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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2018



From Enslavement to Emancipation: Bama Faustina’s Karukku

Anusha Prashar, Research Scholar, Panjab University, Chandigarh (UT)

Bama known as Bama Faustina Susairaj is a Tamil Dalit woman from a Roman Catholic family. She was born as Faustina Mary Fatima Rani in a village called Puthupatti in the then Madras state. Bama’s ancestors belonged to Dalit community and worked as agricultural labourers, converted from Hinduism to Christianity. About 70-80 per cent of Indian Christians are Dalit Christians, that is former members of the Dalit castes. Bama has published three full-length works of prose: her autobiography, Karukku (1992), two novels, Sangati (1994) and Vanmam (2002), and three collections of short stories, Kisumbukkaran (1996), Oru Thathavum Erumayum (2003), and Kondattam (2009). Her works have been translated copiously into English, German, French, Telugu, and Malayalam. Karukku first published in 2000, is the first female Dalit autobiography in Tamil which portrays an audacious attempt by the author to pen down the experiences of caste oppression and coercion. Karukku provides an insight into the life of an unprivileged Tamil Dalit Christian woman. It is a fierce narrative which depicts a turbulent journey of struggles between the self and the community.  

Karuuku in the form of narrative provides an outlet to the inward anger and frustration of the author and hence is a kind of protest in a written form to awaken the masses to the horrors of casteism. It is an endeavour, a way to reach larger audience in order to make them aware of the discrimination prevalent in this prejudiced society. It questions the soundness of various beliefs and cultural systems existing in our society. The book presents a rebellious approach, a defiance, a kind of resistance which refuses to succumb to the patriarchal domination. It is an author’s journey of self realisation, revelation, introspection and spiritual enlightenment. The book is imbued with myriad instances where we get a peep into the deep psyche of an individual shackled in the chains of casteism and a closer vision to the account of sufferings and miseries doled out by the caste ridden society.

The issues raised by the author do not delimit themselves to the sole wickedness of tyrannical casteism but also bring in the problem of identity crises faced by women in this androcentric society. Along with the above mentioned concerns, the book also exposes sham edifices and treachery of sacrosanct institutions like the Church and the Convent. As the translator Lakshmi Holmström, mentions in the beginning of the book:

The argument of the book is to do with the arc of the narrator’s spiritual development both through the nurturing of her belief as a Catholic, and her gradual realization of herself as a Dalit. We are given a full picture of the way in which the Church ordered and influenced the lives of Dalit Catholics. (xvi)

The early chapters of the book introduce us to the village life of the author by looking at it from the author’s lens of childhood. There is the depiction of beauty of the village life, the geographical aspects, the daily life of the villagers and the settlements in the form of streets distinguished on the basis of castes. In the very beginning of the chapter we come across the existence of two different worlds segregated in the name of powerfully constructed oppressive structures. These structures based on the working of age old practices of untouchability demarcated people in the binaries of superior/inferior, high/low, civilized/uncivilized, strong/weak and master/servant. The tyranny unleashed on the deprived and subjugated social groups by the privileged upper class not only alienated them from the mainstream but denied them even the basic amenities.

Bama reminisces the stark incidents of her childhood which left deep impressions on her mind and soul. The memories of the earlier times still haunt her in the form of dreadful flashbacks subsequently leaving indelible marks of humiliation on her psyche. She mentions, how in the early years of her school time she started encountering and experiencing the  unpleasantness of the evil of untouchability. She recalls an incident where she sees an elder of her community tagged as outcastes of the society coming along while holding out the packet of eatables by its string, without touching it. He, on reaching to the Naicker, bowed low and extended the packet toward him, cupping the hand that held the string with his other hand. She being an innocent child couldn’t understand the seriousness of the incident that time. In the excitement of knowing more she asks her elder brother on reaching home about the happening which she found amusing in the market. On knowing about the gravity of the story she felt awful. She was told by her brother that “naickers were upper caste, and therefore must not touch Parayas. If they did, they would be polluted. That’s why he had to carry the package by its string” (15). Malayali poet Vijila’s poem, “The Autobiography of a Bitch”3 states clearly the wretched condition of these downtrodden people commonly known as untouchables:

In their markets,
We’ve neither milk, flesh
Nor skin.
We’re not offerings
For their gods either.
Oh world, world
our kind
hides in the backyards
eyes fixed on leftovers
lies curled up in back- verandas
finds solace in darkness. (20-30)

High caste Hindus have always considered the touch of low caste people to be defiling. Many authors have foregrounded this ghastly issue faced by dalits through their works. The instances of inhuman treatment given to the outcastes and the plight of the poor untouchables are very well penned down by the novelist Mulk Raj Anand in his book Untouchable where we are made to pity the protagonist Bakha, an untouchable caught in the web of identity crises. The book is replete with the instances where Bakha is insulted, abused, beaten and maltreated on accidently coming in the contact of high caste people who feel defiled because of his touch. They feel their identity is tarnished and the purity, contaminated. The man of upper class slapped and shouted at Bakha uttering, “Swine, dog why didn’t you shout and warn me of your approach! Don’t you know, you brute, that you must not touch me! Now I will have to go and take a bath to purify myself” (38).

