Class and Caste in Tamil Literature: An Interview with V. Geetha

vgeethaV. Geetha is a feminist, historian and writer.  She is the author and editor of several articles and books including “Towards a Non Brahmin Millennium” “Gender” and “Patriarchy”. She is also one of the founders and Editor of Tara Books , a small independent publisher that makes picture books for children and adults. Their books question the prevalent aesthetic in India, one that is defined by upper classes, in favor of work done by tribal artists from central India, for example.  Tara Books also works on bringing arts and crafts to children, through workshops and other educational material.  She has also scripted stage plays in Tamil dealing with feminism and politics in Tamilnadu. In a recent discussion with Thozhilalar Koodam, V. Geetha talked about class and caste in Tamil literature, as well as the state of education and skill development in India today.

Thozhilalar Koodam: What issues do children face in the Indian education system?

Geetha: The education system in India is very word-based and memory-based. Children from working class – and working caste – families do not come from a verbal literacy context, and they find endless pages of text forbidding. But given exercises in art and craft – they might excel at it! They will do much better in a system of learning by doing. But unfortunately, our culture de-values ‘doing’. The caste system perpetrates a division between mental and manual labour – and invariably favours the first over the second. This also means that our thought-worlds are divorced from practice, from the knowledge that the labour of doing brings with it, and from which we may be able to evolve distinctive conceptual categories, not available to those who work in the abstract and purely logically and from words.

TK: In addition to our history of the caste system, doesn’t the economy emerging through forces of globalization also devalue ‘doing’ and ‘crafts’?

G: These traditional and modern forces are actually mixed in complicated ways. I’ll give you an example. We [Tara Books] print some of our books in China. The logistics are much more complicated, but the process is far easier and far more rewarding than printing in India, even cost-wise. The technical people we are in touch with are familiar with both the requirements of printing and the tools that come with it. But in India, that is seldom the case. In the past, we have tried printing in various places in India – in Hyderabad, in Delhi and in Chennai. While all the places had expensive machinery, there was simply no notion of training workers in professional skills. Workers learn on the job. There is no skill-development program, no notion of transferring expertise. For businesses owning machines costing as much as half a crore, it is not reasonable to expect workers to learn through trial and error. Printing technology is a well-developed science, but the knowledge of that is seldom shared with or made part of the actual labour process. Perhaps the foreman or supervisor might know how things work, but the actual workers are not brought into an integrated system of mentoring and doing.

This is because the labourer’s role is not seen as central to making, to production. As a labourer he or she is assumed to be of ‘lower’ status, and not worthy of knowledge. Workers’ needs are not addressed. This technology is easy to learn, it is not rocket science. It just requires attention to detail and convincing the worker that there is much merit in doing it a certain way. Workers are not told these things – they are just told to do a certain task without understanding the process, the machine and how it works.

That’s the context in which the caste mentality works. We do not value what labourers bring to the task. Not just because you want to under-pay them, but also culturally, you undervalue labour, on account of its association with particular castes.  Tara Books runs a printing workshop in Chennai that operates 24 workers, headed by Arumugam.  Arumugam’s outfit is the opposite. In his workshop, workers are part of the decision-making. For example, there is a semi-automatic binding section, where workers actually customize the machines based on their needs. One time, the workers were facing the problem that the hand-made paper was absorbing moisture during the monsoon and was warping. The workers solved the problem themselves – they went and talked to a manufacturer of a humidifier, and tried to find an industrial humidifier for this purpose. If the worker is given a choice to understand the work and directions to make the work easier, he is not going to be disinterested. He has to be at the center of the decision making.

TK: Turning our attention to literature, can you talk about class consciousness in Tamil literature?

G: There is a large body of writing devoted to the class question. The writing is not just party based, but linked to a larger culture of the left. Much of it is in the context of agrarian issues, or to do with spinning and weaving mills, the plantations or small trades trades and professions. There have been writers from agrarian backgrounds – and some who have been factory workers or unionists. More recently, from the late 1970s, and particularly in the 1990s, dalit writers have brought to the fore working lives, outlining situations and circumstances that had not been described with the acuity they deserve – because those who were describing them were speaking from their own biographical contexts.

