Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism: Rooted, Feminist and Vernacular Perspectives

By Pnina Werbner | Go to book overview

7
'A new consciousness must come':
Affectivity and Movement in Tamil Dalit
Women's Activist Engagement with
Cosmopolitan Modernity

Kalpana Ram

To Stella, who may have lost her speech, but not her voice.

I am the daughter of a fisherman, and I am married to a rice trader who is now in Saudi
Arabia, working on an oil rig in the ocean. We were a poor family. I have studied
up to the SSLC, but more important, I now have arivu [consciousness, awareness,
knowledge in the widest sense] which dispels fears. I talk freely about periods and
menopause since my training and I am now asked to attend births. The girls I teach
are initially embarrassed but there is great curiosity afterwards. You should see the
difference between me and my akka [elder sister]. When I began to have overbleeding
in my periods, I went to the doctor, and looked at the scan with her. (Interview with
health guide Jansi in fishing village, Kanyakumari, 1991)

Those exposed to our [health] talks stand out in any crowd. They talk differently to
the others
. There is great progress [munnetram]. (Interview with Amber, a trained
midwife, from agrarian village, employed by a leading non-government organisation
in Kanyakumari, 1991)

The voices of women such as Jansi and Amber are heard here as extracts from interviews I conducted in the early 1990s, part of a wider project on the changing nature of puberty and maternity among rural Tamil women from labouring classes, both fishing communities (Ram 1991) and agricultural castes in Chengalpattu District. But the dimensions of activism I explore in this paper will not do justice to the wide variety of class and caste formations I found in the course of this research. The term 'Dalit', used in the title of this chapter, is itself shaped by activist discourses rather than the local particularities I uncovered as a researcher. The term Dalit seeks to displace older, more stigmatising and patronising forms of nomenclature (such as 'untouchables', 'Scheduled Castes', 'Harijans') with a militant reference to oppression. Yet this particular experience of caste oppression does not sit very easily with the sociology of fishing communities in Kanyakumari,

-135-

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