A question of identity

Catherine Thankamma, who translated Paul Chirakkarode’s novel Pulayathara, says the book has great relevance in India’s contemporary socio-cultural space

Catherine Thankamma, academic and translator of renown, has moved into English the pioneering work of Dalit identity-in-formation, Pulayathara (1962), by Paul Chirakkarode. Son of a preacher, Chirakkarode belonged to the first generation of Dalit intellectuals with several critical and political tracks to his credit, in addition to numerous works of fiction. He was the founder editor of the journal Padavugal and was active in the public sphere though recognition eluded him. However in the present century Dalits are resolutely moving centre stage, claiming their rightful space. Excerpts from an interview.

Let us begin by talking about Paul Chirakkarode who is not a familiar figure to present-day Malayalis.

Without a doubt Chirakkarode (1939- 2008) is one of the most unacknowledged writers of twentieth century Malayalam literature. Please note that I say unacknowledged, not underrated.

Obviously Chirakkarode was a pioneer in the field of Dalit writing.

Chirakkarode wrote his first novel Alinju Theerna Atmav (The Dissolved Soul, 1955), well before the dawn of Dalit literary writing in Maharashtra in the seventies. Baburao Bagul’s collection of short stories Jevha Mi Jat Chorali (When I Concealed My Caste, 1963) was published one year after Pulayathara. So one can definitely claim that Paul Chirakkarode is India’s first Dalit novelist and Pulayathara the first Dalit Christian novel.

We have Dalit characters in Malayalam novels before Chirakkarode entered the scene.

True, Thakazhi’s novel Thottiyude Makan (Scavenger’s Son) written in 1947 is the first Malayalam novel to have Dalit characters occupying centre stage. Yet there is a difference between a Mohanan on the one side and a Thevan Pulayan and Kandankoran on the other, a difference that is one of perspective. Mohanan and his forefathers emerged from the pen of an upper-caste writer whose sensitivity enabled him to create these characters. However, there is an exquisitely fine yet surprisingly sturdy line that separates characters born from empathy and those that emerged from what one has acutely felt and experienced. The throb of pain, anger and frustration, the yearning to break the shackles of caste that surface in Pulayathara is one marked by the blood and tears of experience.

Cover of Catherine Thankamma's book 'Pulayathara’

Cover of Catherine Thankamma’s book ‘Pulayathara’
| Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Could you elaborate on the significance of the title Pulayathara?

Since house is one of the several meanings of thara, pulayathara translates as Pulaya house. But what house could a Pulayan claim when the existing social order denied him that basic human right? Thevan Pulayan builds up a landmass by digging up clay from the backwaters. He pays his landlord for the bamboo and palm leaves to build the house. So there is no doubt the house belongs to him. Yet, the landlord evicts him without warning and he has no platform to protest.

The state of the Pulayas who convert to Christianity is no different. True, they are allowed to build a home on church land, but what security can they have when they are constantly warned that their ownership is conditional to their unquestioning adherence to the rules laid down by the upper caste members of the church?

Another point to be noted is that these dwellings are spatially separated by upper caste dwelling, turning the cluster of huts into a ghetto. I felt that all these highly nuanced undertones would be lost if the title was translated to an equivalent term in English. Luckily I had my editor, Mini Krishnan’s unconditional support.

Pulayathara appears to have a simple story line. Is there anything more to it?

You see, five decades have gone by since Chirakkarode’s self published 500 copies of Pulayathara. Do you know till Raven books reprinted the texts in 2014 there were only three copies of the novel available?

Pulayathara has a remarkably simple story line; it is about a Pulayan, Kandankoran, who converts to Christianity to marry the girl he loves, who happens to be the daughter of a converted Pulayan, and the repercussions that follow the conversion. Running parallel to the love story is the slow awakening of the converted Dalits to the hegemonic practices within the church and the exploitation they are subjected to, by the so called upper caste/ ‘ancient’ Christians.

Though written in 1962, Pulayathara has great relevance in India’s contemporary socio-cultural space where questions of religion, conversion and ethnicity are acquiring tremendous contentious overtones.

We can see that Chirakkarode is almost obsessed with the issue of casteism in Christianity.

I don’t agree with the word obsessed for two reasons. Obsession is when something consumes your mind to the exclusion of everything else. It is not so with Chirakkarode. I would say Chirakkarode’s protest is against all forms of discrimination based on caste and is not limited to a single religion. For instance, there is a part in the novel where old Kali Parayan expresses the pain of seeing many of his people convert to Christianity. “Where were his gods and deities? Where they not watching their people sacrificing their beliefs, changing their names, and joining another religion?’’. I prefer to say that critique of casteism within the church is not an obsession but a recurring theme in Chirakkarode’s fiction.

