(re)examining dalit women catastrophic milieu through

Dr. Bollavarapu. Raju
Senior Lecturer in English
Andhra Loyola College,
This paper is a study or the analysis of dalit marginalization, discrimination, isolation and
humiliation from common tradition of life especially the tragic condition of dalit women in
Indian society. Dalit literature is about the sufferings of ‗oppressed class‖. Dalit fiction and its
literary movement are based on the common ground of social oppression. It is a study of
marginal and colonized. Dalit literature is a form of post-colonial literature. The form of dalit
literature covers a wide range of literary genres. It is a literature of whole community but of an
individual. Many writers, thinkers, social reformers and political figures gave their contribution
in the dalit literary movement like B.R. Ambedkar, M.K. Gandhi, Rettaimalai Srinivasan etc.
Exploitation or oppression of weaker by stronger is as old as mankind itself. The Indian history
has been a vibrant record of conflict and dialectic between two opposite forces like exploiters
and exploited colonizer and colonized, powerful and powerless. Dalit literature is always marked
by revolt and a great struggle of lower caste, against the high class people commonly known as
In India there is a huge campus of religion situated in the society. There are four major caste
divisions in India, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. The lowest caste people came
under Shudra‘s. They are regarded as dalits. These people are suppressed, humiliated, exploited,
discriminated and marginalized every sphere of life. These people are also regarded as
untouchables/ Achoot/ Harijan. In Indian society some communities are at the lowest step like:
dalits, females, poor, eunuchs, etc. If the woman belongs to dalit community they suffered of two
types: first being a woman, second belongs to the lowest community. Therefore it could be said
they are ―doubly oppressed.‖ Women‘s movement was started in 1960‘s.There are a number of
writers contributed in the movement like: Mary Wollstonecraft‘s Vindication of Rights of
Women (1792), Simone de Beauvoir‘s The Second Sex (1949), Virginia Woolf‘s A Room of
one‘s own, Kate Millet‘s Sexual Politics, Fredrich Engels‘s The Origin of The Family (1884),
John Stuart Mill‘s The Subjection of women (1869) etc. These writers speak out the real woman
who struggle with social norms, condition, which are extremely propagated by a patriarchal
society. Toril Moi explains, ―The first is a political position the second a matter of biology and
the third, a set of culturally defined characteristics.‖ Women‘s condition was not good in 1960‘s
and 1970‘s but in 1980‘s the mood changed. Being a Tamil, dalit Christian women she is able to
express emphatically the women‘s identity. Bama examines caste and gender oppression
together. She redefined ‗woman‘ from the political perspective of a dalit.
According to Frantz Fanon, ―The class of oppressed is invariably inimical to the autonomy of
the oppressed and their culture‖. In Sangati Bama focuses on the double oppression of females.
While going through all this caste system some important questions arises in the mind: Who are
Dalits? What is feminism? What is women‘s identity Focused in Bama‘s Sangati? What are the
solutions suggested in Bama‘s Sangati? These are some important questions which pressurize us
to go through the text. Sangati exposes that how a man spend money to earn as they please but
on the other hand a woman has to fulfill their family responsibilities. The theme of Sangati is
―Subjugation to Celebration.‖ Bama‘s ‗Sangati‘ is a unique Dalit feminist narrative. It is mainly
concern with women‘s movement in India. Literature also contributes in the Dalit movement
and to the women‘s movement in India especially in Tamilnadu movement of 1960s may be
noted as the starting point of feminism. But of course before this there already occurred various
struggle against male oppression, the privilege systems and inequality.
As an exponent of Dalit feminism, Bama has found is Karukku the right way to explores the
sufferings of Dalit women. Sangati carries an autobiographical element in their narrative, but it is
a story of a whole community, not an individual. In Sangati, many strong Dalit women who had
the shackles of authority are also focused. The condition of dalits were very bad as they were not
allowed to enter in to the temple, and schools for education .This form of discrimination based
on identity akin to racism. To the great extents, writers like Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de
Beauvoir speak out about the representation of women in literature. In 1980‘s first feminist
criticism became much more electric. It focused upon attacking male version of the world to
exploring the nature of female experiences. In the Indian social ladder dalit refers to on the
lowest step.
