Sangati – A Book Review

If one happens to belong to a disadvantaged community of a society, then one is privileged a lot more than just a writer. Born in 1958 in a Tamil Dalit Christian family, Bama hails from the Deccan India as a feminist who holds her grounds deeply rooted into the indigenous soil and Indian traditions which seem to have become more than just contaminated with the ever-prevailing, vitiated and cursed casteism.

Karukku, published much before Sangati, is her autobiography whereas Sangati is an autobiography of her community which moves from the story of individuals’ struggle to the perception of the Paraiyya women, a neighborhood group of friends and relatives and their joined struggle.

In the initial chapters, it’s narrated in the first person, then counterpointed by the generalizing comments of the grandmother and other mother figures, and later still, by the author-narrator’s reflections. The earlier chapters show the narrator as a young girl of about twelve years of age, but in the last quarter, as a young woman. The reflective voice is that of an adult looking back and meditating deeply upon her experience in the past which calls for practical actions. It has no plot in the normal sense but just some powerful stories of memorable protagonists.

Bama chooses only a woman protagonist for every story in her novel and yet comes up so clearly justified about her choices while doing so. In Sangati, as a child, she is shown questioning the unequal treatment meted out to her at the hands of her own maternal grandmother- Vellaiyamma kizhavi (old lady) in comparison to her brother. She is asked to eat after every male member in the family finishes eating. The left-over of others are her only feast. In fact, even the quality of food served to the girls is much poorer than the kind of which is served to boys. All the household works like cleaning, cooking, laundry, baby-sitting, etc are done by the girls whereas the boys enjoy playing games or hanging out with their friends in the village. Despite of this, the girls in the village are deprived of good education unlike the boys. The boys are kept free from all sorts of responsibilities that they should take up whereas the girls are over-burdened with numerous endless toilsome everyday activities.

She also raises the issue related to patriarchy in a very heroic manner. Her book- Sangati teases out the way patriarchy works with Dalit women. As Bama nego-feministicly voices out the grievances of the Paraiyya women, there is, in the first place, the question of economic inequality. Women are presented as wage earners as much as men are, working equally as men as agricultural and building-site labourers, but still earning less than men do, thereby highlighting Socialist-feminism. Yet the money that men earn is their own to spend as they please, whereas women bear the financial burdens of running the whole family, often even singly. They are constantly vulnerable to a lot of sexual harassment in the world of work. Within their community, the power rests with men as the caste-courts and churches are male-led. Rules for sexual behavior are brow-raisingly different for men and women. Hard labour and economic precariousness lead to a culture of violence, and Bama boldly explores this theme too.

Bama realistically portrays the physical violence like lynching, whipping and canning that the Dalit women face. She writes of the violent treatment of women by fathers, husbands and brothers, and the violent domestic quarrels which are carried on publicly, where rarely women fight back. As a radical feminist, Bama explores the psychological stresses and strains which become a reason for the women’s belief in their being possessed by spirits or peys.

Her language is also very different from the other women writers of India as she is more generous with the usage of Dalit Tamil slangs. She addresses the women of the village by using the suffix ‘amma’ (mother) with their names. From the names of places, months, festivals, rituals, customs, utensils, ornaments, clothes, edibles, games, etc to the names of occupations, the way of addressing relatives, ghosts, spirits, etc; she unceasingly uses various Tamil words.

The voices of many women speaking to and addressing one another, sharing their everyday experience with each another,  sometimes raised in anger or in pain, against their oppressors, are reported exactly. The language is full of explicit sexual references too. Bama smartly suggests that sometimes a sharp tongue and obscene words are women’s only way of shaming men and escaping extreme physical violence which give a violent and sexual nature to the language. It’s the result of internalizing of a patriarchy based on sexual dominance and power which rests with men. Bama makes a gigantic linguistic leap in reclaiming the language of the Paraiyya women. She does so more consistently than any of her contemporary writers for narration, argument, comment, and not simply for reported speeches. She bridges the spoken and written styles of Tamil by breaking the rules of written grammar and spelling, and also by eliding various words and joining them differently; demanding a new and different pattern of reading Tamil.

The post-colonial thrust of her book is in its huge criticism of the Indian church. Bama questions the conversion happened in her grandmother’s time. Only the Paraiyyas embraced Christianity, persuaded by the missionaries offering them free education whereas the other Dalit communities preferred to remain Hindus. Bama is a critique of casteism within the church and church rules. Here, the narrator’s underlying question is whether the community should have converted at all.

This book has a lot in store for the readers not just applaud the traditional ‘feminine’ ideals of fear, shyness, simplicity, innocence, modesty but rather, courage, fearlessness, independence and self-respect.

Aditi Swami