Idealism or Vulnerability?: Analyzing Dalit Identity in P. Sivakami’s novel The Grip of Change (2006)

Saloni Walia

M.Phil Research Scholar, Delhi University

Keywords
Idealism, Vulnerability, gender, caste, class, hierarchy, sexual exploitation, marriage, body 
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Saloni Walia
Abstract
Raj Gauthaman, the co-founder of the Tamil journal Nirapirikai expounds in many of his works how the Tamil history worked to “shatter’ the Dalit experience” (No Alphabet In Sight, 45). The royalty under various dynasties over the centuries have advocated brahmanical reign which suppressed the Dalit culture. These comprised of the fishermen, the shepherds, the hunters and the artisans. Gauthaman claims that “Dalit culture on the other hand is egalitarian” (45). This statement has been refuted by Tamil novelist P. Sivakami in 1989 through her text Pazhaiyana Kazhthalum. The English version came out in 2006 and has been translated as The Grip of Change. Her novel had already countered the assertions of literary critics like Gauthaman way back. Gauthaman’s thesis came out in 1993 and Sivakami’s original work preceded it by four years. Strong establishments can last longer only if the foundations are equally sturdy. Sivakami talks about the weaknesses of the Dalit culture and exposes all the flaws that have taken deep roots. Dalithood does not always necessarily symbolize idealism and vulnerability. This is evidenced through various characters in the narrative.
            The Parayar leader Kathamuthu has the reputation of a messiah amongst his folks. He is an aspiring politician looking out for an opportunity to make his political debut. However, the home front speaks an entirely different story. He has two bickering wives, one a widowed Brahmin and the other a Parayar woman. He is sandwiched between the two though he commands like a patriarch in the family. He is blinded by money and much contrary to an ideal Dalit leader, salutes the higher caste neighbor Udayar. He also takes monetary help as and when the need arises. He is shown as the carrier of the caste system disapproving what Gauthaman believes that “Dalit culture…has the capability of bringing together the oppressed worldwide”. People like Kathamuthu would never do anything for the upliftment of the fellow Dalits. He also condescends his poor relative presenting his class consciousness. He is no different from the aforesaid Udayar who exploits a Parayar woman Thangam and denies marriage to her. She seeks help from Kathamuthu who in the garb of helping her does the same. He incites unrest on caste lines to garner sympathy and through fraudulent practices gets her Rs 10,000 as compensation. He later demands a loan of Rs 5,000 from Thangam’s share and offers her to become his mistress. Thus, she is exploited by both the men sexually and financially. But the question arises, does she really understand what ‘exploitation’ is?
Thangam on the other hand has her back story too. She is a widowed woman who is ostracized by her husband’s family. She succumbs to Udayar’s advances and enjoys the luxuries provided by him. However, Sivakami does not let the reader view her with sympathy. She also bosses around the farmers when Udayar shoulders her with the responsibility of getting the farm work done. She enjoys the power earned in the bargain. She even becomes plump after relishing on the provided luxuries. Her body and her gender are politicized too. Here, again does she really know what exploiting others mean? It also hints towards the presence of an internal hierarchy among the Dalits where they try to dominate each other. Thus, Dalit identity is not egalitarian as Gauthaman claimed.
Nagamani, Kathamuthu’s Brahman wife also is embroiled in this power game. Not only is she involved in rivalry with the first wife but also willingly chooses his marriage proposal. Apart from the social status and stability that the marriage brought, what is noteworthy is that she weds a Parayar man without any qualms. Sivakami alludes to how Kathamuthu’s influence and social standing entice Nagamani in this alliance. Therefore, marriage is politicized too.
This text is also important as it reflects the Dalit childhood. The narrator is a grownup woman Gowri who is Kathamuthu’s daughter and is reminiscing her childhood. She is critical of her father and his past acts. This shows how even children understand everything around them. Unlike Gowri, there are many who would emulate their parents. Thus, he fails as a father as she exposes his hypocrisy and thereby the patriarchal order.
Accordingly, this text holds relevance in the larger context as Dalit politics is rebuked. Sivakami calls for self-reflexivity as the internal fissures among the Dalits are revealed. It can be considered a feminist critique of the Dalit issue. She does not idealize any woman but still asserts how important it is to have a female Dalit voice in carving the Dalit identity. The Dalit woman deserves equal space in the Dalit history and the novelist simultaneously appeals not to take Dalit literature towards a gendered narrativity.
Moreover, Sivakami also reminds us how human suffering works on the interplay of various intersectional forces like caste, gender and class. None of them can be seen in isolation. Hence, one can conclude there is nothing like a completely ideal or vulnerable Dalithood. People are full of human flaws and this idealism is difficult to achieve.
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Research Paper
                                         