The ruthless and unsympathetic conduct of the advantaged section of the society filled the deprived and the dispossessed ones with antagonism over the time. They were allowed to do only menial jobs in the wretched conditions. They were treated as slaves and were subjected to utter humiliation. Bama mentions how the people of her community used to run petty errands for the high class, worked as servants, sweeped their houses, consumed their left-overs and endured their beatings along with abuses. For them, the stale left overs from the previous evenings thrown by the high class from a distance in order to rescue themselves from getting polluted were no less than the “nectar of the gods” (16). Unlike her elders who chose to remain for several years the victims of brutal silencing on the issue of maltreatment, Bama followed the other path. Her rebellious approach not to adhere to the hegemonic dominance of the upper class finds its surfacing in the form of this intense narrative.

The repressive traditions on which the Indian society is constructed have always sidelined the existence of the dispossessed sections of the society. They have always found themselves clutched in the hands of their counterparts. The consistent devaluation on the social front made their presence oblivious to many significant things. The evil of casteism is no less than an epidemic with its roots spreading in all the spheres.  Even the institutions like school and Convent known to be the harbingers of bringing reforms have lost their authenticity and hence are blemished. Caught in the vicious circle of discrimination even the schools echo the same story. Bama highlights the impact of severity and cruelty dispensed by the teachers on the young innocent souls at school. The Harijan children were always blamed for all the wrongdoings. She mentions, “If ever anything bad happened, they would say immediately, and without hesitation, “It must be one of the Cheri children who did it” (19). The teachers, the headmaster, the warden and even the priest would target the Harijan children by abusing them with filthy words and holding them responsible for everything. If anything went missing right away without any proof they would label the poor children with the charge of thievery. They were forced to do odd jobs as such duties were associated with only the outcastes and not with the fortunate, the privileged ones. Bama writes, “Everyone seemed to think Harijan children were contemptible. But they didn’t hesitate to use us for cheap labour. So we carried water to the teacher’s house; we watered the plants. We did all the chores that were needed about the school” (18). The bias, the unfairness wounded their inner badly resulting in the hidden agonizing cries.

Bama gives an account of countless experiences and incidents that shuddered her world and scarred her life. She recounts how she was refused permission by the Principal and the Warden straight way, to attend the First Communion of her siblings on the pretext of caste discrimination as “what celebration can there be in your caste, for a First Communion?”(22). Later on she mentions in the book that how a Sister told her that they would not accept Harijan women as prospective nuns  when only few days were left of training to become fully –fledged nuns. The resulted anger propelled her to soar high in life. She attributes her success of battling all the troubles to her education. Education transformed her life in a great way by making her independent and by providing her strength enough to face courageously all the troubles that came into her life. Even in the phases of endless adversities, her resoluteness and resilience refused to surrender. Continuing to make her path against all the odds she succeeded in becoming a nun. The decision of leaving her job by going against her family and friends was a hard decision to make. But her profession of teaching which she left in the hope of becoming a nun in order to serve the poor and  needy Dalit children turned out to be no less than a nightmare.
On joining the Convent, Bama was stunned to see the filthy surroundings as well as the existence of caste hierarchies and discrimination. The pitiable plight of the poor people of her community filled her heart with anguish. Once again the horrible inhuman practices of caste discrimination laid bare in front of her. The people of dalit community were badly treated by the nuns as they belonged to the low caste. She writes:

In that school, attended by pupils from very wealthy households, people of my community were looking after all the jobs like sweeping, the premises, swabbing and washing the classrooms, and cleaning out the lavatories. And in the convent, as well, they spoke very insultingly about low-caste people. They spoke as if they didn’t even consider low- caste people as human beings. (25)

The enormity of disgust and atrociousness of belonging to the weaker and unprivileged section of the society made her butt of ridicule persistently at every point of time. In her own words, swallowing silently all the insults and abuses hurled at her was like “dying several deaths within” (25). The low- caste people are presumed to be filthy and morally inferior with no sense of culture and tradition. Moreover poverty acts as a catalyst in worsening the problems of these people. They are considered as polluted and diseased people.

