In Need of Translation: An Analysis of
Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit Literature
K. A. Geetha
e caste or varna system in India has segregated thousands of Dalits
from mainstream culture and condemned them to a subhuman and
debased existence. After centuries of suppression, Dalits are struggling
for emancipation by joining the liberation movement originally spear-
headed by Dadasaheb B. R. Ambedkar. Dr. Ambedkar shaped the tradi-
tion of revolutionary thinking for almost an entire generation of Dalits,
and the literary manifestation of this social awareness is Dalit literature.
Dalit literature not only reveals the angst of being Dalit in a caste-driven
society but also simultaneously records a revolutionary discourse which
challenges the hegemonic caste. e bourgeoning of Dalit literature
began in Maharashtra during the 1960s. e literary movement spread
to other languages like Gujarati, Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil.
However, the appearance of Dalit literature in Tamil is a very recent
phenomenon. Originating in Maharashtra, Dalit literature took nearly
three decades to make a mark on the literary map of Tamil Nadu province
in India. Nevertheless, the sudden growth of Tamil Dalit literature in the
1990s has led to a corpus of novels, short stories, poems, and autobiogra-
phies. e general impetus of these writings is to expose the agonized and
marginalized existence of Dalits. However, Dalit literature is not merely
a literature of protest, lamentation, and frustration, since the various
contexts and heterogeneous experiences of the Dalit communities it de-
scribes makes it a rich source of Dalit culture, tradition, and language. As
a counter movement against dominant discourses, Tamil Dalit literature
provides a space for the assertion of Dalit identity and selfhood.
While Tamil Dalits are discriminated against by the dominant castes,
it is growing increasingly important not to make generalizations about
ariel: a review of international english literature
ISSN 0004-1327 Vol. 41 No. 3-4 Pages 33–44 Copyright © 2011
K. A. Geetha
the problems they face. e Tamil Dalit community is not monolithic by
any means, and there are castes within it that are stratied hierarchically.
Among Tamil Dalit communities, the problems faced by Sri Lankan
Tamil Dalit communities are markedly dierent from other Tamil Dalit
communities because of the group’s geopolitical context. While the Sri
Lankan political scene is dominated by the Tamil–Sinhalese conict, the
hierarchy and discrimination that is prevalent within Tamil communities
between castes is almost subjugated and gets very little attention. is
article discusses the problems faced by Sri Lankan Tamil Dalits through
an analysis of some Tamil Dalit literary works by Sri Lankan writers.
II. Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit literature
In Tamil Nadu, Dalit politics and literature became popular in the 1990s
after the Ambedkar centenary celebrations. However, in Sri Lanka, Dalit
politics became a distinct presence from the 1950s onward. Sri Lankan
Tamil society is caste-structured, and the dominant castes are the Tamil
Saiva Vellalars, who enjoy a superior status akin to the Brahmins in Tamil
Nadu. e Nalavars, Pallars, Parayars, Vannan, and Ambattan, grouped
together under the term Panchamar1 are the “untouchable” communi-
ties that work for the Saiva Vellalars (upper-caste Hindus). Starting in
the 1950s, certain groups began to put up major opposition against
the discriminatory practices of the Tamil Saiva Vellalars, and literature
played a very important role in raising awareness about the plight of
Dalits among Sri Lankan Tamils. e experiences of untouchables as
documented in Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit literature are similar to Dalit
experiences in Tamil Nadu.
ough Dalit politics and literature became prominent in Sri Lanka
in the 1950s, Tamil literary works focusing on the problems of un-
touchables were written as early as the 1920s. Neelakandan Allathu
Oru Sathi Vellalan was written by Jdaikaadar in 1925 and is regarded
as the rst novel that discusses caste discrimination in Sri Lanka. A
similar trend was followed in novels written by Tamil writers like
Muthuthambipillai, Nallaya, Muthathambi Sellaya, and Selvanayagam.
In almost all of these novels, Gandhian principles and notions of
caste are very inuential (Velsamy vii–viii). In the 1950s Dalit politics
In Need of Translation
became a force to be reckoned with in Sri Lanka, and the works of
writers like K. Daniel, Dominic Jeeva, and enniyan exposed the evils
of casteism that prevailed in Sri Lankan Tamil society.
