Karukku: Through the lens of enslavement

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Bama Faustina was born in Puthupatty, Madurai in the year 1958. Her real-life name was Faustina Mary Fatima while ‘Bama’ is her pen name. She began to be noticed as an acclaimed writer after the publication of ‘Karukku’ in 1992, that was initially written in Tamil and later translated to English in 2000. Bama has majorly written in Tamil representing the rise of Dalit writings. She is considered to be one of the first Dalit women writers of India.

‘Karukku’ was Bama’s autobiography. Caste and religion had caused great pain in the life of Bama, and ‘Karukku’ clearly focuses on these two aspects. Bama’s life, from her childhood to adulthood is described in the book. Baby Kamble’s ‘Prisons We Broke’ also narrates a similar psychological and emotional agony experienced by the Dalits due to the prevailing caste system in India. This book (Karukku) is also the first autobiography ever written in Tamil language. Bama through her novel intends to bring about a change in the society as how to overcome the evil of caste discrimination and motivate the confidence of Dalit people to fight against the oppression. Through this book, Bama has made an attempt to create room for her caste i.e. Dalits and women who have been victims of the patriarchal society. The condition of Dalit women was so poor because of the barriers of caste along with gender. Through her own story Bama has portrayed herself to be a role model for all the other Dalit women. Bama in the preface of her novel says, “There are other Dalit hearts like mine with a desire to create a new society made of justice, equality and love.”(1)

Dalit women have continued to be the most oppressed and suppressed part of our country, India. They constantly bear the burden of belonging to the female strata along with being an ‘untouchable’ Dalit. The oppression suffered by them is the worst of its kind as it has three faces depending on their Caste, Class and Gender. They are considered to be ‘impure’ and ‘untouchable’ due to which they face exclusion in everyday life. They have been suffering with an unconceivable oppression not only due to their caste but gender from where there seems no possible getaway. Dalit women face intense burden and violent circumstances while struggling for a decent life to live. They faced sexual and all the possible forms of violence in their lives. They also in a way face triple marginalization through caste, class and gender. The feminist movements taken up by Dalit women were far more different from those adopted by the high caste feminists. Patriarchal biases generated the separate identities for masculine and feminine concepts of gender.

The painful experiences of enslavement of the marginalized strata of the Indian society based on the difference of caste, gender and color resulted in coming of the Dalit Literature. Bama, herself experienced and witnessed humiliation in her family. Through instances in the book we get to know that her own grandmother and mother were often humiliated by the high caste landlords of their village. Bama, through her writing have depicted oppression faced by women and a self-conscious and deeper sense of atrocity. Bama’s story is an aggressive disapproval against the oppression of Dalit women. The book ‘Karukku’ also became the sign of resistance of Dalit women. Bama had always dreamt of an ideal society that is made up of equality, love and justice. She wanted Dalits to fight in the similar way as blacks fought in America to gain their rights. ‘Karukku’ as an autobiographical novel recreates her life as a teacher, nun and ‘Paraya’ girl. In Karukku, Bama faces a critical situation about her identity during a deciding situation of her life. Karukku is no doubt an autobiography of Bama, but it can also be read as an autobiography of Dalits throughout India. Karukku represents the childhood memories as written by Bama. She despite all the miseries managed to have a very carefree childhood. According to Bama, a Dalit woman who decides to live alone has to face thousands of difficulties, then even her independent position provides her a number of opportunities to spend the life she is living in a useful manner and work towards liberating Dalits. The book clearly depicts a gut-wrenching journey that leaves several un-answered questions. The story is not a success at the end, unlike most conventional autobiographies. It rather manages to reveal a bitter reality of the social barriers that a Dalit woman faces. It shows an open and clear image of caste oppression being faced by Dalit Christians not just by the high caste society but even around the Church itself.

