Excerpts from Sangati

My Paatti kept on going out to work until she was quite old. Although she lived on her own, she went out and gathered firewood, lit her own hearth, and cooked and ate her kanji. Her hot kuzhambu flavoured with dried fish was just so delicious. Even after she had lost her teeth, whenever they butchered a cow on Sundays, she bought the intestines and made a kuzhambu out of that. Whenever she cooked a meat kuzhambu, she poured some of it into a container and brought it over to us.

So, I was sitting in Paatti’s house one day, eating a ragi kali along with a kuzhambu of intestines. Soon, Mariamma came and joined us. Paatti had invited her to come and eat, as she was pregnant at that time. Paatti served her some kali. We were still eating when Chadachi from the West Street came by.

“Ei, Mariamma, is this where you are hiding out? I’ve just been to your home, looking for you.” Chadachi sat down in the thinnai of Paatti’s house.

“Why were you looking for me, Akka?” Mariamma asked.

“Well, haven’t you heard the news? That girl, Raakkamma and her husband have got into a fierce fight. The whole street is in a commotion.”

“Who is Raakkamma?”

“It’s that woman who got married on the same day as you, remember? The woman from Kuppacchipatti.”

Paatti put in, “When did those donkeys from that place ever stop quarrelling? All the same, that fellow Paakkiaraj shouldn’t be so cruel to her. There’s not a day when he isn’t drunk and violent. And she, poor woman, goes on living with him and putting up with it. Had it been me, I’d have left him within three days of marrying him.”

“Do you think Raakkamma is such a quiet creature? You’d know better if you watched them closely. My house is opposite hers. There’s a regular racket going on there every day.” Chadachi took a handful of kali from Mariamma’s plate and popped it into her mouth.

I bolted down my meal as fast as I could and ran off to watch the fight. Paakkiaraj was abusing her in a vile and vulgar way, and was just about to hit her. And Raakkamma was giving it back to him, word for word. Even before his hand could fall on her, she screamed and shrieked, “Ayyayyo, he’s killing me. Vile man, you’ll die, you’ll be carried out as a corpse, you low-life, you bastard, you this you that…”

“Listen to the common whore shouting, even before I touch her! Shut your mouth, you whore! Otherwise I’ll stamp so hard on your stomach, your guts will scatter everywhere!”

But Raakkamma wouldn’t leave him alone. “Go on, da, kick me, let’s see you do it, da! Let’s see if you are a real man. You only know how to go for a woman’s parts. Go and fight with a man who is your equal, and you’ll see. You’ll get your balls burnt for your pains. Look at the fellow’s face! Thuu!” And she spat at him.

Paakkiaraj’s fury was beyond everything. ‘Is she a woman, to talk to me like this! The savage mundé. Keep all your arrogance in your parents’ house in Kuppacchipatti. Don’t try all that here or I’ll crush you to pieces with a single stamp. Remember that!’ Then he dragged her by her hair, pushed her down, and kicked her lower belly.

Raakkamma got up after that kick and wailed out aloud. She shouted obscenities, she scooped out the earth and flung it about. “How dare you kick me, you low-life? Your hand will get leprosy! How dare you pull my hair? Disgusting man, only fit to drink a woman’s farts! Instead of drinking toddy everyday, why don’t you drink your son’s urine? Why don’t you drink my monthly blood?”And she lifted up her sari in front of the entire crowd gathered there.

That was when Paakkiaraj walked off, still shouting. All the women began to speak amongst themselves. “Is this a woman or what? That Chinnayyan Mudiappan, the teacher, and all our brothers are standing around. So casually she lifted up her sari in front of them all. Shameless donkey! Children from the school are coming and going along the streets. What an uncontrollable shrew she is!”

Immediately Raakkamma rounded on them. “Why don’t you lot just go off and mind your own business? It is I who am beaten to death every day. If I hadn’t shamed him like this, he would surely have split my skull in two, the horrible man.”

At first, when I saw what Raakkamma did, I too was disgusted, and thought to myself, “Chi, how can she expose herself like that?” But later, I realized that it was only after she screamed and shouted and behaved like that that he let her go. I realized that she acted in that way because it was her only means of escape.