Dalit feminism points out repeatedly that Dalit struggle has tended to forget a gender
perspective. In dalit society every women live under the double power of caste and patriarchy.
They are doubly oppressed. Women‘s are considered as the symbol of sex and object of pleasure.
A study of dalit feminist writing reveals a tale of endless miseries, inhuman victimization and
shocking gender discrimination. Bama, was already, formulating a dalit feminist. She was a
Dalit Christian.
Sangati was originally written in Tamil in 1994. It was translated by Laxmi Halmstrom into
English. The word Sangati means events, and thus the novel through individual stories,
anecdotes and memories portrays the event, that takes place in the life of a woman in paraiya
community. The novel also reveals how Paraiya women double oppressed. Sangati deals with
several generation of women: the older women belongs to narrators grandmothers generation
Velliamma Kizhavi‘s generation, and downward generation belongs to narrator, and the
generation coming after as she grows up.
Sangati is an autobiography of her community, which highlights the struggle of
Paraiya women. Bama chooses only a woman protagonist for every story in her novel Sangati
contributes both to the dalit movement and to the women‘s movement in India specially
Tamilnadu. ―Sangati is a look at a part of those Dalit women who dared to make fun of the class
in power that oppressed them and through this, they the courage to revolt.‖ (2005.8.)
Sangati also refers news and the book is full of interconnected events—the everyday happenings
of dalit community. It goes against the notions of traditional novel. The book does not carry any
plot in the normal sense, but it is a series of anecdotes. The author herself says the purpose of
writing the book in her acknowledgement. ―My mind is crowded with many anecdotes: stories
not only about the sorrows and tears of dalit women, but also about their lively and rebellious
culture, passion about life with vitality, truth, enjoyment and about their hard labour. I wanted to
shout out these stories.‖ (9.)
Women are presented in sangati as wage earners as much as men as working as agricultural and
building side labours, But earning less than men do. Yet the money that earn in their own to
spend as they please, whereas women bear the financial burden of running the family. Women
are also constantly victim to sexual harassment and abuse in the world of work. Bama exposes
caste and gender problems both outside and inside the community. Sangati focuses generally on
dalit women on various issues such as gender, sexual discrimination. According to Bama ―All
women in the world are second class citizens. For dalit women, the problem is grave. Their dalit
identity given them a different set of problems. The Experience a total leak of social status. Even
they are not considered dignified human beings. My stories are based on these aspects of dalit
culture‖……. Sangati encapsulates the author‘s experience of working within an erogenous and
apprised society and the series of several interconnected anecdotes, experiences, news and events
as narrated in the book, from an autobiography of a community. Sangati is a portrayal of many
trouble witnessing stories as ones writers Paatti said ―Once you are born a woman can you go
and confront a group of four or five men?‖ Should you ever do it? (28.)
This narration accommodates more than 35 characters most of whom……female, but in
conventional sense there is no individual who may be tagged as hero or heroine. Bama gives
another picture of the community. Although both men and women came after a hard day‘s work
in the field. The men went straight to the bazaar or chavadi to while away their time, coming
home only for their meal. But as for the women they return home wash vessels, clean the house,
collect water, gather firewood, go to the shops to buy rice and other provision boil some rice,
make a kazhambu or a kanji feed husband and children before they eat what is left over and go to
bed.( 59) Even they lay down their bodies wracked with pain; they were not allowed to sleep.
Whether she dies or survived, she had to finish his business. Women were not allowed to take
part on any occasion, the man themselves would dress up and act as women rather than allow us
to join in. (32) The book deals with gender bias faced by dalit women right from the childhood.
Girl babies are always considered inferior and taken less care. Dalit girls are hardly enjoying her
childhood. They have little time to play as she has to take care of their younger siblings.