III. e Works of K. Daniel: Precursor to Tamil Dalit Literature
Considered as the forerunner of contemporary Tamil Dalit literature, K.
Daniel was a Panchamar (Dalit) who adhered to a Marxist ideology. Like
Gail Omvedt, he strongly believed that caste and class were inseparable
in Hindu society. A political activist and writer, Daniel participated and
organized numerous protests in Sri Lanka against casteism throughout
the 1950s. He believed that the social reform movements organized by
Gandhi and Dravidar Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu did not bring about
substantial and meaningful changes in the lives of Dalits, and he em-
phasized that a distinct Dalit political movement was essential to protest
against casteism. For many movements politics and literature are insepa-
rable, and literature was the platform from which writers could launch
their struggles against caste structures. Daniel considered literature not
a source of aesthetic pleasure, but a tool to bring about radical changes
in society. He writes,
From the beginning of mankind up until today, human exis-
tence has been an endless struggle. A literature which is indier-
ent to this struggle is not real literature. ese human struggles
are taken up in my novels. e struggle will continue until the
working class overthrows the dominant forces in society. Until
then, writers like me will continue to wage this war through our
literature. (Munnuraigal 1095; author’s translation)
Daniel’s novels Panchamar, Govindan, Adimaigal, Kanal, Panchako-
nangal, and aneer are called the Panchamar novels, since they are
based on the struggles of the Panchamar communities in Sri Lanka. In
his foreword to K. Daniel Padaippugal–oguthi Onru, Po. Velsamy ob-
serves that most Tamil Dalit works are autobiographical and written as
rst person narratives. However, in Daniel’s novels the experiences of
Dalits unfold through plot and characterization (Velsamy viii). Daniel
has written that he does not believe in writing a “story with a hero and
K. A. Geetha
heroine, a linear plot and a perfect ending” (Munnuraigal 1087). He
states that the characters in his novels are representatives of a particular
community, and adds,
I belong to the Panchamar community. From my childhood, I
have experienced the problems of growing up as a Panchamar.
I have cried when my people suered, and was happy when
they experienced trivial success. My novels are based on these
experiences. I believe in giving back what I have taken from my
people. (Munnuraigal 1082; author’s translation)
IV. Panchakonangal—Seeds of Revolt
Daniel’s book Panchakonangal, meaning “Five Perspectives,” highlights
the conict between the Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. e Tamil
liberation movement began in Sri Lanka in the late 1970s to ght
Sinhalese domination. Daniel writes,
People voiced their protest, saying that “lands are seized, higher
education is denied, Tamils are denied higher posts in the gov-
ernment, Tamils are treated as untouchables.” ey demanded
a separate land of their own, pointing out the discrimination
practised by the government…. the Panchamars in this land are
denied all these things by the upper-caste Tamils. (Munnuraigal
1107; author’s translation)
Daniel observes that in response to this paradoxical situation, there
emerged ve kinds of perspectives among Sri Lankan Tamils. ere were
Tamils who preferred to continue to suppress the Panchamars and were
not willing to give up the status of superiority that they enjoyed as upper
castes. ere was a second group of Tamils who pretended to believe in
the Tamil liberation movement, but who joined it for their own selsh
ends. is group hoped that if the Tamils captured political power there
would be security for them and their property. A third group of Tamils
was reluctant to oppose the Sinhalese government directly, and relied
on the youth liberation movement to establish a Tamil nation. Another
group of Tamils, namely the Panchamar community, longed to be freed
from slavery through the Tamil liberation movement. ere was also a
In Need of Translation
group that believed they could bring together all Tamils, irrespective
of caste and class, and form a separate Tamil Ealam. While observing
the dierent perspectives of the Tamil uprising in Sri Lanka, Daniel
also questions the status of Panchamars in the movement. It is obvious
that the movement is led by the upper-caste youth with the Panchamars
having very few roles to play.
e novel exposes the revolutionary ideas that were gaining ground
in the Panchamar communities. For instance, the Panchamars working
on wealthy Illaya ambi’s lands decide not to work if they are not paid
higher wages. ey work in unison to thwart the eorts of Illaya ambi
to bring people from other villages to work in the elds. Although the
novel exposes the determination and courage of Panchamars protesting
against their Saiva Vellala landlords, it also underlines the double op-
pression that Panchamars suer as both Tamils and untouchables.