In a general sense, though, writings about class or labour have emerged from within left politics. If you look at the broad history of the Tamil left, they have been most successful in the agrarian struggles of the 40’s and 50’s. The left also was active in the plantations; they built unions amongst sanitary workers and leather workers, fairly early on. Then there was a phase of militant factory-based trade unionism, in the 1970s, which saw the rise of the CITU. The militant left, from within the context of Marxism-Leninism, which emerged in the mid and late 1960s was active in the agrarian context, though later on, in the 1980s, some amongst them sought to create a new and radical trade union culture as well. There have been writers who have drawn on these histories and some of them were Dalits, though they may not have identified themselves as such at the time they wrote their fiction – the self-conscious upholding of dalit identity emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

TK: What about domestic workers?

G: Not that I know of. But there has been one or two very interesting women writers who have written about labour issues. One of them is very well-known — Rajam Krishnan. She was a fellow traveller with the CPI. What distinguishes her from other women writers is that she didn’t always write about ‘female’ subjects, that is family, domesticity, relationships. Her husband had one of those transferable central government jobs that took him here and there. She followed him, and she wrote about life in those contexts. Her husband was in the power sector and he went to the building of the Kunda power plant in Karnataka, so she wrote of the displacement of indigenous communities. Later he was posted to a thermal power plant, where she wrote about the life of fishers. She undertook field work, wherever she went, and compiled information which was the basis for much of her fiction. In a sense it was dense reportage that was turned into fiction; on the other hand, it foregrounded life worlds, in which women, as much as men were central to the social and economic concerns that were addressed.

One of her works is a biographical novel of one of the most amazing women to work with CPI in 1940’s and 50’s — a woman called Manalur Maniammal, who was a brahmin widow, and who joined the Communist party and worked amongst dalit agrarian labourers, often making her home in dalit villages. She used to dress like a man, and cycled all over the place. She is still remembered with great affection by people in the Kaveri delta.

Then, there is another younger writer who has been writing for the last 10-15 years, called Tamizhselvi. She lives in Virudhachalam. She has been writing fantastic fiction on women’s working lives. In her work, we see women who are nothing like what we have seen before in literature. They are not just sexual beings caught up in angsty relationships with men. They are all part of working communities, where everything – sexuality, marriage, labour, reproduction — is so inter-meshed. One of her very interesting novels is Kattrazhai (‘aloe plant’). Since the Kaveri crisis started, many agriculturists of the region don’t have work all through the year, as they only cultivate one crop. Many of them migrate to Thiruppur for seasonal work, to work in the hosiery industry. Her novel captures this movement of people. The people in her fiction are probably Kallars, today a powerful caste, politically. The main character of this novel is a woman, who works in the fields, gets married, and later finds out her husband is having an affair. But her main worries are about work, money, and her child’s life. The novel depicts a slice of women’s lives in Thiruppur as well. It ends on a utopian note when working women set up a commune of their own.

Tamizhselvi has another very interesting novel about a Dalit woman, Kannagi, who goes as a migrant worker to Malaysia, in the backdrop of complex changes in her family. (There has been much migration to Malaysia from Thanjavur, where there is perpetually either drought or flood.) Tamizhselvi has also written about women goat-herders and subsistence agriculturalists. Works such as Tamizhselvi’s are rich sources of information on labour histories of the region. The well-known dalit writer, Bama, has written about Dalit women’s lives, which, invariably are laboring lives. Her work has been translated into English. In addition, there have also been many male writers who have written about working women’s lives.

TK: What about Dalit writing?

G: Dalit writing has invariably been working class writing. Dalit writing before the emergence of dalit literature as a selfconsciously affirmed genre in the 1990s has emerged from within the communist movement. Such writers may not call themselves ‘Dalit writers’, as I have remarked above though after the 90’s many have said they are ALSO Dalit writers. Since the 90’s, there have also been Dalit writers that have emerged from the Ambedkarite movement – or influenced by the powerful and resonant politics of the dalit movements of the time, which have since been active across the country. Some of the feature strong female characters, and capture the drama of caste and class with much energy – as the writer, Imayam does, for instance; and in a different and more muted sense, Azhagiya Periyavan.