Maikkanni is one such girl who has started to work from the day she learns to walk. (70).She
has to go to work when her mother delivers a baby. When her mother becomes fit Maikkani turn
to take care of the new born baby. The life of a dalit girl was tormenting but the life of a grown
up dalit woman was worse. The story of narrators cousin Marriamma tells a lot about the sexual
assault the abuse faced by dalit women and their inability to stand up against it. Bama is very
careful in portraying the picture of a dalit woman. Bama shows gender discrimination meted out
to them throughout the lives of dalit women.
Bama realistically portrays the physical violence, like lynching, whipping and canning that dalit
woman by fathers, husbands, and brothers. Bama explores the psychological stress and stairs.
Her language is also very different from other Indian women writers as she is more generous
with the use of Tamil dalit slogans. She addresses the women of village by using suffix ‗Amma‘
(mother) with their names. The names of places, months, festivals, rituals, customs, utensils,
ornaments, clothes, edibles, games etc. to the names of occupations, the way of addressing
relatives, ghosts, sprits etc., she unceasingly uses various Tamil words.
The voices of many women speaking and addressing one another, sharing their everyday
experience with each other, sometimes expressed in anger or pain. The language is full of
explicit sexual references too. Bama bridges the spoken and written styles of Tamil by breaking
the rules of written grammar and spellings. Bama says that man can humiliate woman many
times, he can disrespect a woman, it is very normal. But in this partial double minded society
woman has no right to spoken out anything. This is acceptable to all. The postcolonial thrust of
her book is in its huge criticism of Indian church. Bama feministically voices out the grievances
of Paraiya women. Characters like vellaiyamma patti and a small girl and the narrator herself,
who learns the story from her grandmother which becomes development of the novel. In novel
many strong dalit women had courage to break the shackles of authority. Bama said they live
under pressure and get enjoy their fully life. In India there is prevalence of caste –hierarchy
within sub castes of dalit community. In sangati, the Catholic priests were also gender biased and
treated the converted dalit women as inferior. Bama used two modes of narration in his book
Sangati: One is confessional and the other, is conventional. And thus she goes deep up to the
historical perspective of dalit community. Bama has personally experienced the marginalized.
She sums up their situations in following lines: ―Everywhere you look, you see blows and
beatings, shame and humiliation……….Became we have not been to school or learnt anything,
we go about like slaves all our lives, from the day we are born till the day we die, As if we are
blind, even though we have eyes‖.
Bama has been the difference she has wanted to be with her education and vocation. She brings
in the autobiographical element full circle at the end of the book when she says that being a
woman and a dalit woman at that, unmarried has posed great difficulty for her in everyday life.
She asks the basic question as to why a woman can‘t belong to no one but herself. She not only
speaks for herself but for her community at large when she says: ―I have to struggle so hard
because I am a woman. And exactly like that, my people are constantly punished for the simple
fact of having been born dalits. Is it our fault that we are dalits?‖ (121). She also speaks for
women on the whole when she says that women too as individuals have their own desires, and
wishes, that if women do not speak for themselves, come forward to change their condition then
who else is going to do it for them. A change in attitude is the need of the hour, and with this she
is optimistic of inequalities coming to an end. Therefore in speaking the unrepresented in literary
discourses so far, Bama has linked together the caste as well the gender oppression, in the
process redefining woman from the socio/cultural perspective. She has made herself heard in her
attempt to move from the position of the subaltern to the center.
Tamil Dalit Christian writer Bama‘s Sangati (translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom) is
the carnival of multiple voices of the oppression, resistance and agency in the life of dalit women
of Tamilnadu. The aim of this paper is to critically examine Bama‘s novel Sangati from the point
of view of dalit feminism. The dalit feminism seeks to explore ―histories from below‖ that is the
latest phenomenon in Indian literary circles. The paper attempts to explore the oppression as well
as agency in the life of dalit women. Sangati contributes in general to dalit situation and in
particular to Dalit feminism. In this paper an attempt has been made to downplay the role of dalit
women in religious and political affairs and even at home and the health hazards that they have
to face. The dalit situation expressed in this novel cannot be taken as a complete picture of the
life of dalit women. It is just the fragment of total reality.