The protagonist of Book I, Kathamuthu, is a charismatic Parayar leader. He intervenes on behalf of a Parayar woman, Thangam, beaten up by the relatives of her upper caste lover. Kathamuthu works the state machinery and the village caste hierarchy to achieve some sort of justice for Thangam. (Blurb, The Grip of Change)
The above lines are taken from the blurb of Tamil Dalit writer P. Sivakami’s novel The Grip of Change (2006) originally published as Pazhaiyana Kazhthalum in 1989. As an anticipating reader, twin observations are brought forth: firstly, it appears to be a saga of the heroic protagonist Kathamuthu as he is the face of Dalit leadership. And second, it is a tale about a vulnerable untouchable woman, Thangam pleading justice for the atrocities committed upon her. Is there more than meets the eye? Let’s find out.
Thangam, the widowed Parayar victim is beaten by the family of her upper caste feudal lord cum lover Paranjothi Udayar and her wounded self blurts out:
Ayyo… Ayyo…They have butchered me…Ayyo… (Sivakami, 3)

One finds how Sivakami begins by invoking a sympathetic response from her readers for Thangam’s brutal assault. But, she simultaneously plots to sow the seeds of confusion in the readers’ mind:
‘Paranjothi Udayar has had me…true’, she said, her expression a mixture of fear and shame. (Sivakami,7)
Thangam is fear stricken as this revelation means risking justice and weakening her case. Shame, because her statement is a kind of confession of her involvement with Udayar:
I didn’t want it. But Udayar took no notice of me. He raped me when I was working in his sugarcane field. I remained silent; after all, he is my paymaster. (Sivakami, 7)
Her silence puts her innocence in jeopardy. It means if it is a crime, she was an accomplice in the crime:
Thereafter, he (Udayar) made it a routine to have sex with her and slake his lust whenever possible…She no longer resisted him. There was no choice. (Sivakami, 34)
Sivakami is constantly fidgeting with Thangam’s characterization and not letting the readers form a stable opinion of her identity. Thangam’s silence is questioned as her credibility is at stake. But by adding, “There was no choice”, Sivakami alludes to her helplessness which could not be ignored. A childless (hence no legal heir) widowed (hence no social security) Parayar (hence in the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy) woman seems like a powerless entity to the society. This social position could not make her resist the sexual exploitation fiercely, so she gave in to Udayar. However, Sivakami also provides another insight into her character:
Though she had spent her three years of widowhood untouched by a man, she hated succumbing to the loathsome old man’s lust. She sobbed with anger sitting in the field. (Sivakami, 33)
This extract completely negates the reader’s earlier suspicions of her willingness in the whole affair. Thus, it makes one wonder what really vulnerability is. The Reader’s Digest Universal Dictionary (1988) defines “vulnerable” as:
a)      Someone susceptible to injury, either physical or emotional.
b)      Someone liable to succumb to persuasion or temptation.
The first definition completely befits Thangam’s situation however the second definition is partially apt for her. She surely succumbs, but not to persuasion (as Udayar forced himself upon her and not persuade her) or temptation (the extract on Pg 33 and as quoted above proves that she was not tempted). So, is that one calls vulnerability? If she succumbs to her helplessness, then it also has added dimensions. She remained silent probably because she was anticipating a marriage in lieu of her sexual abuse. So, does it mean any man can exploit a girl because she thinks he would marry her? Is this right?
Another dimension of this helplessness is the acceptance of monetary assistance offered
by Udayar:
Udayar would give her twenty-five or thirty rupees each time. Sometimes he would give her money in the presence of others and order her, ’Get five people from the Cheri tomorrow’. And she obliged. She became strict extracting work from those laborers. She always had something or the other to narrate to them about Udayar, his farm or his household matters, though at times she felt disgusted with her life. (Sivakami, 34)
Again, if she is exploited, why does she then accept money? As one interprets the above quote, this was no one way exploitation. Thangam is also using Udayar, “She became strict extracting work from laborers”. Thangam’s relationship with Udayar is letting her exercise authority over the others:
