The Writing Of The Excluded: Dalit Writing And Malayalam

Santhosh O K

Santhosh O K in the pine forest, Vagaman, April 2011
Santhosh O K in the pine forest, Vagaman, Apl 2011

Though the muted trajectory of dalit writing in Malayalam goes back a long way into the past, forms of radical departure from the hegemonic aesthetics and dominant discourses of writing are a recent phenomenon.  The oppressed began to appear in narratives from Mrs Collins’ Ghatakavadham (1877) onwards.  Though Pothery Kunhambu placed a dalit (Marathan Pulayan) at the heartland of narration in Saraswativijayam (1892), elite critics of his time like C P Achutha Menon laughed at this attempt and discarded such a brave representational attempt out rightly.  Later Pandit K P Karuppan’s Jatikkummi, Asan’s Duravastha, Randitangazhi, Vazhakula, Kothambumanikal, Kurathi etc. were also held as subaltern literature.  It required ages to break up the aesthetic conventions and sensibilities constructed by the hegemonic Savarna patriarchy.  V C Sreejan’s study of Kurathy and K K Kochu’s analysis of Saraswativijayam are valid attempts to contextualize the texts in their contexts.

In the initial stages Malyalam literary scene was comprehensively controlled by the aesthetic logic of the Savarna narratives belonging to the Manipravala (high Sanskritised Savarna Malayalam) and Sanskrit canon.  O Chandu Menon’s Indulekha which is regarded as the first major novel in Malayalam gained acceptance because it resolves the cultural crisis of Savarnas, says a dalit critic Pradeepan Pambirikunnu.  The reference is to the notorious Sambandham practice and the creation of sexual colonies among Sudra women by Brahmanic patriarchy.  According to this critic as Vallthol praises this reformist zeal in his literary history, historiography gives way to Savarna pride.  An exclusive narrative sacred space that never touched non-Savarna life and work constituted the epistemological and aesthetic discourses of yesteryears.

In order to deconstruct the prevalent hegemonic aesthetics, discursiveness of language must be explored and explained.  The interrelations between language and power must be addressed.  Contemporary dalit writing space in Malayalam must be developed along these lines both politically and theoretically.  The methodological framework of dalit studies includes the analysis of the emancipatory narratives of the excluded and the muted; and its goes further beyond multiculturalism into the democracy of the future.  The new and radical writing of the dalit can not be read without harming the existing old decadence.

T K Chathan (1921-88) commonly known as T K C Vatuthala is held as a major short fiction writer belonging to the realistic tradition of the 50s.  It was a vibrant time of Malayalam fiction with Basheer, Takazhi, Varkey, Karur, K Saraswatiyamma, Antharjanam, Cherukad and others writing.  The progressive literary movement was in its hay day.  Social commitment and the political function of art were the often debated issues.  The Marxian stream of criticism was already there from the 40s onward.

The class analysis of social conflicts was common trend in the fiction of the day.  All sorts of workers and laborers were at the centre of literary narratives.  They have envisioned an egalitarian society that is classless.  A breaking away from the social structure of feudalism and a foregrounding of the human as the post renaissance Kerala identity model can be identified as  philosophical trends in the writing of the period.

Though committed ideologically to socialism T K C stories remain as a corrective force within realism.  He destabilized the realistic technique and politics that are founded on elitist values.  That is why he is placed in the forefront of the subaltern stream of Malayalam fiction.  The domestic problematic of caste system and the internal inequalities of religions were brought out radically by pioneering fiction in the late 19th century itself.  Ghatakavadham and Palakunnel Valyachan’s Nalagamam were such efforts.  Only Saraswativijayam (1892) assumes the dimension of a subaltern narrative in its reformism and anti-Brahmanic textual politics.

This work signifies the expansion of Christianity among dalits in Kerala through the story of Marathan who becomes Yesudasan after conversion.  T K C’s  story “Achante Ventinja Inna” also explores questions of regional reality and subculture in a postcolonial world.  It draws upon the colonial rule of the 18th and 19th centuries and Christian evangelism of the period.  In his Decline of Nair Dominance, Robin Jeffrey notes that there were 30000 slaves in Travencore alone at that time.  They included all the traditional slave castes like Parayas, Pulayas, Kuravas etc.  Half of them were serving the state directly.  They were also hired by private capitalist forces.  Jeffrey writes about the slave market in Changanassery were slave children were sold and bought.  Price varied from six to eighteen rupees per slave, he adds.

