Literature popularly defined as a mirror of society gets a radically different meaning in the novella, Pethavan by Imayam, published recently in English translation. The myriad functions of caste in Indian society got unveiled through this brilliant literary piece by a master story-teller.
It invites us to read ourselves and our society vis-à-vis caste. After the modernist (postmodernist) experimental writing, the mode of realism seems to have come back through dalit literature with a renewed energy. Popular Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu says, ‘It is the lie that adds beauty to poetry!’ Film makers, often declare: ‘Incidents narrated here are mere imagination and do not refer to any real incidents,’ to safeguard themselves from controversies. In total contrast we have a writer—Imayam—who says: ‘Pethavan is not a story authored by me—it is a story written by society itself.’ He further says, ‘Once the work is done, the relationship between the writer and his writing ends. I have no place in the universe that I have created. Thereafter I too am just a reader.’ Such statements, when spoken by a writer, open up questions regarding the nature and function of literature, relation between the author and the work, moving beyond the theoretical statement of the ‘death of the author’.
Pethavan has seen five reprints in three months and ten reprints by another publication and has sold 1,00,000 copies because of its inviting and gripping narrative. It was also given as thamboolam in domestic functions. We know that Thirukural was given as thamboolam in the Dravidian land to replace the ritualistic practice of giving thamboolam. Sometimes the writings of nationalist poets like Bharathiyar were also distributed. Distribution of Pethavan (in functions of dalit families) has now found a place in that history. It reached the readers of neighbouring States through its translation into Telugu and Malayalam and has now reached a global audience through this brilliant English translation.
The story is centred around a crisis that arises in a village in rural Tamil Nadu due to the love between a girl of a backward caste and a dalit boy. The central character, Pazhani, resides in a village near Viruthasalam in the northern part of Tamil Nadu with his wife, Samiyammal, his widowed mother Thulasi and two daughters. The elder daughter Bhakkiyam has done her undergraduation. The younger one, Selvarani, is a physically-challenged person. Pazhani’s caste people are dominant in that village as well as in the surrounding villages. Bhakkiyam falls in love with a dalit boy in her class. He has been selected as Sub-Inspector in Tamil Nadu police service. She tries to elope with him many times, but her village people forcefully bring her back.
The villagers come to the conclusion that the girl should be killed, otherwise she would elope. This, they think, would weaken their caste pride. So, the village panchayat orders Pazhani to kill his daughter. Pressured, Pazhani agrees. When a villager asks him how he would execute the murder, a woman holding a child suggests that pesticide may be poured into her mouth and she be kept inside a closed room. The door should not be opened whatever sound she makes. Even a drop of water should not be given to her. Then the matter would be over in a few minutes! Pazhani assures that he himself would buy and administer the poison. The villagers assure that they would take care of the funeral without leaking the news. After deep contemplation, he later changes his mind. He gives her a sum of Rs. 60,000, three gold chains, jewels and allows her to join the boy and commits suicide by consuming poison.
This story is significantly different from typical dalit literature. We know that dalit literature is a body of writing about dalits written by a dalit writer. If it is so, Pethavan cannot be regarded as dalit literature because it does not talk about dalit culture, experience, their pain and suffering. It is here that Imayam has shifted the central concern of dalit literature from talking about dalits to ‘talking to’ civil society about the myriad functions of caste. It also accommodates the canonical definition of dalit literature. By reading this story anybody can understand that the dalits are the worst victims of the caste system. This story moves beyond that and situates itself within a non-dalit context and talks about the operations of caste in society. It is in this sense that Pethavan invokes Dr. Ambekdar’s vision that the problem of dalits is actually the problem of the mainstream.
The central character Periasamy, the dalit boy, who is a graduate and has joined the Police service, becomes a symbol of the newly gained power position. Yet he remains voiceless. He never utters a single word and does not even appear in the story. But the narrator makes the reader feel the presence of this absent character in the entire story. In her Introduction, writer Ambai rightly points out: In the complex web of relationships that he creates in his fiction, it is not the spoken but the unspoken, the unarticulated, the unexpressed that lies underneath like some wounded animal—pain throbbing through its veins and holding onto life—that tells the real story.
Hence, this story is very significant in expanding the domain of dalit studies. By way of locating the story within the caste panchayat, Imayam hints at the necessary participation of non-dalits in the annihilation of caste. Because the victims of the caste practice, the story insists, are not just the dalits but the caste Hindus as well. The story displays how, even in this 21st century, the institution of caste functions as an oppressive mechanism both for dalits and for women of all castes. The backward caste Pazhani’s family is ruined because of this social system.
Bhakkiyam’s parents do not talk to her for three years. All the characters are adamant in their standpoint and their attitudes and deeds surprise us.
If Samiyammal wanted to say something to Bhakkiyam, she would convey it through Selvarani. However, on days when some news about Bhakkiyam hit the village and caused problems, Samiyammal would hit her and shout ‘Why don’t you die?’ After that till the next complication arose, she would not even say that. Pazhani did not even do that. If Bhakkiyam was at home, Pazhani would spend his time in the cattle shed or the hay store. And if Pazhani was inside, Bhakkiyam would spend her time in the cattle shed or the hay store. Most of his days would be spent in the fields, whether he had any work there or not. He lived in the fields.
But, then everybody is changing their standpoint; ready to sacrifice their welfare and lose their life. It is disheartening to see the extremes in the characters’ moods.
The real incident of Divya-Illavarasan (a backward caste girl and dalit boy) love affair in Dharmapuri that led to the atrocity on dalits in three villages, has provided this story a narrative of everyday reality. We are too near, yet prefer silence. That is what the publication history and its parallel to real life incident suggest. Pethavan was published in the September 2012 issue of Uyirmai magazine. Dharmapuri incident took place on 7th November 2012. The similarities between the story and the Dharmapuri violence surprises everyone raising questions about the relation between fact and fiction.
The title and climax of the story may even suggest that Pazhani sacrifices his life for his daughter. But we should understand that Pazhani also is a mixture of all sociocultural sentiments. He too is a person with caste sentiments, belief in sin, sentiments of a father, male chauvinistic attitude, and frustration over society. It is the complexity involved in the victimhood that becomes more important than giving voice to the victim.
It seems that the story starts with a climax. The author does not give much description in the beginning of the story. He takes the reader directly to the tense and rage-filled scene and forces the reader to watch the casteoperation. The reader rushes towards the end of the narrative with this tension. The story happens within one night—it starts with a caste panchayat in the evening and ends with Pazhani’s suicide in the wee hours of the next day morning. The entire narrative is placed within this gloomy night, which in turn stands for the gloomy power of caste.
The gripping narrative of the story forces the reader to finish it in one sitting. Translating Imayam’s story is a difficult task as the language is full of local dialects and idiomatic expressions. If we try to purify his sentence it may lose its effect and force. However, translator Gita Subramanian with her felicity in English has done justice to the text and deserves appreciation.
D. Jaisankar is a Research Scholar in the Department of English, University of Madras, Chennai.