For how long can you live in disguise?
For how long can oil and
water stay mixed together?
- Chapter eight, Karukku
I decided to buy the book after I first read an excerpt of a couple of chapters and got hooked, wanting to read more. The autobiographical account in first person was so enticing that I felt compelled to read the whole account. I finished it in a single sitting. It didn’t even occur to me to put it down and take a break. One knows a different book right away, and this book is as bold as they come.
This is not a paperback, it is an experience. It holds your attention from the first line and keeps you hooked till the last page. There are multiple aspects that are enchanting, disturbing, but most of all, enlightening throughout the book. Also, this is not a mere autobiography of Bama, the author, but a complete account of the lifestyle of her whole oppressed community.
If I must sum up the essence of the book in one word, it would be: Resilience.
Narrative and Language
Bama’s style of narration is simple, lucid and straightforward. The sentences are short and to the point. The credit to this may also be given to the translator, Lakshmi Holmstrom, who has ensured that the subtle nuances of the Tamil language are not lost in translation.
Our village is very beautiful.Even though you don't see much by way of progress...I love this place for its beauty.(1)
The mountain range right around the village. They are lovely to look at.(1)
What makes the read interesting are the numerous Tamil words that are left as they are, without attempting to find English equivalents to them. Although they may seem like breaks to the comprehension, the glossary does help to decipher them if required.
There are however quite a few words that are not found in the glossary, but that doesn’t take away the comprehension of the lines.
Since my book is the second edition, it begins with a prologue of sorts “Ten Years later’ wherein the author tells us that she wrote the book in 1992, which was translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom in the year 2000. She recounts how the publishing by Macmillan came about and ends the account in the year 2011.
This is followed by a translator’s note and then the Introduction. Thereby, by the time we get to chapter one, we already know what the book is going to be all about. However, there is still room for ample surprises that unravel layer after layer with each turn of the page.
The structure seems like any other autobiography, until we start reading the second chapter and move on to the third. We realize that the author seems to be repeating herself, going back to the same portions again and again. After a while one gets used to this and is not surprised when she goes back to the same part of her life all over again.
However, one aspect must be mentioned here. Every repetition has a fresh perspective to it. Each time, she adds on something else, along with what is already mentioned. Ironically, the repeats are as refreshing as new information. It's as if she is iterating the same thing again, but with a little more proof to the earlier argument.
I feel that the book is comparable to a flower, perhaps a lotus would be an apt simile to describe it. A lotus blooms in the muddy water, which may be construed as the Cheri street, with many petals in it. It's as if we know what flower it is, except that it seems to be peeled petal after petal to reveal the layers inside. And each petal shows us a different shade of the same colour of the flower, with every skillful unraveling by the author.
One might think the author is mulling over the decisions she took in her life and keeps convincing her mind that she did the right thing at that point of time.
Key decisions like defying her parents, friends and all well-wishers to join a convent as a nun was a huge step. She tries to give us new perspectives each new time, to iterate why she took the decision.
So also, the reasons for leaving the convent are revealed to us more and more, as we move along the chapters.
This is like a mystery novel unveiling the suspense right at the beginning and going on to open new facets with every page, to keep proving why the culprit (the convent, in this case) or the perpetrators (the convent authorities) were at fault in shaping her decisions. This makes for a thrilling read, ironically even when there is little doubt, about the outcome of her actions.
However the last chapter is tinged with suspense because her escape from the convent is nail-biting.
We are struck by the sheer boldness of her revelations. We know right away that she is revealing things that few would dare to. After all, to take on & expose an institution as powerful as the church, being a Dalit at that, is no mean task.
The imagery of nature, especially in Chapter one is a sheer pleasure to read. The descriptions of natural beauty, the rural lifestyle, and the enchantment of the lush surroundings, especially the greenery and water, transport readers to a different world.
The noticeable aspect here is the complete lack of flowery eloquence or long drawn embellishments in the language. There are no big words, ornamental phrases or difficult idioms in the book. Easy to comprehend and read, the book sticks to events and accounts of her life and that of her community, in a matter-of-fact manner.
