The caste system in India remains prevalent today despite claims by some upper castes that casteism and untouchability no longer exist. Dalits, the lowest caste, continue to suffer from the systemic oppression enforced by the caste system.
Although the Indian constitution abolished the practice of untouchability in 1950, the attitude of untouchability has embedded itself into Indian society. Dalits face stereotyping that labels them as uneducated and lazy. Dalits also remain systemically oppressed and marginalized by those in power, especially the police and the judicial system. This oppression decreases opportunities for Dalits, and as a result, they are unable to achieve equality.
Bama Faustina Soosairaj, more commonly known as Bama, is a Dalit writer that has challenged the stereotypes against Dalit people. She sheds light on the systemic oppression that Dalits face today through her writing.
Bama was born in 1958 as Faustina Mary Fatima Rani to a Catholic family in the Madras region. Before becoming a writer and adopting Bama as her pen name, she served as a nun for seven years. Upon leaving the convent, she began writing about her childhood experiences and the caste discrimination within the Catholic church. Her writings eventually led to her first novel Karukku (Palmyra Leaves), published in 1992. After publishing her book, Bama was ostracized from her town; the townspeople believed she had portrayed them in an unfair and harmful light. She wrote honestly and truthfully about her experiences as a child, and because of that honesty, she was cast out from the one place she knew. Despite the difficulties and prejudice she faced, Karukku still won the Crossword Book Award in 2000. Bama went on to write Sangati (Events), which tells the stories of two Dalit women, and Kusumbukkaran (The Ichi Tree Monkey), a novel that celebrates small acts of rebellion. Through her writings, Bama gave women across Dalit society a voice. Bama wrote her novels in the Tamil dialect rather than formal language, which her contemporaries in Tamil literary circles criticized. When literary critics questioned why she would write in colloquial speech, Bama was furious. She responded,
"The Brahminical language is used everywhere —[the critics] accept it. They are proud to speak in their language. Then why not I then? My language and that of my people is beautiful to me. So I deliberately used it in all my novels after that.”
Bama was proud to showcase her upbringing without regard for other people's thinking.
In addition to the impact she has made through her writings, Bama also taught at a high school in Chennai for ten years before transferring to a village school. Although she liked her job in Chennai, she had the opportunity to teach Dalit children at the village school. Instead of using standard education practices such as rote memorization or uninterrupted classes without breaks, Bama sought to teach students the importance of education first. In an interview, she said that before she begins the day's lessons, she tells her students, “‘I love you. I am here for you.’ That assurance I give. Only then I will go to academics.” Bama adds that she prioritizes play in addition to academics; “In government schools, there is no period set aside for play. But everyday, for about 40-45 minutes, I would play with the students. In class, they would sit rigidly. While playing, I could see how they were — so free! Playing with children renews you, both physically and mentally.”
Bama has given so much to her community and others; however, little has been written about her life despite her accomplishments. She does not receive the prominence or notability of similar upper-caste authors due to the systemic oppression of Dalits. Their stories are considered less important because Indian society continues to think of Dalits as “untouchables,” a dehumanizing word that makes them seem less than garbage on the street.
The silencing of Dalit voices makes it the wider South Asian community’s responsibility to seek out underrepresented authors so that their words are heard.