Panchakonangal also brings to light the dichotomy that exists in the
Tamil–Sinhalese conict. Two characters, Kitinan and Subbar, are moder-
ates who long for social change and struggle to eradicate caste discrimina-
tion in the village. ey strongly believe that casteism is a major obstacle
to uniting the Tamils of Sri Lanka, and that any revolution against the
Sinhalese is possible only if caste dierences are removed. Conversely,
youngsters like Subbar’s nephew Chandran and his friend Markandan
are inuenced by the Tamil liberation movement and try to bring all the
Tamils together to ght in the hope of forming a Tamil nation. ey be-
lieve that only armed attacks will overthrow the Sinhalese government.
Daniel’s Panchakonangal interrogates how genuine the Tamil libera-
tion movement in Sri Lanka is. While ghting for Tamils to have equal
status with the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, the movement’s leadership re-
mains silent about the caste discrimination that is still prevalent in Sri
Lankan Tamil society. In Panchakonangal, Daniel points out that unless
casteism is removed, the liberation of Tamils in Sri Lanka would not
only be meaningless but also remain a distant dream.
V. aneer—e Struggle For Water
e settings for most of Daniel’s works is agrarian society, where the
Panchamar communites made up of the Nalavan, Pallan, and Parayars
K. A. Geetha
work on the lands of the Saiva Vellalars. e untouchable communities
are dependent on their landlords not only for their livelihood but also
for their basic survival needs, like water. e Panchamar communities
in Yazhpanam are forbidden from taking water from the public wells.
Members of the community have to walk for more than six kilometres
every day and wait for the people from dominant castes to give them
two or three pots of water. Daniel’s aneer [“water”] reveals the plight
of the Panchamar communities that are forced to be dependent on their
Vellala landlords for water. e novel poignantly portrays the suering
the Panchamars endure while trying to meet their daily requirements for
water. e Vellalars ruthlessly exploit this situation and exercise com-
plete control over the lives of the Panchamars as a result.
e Panchamar communities in the novel are permitted to draw water
from the well of the local landlord, Siannappa Nayinar. is well is situ-
ated in the Nayinar’s garden, which is more than two kilometres from
the Panchamar quarter. e women must walk through the elds to
reach the well and wait for the Nayinar’s wife, the Nayinathi, to distrib-
ute the water. She is accompanied by her servant, who draws the water
and gives two pots of it to each family. Any act of deance immediately
results in the denial of water supply.
aneer exposes the hierarchy that is prevalent within the Panchamar
castes. While all the Panchamar communities are regarded as untouch-
able by the Vellalars, they are not all considered equal to each other,
with each group belonging to a specic level in the caste hierarchy. e
Velallars are keen to maintain this divisive hierarchy which fosters dis-
crimination within the Panchamar communities because it dissuades
the untouchable castes from uniting and demanding better treatment.
In aneer, Daniel illustrates these divisions with the experiences of
Sinann. e Nalavars are considered superior to the Parayars and are
not permitted to enter the households of the lower caste. Sinann belongs
to the Nalavar community, but Mathan from the Parayar community
helps him to get a job as a cleaner in a hospital. He invites Sinann to
his home and the young man stays there for four days. In the hospital,
Subbar, who belongs to the Odavi community (which is superior to the
Panchamar but inferior to the Vellalars), warns Sinann that associating
with Mathan might lead to caste violations, so Sinann stops going to
In Need of Translation
Mathan’s house. But, the issue does not end there; it takes a serious turn
when Sinann’s ancée Selli goes to get water from the Nayinar’s well.
e Nayinathi not only denies water to Selli but also insults her mother
by accusing her of being a woman of loose morals. Selli is furious and
dares to voice her protest without thinking about the consequences.
e Nayinathi immediately grabs her long hair and orders her servant
Sellappan to cut it o. All the women are denied their quota of water
for the day. As the narrator comments, “ere was no water for all the
families in the cheri that day. No water to cook. ey tried to use the
water that was left in the vessels” (aneer 1005; author’s translation).
ey secretly try to draw water from the Nayinar’s well in the night.