The irony is palpable. The author shows us the side of poverty that makes villagers find innovative means of feeding themselves. While this is supposed to make readers feel sad about the hardships, and perhaps feel sorry for them, it actually has the opposite effect. City dwellers who are accustomed to concrete jungles may actually feel wistful and rather envious of the joys of rural life. The sheer enjoyment of the children playing in the water, the little joys of villagers catching and frying fish by the lakeside romanticizes poverty like no other.
At the same time, one cannot neglect the actual message of the hardships of Dalits to even find a single meal for themselves and their families.
Some parts of the book are hilarious as well, especially the nicknames given by the people to some characters of their village. The antics of some of them to earn those nicknames put a smile on our faces.
Chapter two onwards becomes more specifically disturbing with accounts of oppression of Dalits and how the issue of caste never goes away, no matter where they go, how intelligent they are, or how hard they work to prove themselves. The accounts of how even the small children are forced to labour all day to keep themselves fed is heartbreaking. Also, the instances where the Dalits were automatically blamed for everything that other castes did, highlights of selective injustice.
You are from the Cheri. You might have done it. You must have done it. (19)
Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is not about the highly hypocritical nuns abusing their power for gain. Its about how one can be hopeful about doing something one dreams of doing, only to have the society at large and certain communities/people in particular who never let that happen. Like I mentioned before, it is also about resilience of a vulnerable woman.
The book is powerful because so many factors of Bama’s shock echoes on the readers mind. The Christian nuns who claim love for humanity insulting lower castes, pampering the wealthy and even resorting to physical violence such as caning, pinching, knocking, etc. are an eye-opener to the larger public that only gets to see the humane side of them.
In certain orders they would not accept Harijan women...I was thunderstruck.
My community were looking after all the jobs like sweeping the premises, swabbing and washing the classrooms and cleaning the lavatories. And in the convent they spoke very insultingly of lower caste people.(25) – Chapter Two.
Chapter three shows us how strong the women folk are, compared to men. Bama’s instances can make any feminist hold her head high in pride.
And so the women managed on their own even without the men’s earnings.(38)
The stories where the women hid their menfolk from police brutality are innovative in their genius. Also, the bonding and unity of womenfolk during times of crisis is captures with heart-wrenching finesse.
…the women set out with the dead body and buried him themselves, in the cemetery.
Woven into this is the brutality of the police that sides with the community that is rich enough to grease their palms.
It seems the Chaaliyar folk invited …the “Reserve police” all the way from Sivakasi, butchered a sheep for them and arranged a feast….here we are struggling for watery gruel. How will the police or the government be on our side? (36)
The author’s lament about the lack of unity among the lower castes is a showcase of human nature.
Chapter four exposes the hardships of physical labour in two realms: Agriculture and Construction.
It is only when they fall asleep at night that their arms and legs are still.(55)
Her accounts of collecting firewood in the mountain forests as a child, shelling groundnuts for peanuts as remuneration, stc. exposes the rampant exploitation of Dalits by the society at large and the Naickar community and traders in particular.
But it was only by toiling like this without taking any account of their bodies as flesh and blood, that people of our community could even survive.(52)
More interesting is the misappropriation of payment given to women labourers despite doing the same amount of work as men. This rings true even in the corporates of today’s scenario across the world.
The third point is the exposure of exploitative, illegal child labour at the match factories.
Chapter five is different , in a refreshing way. For here, we see the fun-loving side of the community that finds innovative and stellar ways of making the most of what they have and still find joy of of their games.
However the ironies of a society flawed at its very core, both at the familial as well as societal level, are exposed in saddening ways. The games children played.
..we played at being Naicker. The rest of us would call them Ayya Ayya…work in the fields all day, collect our wages and go home.
Sometimes we played at being nuns and priests who came and gave us blows.(57)
Then we played at being married and…the husband coming home drunk and hitting the wife, the police arriving and beating him up.
To have impressionable minds think that men and women of the religious order beating up kids, or a husband beating his wife as part of normal routine life and marriage respectively, shows the level of degradation, as a whole.
