Author of four acclaimed Tamil novels — including The Grip of Change (published in English translation in 2006) — dealing with Dalit socio-political concerns, P Sivakami, 52, is also active in politics. She took voluntary retirement from the IAS to join the BSP, but has recently left to launch her own political party. Excerpts from an interview with Trisha Gupta.
How and when did you start writing?
I started writing when I was a student. I used to enter essay competitions in school and my teacher encouraged me to write for the Christian magazine, it had a very local circulation. I was growing up in a small town called Parambulur. Later when I came to college, I started getting exposed to foreign writers. Usually Russian books, because they used to be sold for one or two rupees. That’s how I acquired a liking for fiction.
Then there was an intercollegiate short story writing competition, and I won a prize at the state level. The story was published in a magazine called Dinamani Kadir, and I received a lot of letters. The story was about a shepherd boy and his daily timetable, so they started asking me, are you a shepherd yourself? What is your solution for his problems? Somehow this triggered lots of questions about what literature is, why am I writing about what I am, and so on. Instead of inspiring me, this arrested my spontaneous writing. I continued to write, but didn’t publish. I concentrated on academics. I got a gold medal in my MA History. Then I took the IAS exams. I thought it is socially well-laced, and paying well, so why not? I got through. Only after that I started wondering, have I had truly become what I want to become? All the while, I had been thinking of myself as a writer. Reading and writing gives me a lot of pleasure. So then I started writing again, short stories.
I couldn’t find a publisher for the first collection. A friend of mine came forward to publish it and I gave him some money, but he never returned it. The book was lying in the press – all I got were a few copies. The book never reached the public.
All this was while you were employed as an IAS officer?
I wrote the first book under a pseudonym because I didn’t want to reveal who I was. The second book I wrote under my own name, but I didn’t want to use my being an IAS officer to sell it. So I gave it to one of my friends and asked him to sell it if he can, without revealing my identity. The first publisher he approached said the language is very colloquial, not up to literary standards, and they refused to publish it. Subsequently my friend took it to Madurai where his friend ran a publishing house. After two years, when it was finally published, it hit the roof. Many people read it and discussed it. The left movement took the book to villages and organized meetings discussing it. It centred around a Dalit village leader called Muthu, with another character called Gowri, who is a college girl whwas about the caste structure in the villages of Tamil Nadu, how the backward classes and Dalits should come together and fight the system, as well as exploitation by power brokers within the community, Dalit patriarchy and so on. Since then, I have had no trouble in publishing my books!
When did you first begin to think of yourself as a Dalit writer?
It was not an identity I claimed, it was an identity thrust upon me after my novel was published. Initially I was not happy to be labelled as such. But then I thought, I am trying to expose issues within the community but to bring to the notice of the outside world the oppression of Dalits, and the change that has to come. So why not accept it?
Is the term Dalit commonly used in Tamil Nadu? In the context of Tamil Nadu’s own long history of anti-caste politics…
The term Dalit is used, very much. It has been gaining ground since the 80s. Before Ambedkar, even, we a lot of people struggling against caste in Tamil Nadu. Ayuddhadas Pandita set up the Adi Dravida Mahajanasabha, in parallel to the Madras Mahajanasabha. He argued with them: we will support you against the British if you agree to three demands: temple entry, separate schools for Adi Dravida children, and distribution of land to Adi Dravidas. The Hindu Mahajanasabha agreed to the latter two, but not the first. The land recommendation was raised by the erstwhile British collector of Chingalpet. On his request, the papers were eventually signed, but the land was not actually given. So Pandita took it up. Later, parallel to Ambedkar, we had figures like Nettamalai Srinivasan who refused to shake hands with the British queen, saying I am a Paraiah by caste, thereby sensitizing the world that there is such a community.
The Periyar movement started off as the Palla-Paraiah movement. It integrated most of the agendas of the Dalits, but it did not materialise them.
Could you tell us about the Dalit literary sphere in Tamil Nadu?
