In solidarity

Print edition : January 30, 1999

Novelist Arundhati Roy expresses solidarity with the cause of Dalits and Dalit literature.

ON a visit to Kerala, where The God of Small Things is set, its Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy last fortnight eloquently expressed solidarity with "the Dalit struggle for justice and equality in a society wracked by caste prejudice" and made a significant, and widely appreciated, contribution to the cause of Dalit literature.

Speaking at a reception organised in her honour in Kozhikode in her home State on January 15 by the Kerala Dalit Sahitya Akademi, Arundhati Roy, whose best-selling novel narrates poignantly a tragic tale of forbidden love involving an "untouchable", said that in her opinion the Dalit struggle for justice and equality would be, "and indeed ought to be", the biggest challenge that India would face in the next century. "I am fully aware," she observed, "that this particular war will be an immense and complicated one. That it will be waged in all sorts of ways, by all sorts of people in all sorts of places."

And in a forthright expression of her solidarity with the Dalit cause, Arundhati Roy added: "I'm here to enlist."

The novelist, who has spoken out powerfully against the Indian Government's May 1998 nuclear explosions and attempted nuclear weaponisation in her essay, "The End of Imagination", then proceeded to make a generous contribution to the cause of Dalit literature by offering "a part of the most precious thing that I possess" to the Dalit Sahitya Akademi. She invited the Akademi to publish the Malayalam translation of her novel (in association with D.C. Books, the Kerala-based publishers) and use the royalties therefrom to promote Dalit literature. Making clear the fact that hers was not a patronising or a charitable act, Arundhati Roy declared: "This is not a gift. It is an invitation to enter into a working contract with me. I hope you will publish it, sell it and use the royalties from the Malayalam book to help Dalit writers to tell their stories to the world."

The fount of Arundhati Roy's significant act of literary solidarity was also made clear. "I give you my book in memory of Velutha," she concluded, alluding to the "untouchable" protagonist of the novel, The God of Small Things.

THE Akademi's response to Arundhati Roy's expression of solidarity with the Dalit cause was characterised by much warmth. Her speech, delivered in Malayalam, drew loud and repeated applause. A spokesman for the Akademi said: "Her deep-seated sympathies for Dalits are evident in her novel." He then opened a copy of The God of Small Things and read out: "Who's Velutha?", Sophie Mol wanted to know. "A man we love," Rahel said.

Arundhati Roy speaks at a reception hosted in her honour by the Dalit Sahitya Akademi at Kozhikode on January 15.-RAGHU PUTHIYAPALAM

The Dalit perception of the socio-cultural significance of Arundhati Roy was explained in a paper presented by T.B. Vijaya Kumar, a Dalit activist, at a seminar organised by the Akademi on January 16 on the topic of "savarna sahithyam" (literature of the upper castes). The paper spoke of Arundhati Roy as "the brave daughter of the Sunnahados" and went on to explain why.

The 400th anniversary of the 1599 Udayamperoor Sunnahados (a synod at Udayamperoor, Kerala) is being celebrated by Dalit groups; the Akademi considers the Sunnahados as an event that marked the starting point of an anti-caste movement within the Church in India. According to Vijaya Kumar's paper, it was organised by Portuguese-Goan Archbishop (Alexis Dom) Menezes to purge Syrian Christians in Kerala of their Hindu values and to make them "real Christians". He said that before the arrival of the Portuguese, Syrian Christians were believed to have followed, like upper-caste Hindus, a caste system and norms of untouchability, and also allegedly resorting to oppression of the lower castes.

The Akademi considers Archbishop Menezes' efforts as revolutionary since among other things he opposed untouchability and wanted equal rights on family property to be granted to women. But, according to the paper, the Archbishop did not get very far with his ideas; the 1653 "koonankurisu sathyam" (an oath taken at koonankurisu at Mattancherry against Western domination of the church) put an end to the trend.