Paul Chirakkarode

Paul Chirakkarode
| Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Would it be correct to say that the novel is autobiographical?

As the son of a first generation convert and a preacher of the Christian Missionary Society, Chirakkarode was a witness to this exploitation. His education made him a firm believer in self-assertion as the key to Dalit autonomy. The omniscient narratorial voice is unapologetically subjective as it shifts from being critical, and dramatic, to one that acquires an almost lyrical biblical cadence when it celebrates Dalit identity. How can any reader forget the scathing critique of conversion which is evidenced in the guilt Pathros feels when he plucks a coconut from the tree he himself planted, and the relief he feels when he prays in church, a prayer that he has been made to study by rote: “We did what we should not have done. / Neither are we content. /Even then, O Christ, have mercy on wretched sinners like us!”.

As we see in Dalit narratives from the other parts of the country the novel celebrates the intimate relation between man and land.

True. To quote a passage that refers to the Dalit’s almost umbilical relationship to the soil: “The link to the soil was an ancient one. It had not begun today, yesterday, or the day before…When the Pulayan turned the soil, the scent that rose from it would mingle with the air around, reach his nostrils, and intoxicate him. He inhaled the scent of the fresh soil deeply, like a rare intoxicating perfume…An experience that knew no satiety! At that moment the Pulayan felt his body thrilling to the soil.”

It has been said that the style and techniques adopted by Chirakkarode are rather simplistic. Any comments?

Actually, Pulayathara’s uniqueness lies in the deceptive simplicity of its narrative technique. The novel has two narrative styles that come together seamlessly interspersed with instances of the slow emergence of the voice of the oppressed from, non-verbal gestures and obsequious monosyllabic sounds to crude but intensely moving attempts at articulating their determination to resist exploitation. True, when compared with the Malayalam novelists who were his contemporaries, Chirakkarode’s narrative canvas is definitely narrower; there are no literary/stylistic flourishes, or complex story lines.

Catherine Thankamma

Catherine Thankamma  
| Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Moving into English, Chirakkarode’s language of such deceptive simplicity must definitely have been a challenge to you.

Yes, it was. I prefer to make my translation as close to the original as possible; however, this was not feasible due to Chirakkarode’s passionately involved style of writing. So, for the sake of readability, for a fluid, aesthetically satisfying narrative flow, I had to make certain intrusions in the source text, which I did for the “greater good”.

The novel captures Dalit identity in making. Can we place it in the genre of protest literature?

Dalit literature is often called protest literature but many passages in the book defy that categorisation.

As observed in my introduction to the book, the description of Pulayar’s selfless labour, their inborn musical heritage as well as the indigenous culture and traditions makes the novel a celebration of Dalit identity in making rather than an example of the literature of protest.

However, I firmly believe that translation into English of marginalised writings enables the text to emerge from the shroud of invisibility and gain a pan Indian significance. In such a context translation becomes an affirmative political act.

Perhaps you can tell us something memorable in the translation of the text.

A memorable character who strangely does not appear in the text but is referred to under different names is the lean and exhausted Dalit preacher with his coal-black skin and thick black hair, clutching a leather-bound Bible edged with red.

Obviously modelled on his father, the Dalit preacher is a leitmotif that occurs in Chirakkarode’s other works as well.

Again, Thevan Pulayan who wanders along the outer fence bordering the backwaters, and sits with conch and cowry shells near the thickly growing pula palms, drawing squares in the soft sand and murmuring, is one of the most haunting images in the novel. These are the little things that turn Pulayathara into a masterpiece.

Gaining recognition

  • In spite of authoring a substantial collection, which includes novels, a collection of short stories, three biographies, and several critical studies, Chirakkarode, a first generation Dalit Christian writer, was unknown until Dalit Writing emerged from the haze of deliberate oblivion.

I hope you don’t mind telling us what bought you to Pulayathara.

Pulayathara holds a special place in my heart. I first came across Chirakkarode’s writing when I translated his short story Grihadurathvam and four chapters of Pulayathara for Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing (2012).

Sometime later, after my husband died, Mini offered me the project of translating the novel. She said it would distract me. It did and it didn’t. The story and the social setting were distracting enough, but the sense of loss made me so unsure of myself, that in the first draft I offered a dozen synonyms within a single page of translation.

Looking back I realise what pain, hurt and a sense of ‘woundedness’ can do to the human psyche. In a sense it sensitised me to the debilitating pain and sense of vulnerability that haunted the underprivileged castes, particularly those that converted to Christianity hoping for a better future.

(G S Jayasree is an academic, author and editor)

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