The book ‘Karukku’ is about the inner conflict inside Bama that leads to a discovery of her own self and a coverage that lies within her. This only eventually forced her (Bama) to shift her life as nun and live like a Dalit woman. Bama tells that her mother and grandmother has worked for the Naicker people as mere servants. During their work with Naicker families even little kids could take the names of grandmother and order her without showing any elderly respect only because they (kids) belonged to the so-called Naicker families. During the night hours Patti used to visit the Naicker house to clean the cowshed by picking up all the dung and bring back some left-over food to eat. Bama often stopped Patti from brining the left-over and Patti used to say, “These people are Mahajans who feed us our rice and without them how will we survive?” (2). Bama often in Karukku discussed with Annan about the marginalization and the enslavement of Dalits in India. Annan used to say, “Dalits are born in Paraya jati and have never received any dignity in their lives. They have always been shamed and suppressed but nothing other than education can help them to through away the humiliation and mortification.” (3)  These discussions between Annan and Bama often left a deep influence on Bama. Bama faces ill treatment even in her school on the basis of her Dalit caste, in one such instance while playing with fellow students she climbed up on a coconut tree. Whena coconut fell after she touched it, she was then called by the headmaster as according to him she has depicted her nature as a Paraya. The headmaster himself belonged to the Chaaliyar caste. There used to be conflict between the caste of Paraya and Chaaliyar at that time. It was solely on the basis of education that Bama managed to live among people who believed in cast differentiation and discrimination. Bama often wondered ” What did they mean, when they call us ‘Paraya’? We too are human beings ” (4). She then started looking for ways through which she could uplift the community to which she belonged. A nun helped her to look at the correct path and made her realize the importance and role of education in attaining the equality she wished for. since then Bama became more dedicated towards her studies and topped all her classes. Until the end of her education she was reminded of the cast she belonged too and that she is an untouchable. Even the grants and tuitions provided by the government were full of embarrassment rather than solace. according to Bama we live in a society where if a person is born in a low cast family he or she is bound to live in humiliation until death. during her childhood Bama recalls that there were clashes between the Paraya and Chaaliyar community. The police often supported the Chaaliyar’s and captured the men of the Paraya tribe. The police also used to behave in a very disgraceful manner with the women of Paraya community. The use of salacious language was common. women were expected to come policemen at night as their husbands were away and were also threatened with guns kept on their bodies. The women in the book inspite of being on the marginal side of the society managed to depict full of courage. even when men were not present the women used to go to streets themselves and worked to earn their own livelihood. This often angered the police who now thought that the women were intelligent enough to work and take good care of children in the unavailability of men. The police then used to force women inside their cars and drop them away from the villages. Bama also talks about certain rules followed by the people of her village that included banning of women from the cinema halls. It was believed that if a Paraya women enters the cinema hall, men of other casts would pull them towards and that might result in clashes all around the village. Bama even says that a girl child was not spared in her village. They were not allowed to go to the school and instead were expected to stay home and look after the family and younger siblings, collect the fire woods, help her mother in household activities and look after the house. Bama also mentioned about the resistance of her father when she joined college. It was against the will of her father and in a letter written to Bama, he wrote ” You listen to the nun’s advice, now ask them to give you money, go to them”. (5) Bama has expressed in the book how she was treated poorly in school during her education. They were given cheap labor to be able to get education. She says, “Everyone seemed to think Harijan Children were contemptible. But they didn’t hesitate to use us for cheap labor. So we carried water to the teacher’s house; we watered the plants. We did all the chores that were needed about the school.”(6)Bama’s interest on becoming a nun was based on her will to help the people of Dalit community. While working in a convent Bama noticed that nuns often suppressed the students belonging to the Dalit cast and treated them with disdain. Bama sole purpose to become a nun was then nothing but to serve the under privilege, but cast consciousness prevailed even in the convent. Bama had a sense of belonging with the community of Dalit women.

Bama believed that one major cause of this subjugation of Dalit community was also the lack of community between them. This lack of community made it easy for the people of high cast to enslave them. Bama says ” Of course the upper cast men will laugh at them. Instead of uniting together they keep challenging to fight. What will happen to all these men in the end?” (7)Bama has repeatedly stressed upon the importance of the Dalit girl education and the need for Dalits to ask for higher wages.

Bama through Karukku has only talked about the cultural, social and the family lives of Dalit. The book describes in detail the daily life,religion,language,culture, festivals etc. in the life of these people. Through her auto biography she has depicted the suppression and suffocation faced by the Dalit women. The book reveals the robustness and inner strength of a Dalit women. it provides a new outlook to the Dalit women. The Dalit women in spite of all the subjugation have the vigor to fight back. This book talks about Bama’s experiences in her own life. sometimes she is proud about what she is but at the same time is furious about the treatment she gets because of being a Dalit woman. Her mind always appears to be crowded with numerous unanswered question. After constant subjugation, humiliation and discrimination Bama never lost hope to continue her journey on a brighter side. During the end of the novel Bama says, “I don’t know when my wings will heal and gain strength so that I will also be able to fly again. Just as people throw sticks and stones to wound a wingless bird, many people have wounded me with their words and deeds. Yet I know I’m moving forward slowly, taking one step at a time”. 

The lens of enslavement has thus dominated the novel ‘Karukku’ that happens to be the author’s autobiography. Enslavement not only is reflected in the book but in Bama’s own life and thus she has made an attempt to instill confidence and motive, especially the Dalit youth to stay strong and fight back with all their will and strength.

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