Tamil Nadu politics is today dominated by two Dravidian parties- the DMK that morphed out of the DK and its off- shoot, the AIADMK, the former led by Karunanidhi and his family, the latter, by the temperamental Jayalalitha.
Periyar’s social reform movement was largely rationalist and is perhaps without parallel in its expanse and intensity. Periyar’s oft- quoted statement is:
“He who created god was a fool, he who spreads his name is a scoundrel, and he who worships him is a barbarian.”
Unlike elsewhere in India, Tamil social structure is not in the form of a pyramid- instead it has a caste system with a very small Brahmin (less than 2%) population, a large chunk of the backward castes and a substantial Dalit population (about 20% of the total state population) – the “other upper castes” like the Kshatriyas are absent. 90% of the Dalits in Tamil Nadu own no land.
Tamil politics is dominated by some of the backward castes many of which are no longer “backward” in most ways. Periyar’s movement produced a powerful assertion of the Tamil backward castes but left little or no space for the Dalits.
Even serious Dalit literature arrived only in the early 1990s.
But it is in this state that the Dalit intelligentsia can emerge as a powerful voice. Over the years, a literacy culture has taken strong roots in the state- literacy is far higher than in all states except Kerala. There is also an immediate tradition of protest and assertion albeit of the backward castes.
The fervour, the controlled but intense anger and the intellectual restlessness to understand society in order to change it among some of the young Dalit professionals and students in the state is like the one that one earlier used to observe only among the Marxist inclined youth in the sixties and seventies.
The Sep- Oct issue of Muse India, edited by the young and talented Meena Kandasamy, containing a selection of some of the Dalit poetry emerging out of Tamil Nadu offers a poignant window into these undercurrents of protest.
Rajkumar ND in the poem ‘A Wish’ gives an inkling of the mood:
He who desires peace
Is a fraud.
It is human tendency to disturb
And attain clarity in the fight
In “Infection“, Devadevan sarcastically comments on the sacred thread that is the privilege only of the Brahmin men:
The chief doctor came,
Examined my friend
And raised his head.
In the direction of the ears
That were throbbing with worry
And concern and questions
He bent his head
And from his white-gloved hand
Held a dirty sacred thread
“This could have caused
There are 15 poems in this issue of the magazine, most of them translated by Meena Kandasamy who also provides a short and cogent backgroud to the emergence of Dalit literature in Tamil Nadu.
Like all other Dalit literature, Tamil Dalit literature too has an excess of autobiographies. Critics condemn these literatures of lament, but they too have a central place within the creative core. Tamil Dalit literature is characterized by the call for self-identity and assertion. It tramples all conventions with its intensely personal expression; is concerned with the life of the subaltern, and deals out a stark brutality. This literature should be viewed not as a literature of vengeance or a literature of hatred, but a literature of freedom and greatness.
Link to Muse via Whitejasmine