When the Nayinar becomes aware of this, he sets re to their huts, and
the Panchamars lose their homes.
Lack of access to drinking water becomes a major problem for the
whole community. ere are people from other castes willing to give
them water, but when they try to do so, the Vellalars in the village throw
dead cattle and human excrement into their wells. e Panchamars come
together to construct a well of their own. Acquiring land to construct the
well on is dicult. Almost all the property in the village belongs to the
Vellalars. However, Pambidi Singi, a woman who belongs to the Odavi
community, donates her land to the Panchamars. Her generous act is
considered a threat to the power of the upper castes, so she is murdered
by them, and her body is found the next day. But before her death (and
likely because she was aware that she could be murdered), Pambidi Singi
wrote a will stating clearly that the land belongs to the Panchamars and
should be used for constructing the well. is enables the Panchamars to
thwart the upper castes’ intention of taking legal action against the well’s
construction. Digging the well is dicult but all the Panchamar castes
join in the eort, forgetting their dierences to work toward a common
goal. Mathan is very hopeful that the well would be functioning by
the anniversary of Pambidi Singi’s death. His wish comes true, and all
of them wait for that day to taste the water, after it is oered to gods.
However, on the day of worship, Mathan is found dead near the well.
ey nd the words “Poison” written on the well in blood. e Vellalars
had poisoned the well, rendering the Panchamar’s eorts to nd water
futile. In the author’s words, aneer reveals “the suering, misery, fury
K. A. Geetha
and eorts that Panchamars have faced for over one hundred years to get
water in Yazhpanam” (aneer 1116; author’s translation).
VI. Adimagal—Perpetual Subjugation
Daniel’s Adimaigal exposes the exemplary dedication and sincerity of
the Panchamars toward their upper caste masters. is novel takes us
through the life of Kanthan, who has been serving Velupillai Kamakar
(a Vellalar) for more than three decades. Velupillai’s son-in-law Suriyar
leads a very extravagant life and exhausts all his family’s wealth. He
suddenly absconds and leaves his relatives behind in a state of penury.
When they are forced to sell their house to pay o his debts, Kanthan
intervenes and buys the house with money that he had long and care-
fully saved and gives it to Kannama, Velupillai’s granddaughter. His
dedication to his master’s family reaches a zenith with this act, while he
continues to live in the hut in the backyard of the house.
Kanthan continued to be the same old Kanthan. He did not
change in the course of time. He continued to work for the
masters, bathe in the Paravar Pond, eat food from Velupillai’s
house in the same old palm leaf, drink water in coconut shells,
and live in the hut left by Ithini. e same dust-laden life….
It was from this dust-lled life that Kanthan had saved enough
money to buy the house in the auction sale. (Adimaigal 542;
Velupillai’s granddaughter Kannama is very grateful to Kanthan and
starts calling him Kanthan mama (or “uncle”).To show her respect, she
serves him food on a plate and coee in a cup. Nevertheless, Kanthan’s
devotion and respect toward his master’s family remains unaected, and
his manner of living remains the same. Meanwhile, Kannama falls in
love with Karunai, son of Chandran, a landlord in the village. Kannama
insists that Karunai’s family asks Kanthan’s consent for the marriage.
Chandran’s family considers her requirement an insult to their honour
and dignity, but they are forced to give in to the wishes of their son.
Chandran invites Kanthan to discuss the marriage. Kanthan suspects
that Karunai is the son of Suriyar (Vellupillai’s proigate and absent son-
In Need of Translation
in-law) and Chandran’s wife, and says that he will not give his consent to
the marriage. e next day he is murdered because he knows the truth
of Karunai’s parentage.
