In Need of Translation: An Analysis of Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit Literature

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

The caste or varna system in India has segregated thousands of Dalits from mainstream culture and condemned them to a subhuman and debased existence. After centuries of suppression, Dalits are struggling for emancipation by joining the liberation movement originally spearheaded by Dadasaheb B. R. Ambedkar. Dr. Ambedkar shaped the tradition of revolutionary thinking for almost an entire generation of Dalits, and the literary manifestation of this social awareness is Dalit literature. Dalit literature not only reveals the angst of being Dalit in a caste-driven society but also simultaneously records a revolutionary discourse which challenges the hegemonic caste. The bourgeoning of Dalit literature began in Maharashtra during the 1960s. The literary movement spread to other languages like Gujarati, Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil.

However, the appearance of Dalit literature in Tamil is a very recent phenomenon. Originating in Maharashtra, Dalit literature took nearly three decades to make a mark on the literary map of Tamil Nadu province in India. Nevertheless, the sudden growth of Tamil Dalit literature in the 1990s has led to a corpus of novels, short stories, poems, and autobiographies. The general impetus of these writings is to expose the agonized and marginalized existence of Dalits. However, Dalit literature is not merely a literature of protest, lamentation, and frustration, since the various contexts and heterogeneous experiences of the Dalit communities it describes makes it a rich source of Dalit culture, tradition, and language. As a counter movement against dominant discourses, Tamil Dalit literature provides a space for the assertion of Dalit identity and selfhood.

While Tamil Dalits are discriminated against by the dominant castes, it is growing increasingly important not to make generalizations about the problems they face. The Tamil Dalit community is not monolithic by any means, and there are castes within it that are stratified hierarchically. Among Tamil Dalit communities, the problems faced by Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit communities are markedly different from other Tamil Dalit communities because of the group's geopolitical context. While the Sri Lankan political scene is dominated by the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict, the hierarchy and discrimination that is prevalent within Tamil communities between castes is almost subjugated and gets very little attention. This article discusses the problems faced by Sri Lankan Tamil Dalits through an analysis of some Tamil Dalit literary works by Sri Lankan writers.

II. Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit literature

In Tamil Nadu, Dalit politics and literature became popular in the 1990s after the Ambedkar centenary celebrations. However, in Sri Lanka, Dalit politics became a distinct presence from the 1950s onward. Sri Lankan Tamil society is caste-structured, and the dominant castes are the Tamil Saiva Vellalars, who enjoy a superior status akin to the Brahmins in Tamil Nadu. The Nalavars, Pallars, Parayars, Vannan, and Ambattan, grouped together under the term Panchamar (1) are the "untouchable" communities that work for the Saiva Vellalars (upper-caste Hindus). Starting in the 1950s, certain groups began to put up major opposition against the discriminatory practices of the Tamil Saiva Vellalars, and literature played a very important role in raising awareness about the plight of Dalits among Sri Lankan Tamils. The experiences of untouchables as documented in Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit literature are similar to Dalit experiences in Tamil Nadu.

Though Dalit politics and literature became prominent in Sri Lanka in the 1950s, Tamil literary works focusing on the problems of untouchables were written as early as the 1920s. Neelakandan Allathu Oru Sathi Vellalan was written by Jdaikaadar in 1925 and is regarded as the first novel that discusses caste discrimination in Sri Lanka. A similar trend was followed in novels written by Tamil writers like Muthuthambipillai, Nallaya, Muthathambi Sellaya, and Selvanayagam. …