Christian missionaries were the first to come out against slavery in Kerala.  In 1847 a memorandum signed by C M S (Church Mission Society) priests and L M S (London Mission Society) parsons was submitted to the Maharaja of Travencore.  Until the abolishment of slavery in 1855 pleas and petitions poured in.  the subaltern in Kerala viewed the missionary work as a stepping stone to higher social acceptability.  So they considered various churches as social asylums.  It was the agenda of the colonial regime to create certain communities that are pimps of  power.  Gospel attracted the victims and outcastes of Hindu Savarna system.  Those who were higher up in the social ladder were not many among the converted.  Robin Jeffrey confirms with missionary writings and statistics  that there was little Savarna representation among the new believers.

Beyond the subaltern resistance to the worldview and practice of Hinduism, conversion to Christianity was an escape in many dimensions.  It was a response to the dehumanizing and animalizing historical experience of caste and slavery that created a self denying subjectivity and an uncertain destiny.   But dalits confronted new discriminations within the new fold.  That is why missionary work could not produce a subaltern community that live in Christianity with all spiritual and philosophical integrity and solidarity.  The subaltern commitment was not always with Christian ideals but with the interventionism and reformism of the missionaries.

This dalit Christian dilemma is narrativized in T K C stories, especially in the one mentioned above.  They articulate the identity crisis and egalitarian thirst of the subaltern.  These subaltern texts defy institutional and canonical systems.  They remind us that community self and dalit identity are realities.

P A Uthaman’s short fiction also presents the difference and plurality of dalithood.  Social conflicts, life in the dalit colonies and households, the unknown terrains of dalit experience – all come to his narrative praxis.  Its discursiveness is beyond the frames of time and space.  The political anxieties of the liberation of the marginalized puzzles the fictional narrations of Uthaman.  Anthologies like Sundarapurushanmar (1986) and Kavatangalkarikil (1990) articulate these concerns in their own special ways.

C Ayyappan’s stories attack the mainstream writers and their representation with a peculiarly postmodern narrative technique, formal subtlety and memory structure.  They reject the language of the outer world and express through the language of the under world.  They constitute a discourse of the sub-worlds or other worlds.  In his own words his works are the sobs and grumbles for self-respect.  He conjures specters for revenge and resistance.  Most of his characters come alive with an avenging realization that the dead cannot be undone again.  His collections include Jnandukal (2003) and Uchayurakkathile Swapnangal(1986).  K K Baburaj observes that the general trend of Ayyappan’s fiction is marked by the return of subaltern or women, posthumously as ghosts and specters.  They subvert the conventional space-time frame of narration with a vengeance.   They construct the dalit counter-speech structure and reject the logic of Savarna language. They silence the hegemonic articulating systems from a narrative imaginary and unconscious with a striking dynamism of language sense.  They are attempted counter-speeches. They represent the subject formation of the erased and invisible in Kerala public sphere.

Santhosh O K on the grass hills of Vagaman in Apl 2011
Santhosh O K on the grass hills of Vagaman in Apl 2011 en-rout our journey through the Western Ghats in Iduki district of Kerala

Ayyappan represented the desires and hungers of life in the context of the subaltern struggle for sustenance and survival.  He also reversed the Savarna gaze that surveyed the subaltern body for hidden desires.  He dared to make his character ask the question “how can a Pulaya wench become the sister of a Syrian Christian?”  His narratives signify counter-hegemonic resistance and democratization of culture from within the space of fiction.

M Mukundan recently opined that dalit literature is the new remarkable stream that has emerged in Malayalam over the last few decades.  Such new readings clarify that dalit writing is to be recognized as a powerful reforming force that is shaking and breaking the foundations of conventional wisdom and sensibility.

Translated from Malayalam by Ajay Sekher

Santhosh O K has submitted his doctoral thesis in M G University, Kottayam on Dalit Fiction in Malayalam.  He has also published a few titles on dalit studies and criticism including Thiraskritharute Rachanabhupatam (2009).  He may be reached at: +91 9995480610