There were fights between husbands and wives in our streets, daily, just like this. One evening, after we had our kanji, we girls were playing a game where you had to cover your eyes and say, “Oh Rose, come softly, go gently.” Suddenly a woman thudded past us, running as fast as she could. She was pregnant, besides. Right behind her, her husband came chasing, a stick of firewood in his hand. Luckily there were some men standing about in the chavadi, the community centre, who intervened and plucked away the firewood from the man’s hand. Even then he wouldn’t stop. He caught up with the woman and dragged her along by the hair, abusing her. “Where are you running away, di? Don’t think you’ll escape my hands, wherever you go, you slut! How dare you defy me!”

Because she was heavily pregnant, her whole stomach dragged on the earth as he pulled her along. Shocked at the sight, people shouted at him, ‘You brute, you animal, haven’t you got even a drop of human feeling or compassion in you? How can you torture her like that, without even caring that she’s pregnant?’

Instantly he replied, “If I let the whore go, she’ll surely run away.” Then he lifted her by her hair and carried her off like that. She screamed, overcome by the pain of it. Even then, he wouldn’t let her go. He carried her home, just like that, flung her inside, locked the door, and beat her some more, the horrible wretch. Those of us who saw what was going on just wept.

When people went to the girl’s parents and complained, they answered casually, as if it were an everyday affair, “This is the bridegroom she chose for herself. Did we arrange her marriage for her? When she ran away with him, she didn’t feel any pain, did she? Now she is being destroyed by him. So what can we do about it?”

The people who came spoke up, , “There’s only one thing wrong the girl did, in any case, to deserve all this. She started all this fuss and argument by asking him to give her his wages. If the wretched fool had let him keep his wages and not asked, she wouldn’t have been beaten up in this shameful way.”

“If a man goes off with the money he has earned, drinks as much as he likes, and eats in coffee-stands and food-stalls, then how can a woman go out to work and earn enough money to fill her children’s belies and do whatever else is necessary in the house? How can she manage everything with just her wages?”

But what they said had no effect, so they went home.

On the other hand, the quarrels between our neighbour Kaaliamma and her husband Chinnappan were quite comic. When I watched them, I wasn’t so disturbed inside myself. Because Kaaliamma was ready to fight, one to one, head-on. Sometimes, she was the one who came out victorious. If he hit her, she was ready to strike him back. Perhaps because of this, their quarrels remained within the bounds of words. They seldom came to blows.

One day, Chinnappan was sitting in front of their house, slicing up a bottle-gourd. Kaaliamma, returning from her evening task of collecting water, came upon him like this, and immediately started ranting. ”Look, I’ve stood in a mile-long queue until my legs grew numb, fought with those mundés there, and finally made it home with the water. And what about you? Here you are, calmly sitting down with the sorakkai; you haven’t even bothered to stoke the fire, and it’s burnt itself out. Why should I be the only person to take all this trouble? Don’t you think I could have cut up the sorakkai after I came home? I put the rice on to boil before I set out, and now it’s all burnt and spoilt. I too went and worked all day in the fields in the baking heat; I too came home halfdead. But after that, just to make you a decent meal, I’ve had to rush about for firewood and water; I’ve even had to go to the shops. Can’t you realize that I’m only an ordinary woman? You went off like a big mudalaali and bathed in the lake, and sat down to slice your sorakkai.” Still scolding, she set the water pot from her hip very gently on to the ground, and then lifted down the big mud pot from her head with a clang.

Chinnappan was furious. He began to shout back at her. ‘Here I am, trying to help you out of sheer kindness, and all you can do is to complain. Just watch out that I don’t throw the vegetable slicer at you.’

At this point, Parvati Kizhavi intervened, saying, “Why do you quarrel with him, di, when he’s only trying to help you?”

“I’ve had enough of his help, slicing vegetables, Paatti. I’ve spent the whole day cleaning and toiling; I’ve brought home a big bundle of thorns and sticks. I lit the fire and set the rice to boil before going out, and now it is all spoilt. Now I have to light the hearth all over again. The wretched thorns and sticks are all green. My sides ache from blowing at them.” Kaaliamma was trying to get the fire going again as she poured all this out.