She also gives us accounts of how talented some people of the community were, that harps on the underlying message that most of it goes unnoticed by society.
Also, the bribery of the forest official to kiil deer is punctuated more with the bribery at church in the name of offerings to Mother Superior and Church elders Bama minces no words while repeating the reported speech of her acquaintances, as well as church personnel.
Everyone came away complaining about his (Priest’s) miserliness.
And the Mother Superior had said: “Have you given me money to buy the holy pictures?”
The last part of the chapter makes us realize how far we have come in the digital age, when we read about the people of the village waiting all day, and evening for a film that was never shown until midnight.
Chapter Six accounts of the convent hostel life, which is two-fold, showing us the abundance that comes with a price to Dalits.
I was uncomfortable to stay there although they fed us well.(73)
Bama stresses on the perks of education, even as she iterates the challenges of the community which is reluctant to allow the girls to study beyond a certain measure for want of finding a husband.
The disparity of wealth between the other children and Bama is palpable in many instances, but what stands out is her escapade into the bathroom to avoid the college day, for want of a silk saree.
Also the chapter exposes the luxuries of the church that is supposed to have taken a vow of poverty.
‘That is just a sham. The convent does not know the meaning of poverty.’(77)
‘It seems that our society is divided into those who toil and those who sit down to eat.’(79)
The rampant caste system that penetrates even the deepest religious orders of the church are exposed without any holds barred.
‘It is only the upper caste Christian who enjoy the benefits and comforts of the church’
Chapter seven is an exposure of the futility and farce of regulatory religious pursuits. The innocence of children who believe anything that is told to them is sadly hilarious. One aches for the child who preserved teeth and bones of an unearthed skeleton only to be stripped of its supposed importance much later.
The legend of the Chinnamalai mountain is engrossing in its simple narration. Bama’s account of Chinnamalai festival, the slaughters, the feast are presented to us in astute clarity of visual and auditory imagery.
Again the oxymoronic hilarity of catechism classes or nodding off at the obligatory Easter service makes us aware of the futility of violently forcing religious rules on little children.
Sometimes the sisters themselves would nod off. But could we go and hit them? Or pinch them?(99)
The author utters truth in a matter of fact manner that leaves no room for argument, irrespective of which religion readers belong to.
What passes for devotion nowadays is merely a matter of doing things out of a sense of duty. (101)
Chapter eight is a reiteration of the politics and hypocrisy, (also the jealousies, competition, arrogance) rampant at the convent, where the inmates take their three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but rampantly flout the first vow.
In truth the vows become a means of control and enslavement.(113)
Her account of luxuries at the convent, are a sharp contrast to the descriptions of the background she comes from. And this makes her exit from the luxury even more noteworthy.
Chapter nine is a relatively small but crucial one. It shows us the amount of damage society is capable of doing to an individual.
Her transformation from a brave forthright person to a meek fearful woman is profound, despite the perk of escaping what she aptly calls a ‘counterfeit existence’
I feel afraid of everyone and everything.(120)
Added to this is her vulnerability as a lone woman in a ruthlessly opportunistic man’s world. It is also a further expose of societal realities, that hold good till date.
The book has a lengthy postscript, which ties up the loose ends, while adding on some more incidents to showcase of the politics of wealth and power at the convent. There are some nail-biting moments where the reader may feel fearful about the her escape from the convent right up to the last minute of her reaching safe ground.
‘By then, my mind was completely empty.’(136)
This is an autobiography that may progressively drain readers and leave them feeling empty too.
Overall, Bama has penned a book that is timeless in its ruthless revelations. Most of what she reveals is true, till date. While we would like to think that there has been abundant progress, there are many realities that we are aware of, even today.
For as Bama says:
‘It is possible to live in elitist style with money , education, authority and power and to claim that one is serving the poor.’(121)
Aren’t we privy to some of our elite politicians proving this time and again to us, till date?
Did you find my review of the book useful? Do let me know in the comments section.
Happy reading, stay safe, readers.