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Documenting Survival Strategies: Analysing Bama’s Karukku as Path-bearer of Dalit Survival


Documenting Survival Strategies: Analysing Bama’s Karukku as Path-bearer of Dalit Survival

Dr. Rajamanikyam Katikathala

Assistant Professor

Department of English

Andhra University

Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh


The oppression of a particular group of people by and in the society concerns a great deal with the connected ontological features of the people. Whenever a particular group is marginalised and oppressed, there is the positioning of the other group as the superior one. The Dalits in India have long been supressed by the so called upper castes of the society which have relegated them to a position of inferiority. If a careful study of the plights of the Dalit people of the country is carried out, it becomes vivid that almost every form of writing seems inadequate to document the pain and the sufferings. Karukku, by Bama, is considered as one of the pivotal documents which lay bare the pathetic positions which the Dalits in India have to experience in their lives. A tale of resistance, struggle, fight and trauma, the foremost autobiographical writing by any Tamil writer, Karukku, at once makes one comprehend the difficult life of the Dalits. This paper attempts at the portrayal of the strategies of survival as penned down in the text by portraying the numerous oppressions which the Dalits have to face in the society. Casteism, this research argues, is a curse which cripples a particular society and renders the identity of the people subordinate in nature.

Keywords: Dalit, identity, oppression, survival, subordinate

A particular form of writing is always associated with the portrayal of the underlying structures of the tenets of a particular society. Any literary piece, for that matter, tends to uncover the inherent power-structures, the regimes associated with oppression which divide people into two specific groups- the oppressed and the oppressor. As far as Dalit writing is concerned, it becomes a means of documentation of mode of their survival- to make the people contemplate the nuances of suppression which they undergo in their lives in the society. Trauma and resistance define their lives with fight and sufferings acting as their tool to portray their ways and means of survival. In the general sense, the idea of trauma can be associated with the suffering of the self of an individual which renders the ontology redundant. But, as the notable Trauma theorist, Cathy Caruth opines, “trauma is not simply an effect of destruction but also, fundamentally, an enigma of survival” (58).

The novel documents the life and the subsequent plight of a Dalit woman in an Indian village by highlighting how deep-rooted the ills of discrimination based on caste is in the Indian society. One can make sense of the subordinate position of the entire Dalit communities of India through the voice of Bama in the novel. Thus, the novel, more than individual, becomes collective in outlook as it encompasses the Dalit communities in general. In the words of Bama

The story told in Karukku was not my story alone. It was the depiction of a collective trauma – of my community – whose length cannot be measured in time. I just tried to freeze it forever in one book so that there will be something physical to remind people of the atrocities committed on a section of the society for ages. (“Recognition” n.p.)

Penning down the atrocities of the Christians in relation to the Dalits, Bama hints at the collective plight of the people in the novel. As the initial lines suggest, “Our village is very beautiful, most of our people are agricultural labourers” (Bama 1). In order to depict the oppressive societal structures, Bama portrays the church which is presented as one of the most powerful regulators of the faiths and beliefs associated with the people. It was seen that it was the church which controlled the rituals in the society and the days of the people were spent in accordance with ritualistic traditions of the church. The novel wears a very poignant look with the showcasing of the realisation of the inherent implication of untouchability by the writer. As she states, “When I was studying in the third class, I hadn’t yet heard people speak openly of untouchability. But I had already seen, felt, experienced and been humiliated by what it is” (Bama11).

The presentation of the communities of the Naickers who were the upper-castes individual in the society is one of the chief aspects associated with the plight of the Dalits. Bamma portrays that her grandmothers were working as labourers in different families of the Naickers ad it was utter poverty which structured their living from the beginning of a day to the end of it. Such was the plight of the Dalits that, as the writers narrates, they were not even given proper food by the upper-castes as those who worked in their families, had to be content with the left-over food from the previous day. In order to earn for the survival, Bama, as the readers learn, goes to a convent. However, as poor fate espouses, she learns that “the convent I entered didn’t even care to glance at poor children” (Bama 66). Regarding the prevalent life in the convent, Bama makes the following remarks, “Before they became nuns, these women take a vow that they will live in poverty. But that is just a sham. The convent does not know the meaning of poverty” (Bama 66).

If subjectivity of an individual is concerned, it needs to be understood that the society necessitates an understanding of the subordinated position of the Dalits within the very gamut of their life experiences. The readers can well sense the exclusion of the Dalits from the mainstream society as “Exclusion occurs when human beings are deliberately excluded from a group, locked out, being deprived of goods of various types, and tends to be generally seen as unfavorable treatment” (Boréus 31). The process of making the readers almost witness the violence to the Dalits in the novel is a glaring strategy adopted by the writer to survive and also simultaneously voice out for their upliftment. It is the identity in the society which appears to be the root cause of all the troubles for Bama. She also showcases her inner zeal to fight the oppressive structures of the society so that can represent her society by voicing out both her and the societal needs. Finding out the underlying hypocrisies of the church, the readers learn, Bama moves out of the place. As she states

Nowadays, now that I have left the order, I am angry when I see priests and nuns . . . How long will they deceive us, as if we are innocent children . . . Dalits have begun to realize the truth . . . They have become aware that they too were created in the likeness of God. There is a new strength within them, urging them to reclaim that likeness which has been so far repressed, ruined, obliterated: and to begin to live again with honour, self-respect and with a love towards all humankind. To my mind, this alone is true devotion. (Bama 93–4)

The novel blatantly rejects any kind of subjective notion of oppression as it stands for the objective sufferings of the Dalits- Bama being the representative. The personal accounts of pain glaringly give way to public accounts of the society. Thus, it can very well be stated that the fact that the personal experiences of Bama become irreducible in nature which pave the platform for the portrayal of the communal plight. As towards the end of her life-struggle, Bama remarks, “I have courage; I have a certain pride. I do indeed have a belief that I can live; a desire that I should live” (Bama 04). These remarks at the end become another significant strategy of survival in relation to the pride in her being as one can grasp the self-affirming belief which guides the statement. She also states, “I comfort myself with the thought that rather than live with a fraudulent smile, it is better to lead a life weeping real tears” (Bama 104).

Karukku, thus, aligns itself with the mechanism of survival for the Dalits more than acting as a document of oppression. It situates Bama in the middle of a society which is not conducive to her in terms of carrying out her daily accomplishments and this helps in the portrayal of the intricately connected structures of the church, the society the upper castes- who all combine in order to marginalise the Dalits. However, the narration of Bama has greatly withstood the wrath of temporality as it testifies the sufferings of the Dalit community.

Works Cited

Faustina, Bama.Karukku. Trans. Lakshmi Holmström, Macmillan, 2000.

----. “Recognition for the Language of My People is The Biggest Award I Can Win,”Interview, 26 April, 2001. Accessed 20 April, 2005.

Boréus, K. “Discursive Discrimination and its Expressions.” Nordicom Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2001, pp. 31-37. 

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History.Johns Hopkins UP, 1996, p. 58.