She was a sorry sight, surrounded by smoke as she struggled with the fire. Chinnappan himself made another suggestion. “Ei, tha, pour a little kerosene on it, if you have any, it will catch straight away.”

“As if he’s kept aside a tin of kerosene, just so that I could pour it on, whenever I need to. Don’t even pretend to be a man when you go outside the house. I saved a hundred rupees bit by bit, the way an ant collects grains, and bought a chit. You took even that away, and all you did with it was to fill your belly and fart. Don’t you dare to talk. Just have the decency to return my money. Otherwise, you won’t know what has hit you.” She bent down and began to blow at the hearth.

“Your money is worth the hair on the back of my legs, di. If I ever come across any big money, I’ll throw it your way in a couple of days. You can catch it respectfully, from a distance.” He finished slicing the sorakkai. Then he added, “You don’t even know how to light a fire, and you claim to be a woman in this world.” He lit a bidi for himself, and went off towards the chavadi.

Now he would return just as she had finished cooking the rice, and was taking the curry off the fire, and he would eat until he could eat no more. When I saw him swaggering off with the bidi in his mouth, I was full of anger, too. I scolded him silently, “Just look at him, useless man.”

It was always like this in our streets. Although both men and women came home after a hard day’s work in the fields, the men went off straight away to the bazaar or the chavadi to while away their time, coming home only for their meal. But as for the women, from the minute they returned home they washed vessels, cleaned the house, collected water, gathered firewood, went to the shops to buy rice and other provisions, boiled some rice, made a kuzhambu or a kanji, fed husband and children before they could eat what was left over, and go to bed.

Even if they lay down with bodies wracked with pain, they weren’t allowed to sleep. Whether she died or survived, he had to finish his business. When I thought about all this, I was often disgusted by this daily routine. Men at least, I thought, had a better time of it.

Nowadays, when I reflect on how the men in our streets went about drinking and beating their wives, I wonder whether all that violence was because there was nowhere else for them to exert their male pride or to show off their authority. All that suppressed anger was vented when they came home and beat up their wives to a pulp.

Even though they are male, because they are Dalits, they have to be like dogs with their tails rolled up when they are in the fields, and dealing with their landlords. There is no way they can show their strength in those circumstances. So they show it at home on their wives and children. But then, is it the fate of our women to be tormented both outside their houses and within?

Thinking about it, I have to say that even if all women are slaves to men, our women really are the worst sufferers. It is not the same for women of other castes and communities. Our women cannot bear the torment of upper-caste masters in the fields, and at home they cannot bear the violence of their husbands.

Besides all this, upper-caste women show us no pity or kindness either, if only as women to women, but treat us with contempt, as if we are creatures of a different species, who have no sense of honour or self-respect. They themselves lead lives shut up inside their houses, eating, gossiping, and doing their husbands’ bidding, and then they treat us like this. God knows how they stay shut up within four walls, all twenty-four hours of the day.

From this perspective, it seems to me that at least our women work hard and earn their own money, and have a few coins in their hands. They don’t hold out their palms to their husbands for every little expense, like those others. All the same, because of our caste and because of our poverty, every fellow treats us with contempt. If ever there is a problem or a disturbance, everyone, starting with the police, chooses to blame and humiliate the women of our community. The government does not seem prepared to do anything to redress this. So we must take up the challenge ourselves.

It’s like the proverb that says, if a man sees a terrified dog, he is bound to chase it. If we continue to be frightened, everyone will take advantage of us. If we stand up for ourselves without caring whether we die or survive, they’ll creep away with their tails between their legs.