The 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers advocated the idea of ‗socialist realism‘ in literature.
Joyce‘s work was denounced as a heap of dung teeming with worms, and accused Ulysses of
historical untruthfulness because it made no reference to the Easter uprising in Ireland and hence
failed in its attempt to reflect the spirit of that age (Marxism and Literary Criticism:2002,36).
Similarly a common goal in Dalit literature and especially Dalit Feminism is ―challenging forms
of oppression‖ which are both overt and covert in their own ways (Beginning Postcolonialism :
2010,174). Faustina Bama belongs to the group of those writers who propound the idea of social
realism in literature. Bama expresses the common experiences of exploitation of her own paraiya
community in her works of fiction and especially the text Sangati deals with the vulnerable
condition of dalit women.
India, as we know, is a land of castes and sub-castes. Dalits of the digital age of twenty-first
century still have to undergo casteist oppression even though caste discrimination has been
declared as an offence under the law. Even Gandhi, the crusader for Dalits was not openly
against the caste system. He was only against untouchability and not against caste. Defending the
Indian Varna system Gandhi writes ―the following on the part of us all the hereditary and
traditional calling of our forefathers in a spirit of duty‖ (quoted in Dalit Personal Narratives:
Reading Caste, Nation and Identity: 2012, 135) Inequality in twenty-first century India is not
only on the basis of economic disparity; it is also engineered by the unequal order caused by the
caste system. Caste discrimination and untouchability bring the lower classes on the periphery
which can never catch up with the centre. This kind of societal discrepancy creates an unequal
order. Thus the sufferers show resistance to the oppressive forces which always promote unequal
order in the society.
However resistance does not claim to bring any major changes in the life of subalterns. The
unequal societal and cultural norms on the basis of caste have always proved detrimental for the
holistic development of the Indian society. The phenomenon of resistance on the basis of caste
has produced what is known as Dalit Resistance. Dalit literature has never been the
literature of fairies, sylphs, and aerials where only fictional representation overpowers the real
world. Hence Dalit literature aims to change the prevailing order that is marred by gross
inequalities on the basis of caste, class and gender etc.
The Indian writers in English have ignored the Indian reality for a long time. But on the other
hand the regional writers, writing in their own languages present a comprehensive and crystal
clear picture of their society. Similarly, the self-narrative Sangati is a dialectics of self and dalit
women of paraiya community in the State of Tamilnadu. The writing subject itself (Bama)
belongs to the rank of hitherto ‗silent‘. Women in the past were encouraged to read but not write
resulting in a huge disparity between women readership and authorship. The first generation of
Dalit writers were all men who gave a deaf ear to the issues of Dalit women. And the very few of
those who wrote about women, presented them in a manner that seems to indicate that God is in
his heaven and all is right with the Dalit women. But this self-narrative has been written by a
Dalit woman who has portrayed the crystal clear picture of her community. This self-narrative is
something like an excavation of the saga of Dalit women under the various oppressive forces in
the society that are both overt and covert in its form. All the
Dalit women in this self-narrative from writer‘s grandmother to Mariama have to bear the triple
brunt of caste, class and gender discrimination. There is no coherency in the plot of this novel.
