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Vanmam Vendetta

Vanmam Vendetta
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Item Code: IDK802
Author: Bama (Translated from Tamil by Malini Seshadri)
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 0195696336
Pages: 189 (5 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.9" X 5.8"
From the Jacket

Recent years have seen a rise in the genre of Dalit literature with Bama at the forefront. Characterized by starting language, ethnographic detail, and native idiom, Dalit writing in Tamil has gone hand in hand with political activism, and with critical and ideological debate. However a large portion of this writing has concentrated on the theme of victimhood.

Vanmam, Bama's third full-length work, is an exception focusing instead on the inter-caste rivalry within Dalit communities. It highlights the animosity between the Pallars and the Parayars, and describes how the landowners of the dominant Naicker caste stoke the fires of intra-Dalit hostilities to benefit themselves, ignoring the human costs paid for time and again in misery, loss, and death.

A comprehensive introduction skillfully sketches the history of the Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu, and an interview with the author along with visuals of her village Kandampatti provide the context for this novel and, in a broader sense, for all of Bama's writings. This book will appeal not only to those who enjoy a story grounded in contemporary issues, but also to students and scholars of Indian writing in translation, politics, and social history.

Bama, who spent some years in a convent as a nun, is the most celebrated contemporary Dalit woman writer. She has been at the forefront of Dalit literary activism, and has given Dalit aesthetics a visibility it had previously lacked in the literary campus of India. Her other works include Karukku (1992), Sangati (1994; translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom, OUP 2005), and Kisumbukkaran (1996). The first two full-length works are in successful English, Grammar, French, Telugu, and Malayalam translations.

Malini Seshadri has written more than 200 newspaper articles on gender issues and used to interview for both TV and Radio. She now reviews books, writes on social issues, and has co-authored a successful series of Peace Education textbooks (OUP India).

Author's Note

A village situated in south Tamil Nadu and the real-life events that took place in inspired me to write the novel Vanmam in 2002. It attracted a great deal of criticism. As with my earlier novels, this one too drew criticism not for form or writing style, but for the story I had dared to tell. Those who had not real the novel carefully, those who had read it but did not fully understand, and those who understood it but pretended not to – the criticisms of such persons did not concern me at all. Marginalized people, those who have been pushed to the very edges of society, have to put aside their internal enmities if they are to reclaim their self-respect and their rightful place in society – that was the message of my novel. In the intervening years since the novel was written. I have personally learnt many a lesson about vanmam (vendetta), and have come across more extreme consequences of vanmam than I have described in my novel.

Wealth, power, social standing, status bestowed by having been born into a particular caste – all these weaken human relationships. When people are denied humane treatment, when their self-respect as human beings is destroyed, they raise protesting voices. But these voices are interpreted as threatening howls by those intent on vendetta and violence, and they are mercilessly crushed. Wealth, power, upper-caste status, and the might of the government itself are used against those who possess none of these, and this violence is sought to be justified. This is the situation everywhere. Vendetta has many faces and takes many forms. It is seen in the way human relationship are broken and cast aside; the indifference and lack of concern; killing people with words or with silence; mocking those from weaker sections of society; denying basic humanity to those caught in the trap of poverty.

My mothers used to tell me very often, 'Unrelenting anger will lead to war.' I did not understand the full significance of this then. I understand it now. Starting from one person's mind, through family, clans, groups, castes, language, religions… from village to city to nation to continent to world, the bubble of anger swells and explodes into full-scale war. Even if the wounds caused by war are ultimately soothed by that great healer, Time, men will continue to live in fear of their fellowmen. The deep grief inflicted by history is not easy to erase from the mind.

I remember a story I heard somewhere.

It was about a small village at the foot of a hill. At a little distance to the west, a large lake. Further to the west, ranges of hills. On the shores of the lake, various kinds of trees. On one of the branches of one of those trees, a small sparrow sat and sang with abandon. A heard of elephants came to the lake, drank water, and left. The bird kept singing. Lions came and went. Tigers, deer, bears, wild buffaloes, leopards, and many other wild beasts came to drink water at the lake. The bird continued to sing fearlessly. Them came a man. That was it! The sparrow's song died in its throat. In fright it flew away.