Another proverb says, so long as it is hidden in the earth, it claims to be big, but when you start peeling it, it’s nothing but skin. These fellows are just like that – like onions. They’ll shout themselves hoarse, making great claims. They’ll forbid us to speak a word. They’ll seethe like cobras and say that they alone own everything. But why should we hide our own skills and capabilities? We work just as hard as they do. Why, you could even say we actually work harder. Ask them to do all that we do in a day – care for the children, look after the house, and do all the chores. They’ll collapse after a single day of it, and that will be the end of their big talk and their fat arses. But they are not going to think of all this easily nor by themselves. It is we who must uphold our rights. We must stand up for ourselves and declare that we too are human beings like everyone else. If we believe that someone else is going to come and uplift us, then we are doomed to remain where we are, forever.

Upper-caste women give the superficial impression that they never quarrel amongst themselves nor with their husbands. They claim that it is only in our streets that there are fights and vulgar quarrels all the time. It is only when you go inside their homes that the rear truth is revealed. It’s as the saying goes: It rooks a stylish hair-knot, decorated with screwpine flowers; but it’s all lice and nits within. They submit to their husbands like cobras that shrink back into their boxes. And they have to do that. Because it is the money that he gives her that drives the cart. It’s because of this that she even stands and sits according to his orders.

But in our streets, men and women both go out and earn. Most of the men, though, never give their wages to their women. It is the woman who looks after everything in the house. So, on top of all this, why must she submit to being beaten and stamped upon for no rhyme or reason? That’s why she quarrels with him. If he shows his strength of muscle, she reveals the sharpness of her tongue. Because she can’t hit him back, she curses him roundly. What else can she do?

All the same, all our women are nor like this. Most of them put up with all that violence and suffer a life of hellish torment. On the one side she is worn out with physical toil, on the other, she is beaten until she is left with only a half or a quarter life. I don’t know when we will be free of all this. We must somehow dare to take control of our lives. Then, as the proverb says, “Even the ocean will support us, if we only dare.”

The fights and quarrels in our streets always happen at dawn, or at dusk, when it is growing dark. When I asked myself why it was that in our streets there is so much commotion and such chaos just during those hours, I thought at first that it was because everyone was out at work during the rest of the time; quarrels broke out when they were all back and out on the streets. But gradually I came to understand the real reason.

The women never got a proper night’s peace and quiet after working hard all day. They had to pleasure their husbands whenever they demanded it so they never got any rest. Neither their bodies nor their minds felt rested when they woke up. Promptly they vented their irritation by quarrelling with everyone they met. And then after this bout of useless wrangling, they had to run to their work.

When they come home after an arduous day’s toil, there is only more and unending work. From all sides they have to deal with the pestering of children and the anger and unfair domination of their husbands. Their lives are unceasingly tedious. When they are so frustrated by all this, they are driven to venting their bitterness by quarrelling and shouting.

When you examine the words they use in their quarrels, you will notice they are full of obscenities, very direct and ugly, often dealing with sexual relations. No matter what the quarrel is about, once they open their mouths, the same four-letter words will spill out. I sometimes think that because they have neither pleasure nor fulfilment in their own sexual lives, they derive a sort of bitter comfort by using these terms of abuse which are actually names of their body parts.

And not just this. A woman will create all hell if her husband actually takes a mistress. But when she’s quarrelling with any woman at all, she’ll unhesitatingly call her, “my husband’s whore”. When you think about it, it’s as if she admits her own helplessness, and gets some sort of satisfaction by suggesting that her husband has controlled that other woman, and sexually at that. Even here, it is the man’s maleness and power that takes precedence. A woman’s body, mind, feelings, words and deeds, and her entire life are all under his control and domination. And we too have accepted what they want us to believe – that this is actually the right way, that our happiness lies in being enslaved to men. But if only we were to realize that we too have our self-worth, honour, and self-respect, we could manage our own lives in our own way.

Somehow or other, by shouting and fighting first thing at dawn and last thing at night, if need be, our women survive without going crazy. If we are to live at all, we have to shout and shriek to keep ourselves sane. Upper-caste women, though, keep it all suppressed; they can neither chew nor swallow. They lose their nerve, and many of them become unstable or mentally ill. If you look at it like that, our women have an abundant will to survive however hard they might have to struggle for their last breath. Knowingly or unknowingly, we find ways of coping in the best way we can.

Translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström

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