Even the educated ones are filled with caste hatred. And not only does she talk about the hatred among the upper-caste people or the inter caste disputes but also about the prevalent hatred turning into scuffles and brawls among the lower-caste community. People pick up fights against the people of their community only. Instead of uniting together for a common cause they target each other. Bama wonders how these people who are ready to take up arms against each other will stand in a united manner against the tyranny of the high class.  The lives of Dalits are doomed and they are at the mercy of the powerful upper-caste people. Casteism for Bama is the biggest barrier that stands as an obstacle in the path of a human being and makes him/her handicapped and ineffectual. The atrocities faced by them at every step make them devoid of all the facilities required for marching forward in order to live a respectable and successful life. Their growth is hampered and so are the dreams of witnessing a cultured and happy lifestyle. To put in simpler terms they are considered no better than animals by their counterparts. Bama expresses her resentment by saying:

In this society, if you are born into a low-caste, you are forced to live a life of humiliation and degradation until your death. Even after death, caste-difference does not disappear. Wherever you look, however much study, whatever you take up, caste discrimination stalks us in every nook and corner and drives us into a frenzy. It is because of this that we are unable to find a way to study well and progress like everyone else. And this is why a wretched lifestyle is all that is left to us. (26)

The system of social stratification has segregated the people all over India. Caste system has increased the problem of poverty in India. It has created huge differences between the high castes and the low castes. The upper caste who are the rich people usually employ the outcastes as their servants and treat them mercilessly. They trudge day and night for their masters and all that they get in return are their blows and abuses. Bama mentions in her book the cruelty of the Naickers owning more than three-quarters of the land and the ill treatment they give to the poor people of Paraya and Palla communities. These people worked all the time for the upper- caste people in order to fill half of their bellies. Bama questions how these poor people without even having enough money to satiate hunger to their fill can think about other things. The one who finds it difficult to make his both ends meet can never dream of a progressive life. The Naickers exploited the outcastes to the utmost. They were not given proper wages by the tradesmen and because of their gullible nature they were often fleeced. Women were mostly the targets of utter subjugation and harshness.

The unfair system has strangulated them in such a way that living a life of nobility seems a distant dream to them. Being a female Dalit writer, Bama also throws light on the parochial customs and exploitive traditions which have doubly marginalised as well as oppressed females. They have always been subjected to tyranny of the males. They are sidelined in the social, economic, political and literary spheres.

A Dalit woman who is labelled as someone belonging to the “lowest” category is always referred to as the “Other.”6 She suffers harassment, oppression and abuse at social, political, cultural, economic as well as sexual level. Ruth Manorama, a Dalit activist rightly uses the terminology of calling Dalit women as “triply oppressed” as they are thrice alienated and oppressed on the basis of their class, caste and gender (450). Gail Omvedt also observes, belonging to the most oppressed ones  among all the groups, Dalit women are sometimes referred as ‘Dalit among the Dalits and the downtrodden among the downtrodden’ almost by all the Dalit spokesmen (445). While sharing her experiences, Bama mentions how the women were discriminated in employment and were given low wages despite their tireless efforts. Dalit women have extremely low level of literacy and education and are heavily dependent on wage labour. They are discriminated to the extreme level in employment and wages.

In addition to the horrors of casteism, Bama also brings into notice another crucial issue of gender discrimination engulfing our society. The appalling and awful conditions of Dalit women make her simmer intensely. “There is a slight difference between the situation of Dalit women and other women. Women in general suffer from gender oppression. Dalit women, in contrast, suffer more from caste oppression”7 (Rani 23).  Bama uncovers bluntly the true picture of hypocritical Indian society plastered with superficial claims of equality. She brings forth the incidents of inequality by mentioning how the husbands would hit their wives mercilessly after coming home drunk, how women of her community were not allowed to go to cinema and how the girl child was forced to stay at home for the household chores. The plight of women was no better than an animal as they always used to be at the receiving end. Meena Kandasamy, a Dalit writer and an activist shares her views as how the subjugated and deprived victim’s maltreatment reaches the utmost level in a patriarchal culture, if she happens to be a female. In her own words, “You don’t have to be a Dalit – by being a woman the caste is in you.”8 The deep rooted conservatism and orthodoxy have smothered these women.

Bama further exposes in her writing the double standards of the Convent and the nuns working there. All the vows they took before they became nuns were relinquished by them later on. All sorts of comforts including plenty of different varieties of food and vegetables to eat, clothes to wear, various living facilities and opportunity of travelling to different places made her question the existence of Convent. To her, the life of Convent meant renunciation of worldly pleasures. Her heart ached severely on seeing such sickening atmosphere. These repulsive forces compelled her to leave the Convent. Even the sacred authority like Church quashed and quelled poor Dalits. These experiences which came like huge setbacks were eye openers for her. Still these obstructions could not crush her spirit and deter her strength. Unemployed, lonely and heartbroken she kept on struggling with fortitude. The exploitation she experienced overtly by coming into the contact of Church and Convent, filled her with disappointment and cynicism.