Thangam swaggered with newly acquired power. She assumed the responsibility of paying those who worked on Kathamuthu’s land; she also received people who came in search of Kathamuthu. Her once bony hips had acquired outward curves, having accumulated layers of flesh. (Sivakami, 93)
Even researcher and writer Meena Kandasamy believes:
The rare beauty and honesty of the narrative arises from its body centricity. Thangam’s body bears testimony to the difficulties faced by Dalit women. On a closer reading, it looks like a major, defining part of the novel was entirely played out on the Dalit woman Thangam’s body. Her battered body frames the opening scene; her history is constituted by her widowhood (hence she becomes a ‘surplus’ woman), the harassment by her brothers-in-law when she refuses to submit to them, the sexploitation by her caste Hindu landlord, the assault on her by caste Hindu men (owing to sexual/social ‘misdemeanor’), and so on. Even her struggle for land is linked to her body and her fertility-she does not have children, and so her brothers-in-law refuse to give her a share in the family land. When she is sheltered and fed by Kathamuthu, her vulnerability is exploited, she is forced to physically yield to his desires. The same body, through which she was oppressed and subjugated, also grants her the power to gain ascendancy in Kathamuthu’s house and gives her dominance over his wives. (‘And One Shall Live In Two’, 2)
Agreeing with Kandasamy, it is understood Thangam is vulnerable but with a ‘conditions apply”. However, her situation must be considered more deeply before announcing her fully guilty. Does she really know what exploitation is? She is an unlettered poor woman belonging to the lowest of the castes. As a woman and an educated one in comparison to Thangam, I can easily make out that she has been exploited socially, physically and economically. But for her, she easily gives in to the essentials of life- food, money, and sex. Similarly, she is lured by power. That is why she shows off to the labourers and farmers on whom she can exercise the little power bestowed upon her by Udayar. This is naivety instead of any calculation on her part. Since she is not educated, she is unaware of her rights and unable to understand who is exploiting her. Her unschooling does not let her see things from a larger perspective. Thus, she is even more vulnerable and in a state of easily being taken advantage of.
Furthermore, if a Dalit woman is vulnerable, so is the Dalit man. The author gives the instance of Kaliyan, who is a servant of Udayar’s neighbor Reddiyar. Kaliyan has a sexual liaison with Reddiyar’s wife Santha:
When Paranjothi Udayar looked over the wall, he found Kaliyan in the tight embrace of Santha. In absolute silence, Kaliyan roughly pushed her on top of the hay spread for feeding the cows. (Sivakami, 48)
Silence is an important metaphor in carving the Dalit identity. Is Sivakami trying to equate Thangam’s case with that of Kaliyan? Kaliyan’s “absolute silence” is similar to Thangam’s “I remained silent, after all” (7). If a man using a woman for sexual pleasure is referred to as sexual exploitation, then why is Kaliyan projected as vulnerable? The author describes his meek submission to Santha who abuses him after getting intimate with him:
As soon as the light flooded her backyard, Santha shoved Kaliyan aside and began yelling at him, ‘Lazy fool, you were supposed to go to the Cheri and hire labour for sowing, not snooze on the hay spread for the cattle’. Her severity towards him during the day would be in proportion to her desire for him during the early morning hours.  (Sivakami, 48)
Tamil writer C.S. Lakshmi, popularly known as Ambai in her essay ‘Once Upon A Time There Was A Novel’ (2005) expresses:
Why is it that the lower caste woman is raped by the upper caste man but the lower caste man always sexually satiates the upper caste woman? (2)
This means that the discourse of sexual exploitation is set not only in the paradigm of gender, but also in the paradigm of caste if the Indian context is taken into consideration. One can thus infer that the upper caste individual (man/woman) always has the power to sexually exploit his lower caste counterpart. Vulnerability does not solely include the Dalit woman but the Dalit man as well. Gender is thus, a more controlling force than caste in this case.
Sivakami has also talked about the powerful Dalit leader Kathamuthu which further perplexes the reader regarding the Dalit personhood. Kathamuthu’s second wife Nagamani is an upper caste woman. Kathamuthu tells Thangam:
I am living with this woman who doesn’t belong to our community. She is upper caste. She was a struggling widow, so I provided her a safe haven .…Okay, I liked her, and she was willing. And now she lives like a queen. I’m a man with some say in the community, as you know, once even elected president of the panchayat. No one can question me. (Sivakami, 10).