TK: What has been the relationship between the Dalit movement and the working class movement?

G: Dalit movements has been engaged with a series of issues to do with discrimination, oppression, humiliation, and their constituency is the working poor – their concerns have only to do with class, poverty and resource-lessness, but also about constant downgrading of lives that labour hard, but seldom are rewarded for their productive worth. However, traditional left parties have been neither imaginative nor politically astute when it comes to engaging with them. On the other hand, dalit movements do gesture towards socialism, distributive justice, but they are equally engaged with social democracy, which left movements are yet to take on board as a serious political theme or subject.

Left movements have been most successful when they have taken up both caste and class in tandem. This happened in the organizing of agricultural labourers in east Thanjavur. This is also evident in the successful organizing of leather workers, and plantation workers, where the working class is more or less dalit and oppression is both political, social and economic. However the practice of politics is different from how such politics is expressed in communist literature or consciousness – and here lived experience is likely to get overwritten by the standard rhetoric of left triumphalism.

One needs to keep in mind that what is not spoken of in much communist writing is not merely caste-based oppression, but also that caste, as Dr Ambedkar pointed out, is not merely a division of labour, but of labourers. In this sense, one needs to examine the relationship between labour and caste, on the one hand, and the claims of caste, as it seeks to trump labour solidarity on the other. In effect one needs to look at the historical situation and everyday life of working class OBCs and BCs. For, this is a matter that is not always addressed in left political expression, though it is of existential import for left organizing.

TK: Can you talk about some of the BC, OBC communities, and their literature?

G: There are various regional configurations of these castes. Western Tamil Nadu, for example, is dominated by Gounders who are BCs. Traditionally they are peasant communities. Some amongst them have used peasant capital – and kinship-based resource accumulation – to transition from peasant life to industry.  Not all of them have left behind peasant life though, a section of them remains in the diminishing peasant economy. There is a further division here amongst peasants, into wetland and dryland farmers. Dryland farmers work on small pieces of land with not much social or economic prospect – Perumal Murugan’s writing deals with that world. It’s a very harsh world, and the work is hard. Before Perumal Murugan, in the 1950’s, Shanmugasundaram wrote on life in that part of the world.  Perumal Murugan’s PhD thesis was on his writing. There have been other writers as well from the region…

There’s an interesting novel on Thiruppur city: Manalgadikai (‘Hourglass’).  The novel uses the trope of five friends’ paths diverging, who then come back together to discuss where life has taken them.  How did they all converge on Thiruppur city and why?  The friends are from different communities and different classes. Worker issues, industrial issues and gender issues — all come up in the novel. Thiruppur is a huge catchment area of female labour. The author is M. Gopalakrishnan, who is probably from a weaving community himself.

In the deep south, Thevars and Nadars are the two major communities. The Nadars also have a rich literary movement. There was a remarkable woman novelist, Hephzibah Jesudas, who wrote quite a bit about women’s lives. Another writer, Ponneelan (associated with CPI), wrote mammoth novels. One of his works was an attempt to understand the Mandaikkadu riots between Hindutva forces and Catholics fishers in the region. His story weaves in Hindutva forces addressing Nadars, and bringing them into the Hindutva fold.  Interestingly, Nadars were deemed near-untouchable in 19th century; who ‘upgraded’ themselves in the wake of changes in the trade economy of the region in colonial times and also through hard work, labour and conversion to Christianity. They are the only community in India who have managed to transcend their stigmatized status to emerge as a powerful mercantile community. They very easily practise inter-religious marriage — the same family could have Hindus and Christians, but they had to be Nadar. Marriage in a mercantile and industrial context is very tied to retaining control over resources.  So for instance, there are Nadars who control the fireworks industry, match industry. And then there is this backward integration, they own estates growing trees for splints, and chemical factories to make phosphorous… and all these families are tied to each other through kinship and marriage ties. Today Nadar control extends to the hospitality industry and education (like Shiv Nadar University), technology – HCL… There is a lot of writing about them, not all of it is about labour though…but then where does caste end, and where does labour start? That has to be answered case by case.

