Casteism seems to be the leitmotif of Kerala society

For all its communist history casteism is inherent in Kerala society Dalit poet Vijila ChirappadSreekesh Raveendran Nair
news Dalit History Month Monday, April 18, 2016 - 20:10

(Editor's Note: As a part of the Dalit History Month series, The News Minute interviews Dalit women writers in the four major south Indian languages. This is the second in the series.)

“Even those who may not be blatantly casteist in their approach to life have it embedded in their subconscious here in Kerala. Take for example, how a Nair woman would relate to Karkidakam (a month in the Malayalam calendar).

You would hear her wax eloquent about the heavy rains, reading the Ramayana and partaking of the Karkidaka kanji (a spicy gruel-mix of rice and medicinal herbs). But what about a Dalit woman?

She would be more worried about whether the coconut fronds-plaited roof of her home would be able to withstand the heavy onslaught of the rains. So you see the same phenomenon has an upper-caste woman looking outwards to enjoy the rains and the paraphernalia that comes along with it, while the Dalit woman tries to figure out how to survive life for yet another day,” Dalit poet Vijila Chirappad smiles.

Not for her is a defeatist attitude. Life has rendered her many a hard knock but not once did she remain supine under the blows dealt by a highly prejudiced society.

Born at Perambra in Kozhikode, Vijila has dabbled in poetry right from her college days. It was also poetry that gifted her a soul-mate in Rajesh Chirappad, a well-known Dalit literary critic.

Vijila’s work has been published in three collections: Adukala Illathaa Veedu (A Home without a Kitchen, 2006), Amma Oru Kalpanika Kavitha Alla (Mother is not a Poetic Figment of our Imagination, 2009), and Pakarthi Ezhuthu (Copied Notes, 2015). 

Some of these verses are prescribed reading at the Kerala, MG and Calicut Universities. Her work has also been featured in the OUP India Anthology of Poems that was brought out in 2012.

Recalling her initial struggles to just get published, Vijila says: “You see publishing in itself is an arduous process. And since I’m not even an adopted child of mainstream society, you can guess how hard it has been for me. Yet not even once did I think of giving up. I have had to literally fight to get to wherever I find myself now in the poetic sphere.”

An admirer of S Joseph, Madhavikutty and Satchidanandan’s works, Vijila has through her searing poetry, carved out a niche for herself among her contemporaries.

Go through her poems and you find reflected a disarmingly honest take on everyday realities that… well, mostly women cope with.

‘Sumangali’ for instance evokes the imagery of the bloodied sindoor adorning the central hair parting of a newly-wed to denote the legal sanction for deflowering her chastity.

In her world, bodies are soot-coated and reflect the household smells of an impoverished society tottering on the fringes of caste.

Like in ‘Kaikalathunikal’ (Household Rags) the similarity between a woman bound by her marital kitchen and the perennially soaked household rags is brought out strikingly with a longing for the rains to release her from all such bondage.

Ask her about the title of her second collection of poems, she chuckles: “Haven’t you seen how mothers are portrayed in our TV serials or movies? The traditional kind sporting a ‘thulasi’ sprig (medicinal pant) in her wet hair…but the mothers I know are ones who practically go about their daily lives and who curtly asks you to switch off the radio to avoid hearing the ramblings of the News in Sanskrit which to her is pure upper caste gibberish.”

She who flew ahead

In our home

there is no TV

no fridge

neither mixer

nor grinder

no LPG

not even an iron-box.

 

yet my mother knew

how to operate these

much before i did.

 

because

like in Madhavikutty's stories

and the novels of MT

she is Janu -

the servant.

The red demon that visits women every month too occupies a significant place in her poems one of which is ‘Veena Poovinum Viriyunna Poovinum Madhyeh’ (Between the Fallen Flower and the One about to Bloom).

She is too realistic to venture into sheer romanticism, but there is an indulgent undertone of mundaneness as seen in the poem ‘Moonu Jallakangal’ (Three Windows).

Poetry is not just a clever use of words but the life-force which sustains Vijila through the ups and downs that life throws at her as when her menstrual cycle shows no sign of a 'maternal remission' or when the thyroid in her body becomes the signpost of unspoken grief that gets stuck in her throat.

Thyroid

sorrows till then

picketed in the throat

the name you gave them -

thyroid

When disheartened with subtle discrimination at the workplace, she is asked to rise above her origins. “But how does one rise above one’s origins when each day someone or the other never fails to rub the Dalit identity into you?” she wonders.

“Do you know in our efforts to fit in, Dalits so often blindly ape the customs and rituals of the upper castes…as if in doing so, they would gain social acceptance. Imagine a suffocating loop within a loop?” Vijila says, masking her irritation with a contagious grin.

A Dalit consciousness pervades all through her poems as can be felt in the way she moulds words tinged with a colloquial flavour . Yet Vijila's poetry embodies much more than just her caste identity. “I am a Dalit if that’s how you choose to see me and I’m not if you think otherwise,” she smiles.

This fluidity of identity translates into a broader empathy for all who are downtrodden and oppressed. 

“For all its communist history, casteism is inherent in Kerala society…more or less like a leitmotif whether one likes it or not. A truly casteless society is what I dream and aspire for,” Vijila sighs.

Wasteland

chandrika chechi of the Wasteland

talks

about the homes one enters 

only through the back door.

 

of the flats 

where one enters 

through the front door —

the ones with the porch light on.

 

returning daily from the marketplace

both the fish and she share

the same path —

the one through the back door.

 

entering through the very same route, 

while hearing the television 

blare the pledge aloud on August 15 —

all Indians are my brothers and sisters.

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