Tamil Book cover
Karukku is an unconventional autobiography by the Dalit activist and writer Bama. Written originally in Tamil and translated by Lakshmi HolmStrom, it is the first autobiography of a Dalit woman. Bold and touching, it is a glimpse into the complexities of the caste system and its strong presence in contemporary society no matter what popular middle class view is.

Having grown up for a brief period in Chennai myself, it made me go back to my experience as a child and the caste based discrimination that was the norm in school and even in the choice of friends I was ‘allowed’. As I read this book the privilege of being from a Hindu Brahmin family felt like a testimony to me being an accomplice in this discrimination.

English Book Cover

The complex inter-sectionality of being a woman, Dalit, economically disadvantaged is the theme of the book blending with it the complexities of religion. Beautifully written in simple language, Karukku narrates Bama’s life through childhood to adulthood.
The narration is interesting and unique in that it is not chronological but feels like a web of thoughts that are connected to each other by threads only the author’s inner consciousness knows and understands. Navigating through this web of thoughts, I as a reader was drawn into Bama’s life moving from her childhood to her life as an adult following her lead. Weeping with her, laughing with her, feeling her pride but also her pain, her guilt, her shame at being treated as a lesser being for no fault of her’s.
Discrimination and violence can harm a child emotionally in ways that could be difficult to overcome as an adult. Bama’s childhood is filled with such experiences, that she does not understand well as a child but growing up the injustice and cruelty of it dawns on her. This transformation in perception is beautifully portrayed in the book in her experiences and reactions.

This revelation was cathartic for me. It is very similar to my discovery of patriarchy and my disadvantaged position as a woman. It also made me extremely guilty about being/having been indirectly a perpetrator of caste based discrimination just by being part of a privileged socio-economic group. Feminism has helped me be critical of not only my second class citizen status as a woman but also to my position of privilege as an upper caste woman from a Hindu family. I was naive to this disadvantage as well as to the privilege as a child. Just knowing it and questioning it as an adult has been a revelation about the blatant injustices around me.
The understanding of how popular practice of religion in Bama’s case Christianity, sanctions patriarchy and even the caste system comes as a revelation to her as an adult much as my experience with the practice of Hinduism.

Critical in her perspective, Bama presents her life as an example of the everyday bigotry that our traditions and customs practice. Deeply moving and poignant, it is a must read and definitely amongst those books that have influenced and touched me the most.

Do read Srinidhi‘s article following an interview with the amazing Bama here. It is Thanks to her that I am the proud owner of an autographed copy of this book.

This book review is part of the South Asian Challenge 2012.