Adimaigal also gives us a clear picture of the vulnerability and exploi-
tation of Panchamar women. It exposes the predicament of Panchamar
women who suer double oppression as both Panchamars and women.
Kanthan’s mother Selvi was asked to breastfeed the Nayinar’s child, since
the Nayinathi was sick. She is required to wash her breasts with hot
water before feeding the baby.
In the morning when Selvi came, Ithini would be ready with
hot water. Selvi goes to the verandah at the back of the house
and removes her blouse. Ithini would slowly pour water and
Selvi would wash her breasts gently and neatly. With that,
her son’s spittle was washed away, and she could now feed the
Nayinar’s son. She feeds the baby without any spite, without
any intention of retaining milk for her own baby. When she
returns home, she does not clean her breasts. Her son can suck
on her breasts with the baby Nayinar’s spittle on them. (448;
e country doctor who attends the Nayinathi warns that the person
feeding the child should avoid sexual relations. Selvi is forced to prom-
ise her master that she will avoid sexual relations with her husband.
She is asked to keep this promise a secret from everyone, including her
husband. is leads to a lot of misunderstandings between her and her
husband, and as a result, her husband suspects that she is having an il-
licit relationship with her landlady’s brother. Even so, Selvi is unable to
reveal the promise she made to her master’s family. Believing the worst,
her husband gets drunk and commits suicide. Grieving and full of guilt,
Selvi jumps into the well and ends her own life soon after.
e novel does not end with Kanthan’s murder. After Kanthan’s fu-
neral, the Panchamars throw stones at Chandran’s house in retaliation
for their acts. e novel ends on a positive note with the uprising of
the Panchamars, who emerge stronger over the years and overthrow the
dominant castes in the future.
K. A. Geetha
VII. Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit Short Stories
enniyan and Devadasan’s short stories “Veliyil Ellam Pesalam “ and
“Asal” lay bare the fact that the customs and conventions of caste so-
ciety continue to prevail, in spite of the general notion that Tamil na-
tionalism movements have reduced or destroyed casteism in Sri Lanka.
enniyan’s “Veliyil Ellam Pesalam” (“Everything Can Be Spoken
Outside”) is the story of two Panchamar brothers who want to buy a
house for their widowed sister. e elder brother had travelled abroad
and returned to his hometown with considerable wealth. To discuss the
price of the house that they plan to buy, the brothers visit the owner, a
Vellalar. At rst the Vellalar treats them respectfully, believing them to
be upper caste. But when he learns that they belong to the Panchamar
caste, his behaviour and tone changes considerably. As they are leaving,
he tells them to stand outside the house if they plan to visit him again.
He insists that any negotiations regarding the price of the house must
take place outside his own home.
In Devadasan’s short story “Asal,” (“e Real”), Sivarasan loses his job
when his employer nds out that he belongs to the Panchamar caste.
Sivarasan works in France and has a reputation as a very intelligent and
dedicated manager. But his life takes a turn for the worse when his friend
Gunam, a Sri Lankan Tamil, nds out that he is from the Panchamar caste.
He loses not only his friendship but also his job. “Asal” reveals the caste
bias that is ingrained and still prevalent even among the Tamil diaspora.
VIII. e Need for English Translations
In the present context of Sri Lanka, where the focus is on the Sinhalese–
Tamil conict, these works reveal the hierarchy prevalent within Sri
Lankan Tamil communities. Most importantly, some of the literary
works highlight the intra-Tamil strife that remains almost subdued
in present-day Sri Lanka because of the conict with the Sinhalese.
Reading Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit literature thus oers signicant insights
on the inner workings of Sri Lankan Tamil society. However, it should
be pointed out that this important literature is rarely read by anyone
outside the Tamil audience.
Although there is a corpus of Sri Lankan Tamil Dalit literature, most
of these works are in Tamil and have yet to be translated into English.
In Need of Translation
e number of Tamil Dalit writers and their literary output has in-
creased in recent years. However, with the exception of literary works
of writers like Bama, Imayam, and Sivakami, English translations of the
works of other Tamil Dalit writers are very rarely available.