     The situation is mirrors the Kaliyan- Santha affair. Unlike Kaliyan, Kathamuthu is not vulnerable or rather in a powerless position. Kathamuthu gives the status of a legal wife to Nagamani. But what led Nagamani to marry a lower caste man? The fact that she was a widow does not seem to be the only reason. Kathamuthu is an influential Parayar leader whose authority is somewhat recognized even by Padayachis, Naickers and Udayars, the various upper castes in the novel. As quoted above, Kathamuthu was once an elected president of the panchayat, thus one may not be wrong to conclude that Nagamani chose him as he was powerful. Kaliyan, on the contrary, does not have any social standing and is subject to Santha’s sexual advances. On the other hand, Udayar is equally powerful as Kathamuthu, but he does not offer marriage to Thangam. Again, the reader wonders what is Sivakami trying to advocate through both these cases in this complex set up? Is the alliance between the lower caste male (powerful) and the upper caste female (powerless in the novel as Nagamani was formerly a widow and hence viewed on the periphery of the high caste Hindu society), an ideal relationship? Is this union an answer to the failed alliance between Thangam and Udayar? Is Kathamuthu in this sense an ideal Dalit leader? Or one is jumping to hasty conjectures?
            Let us analyze the character of Kathamuthu. Even though he helps his community, but one cannot ignore the treatment meted out to his distant relative Rangasamy who is a poor laborer. Kathamuthu is contemptuous towards him and addresses him as Dei which is a disrespectful form of addressing a man in Tamil. On the other hand, he never forgets to greet Vanakkam to the upper caste Naicker. Thus, despite being a Dalit leader who should bat for equality for the lower castes, Kathamuthu himself does not follow his own rules. He only preaches and not practices. He is very much a carrier of the caste system as evident through this particular episode. Also, had that relative been rich, it surely would have altered his current behavior. He judges people by their class.
Moreover, Kathamuthu behaves like a regular politician than a Dalit leader:
However, their relationship continued. Kathamuthu sometimes had to borrow money from Naicker. On his part, Naicker sometimes wanted Kathamuthu’s help in government or court related matters. In Naicker’s eyes, Kathamuthu was a necessary evil. (Sivakami, 20)
Thus, Kathamuthu does not share hostile relations with Naicker despite the caste differences as he often takes his monetary help. He shares a symbiotic relationship with Naicker.
In addition, had Kathamuthu been a genuine person wanting the upliftment of the Dalits, then he would not have felt jealous and insecure by his brother’s success in Malaysia and his nephew Chandran’s burgeoning popularity as a trade union leader.
Moreover, Kathamuthu’s relation with Thangam is highly scrutinized by Sivakami. Initially, he appears like a Messiah to the suffering Thangam and pledges to provide justice to her at any cost. He gets her rehabilitated, nurses her wounds, lodges a complaint in the police station and even petitions in the court on her behalf to demand a legal share in her husband’s property. But after she wins the case, and Udayar provides her Rs 10,000 as compensation, Kathamuthu demands Rs 5,000 from her as a loan.
He even exploits her in a drunken state. So, what is the difference between the upper caste Udayar and the lower caste Katahmuthu? Thangam is installed as the third wife in his household, so she does not complain even though it was not consensual. Fighting back would mean understanding that Kathamuthu too has wronged her. Does she realize this? Even if she does, what option does she have? There is no guidance or support to her. This chain of exploitation does not end by confronting one person when the collective mindset is polluted. She is clearly a victim of patriarchy- be it perpetrated by a high caste or a low caste man. Gender plays a strong hand in the whole scenario. Having said that any sort of compromise on her part still deserves a bit of censure. Not discerning the nitty gritty of her own situation is fine. But she is very much conscious about the fact that she is being forced to act against her will. If she could take Kathamuthu’s help against Udayar, she could very well approach somebody else too. At least she could have tried. Dalits have been denied of many things in history. Had they also remained hush about it, the Dalit movement would not have come alive. Keeping mum goes against the spirit of the entire Dalit movement.