After the centenary celebrations of Ambedkar, particularly, the Dalit concept has become very vibrant. Now we have at least a hundred prominent writers from different Dalit communities and three journals for Dalit writing: Dalit Murasu, Bodhi, Dalit, Adi Tamil. I’ve edited one magazine myself, for almost 15 years. It’s called Puthiya Kodangi: Puthiya means ‘new’ and Kodangi is an instrument that is played to drive away the evil spirit. So here caste is symbolically the evil spirit. These magazines have limited circulation. Their main preoccupation is to deconstruct existing institutions, including literature. Though mine is the only primarily literary magazine, our literature is not only for aesthetics and celebration of identity. So I started off with a literary focus, but soon decided to include discussion on political and social issues.
Maybe because I was editing a literary magazine, deconstructing and criticizing, there was great resistance in translating my work into English. Nobody came forward to translate my books.
So it’s quite a contestatory sphere?
Yes, yes. For example, some people argue that if only Dalits can write Dalit literature, it should be children writing children’s literature. The argument came from leftists, so I said, should workers’ literature be written by capitalists? Also, I said, if you agree that labour pain can be illustrated better by a man than a woman, then we can agree to this argument.
Even among Dalits, there is a lot of difference of opinion. One Professor Raj Gautama argued that Dalit literature should be satire. He wrote a story about a grieved worker who is angry with the customer in a canteen spitting in the coffee and serving it to him. I said, this is silly! If you have a problem with the person, if you have the guts, you can encounter him directly.
What are called the weapons of the weak…
Exactly. Like I said, this is not Dalit empowerment.
It’s not hatred that keeps me away from them, it’s lack of strength in their arguments. So by day, I strengthen myself by conducting camps for Dalits, adivasis, women, expanding myself to transgenders. We should strengthen our bastion – though it’s not enmity or anything. Dalithood, as Ambedkar said, is the socio-economic and political situation of being victimised by Brahminical realities. So anybody who is marginalised by Brahminism can be part of the Dalit fold.
Do you believe that non-Dalits should not write about Dalits?
See, nobody can stop people writing about others. But the perspective is different. And that difference will get exhibited when you publish your writing, and then if there is criticism, you should be open to criticism. That is how we grow. If you always justify yourself and there is always reprobation, then we cannot move forward.
What kind of an experience have you had at the Jaipur Literature Festival?
I was glad to be here, to meet Laxman Gaekwad whose autobiography I admire, and Sister Jesme who is so popular, and Christophe Jaffrelot. I also got to meet new writers like Mridula Koshy, and even got to hear Chetan Bhagat!
We are moving towards a collective writers’ forum where we can address the issue of caste. Each person I have seen here is trying to be an agent of change in their own way, but together we can do better.
The Dalit Deliberations
TRISHA GUPTA traces the Dalit thread at the festival
IN A festival where discussions often hovered in the most rarefied literary realms, the Dalit literature panels served as a useful and necessary corrective. Going back to the basics of the written word, the opening session pointed out the inherently privileged position of the writer in India. If Kancha Ilaiah (author of the seminal Why I Am Not a Hindu, 1995) stressed that writing on the subcontinent had long been the preserve of the upper castes, Hindi Dalit writer Om Prakash Valmiki wondered aloud why there are still disgruntled rumblings about the idea of a Dalit literature when such categories as Vedic literature or Marxist literature are taken for granted. Earlier mainly poetry or autobiography, and thus seen as being limited by its “confessional” mode, Dalit literature has now expanded into fiction and criticism. Academic Christophe Jaffrelot suggested at one panel that Dalit autobiography, like Lakshman Gaikwad’s hard-hitting Uchalya, had provided an answer to Gayatri Spivak’s question ‘can the subaltern speak?’ Meanwhile, newer work, represented at Jaipur by Ajay Navaria and P Sivakami alongside Valmiki and Gaikwad, showed that Dalit writing — while still clinging to the power of rhetoric — is ready, too, to embrace a variety of literary aesthetics.