Out of the Book

Why are important writers like Poomani excluded from an otherwise excellent anthology of Tamil Dalit literature?

Published: August 11, 2012 2:55:17 am

Book: Agngnaadi

Author: Poomani

Publisher: Cre-A Publishers

Pages: 1,068

Price: Rs 925

Book: The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing

Editor: Ravikumar,R. Azhagarasan

Publisher: OUP

Pages: 334

Price: Rs 595

There is an eternal debate on whether the universal or the particular makes a work of fiction literature. Universality gives articulation in any form the status of art. But the particular gives colour,vigour,temporality,spatiality,power to represent,to misrepresent,to extol and extinguish. The subjective draws attention to a range of details,from triumphalism to humiliation.

The gifted novelist Poomani’s latest work,Agngnaadi,and the committed Dalit literary critic,activist and publisher Ravikumar’s anthology of Dalit writing in Tamil,published by Oxford University Press,remind us that well-intentioned,representational lit crit can obliterate the nuanced,multilayered universe created by literature.

Let’s celebrate literary achievement before lamenting lit crit’s limitations. Poomani is Tamil’s midnight’s child. This 1947-born writer of Pallar scheduled caste is one of the earliest consciously subaltern writers. He benefited greatly from the expansion of Tamil narrative in the early 1970s that foregrounded regional dialects and idioms – the particular which invigorates literature. With five important novels and over 80 insightful short stories to his credit,Poomani should feature in any anthology of modern Tamil literature.

Agngnaadi is a brilliant novel spanning two and a half centuries,chronicling southern India,especially Tirunelveli,and exploring the interplay between the four markers of colonial and postcolonial Tamil society — state,wealth,religion and caste. Like Amitav Ghosh used sailors’s pidgin and a patchwork of Bhojpuri,Hindi,Hindustani,Urdu and Bangla to weave a tapestry of the immigrant’s world in Sea of Poppies,Poomani draws on the rich oral Tamil tradition,where every caste and region has its own dialect and usages,where language functions as a social registry,to bring out the graded,sedimentary nature of our social hierarchy. While describing cataclysmic events,Poomani retains the focus on his characters. Recurring tragedies like riots,land-grab and colonial excesses have no temporal limitations and always seem to reprise a recent tragedy. Despite Independence and progress in many spheres,the world is sliding. He captures the irony of the concurrent existence of progress and obscurantism by creating multiple images of water: water as metaphor,as simile,as physical object,as spiritual object. Water bodies are not just life-givers but also fine places to commit suicide. But finally,the novel affirms hope while portraying stark reality by documenting the agency of ordinary men and women who share their grief and console each other across caste and religious boundaries.

Despite consciously interweaving multiple dialects,Poomani’s prose is as enjoyable as Sangam poetry. The fulcrum of his craft is his ability to retain the poignancy of being marginal,a victim,a dissenter and a rebel,without dirges or sloganeering. Hence,the omission of Poomani’s work from OUP’s anthology is not only surprising but also undermines this initiative to provide a comprehensive view of Dalit writing over the last 125 years.

The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing,edited by well-known Dalit activists Ravikumar and Azhagarasan,includes 78 selections from 41 writers,covering poetry,fiction,drama,autobiography,biography,polemic and criticism. The material is of sterling quality and the objective of understanding myriad forms of Dalit assertion through genres is commendable. However,two glaring problems with this anthology — the conspicuous exclusion of some of the finest voices and the narrow interpretation of the growth of Dalit literature and politics — do a disservice to the stated objectives. Apart from Poomani,significant exclusions include Adhavan Theetchanya,Unjai Rasan,Aranga Mallika and Sridhara Ganesan.

The modern Tamil political and literary space is contested. Tamil modernity,in a sense,begins with the mid-19th century Arutpaa (songs of grace) of Vallalar Ramalinga Adigal. He rejected Sanskirtised,hierarchical Hinduism and talked about love and empathy. Vallalar’s inclusiveness makes him the father of Tamil modernity and the Arutpaa have defined Tamil prose and poetry. His work is characterised by simplicity,lyricism,compassion,seeking truth and a refusal to literally interpret prior texts. It marked a major departure from the militant Saivism that had reigned from the days of the later Cholas and created a space for multiple coexistences of faith,traditions and ways of life. The distinction between the traditional and the modern in Tamil narratives,though both words are pregnant with many meanings,is exclusivity versus inclusiveness. Tamil modernity drew from encounters with colonialism,Islamic art,trade and migration. Each added a new dimension,producing constant change without losing linguistic and lexical moorings.

Many writers exploited Vallalar’s initiative to further expand the scope and range of Tamil narrative. Mayurum Vedanayagam Pillai emulated Vallalar’s simplicity in the first Tamil novel,Prathaba Mudaliar Saritham (The Chronicle of Prathaba Mudaliar). A colonial law officer,Pillai introduced elements of European novels and Shakespearean narrative techniques in Tamil. The first Tamil short story was published in the beginning of the 20th century. It took two more decades for Tamil modern poetry to come of age. Subramanya Bharathi in verse and Pudumai Pithan in fiction secured the complete emergence of modernity in Tamil literature.

Iyothee Thass marks the turning point and the OUP anthology rightly starts with his work,but with a blinkered vision. A far more expansive study of Iyothee Thass appeared a decade ago in V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai’s Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium. The fight against caste oppression in Tamil Nadu has been broad-based,taking into account what Ambedkar rightly termed “graded inequality”. Periyar and the Self Respect Movement brought new energy and vigour to this multi-layered fight against all forms of humiliation. It simultaneously asserted backward community rights,empowered Dalits and negated the binary division of Indian society into Brahmins and Dalits.

In this socio-political milieu,the creative world is not binary but multi-nodal. Tamil literature is not defined in terms of Periyar versus Ambedkar,Periyar versus Gandhi or Ambedkar versus Periyar. It is a universe that incorporates Periyar,Ambedkar and Gandhi,alternately contesting and complementing each other. There are no watertight demarcations in the quest for equality. This made Tamil writing — including Dalit writing — vibrant. But the OUP anthology’s political introduction creates an illusory binary of Ambedkar versus Periyar with the border neatly defined. In reality,the borders of Tamil society are constantly shifting,and the ever-increasing osmosis between its various segments cannot be wished away.

A.S. Panneerselvan is executive director of Panos South Asia

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