Karruku is a poignant subaltern novel that speaks of the childhood experiences of the author. The significance of the novel comes from its social message. The author’s childhood is interspersed with events that repeatedly bring to the fore the harrowing experiences of a Dalit child.
The dictionary defines the word “militant” as being “aggressively active (as in a cause)”. In “Karruku” the militant aspect is lower than the autobiographical element. The novel comes across as a sincere attempt to tell a story that is matter-of-factly indignant about ill-treatment in the name of class, caste and religion. The story is that of poverty, pain and neglect more than that of anger or aggression. It is a story that creates awareness more than anger.
Constantly reproved for being a member of a lower caste, the Dalit children go through severe abuse and torment. The novel is not just the story of the author alone. It seeks to expose the plight of thousands of Dalit children. The author also finds that several of her own people have internalized the inferiority that is imposed on them by the upper classes. She wants her novel to be a “two-edged sword”. While on the one hand it challenges the oppressors who have enslaved and disempowered the Dalits, on the other hand it reiterates the need for a new society with ideals such as justice, equality and love.
The novel is not merely a militant kickback. It seeks to establish a better society for the Dalits apart from questioning the oppressors. It does not retaliate violently to injustice. On the contrary, it seeks to emphasize on the importance of education, moral values and unity. During severe oppression, her people hardly questioned authority or fought against it. They rather sought to dodge the law temporarily and escape punishment than work towards long-term solutions.
It is important to note that the author is a peace-loving nun who is disturbed by violence. Although she does not agree with the way the convents are run, she herself is religious and service-minded. She believes that a lack of unity among the Dalits will make it easier for the upper castes to subjugate them.
“A hundred times a second there are scuffles among them. Shameless fellows. Of course the upper-caste men will laugh at them. In stead of uniting together in a village of many castes, if they keep challenging each other to fights, what will happen to all these men in the end?” (Page 41)
She repeatedly talks about the importance of education for the Dalit child. She quotes her Annan’s words,
“Because we are born into the Paraya jati, we are never given any honour or dignity or respect. We are stripped of all that. But if we study and make progress, we can throw away these indignities. (Page 15)
She also stresses on the need for the Dalits to demand better wages for heavy physical labor.
The book talks about the cultural, social and familial life of Dalits. It does not confine itself to the oppression aspects or the militant stance. It elaborately describes the daily life, language, naming conventions, religion, culture, festivals, food habits, entertainment, games and kinship in the paraya community. The cultural significance of drumming is highlighted in the way they celebrated the “Pusai”. One must remember that the “parayas” are known for their exceptional talents at drumming on the “parai”.
“During the Pusai there was only one man who sang out loudly, while quite a few others accompanied him by beating out the rhythm on all sorts of objects.” (Page 56)
In this fashion, the book talks about Bama’s Dalit experience in different areas of her life. There are places where she is proud and happy the way she is but is angered by the treatment given to her.
“Are Dalits not human beings? Do they not have common sense? Do they not have such attributes as a sense of honour and self-respect? Are they without any wisdom, beauty, dignity? What do we lack?” (Page 24)
At the end of the book is an “Afterword” written by Bama, seven years after she wrote the book. She says, “It has been a great joy to see Dalits aiming to live with self-respect, proclaiming aloud, “Dalit endru sollada; talai nimirndu nillada”. You are a Dalit; lift up your head and stand tall”. This is probably what the author aimed for when she wrote her experiences down.
Thus, Karruku is not merely a militant voice seeking to liberate the Dalits from oppression. The language used in the book is that of the Dalits. This in itself is a form of overthrowing of established conventions for writing, as dictated by the upper castes. It also does the function of memoir that has great cultural value for its contents. The book gives an identity to the Dalits by proudly recollecting the cultural significance of being a Dalit in the remnants of memories. The very fact that the author is a Dalit who seeks to decentralize the established structures is proof that half their victory is won. The book therefore becomes the harbinger of an awakening and a reiteration of the Dalit’s freedom to question, rebel and reinterpret.
As Lakshmi Holmstrom puts it, “…Bama’s work is among those that are exploring a changing Dalit identity.”
Bama is not merely trying to politically influence the power structures but wants to communicate with the readers at a deeper level. As readers we are expected to travel into her reality and empathize with the condition of the Dalits.
“Karruku” is indeed the “two-edged sword” but only mightier.