In the village of Kandampatti, where this novel is set, the people have been living for years with the burden of fear of their fellowmen, and of what the future may bring. Many of those who fled the village to save their lives after the violence flared up have not yet returned. How can one live in peace knowing that violence may erupt any time? After losing everything, they have somehow kept going, starting again from scratch. I am astonished at their resilience. Their zest for life, their steadfastness, and their courage are important lessons for me. 'Every human being should be seen as a human being .' That is their goal… a society in which every person is equal. Will it ever become a reality?

For having arranged for my novel to be translated into English, and for having worked so tirelessly with total commitment to bring it to publication, my affection and appreciation to Mini Krishnan. For her excellent translation, carried our with care and much enthusiasm, I thank Malini Seshadri. And for his detailed introduction to this book and wide-ranging interview with me, I am grateful to Thiru Azhagarasan.

Translator's Note

It was with much trepidation that I first stepped into the village of Kandampatti. This setting was, after all, the brainchild of Bama, who has given Dalit writing a special place in contemporary literature. It is peopled by characters of her imagination, which are so true to life that fiction melds seamlessly into breathe, they love and hate and kill. I have been with them. I have spent many months in that village.

A piece of writing that springs directly from the grassroots stays close to Mother Earth. It has the flavour of its native soil, the cadences of the local argot. To transplant it to a different milieu, to transfer those same flavours intact onto an alien tongue, is a daunting… and yes, occasionally a frustrating task. Along with this genre of 'translation', often jostling and clamouring in an unseemly manner for attention. I admit that I often succumbed to the blandishments of the first (hence the glossary), though I would like to think I was largely successful in avoiding the second. Interpretation is, or at least should be, the prerogative of the reader alone.

And what can one say about the idioms that dance across the pages of this Tamil novel? How doses one begin to describe the variously pejorative, sarcastic, abusive, and teasing tones in which the protagonists speak? Not lightly is it said that the translator's job is like steering a ship between the a treacherous rocks… Scylla and Charybdis. Too much to port, and one is shipwrecked by the jarring absurdity of too literal a rendering; too much to starboard and the hull is ripped our, leaving empty, soulless works. It is as though all the characters on the stage had suddenly disappeared, leaving only ghostly holographic images moving pallidly across the backdrop.

Reading a translated work calls for a willing suspension of disbelief. These were not the words that the villagers of Kandampatti spoke, true. But were aspect that I tried to concentrate on. I read aloud the spoken words of the original and the rhythms of the Tamil original? I let that be the touchstone. After all, if Bollywood could 'borrow' music wholesale from the Western pop genre and insert home-grow lyrics to somehow render it indigenous, surely it should be possible to let the people of Kandampatti speak in a strange tongue without losing the familiarity of their roots!

The original Vanmam is not a 'worked on' piece of writing. It has not been edited, re-edited, rewritten, and polished. It has none of the complex warps and wefts that are often considered de rigueur to make a novel 'readable'. There are no sub-plots. Indeed, there is not even a 'plot'. It is just a narrative of events involving two Dalit castes in one small village in one state in India. Yet it is a microcosm of a bigger world, a sort of inset to the big picture. Intra-Dalit rivalry leading to animosity, the deft manipulation of emotions and prejudices by upper-caste landlords… this is a cautionary tale. As for the characters, they are so true to life that one can recognize many of them in people we know in our own lives.

For me, what stands out in this novel is the honesty, the lack of artifice, the tell-in-like-it-is gustiness that speaks to the heart without resorting to mechanisms of wordplay. Even in the most brutal of slayings, blood is not splashed across the pages. The horror, the revulsion to violence that is induced in the reader arises more from the situation than from the words themselves. While translating, I have attempted to retain this element of understatement and let the story speak for itself.