Bama, throughout the narrative, repeatedly brings into question the existence of these religious institutions. She interrogates their validity and is saddened at their hollowness and worthlessness. According to her, the religious leaders instead of guiding you to the path of spiritual enlightenment and making you God loving, force you to fear God and His ways. All their words and the celebrations they do in the name of God’s grandeur and glory are nothing but a sham. As she moved forward in her life, she started finding these customs, beliefs and rituals as facade holding no truth and integrity. To her dismay, joining the Church or the Convent was another way of manifesting role of power play among the destitute. She mentions, “The Sisters and the priests too don’t say what needs to be said, but only speak words which are irrelevant, meaningless mumbo-jumbo. Because of all this, these celebrations no longer have any significance for me. What passes for devotion nowadays is merely a matter of doing things out of a sense of duty” (101).

Bama thus uncovers the hypocrisy of various active systems of our society by bringing forth their dark, layered hidden motifs. She mentions “With all their words and rules in the convent, they cut me down, sculpted me, damaged me” (121). She was wounded continuously by people around her with their words and deeds. Not getting a job as she belonged to the lower caste and the school was governed and run by the Nadar, facing discrimination for dark skin and poverty, witnessing authoritative power play and domination of the upper caste Christians at the Church, falsehoods of religion and beliefs and the poor opinion about Dalits made her contemplate about the injustice present in the social system.  Karukku presents Bama’s efforts of unmasking the ugly truths of the Indian society and her honest attempt at bringing change in the lives of people around her by ameliorating their conditions. The experiences of her past made her rise and fight with vigour for the liberation of Dalits through the weapon of her writing. The narrative thus appears more to be a collective account of suffering of the community.

The struggle of finding as well as establishing an identity of one’s own doubles up for a woman in a caste ridden androcentric society. Dalit women are often regarded as the “oppressed of the oppressed” as they belong to the lowest stratum of our social system. The patriarchal conventions confine woman to the four walls of the household by domesticating her to the utmost level. “Dalit women have confronted oppression by both upper caste men as well as the deep seated male arrogance within their own castes. The Dalit man, while he suffers from caste oppression is not willing to let go of the dominance that this system has given him for being a man” (Rani 23). A woman is always seen as a vulnerable object in this claustrophobic patriarchal environment, struggling hard to ascertain her independent identity. In her search for a space of liberation all she encounters is an unfathomable darkness of suppression subsequently making her battle of survival as more challenging. The subdued as well as subjugated female can be found everywhere in our society irrespective of the caste, class, creed or culture she belongs to. Bama expresses her discontent by mentioning about the plight of a woman in this male centred society:

If it is so difficult even to find a means of living, there is also another great difficulty, the difficulty I find in moving about in the outside world, alone. If a woman so much as stands alone and by herself somewhere, all sorts of men gather around her showing their teeth, However angry you get, however repelled by their expressions and their grimaces, even to the point of retching, what can you do on your own? We think so many thoughts. We hope so much. We study so many things. But in real life everything turns out differently. We are compelled to wander about, stricken and unprotected. (119)

Despite facing all the oppression, marginalization as well as gender discrimination Bama kept on moving forward with her conviction and indefatigable spirit. After receiving education she found a newly awakened consciousness which took the form of resistance resulting in marching against inequality. The courage to reject degrading conventions signalled a wave of change in her and influenced the people around her as well. Dalits of today are voicing their thoughts against all sorts of discriminations and are demanding justice for the masses. They are striving hard to live a life of dignity and nobility by overthrowing all the domineering forces at work. There is a sense of optimism throughout the narrative for witnessing an egalitarian society devoid of unfairness and tyrannical structures.



Works Cited

Anand, Mulk Raj. Untouchable. Delhi: Pearson Education India, 2007.

Bama, Karukku. Trans. Lakshmi Holmström. Ed. Mini Krishnan. New Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks, 2014.

---. Sangati : Events. Trans. Lakshmi Holmström. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Chakraborty, Abin. “Venomous Touch: Meena Kandasamy and the Poetics of Dalit Resistance.” Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies.3.2 (2012): 35-62. Web.24 Jan.2016.

Manorama, Ruth. “Dalit Women in Struggle: Transforming Pain into Power.” Life as a Dalit: Views from the Bottom on Caste in India. Eds. Subhadra Mitra Channa and Joan. P.Mencher. New Delhi: SAGE, 2013.

---. “Dalit Women: The Downtrodden among the Downtrodden.” Women’s Studies in India: A Reader. Ed. Mary. E. John. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2008.

Omvedt, Gail. Dalit Visions: The Anticaste movement and the construction of Indian identity. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 1995.

Rani, Challapalli Swaroopa. “Dalit Women’s Writing in Telugu.” 33.17 (1998): WS21-WS24. JSTOR.Web. 08 Jan. 2016.