni’s gait was the glee of a Yayati who has regained his youth, the exultation of an Ekalavyan who has recovered his lost thumb.”
Another memorable character is Peichi, the proud wife of the late Kaali Thevar, a strong and intelligent woman who saves Appusubban from the police and finds legal help for him. Her story runs in almost a parallel narrative. The lyrical passages on the divine owl that frequents the text and the life of Seeni together create another parallel narrative, along with the siddhans and the alchemists and a whole world of myth and magic. Kusumabale and Koogai in their different ways go beyond the established canons, not only of Dalit narratives, but of the Indian novel in general and point to the future course of the genre where it frees itself from Western models— both realist and modern—and creates its own narrative modes and critical norms.