The Thevars also have a complicated history. They are the most reviled OBC due to their sustained anti-Dalit politics since 1950’s.  Their power does not come from land, it does not come from industry…so where does it come from? Gounders’ power comes from trade and industry, Nadars through their own upward mobility and presence in public life
and through a huge trade network. Where does the power of Thevars come from?  The Thevars are a consolidation of castes that came together in 1940’s. One section of the caste was deemed a ‘criminal’ tribe – now a denotified tribe – by colonial administrative fiat. The Thevars drove on political capital – that was assiduously built during the 1980s, under the Chief Ministership of the late M G Ramachandran of the AIADMK. Thevars are also largely present in the film industry.  Historically they were not fully integrated into the caste order, nor had they resources to underwrite caste-based exploitation and oppression but things changed from the late colonial period onwards – and as I have noted above, since the 1970’s and 80’s, sections of them have been powerfully present in public life, because they were the community nurtured by the AIADMK. And so you find them occupying the local rungs of the police force, local administration, particularly in the southern districts. More recently they have benefitted from the social power and authority that comes with usury, and also the coercive violence that has been identified with their attempts to uphold caste pride.

Thevars are featured in literature in any number of ways — they are communist organisers in left writing, and so their caste is not central to what they are; but in Dalit fiction, they are marked as oppressors. They also feature as small peasants, rough and hardy hit-men, and in more recent writing as a historically wronged community (in Su. Venkatesan’s Kaaval Kottam, for example).

Vanniyars are another major community. Kanmani Gunasekaran is an outstanding writer from the Vanniyar community. He is a worker in a mechanic shed in State Transport Corporation in Neyveli, and is known in CPI circles. One of his latest novels deals with the transformation of life, economy and culture with the coming of Neyveli Lignite Corporation.

Joe D’Cruz is a major writer from the fishing community. His first novel spans a huge timeframe, from the 1920s to the 1980s and is about the life and sorrows of subsistence fishers off the coast of Tuticorin, more particularly the sea-side town of Uvari. His second novel takes in developments from the Swadeshi movement – 1905 and after – to the 2000’s and is actually the story of the city of Tuticorin. The novel shows us a variegated community of fishers, who are class differentiated–subsistence fishers, freight ship workers, those controlling trade and ships themselves- and it also demonstrates -how their fortunes change in the 20th century, in a competitive caste-class world, where traders, such as from the Nadar community, and government employees come to dominate the social and political worlds that fishers have to negotiate.

However we need to do more work in working through a political, social and economic profile of the BCs and OBCs. These are fairly cursory remarks and to understand the relationship between property, resources, labour and caste, as these obtain amongst BCs and OBCs, we need to pose – and attempt to answer – several questions: What is a particular BC or OBC caste’s source of surplus, if any, what is their mode of appropriation, what is the relationship between political, social and economic capital? What about class differentiation and does it undercut caste authority and pride? How does one account for the persistence of caste pride and anti-dalit violence, which is always in excess of what is required to regulate and control dalit labour? These concerns ought to be addressed keeping in mind the geographical and historical features of particular regions in the Tamil landscape. Importantly, we need to both politically and conceptually pose the following question: why does caste authority and violence sustain itself over and beyond what is required to regulate labour and caste relationships? What accounts for caste hatred and the terrible violence such hatred exacts?

TK: These literary works seem to tell us a lot about the histories of the various regions.

G: These pieces work best as literature, not as ideology, not as political statement, but they are not imaginable outside the political and social contexts that structure them, and which are addressed by the writer. For example, what works best in the Gunasekaran novel is the understanding of peasant life and attachment to land, and the question of who facilitates transformation of agrarian regions into industrial zones.  It is told in a story that involves kinship, class differentiation within a caste, and many other details.  These novels cannot be read just as political statements or just as literature. In reality, they do the work that social scientists ought to be doing in Tamil Nadu, but that unfortunately they don’t do.

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