On a conclusory note, the writer highlights that the human suffering is a product of the play of various intersectional factors. In this novel, these factors are caste, gender and class. The interaction of these three forces has made the text a complicated narrative.
            This text is also important as it reflects the Dalit childhood. A child’s innocence makes him vulnerable. As a little girl, the narrator Gowri is under the care of her father Kathamuthu. As a grownup woman, she is reminiscing her initial years. She is critical of her father and his past acts. Her mind all this while absorbed everything around her. Her memories of childhood are interspersed with these critical readings. This shows how even children understand everything around them. Unlike Gowri, there are many who would emulate their parents. He, however fails as a father as she exposes his hypocrisy and attacks the patriarchal order. He clearly is not an ideal father. Sivakami uses Gowri as a voice of dissent present within the Dalit community. Her vulnerability as a child fades away over the years. Moreover, the privilege of education gives her a mind of her own to be able to gauge her surroundings.
In addition, the novel is also a feminist critique of the Dalit issue. The writer does not idealize any woman but still asserts how important it is to have a female Dalit voice in carving the Dalit identity. The Dalit woman deserves equal space in the Dalit history and the novelist simultaneously appeals not to take Dalit literature towards a gendered narrativity.
It is important to mention Raj Gauthaman, the co-founder of the Tamil journal Nirapirikai who expounded in many of his works how the Tamil history worked to “shatter’ the Dalit experience” (No Alphabet In Sight, 45). The royalty under various dynasties over the centuries have advocated brahmanical reign which suppressed the Dalit culture. These comprised of the fishermen, the shepherds, the hunters and the artisans. Gauthaman claims that “Dalit culture on the other hand is egalitarian” (45). Gauthaman’s thesis came out in 1993 and Sivakami’s original work preceded it by four years. This novel tactfully counters Gauthaman’s claims of Dalit culture being a unified entity as various cracks are quite evident. There is hence a strong requirement to be self-critical.
Accordingly, one observes that Sivakami completely disrupts the image of a Dalit being an entirely vulnerable entity (Thangam) or an epitome of idealism (Kathamuthu). ‘Way of seeing’ at things makes all the difference. She warns her contemporary writers not to place Dalits at a high pedestal simply because they are Dalits. Hence, one can conclude there is nothing like a completely ideal or vulnerable Dalithood. People are full of human flaws and this idealism is difficult to achieve.


Bibliography

Kandasamy, Meena. ‘And One Shall Live In Two’, The Grip of Change. Orient Longman, 2006.
Lakshmi, C.S. ‘Once Upon A Time There Was A Novel’. The Grip of Change. Orient Longman, 2006.
No Alphabet In Sight: New Dalit Writing From South India. Ed. Susie Tharu & K.
            Satyanarayana. Penguin Books. 2011.  pp 45.
Reader’s Digest Universal Dictionary, n.p, 1988.
Sivakami, P. The Grip of Change, Orient Longman, 2006.

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