The Protestant missionaries of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the London Mission Society (LMS) which were active in Kerala during a later period initiated social movements which led to a renaissance in thinking. This was followed by the emergence of social reformers such as Sri Narayana Guru and Ayyankali, and historic figures belonging to the the Left movement.

Arundhati Roy was hailed by the Akademi as a person who, unlike others sharing her origins, had been totally purged of Hindu values. One speaker made a comparative study between Arundhati Roy and Shashi Tharoor, author of The Great Indian Novel, The Five Dollar Smile and Other Stories and India from Midnight to the Millennium, who too hails from Kerala. Arundhati Roy's empathy for Dalits, as manifested in the young twins' interactions with Velutha, came in for particular mention. Tharoor, by contrast, was presented in unfavourable light.

IN declaring her full support for the Dalit struggle against centuries-old oppression, Arundhati Roy seems to have made a positive impression in Kerala's literary circles, even among those who do not fully subscribe to the Dalit Sahitya Akademi's world-view.

A section of the audience at a seminar hosted by the Dalit Sahitya Akademi.-RAGHU PUTHIYAPALAM

Writer Thikkodiyan, who is Chairman of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, said: "I am happy that she has identified herself with a cause. It has to be seen as a sincere gesture since she already has the fame and the money ... But the Dalit Akademi's activists sometimes have strange views which are not always based on facts."

Dr. Punathil Kunhabdulla, Malayalam novelist, and Dr. M.M. Basheer, literary critic, observed that Arundhati Roy's gesture in inviting the Akademi to become involved in the publication of the Malayalam edition of her novel and offering it the royalties therefrom had given a big boost to Dalit literature, even though, in their opinion, it was difficult to agree with all of the Akademi's views and activities. Punathil Kunhabdulla was all praise for the Akademi for its having organised the reception for Arundhati Roy. Basheer said that in his view, the success of the Malayalam edition would depend on the quality of translation. He attributed the popularity of the English edition in Kerala mainly to the quality of the writing.

The God of Small Things is, of course, not the first novel by a writer from Kerala to explore the social condition of Dalits. Dalits rate Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan's Kurathi, Valsala's Nellu, Kumaran Asan's Duravastha and K.J. Baby's Maveli Manram as classics in Dalit literature; their authors, significantly, are not Dalits. Basheer rates Kocharayathi, a novel by Dalit writer Narayan, as one of the outstanding Malayalam novels published in 1998.

The Kerala Dalit Sahitya Akademi holds the opinion that the literary and cultural atmosphere in Kerala is hostile to Dalits; however, a big volume of Dalit literature exists in Malayalam. A good example is offered by the recent issues of the literary magazine Kerala Kavitha which feature Malayalam translations of Dalit writings in Marathi and Oriya.

All things considered, Arundhati Roy's visit gave a big boost to the Akademi, which is known to hold radical views on socio-cultural issues. The meeting was attended by large numbers of book-lovers ranging from college students to seasoned writers and literary critics: some came to listen to her, some for her autographs and some for a glimpse of that face made familiar by the media.

ARUNDHATI ROY had one other engagement in Kozhikode - an autograph-signing session organised by D.C. Books; the author autographed scores of copies of her novel and her essay "The End of Imagination" (originally published in Frontline, August 14, 1998, and Outlook and issued as a book by D.C. Books, with the royalties going to the Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons in India). But her undivided attention was reserved for the Akademi reception. She declined invitations to other functions in Kozhikode. (After the programme, on her way back from the city by road, she spent some time in Vazhakkad village on the banks of the Chaliyar, which has a high incidence of cancer, an incidence that is often linked to effluents from the wood pulp factory of Grasim Industries at nearby Mavoor.)

By announcing her support for the Dalit cause, Arundhati Roy has taken a decisive step. She remains primarily a literary figure of international distinction, but a literary figure who has stepped out in the public arena to speak forthrightly and powerfully on just causes she has chosen for herself.

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