Translating Vanmam has been a journey of discovery for me, and a valuable learning experience. I had been writing on gender issues for years, with other social issues seen only dimly in peripheral vision. Then, almost serendipitously, from a casual telephone call to Mini Krishnan of Oxford University Press, came the opportunity to be part of a team of authors writing a textbook series on value education. I found myself on 'roads less traveled by' leading to explorations of my inner self. This translation too would not have come about without the initiative of Mini Krishnan who took a chance with a first-time translator. She had to cast many votes of confidence during my bouts of self-doubt. She selected a reading list for me, to introduce me to the genre of Dalit literature, and to sensitize me to the well-springs of the Dalit consciousness. Her editorial blue pencil off the excess verbiage from early drafts of my translation, restoring the spareness of style that is so much the hallmark of Bama's work. I also benefits from the advice and suggestions of reviewers with a more sensitive 'ear' for the earthy language of Kandampatti. I acknowledge with gratitude the encouragement and advice from Thiru Azhagarasan, who has written the Introduction to this translation and conducted an insightful interview with interacted with Bama, on whom her many laurels sit lightly.

Vanmam spoke eloquently to me and continues to echo in my consciousness. My hope is that translation will strike a similar chord in its readers.


Vanmam (2002) is the third novel written by the Dalit woman writer, Bama. Her previous works include an autobiographical novel, Karukku (1992) and in episodic novel, Sangati (1994). In the two decades of Dalit literature in Tamil, Vanmam occupies a unique place as it brings to the fore the centrality of the issue of caste and not simply the atrocities against Dalits. The significance of Vanmam, along with several recent Dalit writings including some representation of Dalit victimhood and the focus on the nature and function of caste in Tamil society. This new approach, along with the theoretical developments taking place within Dalit Studies, demands a reading of Dalit literature not simply as 'literature on Dalits', but as a critique of the Hindu social order. Inevitably, the attempts at reducing Dalit narratives to an autobiographical mode is limited.

Vanmam is set in a village in Tamil Nadu. It deals with the animosity between two castes within Dalits – Pallars (who identify themselves as Hindus) and Parayars (mostly Christian converts) in the novel – and how the landowners of the dominant Naicker caste stoke the fires to preserve the own status. Talking about this novel, in one of her interviews, Bama warns the reader nor to extrapolate the caste-based tensions and violence described here as being generally applicable all over the state, because it is geographically located in one particular village. This warning from Bama demands a reading of Vanmam within the broader context of the century-old Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu.

The story begins on a deceptively calm note, as the characters take the stage and establish their identities, young Parayar men like Saminathan and Jayaraj, with the benefit of a college education, are sensitized to the rights that they have been denied for generations, and are resentful of their 'backward' status. The graphic description of the village, the chavady, the fields and orchards, and the streets of the Pallars, Parayars, and Naickers is more than just the topography of the village. It is a cultural map that draws the outlines within which the various castes function and interact, reflecting upon the dynamics of a multi-caste village. The claim is a strategy and a backgrounder to the storm clouds that soon arrive. The amity between the Parayars and the Pallars, which had been helped along by organizing joint sports events and celebrating each others' festivals, begins to feel the strain of jealousies and running feuds, culminating in the murder of a Parayar by a Pallar. The rest of the novel deals with a series clash. The young men are forced to live in hiding, children cannot go to school, women are widowed, and children are orphaned. The story ends when yet another killing of an innocent Parayar by the agitated Pallars leads to a serious rethink in both caste groups. They realize that the dominant castes have been following a 'divide and rule' strategy to keep the fires of vanmam - vendetta – burning between the two castes. The Parayars and Pallars therefore decide to sink their difference, put the past behind them, and show a united front at the panchayat polls. They make history by capturing power for the very first time from the entrenched dominant-caste leadership.


Author's Notevii
Translator's Noteix
Introduction by R. Azhagarasanxiii
Vendetta1 – 135
'I am Part of a Collective Awareness' – An Interview with Bama142

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