In this context, it is relevant to discuss the impact globalization has
on the production and publication of literature from marginalized
communities like Dalits. Aijaz Ahmed observes that the impact of glo-
balization on cultural production has resulted in the commodication
of culture. Culture begins to function like capital when it is caught in
the web of market pricing and advertising. When cultural products
become a saleable commodity, there is an increasing demand for rural
and ethnic cultural experiences in the global market (Ahmed 105–06).
Consequently, when ird World authenticity is sold for First World
consumption, stereotypes are created and sustained for this global
market (Tripathi 17).
Highlighting this “culture of select tradition” Ravikumar points out
that literature about an individual’s pain and suering has gained a
global market and that publishers have shown a keen interest in translat-
ing and publishing Dalit autobiographies, which are mostly narratives
of victimization and suering. While English translations provide global
spaces for Dalit voices, the prioritization of translating and marketing
Dalit literary narratives which underline the theme of victimization has
made Dalit literature formulaic (Ravikumar 7–9).
Azhagarasan observes that in the 1990s the theme of Dalit victim-
hood was dominant in Tamil Dalit literature. However, in recent years
writers like Rajkumar, Sugirtharani, Soe Dharmam, and Gunasekarn
have produced works which have caused a remarkable shift in the canon
of Dalit literature away from stories of victimization to stories of em-
powerment (Azhagarasan xxii). It is imperative that the publishing in-
dustry focuses on translating these literary works which have moved
away from the themes of suering and victimization. e various con-
texts and heterogeneous experiences of Dalit communities make their
literary works a rich source of Dalit culture, tradition, and language.
Heterogeneous Dalit cultures have resulted in multifarious plots and
characters. To reach global audiences, literary works such as Sri Lankan
Tamil Dalit literature must be translated into English.
K. A. Geetha
1 e social structure of caste in India is rooted in the Varna system which seg-
regates the Hindu society hierarchically into four Varnas, namely, Brahmins,
Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. e Panchamars or ‘untouchables’ (present-
day Dalits) are placed below the category of Shudras and exist outside the four-
fold Varna system. e ideology of caste is based on the notions of purity and
pollution. e Panchamars were considered the lowest in the society, and apart
from serving the upper caste landlords they were assigned common duties like
removing dead cattle and cleaning drainage, and played a pivotal role in death
and funeral ceremonies. Due to the nature of their work they were considered
“untouchables” and lived in the fringes of the village. Denied access to main-
stream society, their very sight was believed to cause pollution. “Untouchables”
were expected to tie an earthen pot round their neck so that their sputum did
not fall to the ground and pollute the atmosphere.
Ahmed, Aijaz. “On Communalism and Globalization—Oensives of the Far
Right.” New Delhi: ree Essays Collective, 2004. Print.
Azhagarasan, R. “Bama in Context.” Introduction. Vanmam. By Bama. Trans.
Malini Seshadri. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Daniel, K. K. Daniel Padaippugal–oguthi Onru. Ed. K. Daniel. Vasanthan
Adaiyalam: Puthanathan, 2005. Print.
——. Adimaigal. Daniel 415–550. Print.
——. Munnuraigal. Daniel 1081–124. Print.
——. Panchakonangal. Daniel 755–944.
——. aneer. Daniel 947–1078. Print.
Devadasan. “Asal.” Sugan 118–27. Print.
Ravikumar. Touchable Tales: Publishing and Reading Dalit Literature. Ed. S. Anand.
Pondicherry: Navayana, 2003. 7–9. Print.
Sugan, ed. endathagathavan Muthalana Ezhathu Sirukathaigal. Chennai: Mallika
Books, 2007. Print.
enniyan. “Veliyil Ellam Pesalam.” Sugan 96–107. Print.
Tripathi, Jyotirmaya. “eorizing/Operationalising Globalisation.” Introduction.
After Globalisation: Essays in Religion, Culture and Identity. Ed. Jyotirmayi
Tripathi. New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 2007. 1–25. Print.
Velsamy, Po. “Daniel Enum Kalaingyan.” Daniel vii–xi. Print.