This unit presents autobiographical episodes from the lives of two
women from marginalised communities who look back on their
childhood, and reflect on their relationship with the mainstream
culture. The first account is by an American Indian woman born in
the late nineteenth century; the second is by a contemporary Tamil
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, born in 1876, was an extraordinarily
talented and educated Native American woman who struggled
and triumphed in a time when severe prejudice prevailed towards
Native American culture and women. As a writer, she adopted the
pen name ‘Zitkala-Sa’ and in 1900 began publishing articles
criticising the Carlisle Indian school. Her works criticised dogma,
and her life as a Native American woman was dedicated against
the evils of oppression.
Bama is the pen-name of a Tamil Dalit woman from a Roman Catholic
family. She has published three main works: an autobiography,
‘Karukku’, 1992; a novel, ‘Sangati’, 1994; and a collection of short
stories, ‘Kisumbukkaaran’, 1996. The following excerpt has been
taken from ‘Karukku’. ‘Karukku’ means ‘Palmyra’ leaves, which
with their serrated edges on both sides, are like double-edged swords.
By a felicitous pun, the Tamil word ‘Karukku’, containing the
word ‘karu’, embryo or seed, also means freshness, newness.
I. The Cutting of My Long Hair
The first day in the land of apples was a bitter -cold
one; for the snow still covered the ground, and the trees
were bare. A large bell rang for breakfast, its loud metallic
voice crashing through the belfry overhead and into our
sensitive ears. The annoying clatter of shoes on bare floors
gave us no peace. The constant clash of harsh noises, with
an undercurrent of many voices murmuring an unknown
tongue, made a bedlam within which I was securely tied.
And though my spirit tore itself in struggling for its lost
freedom, all was useless.
A paleface woman, with white hair, came up after us.
We were placed in a line of girls who were marching into
the dining room. These were Indian girls, in stiff shoes and
closely clinging dresses. The small girls wore sleeved aprons
and shingled hair. As I walked noiselessly in my soft
moccasins, I felt like sinking to the floor, for my blanket
had been stripped from my shoulders. I looked hard at the
Indian girls, who seemed not to care that they were even
more immodestly dressed than I, in their tightly fitting
clothes. While we marched in, the boys entered at an
opposite door. I watched for the three young braves who
came in our party. I spied them in the rear ranks, looking
as uncomfortable as I felt. A small bell was tapped, and
each of the pupils drew a chair from under the table.
Supposing this act meant they were to be seated, I pulled
out mine and at once slipped into it from one side. But
when I turned my head, I saw that I was the only one
seated, and all the rest at our table remained standing.
Just as I began to rise, looking shyly around to see how
chairs were to be used, a second bell was sounded. All
were seated at last, and I had to crawl back into my chair
again. I heard a man's voice at one end of the hall, and I
looked around to see him. But all the others hung their
heads over their plates. As I glanced at the long chain of
tables, I caught the eyes of a paleface woman upon me.
Immediately I dropped my eyes, wondering why I was so
keenly watched by the strange woman. The man ceased
his mutterings, and then a third bell was tapped. Every
one picked up his knife and fork and began eating. I began
crying instead, for by this time I was afraid to venture
But this eating by formula was not the hardest trial in
that first day. Late in the morning, my friend Judewin
gave me a terrible warning. Judewin knew a few words of
English; and she had overheard the paleface woman talk
about cutting our long, heavy hair. Our mothers had taught
us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had
their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short
hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!
We discussed our fate some moments, and when
Judewin said, We have to submit, because they are strong,
No, I will not submit! I will struggle first! I answered.
I watched my chance, and when no one noticed, I
disappeared. I crept up the stairs as quietly as I could in
my squeaking shoes, â€” my moccasins had been exchanged
for shoes. Along the hall I passed, without knowing whither
I was going. Turning aside to an open door, I found a large
room with three white beds in it. The
windows were covered with dark green
curtains, which made the room very
dim. Thankful that no one was there, I
directed my steps toward the corner
farthest from the door. On my hands and
knees I crawled under the bed, and
huddled myself in the dark corner.
From my hiding place I peered
out, shuddering with
fear whenever I
near by. Though
in the hall loud
name, and I
was searching for me, I did not open my mouth to answer.
Then the steps were quickened and the voices became
excited. The sounds came nearer and nearer. Women and
girls entered the room. I held my breath and watched them
open closet doors and peep behind large trunks. Some one
threw up the curtains, and the room was filled with sudden
light. What caused them to stoop and look under the bed I
do not know. I remember being dragged out, though I
resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. Inspite of myself,
I was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair.
I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt
the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard
them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit.
Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered
extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been
tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my
long hair was shingled like a coward's! In my anguish I
moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me.
Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother
used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals
driven by a herder.
We Too are Human Beings
When I was studying in the third class, I hadn't yet
heard people speak openly of untouchability. But I had
already seen, felt, experienced and been humiliated by what
I was walking home from school one day, an old bag
hanging from my shoulder. It was actually possible to walk
the distance in ten minutes. But usually it would take me
thirty minutes at the very least to reach home. It would
take me from half an hour to an hour to dawdle along,
watching all the fun and games that were going on, all the
entertaining novelties and oddities is the streets, the shops
and the bazaar.
