Tamil Nadu

University gives in

Print edition : April 04, 2014

A protest against the texts at the university.

The dust raised by the controversy involving the cancellation of a lecture by the Islamic scholar Amina Wadud some eight months back had hardly settled when the University of Madras found itself in another tangle, this time for removing two literary works, short stories, of the Tamil writer Puthumaipithan from the curriculum following a threat from a Dalit group. The stories, it claimed, contained anti-Dalit remarks.

The university had prescribed five short stories of the progressive Tamil writer, who is regarded as a trendsetter in Tamil short story writing in the 1940s. “Thunbakkeni” (Well of Misery, 1939), considered his masterpiece, and “Ponnagaram” (Golden city), which questions the established norms on chastity, were prescribed for the first semester of the three-year B.A., B.Sc and B.Com degree courses under Part-I, Tamil Language and Literature. “Thunbakkeni” talks poignantly about the exploitation and sufferings of a Dalit woman in a Sri Lankan tea estate and the brutal dominance of a caste-afflicted society that had annihilated her family.

The Dalit group also demanded the removal of “Kadalpurathil” (Seaside, 1977), a novel by the well-known Tamil writer Vannanilavan, prescribed for the first year of the five-year integrated postgraduate course. It describes the emotional conflicts of the various characters, all Dalit Christian fishermen.

The university’s Board of Studies meets every year to discuss the syllabi for both undergraduate and postgraduate courses. As a matter of procedure, once in three years the syllabus is revised. “Accordingly, four years ago the short stories and the novel under discussion were included in the curriculum,” said an informed source in the university.

The Dalit outfit Adi Thamizhar Viduthalai Iyakkam (Adi Tamilar Liberation Movement) alleged that the university was prejudiced against Dalits. This came as a shock and surprise to the university administration. “We never expected such a hostile approach, especially to works of literature that are regarded in the literary world as ‘radically path-breaking’,” the source said.

The Dalit outfit organised agitations across the State in support of its demand. Besides, J. Jai Samyak, a lecturer in Tamil in a private college in Chennai, filed a writ petition before the Madras High Court in August last year seeking the removal of the short stories and the novel from the syllabus.

Samyak, in his petition, claimed that the impugned works described Paraiyars, an oppressed caste group, and their women “in a degrading and derogatory manner”. Educational institutions are “temples of social transformation” and academics must be fully aware that caste is a touchy issue, he said.

A reading of “Thunbakkeni”, he stated, “gives an unfailing impression that Paraiyars are dishonest, unclean, ungrateful and unchaste”. “Kadalpurathil” portrays Paraiyars as drunkards and immoral, he said in his petition. Students of other castes, he claimed, would frown upon their Dalit counterparts when the literary works were taught in a classroom.

The university denied the charges. It said there had been no grievance or complaint from students and added in its counter, filed in September, that these works were available in the open market, too. These works, it clarified, should be read for their literary quality and the language used by the community at the time when they were written.

“Puthumaipithan was a revolutionary author known for creating social and cultural awareness and for providing literary works which have been appreciated over the years,” it said. It argued that the request of the petitioner was unsustainable. But in February the university, when the matter was still pending in court, suddenly announced the removal of the two short stories and the inclusion of another short story of Puthumaipithan, “Oru Naal Kazhinthathu” in the syllabus.

Vice-Chancellor R. Thandavan told the media that the Syndicate had permitted the university to remove the two contentious works from the syllabus, shocking those who cherish academic independence. The institution chose to retain “Kadalpurathil”.

The Dalit outfit, however, denied that it had demanded the removal of “Ponnagaram”. “We are surprised. We have not asked for its removal. We wanted the removal of ‘Thunbakkeni’ and ‘Kadalpurathil’. We will have to approach them again seeking the removal of ‘Kadalpurathil’,” said A. Vinoth, the outfit’s general secretary.

The Dalit ideologue and writer D. Ravikumar called the removal of “Thunbakkeni” very unfortunate. The story, he said, graphically portrayed the sufferings of Dalits in plantations in Sri Lanka. Puthumaipithan, he said, had radicalised Tamil short story writing by lashing out at social evils such as untouchability.

Many faculty members claimed that a few heads of departments in the university had used the ruse of caste to back the removal of the texts and thus prevented students from reading them. A climate of repression and intimidation prevailed on the premises, they felt.

V. Arasu of the Department of Contemporary Tamil Literature, University of Madras, opposed the removal of the literary works in a recent meeting of the academic council. He was of the view that such an intolerant attitude in academia would do more harm than good to institutions of higher learning. “Educational institutions would be reluctant to prescribe any quality literary works henceforth,” he said.

He pointed out that references, derogatory or otherwise, to castes were found in many literary works which record the contours of social, cultural and economic development of society.

“The references to Dalits are found abundantly in ‘Periyapuranam’ and ‘Nandan Sarithra Keerthanai’. Can you ban them? We should read them in the context they were written in to understand the message they conveyed,” he said.

One must understand the social structure at the time when Puthumaipithan wrote his stories. “If we understand it objectively, we will not attempt to confine such great works to narrow caste-based biases. The dialect of characters in any work has to be native and to the period it belongs to. Hence, words and references become unimportant. “Thunbakkeni” is the writer’s masterpiece on total realism,” Arasu pointed out.

Puthumaipithan, he added, had taken the metaphor Thunbakkeni from Subramania Bharathiyar’s “Karumbu Thottathilae”, in which the fiery bard narrated the sufferings of Indians who toiled as bonded labourers in the sugarcane fields of Fiji islands. Puthumaipithan told the tale of anguish of a Dalit woman in a Sri Lankan tea estate. Literature, Arasu said, should not be exploited to promote cultural fascism.

R. Ilangovan