Lakshmi Holmstrom states this in the introduction ―Sangati flouts received notions of what a
novel should be, just as Karukku flouts the conventions of autobiography. It has no sense in the
normal sense, only the powerful stories of a series of memorable protagonists...‖
(XVI). However, almost all the female characters in this narrative have been portrayed with
surgeon-like precision to make this text a realistic document. Dalit women like Pachamuukipillai
are so occupied in their daily chores that they end up giving birth to their kids in the fields
without realizing the exact timing of their delivery. She herself cut the umbilical cord with the
sickle to bring her son Kaatturaasa on this happy planet. Even the narrator‘s mother gave her
birth without realizing the exact time of the birth. Patti states ―Even your mother spent all day
transplanting in the western fields and then went into labour just as she was grinding the masala
for the evening meal‖(6). What could be more pathetic and inhuman treatment meted out to Dalit
women who cannot even beget their children in proper surroundings and hygienic hospitals.
Most of the times their homes become maternity hospitals where the midwives like the narrator‘s
grandmother help in delivering the baby with the dexterity of a gynaecologist. The hard Indian
reality is that women still deliver babies in open corridors in many govt. hospitals without
showing any concern for privacy. Then patti, the narrator‘s grandmother pours out one of the
most insecure statement about women in general and Dalit women in particular ―If you are born
into this world, it is best you are born a man. Born as women, what good do we get? We only toil
in the fields and in the home until our very vaginas shrivel‖ (6).
This text comprises the galaxy of dalit women characters of different age groups. Almost all the
female characters are subject to religious, patriarchal, and casteist oppression. But some of the
dalit women show resistance against upper-caste landlords and domestic violence. The dalit
womenfolk like Mariamma, Thaayi and Esakki are beaten by their own husbands. These ladies
of the lesser God do their jobs religiously both at home and in the fields. The home that is
considered the safest place for them is just like a legal brothel to satisfy the carnal desires of their
husbands. But there are also women like Raakkamma and Kaaliamma who can not
assume silence at the violent attitude of their husbands. She is so much disturbed that she crosses
all the boundaries of decency ―Instead of drinking toddy every day, why don‘t you drink your
son‘s urine? Why don‘t you drink my monthly blood‖ (61).
Here one thing needs to be taken into consideration that Christianity does not preach casteism
but Christians do. Christians living in India are known as ―Rice Christians‖ who are just the
numbers in the Christian scheme of things without much access to power. And Christian women
are all the more powerless because of the factors of caste and gender. The church in Sangati is
synonymous with casteist oppression both on Dalit men and Dalit womenfolk. This text unearths
the nexus between priests and men-folk to tame the dalit women from flying high. The writer‘s
counterparts are subjected to humiliation, caste and gender discrimination and remain
marginalised even after conversion to Christianity. The church does not come to their rescue
rather tries to normalise the oppressive situation by imposing its own religious
dictates. Even Ambedkar was of the view that inter-caste marriage helps in removing the casteist
barriers. But the priests in the church don‘t allow dalit-women the liberty to choose the life
partners of their own choice. Lakshmi Holmstrom in the introduction states ―...parish priests are
not sympathetic towards women‘s individual choice of life partners; they are given the meanest
jobs in the church with the promise of a ‗reward in heaven‘ (XVIII).
The political establishment is well aware of the reality that there is no need to shower
extravaganzas or freebies on women and more so on the dalit women. The political scenario
depicted in the text is quite convincing. Vandana Shukla states ―... Political parties are very much
aware of the fact that Indian women follow their men‘s political choices and their huge number
does not impact vote politics‖ (The Sunday Tribune:6 Jan. 2013). In the tenth chapter, the
imagination of Bama takes flight to electoral scene which shows the inability of Dalit women to
cast their vote to the candidates of their own choice because they have to toe the lines of their
husbands. The writer reveals the ground reality ―Whether it is Rama who rules, or Ravana, what
does it matter? Our situation is always the same‖ (99). Even the dalit
women-folk don‘t know how to cast their vote properly. The patti stamped all the pictures on the
ballet paper and the writer stamped two pictures resulting in invalid ballet papers. Thus the dalit
women have been shown as having slipped into political hibernation. Again to quote Vandana
Shukla ―Most Indian women eat after feeding the family. They are made to believe in this virtue
because men and sons need better nourishment. The self-degradation continues, when they fast
for sons and husbands alone in the name of tradition‖ (The Sunday Tribune: 6 January 2013). So
this Sita like devotion can still be seen in Indian homes where traditional
values can never be subverted. In Sangati, Bama challenges mainstream legends and pinpoints
the challenges that dalit women pose to empty patriarchal rituals. The story of Thiruvallvar, the
great Tamil poet and his wife is just the reminder of holy alliance between husband and wife
where wife always plays the role of a scapegoat. Thiruvallvar‘s wife who is considered the
epitome of chastity and devotion to her husband is mentioned to illustrate the subordinate
position of women in marriage. Bama offers an alternate folksong about Ananatamma of West
Street, who was beaten up for eating crab curry before serving her husband. ―Crab, O crab, my
pretty little crab, who wandered through all the fields I planted, I pulled of your claws and put
you in the pot, I gave the pot a boil and set it down. I waited and waited for him to come home.