The performing monkey ; the snake which the
snakecharmer kept in its box and displayed from time to
time; the cyclist who had not got off his bike for three days,
and who kept pedalling as hard as he could from break of
day; the rupee notes that were pinned on to his shirt to
spur him on; the spinning wheels; the Maariyaata temple,
the huge bell hanging there; the pongal offerings being
cooked in front of the temple; the dried fish stall by the
statue of Gandhi; the sweet stall, the stall selling fried
snacks, and all the other shops next to each other; the
street light always demonstrating how it could change from
blue to violet; the narikkuravan huntergypsy with his wild
lemur in cages, selling needles, clay beads and instruments
for cleaning out the ears â€” Oh, I could go on and on. Each
thing would pull me to a stand-still and not allow me to go
At times, people from various political parties would
arrive, put up a stage and harangue us through their mikes.
Then there might be a street play, or a puppet show, or a
no magic, no miracle stunt performance. All these would
happen from time to time. But almost certainly there would
be some entertainment or other going on.
Even otherwise, there were the coffee clubs in the
bazaar: the way each waiter cooled the coffee, lifting a
tumbler high up and pouring its contents into a tumbler
held in his other hand. Or the way some people sat in front
of the shops chopping up onion, their eyes turned elsewhere
so that they would not smart. Or the almond tree growing
there and its fruit which was occasionally blown down by
the wind. All these sights taken together would tether my
legs and stop me from going home.
And then, according to the season, there would be
mango, cucumber, sugar-cane, sweet-potato, palm-shoots,
gram, palm-syrup and palm-fruit, guavas and jack-fruit.
Every day I would see people selling sweet and savoury
fried snacks, payasam, halva, boiled tamarind seeds and
Gazing at all this, one day, I came to my street, my
bag slung over my shoulder. At the opposite corner, though,
a threshing floor had been set up, and the landlord watched
the proceedings, seated on a piece of sacking spread over
a stone ledge. Our people were hard at work, driving cattle
in pairs, round and round, to tread out the grain from the
straw. The animals were muzzled
so that they wouldn't help
themselves to the straw. I
stood for a while there,
watching the fun.
Just then, an
elder of our street
came along from the
direction of the
bazaar. The manner in
which he was walking
along made me want to
double up. I wanted to
shriek with laughter at
the sight of such a big
man carrying a small
packet in that fashion.
I guessed there was
something like vadai
or green banana bhajji
in the packet, because the wrapping paper was stained
with oil. He came along, holding out the packet by its string,
without touching it. I stood there thinking to myself, if he
holds it like that, won't the package come undone, and the
vadais fall out?
The elder went straight up to the landlord, bowed low
and extended the packet towards him, cupping the hand
that held the string with his other hand. The landlord
opened the parcel and began to eat the vadais.
After I had watched all this, at last I went home. My
elder brother was there. I told him the story in all its comic
detail. I fell about with laughter at the memory of a big
man, and an elder at that, making such a game out of
carrying the parcel. But Annan was not amused. Annan
told me the man wasn't being funny when he carried the
package like that. He said everybody believed that they
were upper caste and therefore must not touch us. If they
did, they would be polluted. That's why he had to carry the
package by its string.
When I heard this, I didn't want to laugh any more,
and I felt terribly sad. How could they believe that it was
disgusting if one of us held that package in his hands,
even though the vadai had been wrapped first in a banana
leaf, and then parcelled in paper? I felt so provoked and
angry that I wanted to touch those wretched vadais myself
straightaway. Why should we have to fetch and carry for
these people, I wondered. Such an important elder of ours
goes meekly to the shops to fetch snacks and hands them
over reverently, bowing and shrinking, to this fellow who
just sits there and stuffs them into his mouth. The thought
of it infuriated me.
How was it that these fellows thought so much of
themselves? Because they had scraped four coins together,
did that mean they must lose all human feelings? But we
too are human beings. Our people should never run these
petty errands for these fellows. We should work in their
fields, take home our wages, and leave it at that.
My elder brother, who was studying at a university,
had come home for the holidays. He would often go to the
library in our neighbouring village in order to borrow books.
He was on his way home one day, walking along the banks
of the irrigation tank. One of the landlord's men came up
behind him. He thought my Annan looked unfamiliar, and
so he asked, Who are you, appa, what's your name? Annan
told him his name. Immediately the other man asked,
Thambi, on which street do you live? The point of this
was that if he knew on which street we lived, he would
know our caste too.
Annan told me all these things. And he added, Because
we are born into this community, we are never given any
honour or dignity or respect; we are stripped of all that.
But if we study and make progress, we can throw away
these indignities. So study with care, learn all you can. If
you are always ahead in your lessons, people will come to
you of their own accord and attach themselves to you.
Work hard and learn. The words that Annan spoke to me
that day made a very deep impression on me. And I studied
hard, with all my breath and being, in a frenzy almost.
As Annan had urged, I stood first in my class. And because
of that, many people became my friends.