And began to eat as he came through the door. He came to hit me, the hungry brute. He pounced
at me to kill me...‖ (30). So what we see in the case of Dalit women is visceral and heroic. Even
education can not entirely liberate the dalit men and dalit women from the evil shadow of
casteism. The tag of casteism is so dominant that even the high class officials belonging to low
caste have to bear the casteist taunts. This kind of predicament has been expressed by Balwant
Singh in his book ‗An Untouchable IAS Officer‘. Bama expresses here the same kind of
predicament ―Later, when I finished my studies and began to look for jobs, I realized that even
with an education one has to face many difficulties when trying to earn a livelihood‖ (119). The
writer, at the end of this novel presents the example of liberal feminism by saying that the
women should give up their traditional roles of being only daughters and mothers. Bama states
―we must give up the belief that a married life of complete service to a man is our only fate‖
(122). This Sita like devotion needs to be re-examined and questioned. So there is need to defy
normative patrarchial motherhood as it happens in the case of this narrative e when the dalit
women shed the roles of rubber stamps and are prepared to carve a niche for themselves.
In the final analysis it will not be wrong to say that the trajectory of growth of dalit women is
evolutionary rather than being revolutionary. Some of the Dalit women apply common sense that
helps them navigate through their routine forms of oppression. They, in reality, can be called
movers and shakers, though in small motion.
The Dalit women described in the self narrative present the microcosm of the Dalit
women in entire India, in what so ever the state they are the conglomeration of similarity on the
basis of their economic, social and cultural life. So the poetics of justice is still elusive in the life
of Dalit women and hence ironically and paradoxically, they cannot be lions in their own dens at
any cost. All the twelve chapters are thus the odyssey of Dalit women revealing the multiple
forms of oppression as well as agency but who are still miles away from leading a respectable
The language of Dalit women is rich and resourceful consisting of proverbs, folklore and
folksongs. Bama also makes use of a language full of vigour. Proverbs and folk songs are
constantly made use of to explicate their situation. She also makes use of jokes and
lampoons,thereby daring to make fun of the dominant classes that oppressed them.
Sangati was translated into Malayalam by Vijayakumar Kunnissery. Born in a remote village in
Palghat, Vijayakumar was brought up in Coimbatore which made him have close association
with Tamil language, customs and manners. In India, society is stratified into different castes.
These castes are clearly named groups and are rigidly separated from each other. There is very
little possibility of movement from one caste to another. Each caste has its own dialect.
Vijayakumar in his translation makes use of the slang of Palaghat Paraiya community. This has
close affinities with the slang used by Kuppuvachan in Khazakkinte Ithihasam. By retaining the
slang of the Dalits, Vijayakumar brings the translated text closer to the original. It also reveals
the close association between Tamil and Malayalam. In the historical past pro to-Dravidian was
spoken possibly throughout India. When the Turanians and the Aryans came to India and
mingled with the local population of the north, the north Indianlanguages changed to a great
extent. Thus it lost its ground there and 160 The Sangati of Translation confined itself to the
south. Even in south India it did not remain as one single language for a long time.
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