The five landscapes into which the Tamil country has been classified since the Sangam age are common knowledge: kurinci (hills), mullai (forest), marutam (fields), neytal (coast) and palai (wasteland). In the earliest known Tamil poems, each landscape, along with its attendant gods, people, flora and fauna, is associated with a different stage of love: the hills, for example, are for clandestine union, while the coast is for anxious waiting.
The Kuravars are the indigenous people of kurinci land. The earliest Sangam poems describe the men as hunters of honey and game and the women as soothsayers. The description of Kuravars in the classic Tamil poem Kuttrala Kuravanci – made popular through modern-day versions by the Dravidian leader M Karunanidhi and the Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale – shows some consistency with descriptions of them from the Sangam age, suggesting that the Kuravars were engaged in their traditional vocations as late as the 18th century, when the Kuravanci was written. The 19th century brought seismic changes. The British colonial government razed vast swathes of forest in the hills to make way for plantations, railways and towns. The Kuravars, like many other indigenous communities, were displaced and made nomads, living off any work they could get.
Resisting encroachment landed them on the government’s list of “criminal tribes” and behind the bars of its multiplying prisons. In prison, as part of their sentences, Kuravars were forced to clean toilets, tanks and drains with their bare hands – the work we now refer to as “manual scavenging.” Nearly every community in what was then Madras Presidency faced imprisonment under the Criminal Tribes Act and forced manual scavenging at some point. Yet today the latter punishment, no longer restricted to prisons and enforced not just by the state but also by its citizens, is the lot of only a few communities, all of them belonging to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes.
This was the story Pandiyakannan, the Kuravar community’s only novelist, told me.
Pandiyakannan wrote his first novel, Salavaan, when he was 27 years old. It only took him six or seven months to finish. Though some of Tamil literature’s most eminent publishers showed interest – Kalachuvadu and Cre-a, for instance – the novel only saw the light of day in 2008, more than a decade after it was written. That first edition, published by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-affiliated Bharathi Puthakalayam, was riddled with errors and barely readable. It would take another 15 years to bring out the revised edition, edited by M Kannan and V Prakash, which was published early this year by Thadagam.
“Salavaan” means male pig. In addition to doing sanitation work, the Kuravars in the novel raise, butcher and sell pigs for a living. Pigs are central to the special events in their lives: funerals are incomplete without pork, pigs are given as dowry. Pork is a rare treat, marking occasions where families whose staple diet is porridge made with leftover rice, which is their payment for cleaning dry latrines, get to eat fresh food.
Pigs, the males of the species especially, are irascible, stronger than men, destructive and indiscriminate in their rage. In Pandiyakannan’s telling of history, the Cholas, who ruled one of the three great empires in Tamil history, kept battalions of pigs in their army. When they invaded the lands of other kingdoms, they would send the pig battalions first to wreck their fields and plantations.
Those who rear pigs handle them by castrating them. “The state,” Pandiyakannan explained, “sees the Kuravars the way the characters in the book see pigs. They castrate them and keep them penned up just like the pigs in the novel. That’s why I called it Salavaan.”
As much as Pandiyakannan’s novel documents a community and a place, it also documents how a political movement that offered hope to the marginalised betrayed them.
It is common for works of fiction to disavow their relation to real people or events, but Pandiyakannan proudly avows that every person and every event in the novel is real, drawn from his own life or the lives of those close to him. The novel is so autobiographical that it makes asking questions about his life almost superfluous. Each time he began to talk about himself or his family, Pandiyakannan would quickly lapse into recounting the novel’s events and using its characters’ names. It was clear that he couldn’t have written a memoir: the veil of fiction allowed him to say what he couldn’t otherwise.
The novel can be divided into two parts. The first, told in the third person, consists less of a story than of detailed sketches that draw us into the world of Pandiyakannan’s family and the Kuravars of Virudhunagar, his hometown. The second, told in the voice of Pandi – a stand-in for Pandiyakannan’s father – tells the story of a little-known but historic strike in the late 1970s by the sanitation workers of Virudhunagar, and its violent suppression.
Critics like Raj Gauthaman have written about how a lack of intimacy or concern with Dalit life led even the greatest of modern Tamil writers – Pudumaipithan, for example – to rely on stereotypes when depicting Dalits in their work. There is now a consensus, consolidated and affirmed by Dalit cultural organisations such as the film director Pa Ranjith’s Neelam, that since the 1990s, when Dalits took charge of their own stories, a true picture of Dalit life in all its dimensions has emerged in the Tamil literary mainstream.
The communities engaged in manual scavenging, however, don’t seem to be part of this reclamation project. Their works are not included in anthologies of Dalit literature. They are not discussed at literary festivals, even those dedicated to Dalit writing. This year, the Neelam Cultural Centre’s Vaanam Art Festival, a series of events celebrating Dalit History Month, included a theatre festival. Even there, the only play to take manual scavenging as its subject (in a worn-out, sensational fashion) was by a senior Brahmin playwright.
In this context, it is urgent that we read Pandiyakannan’s work. In simple prose of startling gentleness, and possessed of a careful, accreting rhythm, he has given Tamil readers the fullest and most intimate picture so far of a community engaged in manual scavenging and their relationship to the state. He depicts their world not as hell but as earth, and with sharp and meticulous recollection he records events, customs and details which would otherwise have been lost – revealing, ultimately, not only the everyday world of Virudhunagar’s Kuravars, but also how the progressive and anti-caste Dravidian politics that has defined modern Tamil Nadu has betrayed its most marginalised supporters.
Virudhunagar is a commercial hub about an hour by bus from the city of Madurai. Pandiyakannan, now in his fifties, was born into a family of sanitation workers. His late father joined the Dravidian Movement by the 1950s, when Madras State – the successor to Madras Presidency and forerunner of Tamil Nadu – was still an Indian National Congress stronghold. He gave a great portion of his life to the movement, mainly as an actor in plays by icons like C N Annadurai and Karunanidhi. He was instrumental in gathering support in Virudhunagar for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam before the party’s first, sweeping electoral victory in the state in 1967. Dravidian parties have ruled it ever since.
It was and remains usual to reward a party’s most loyal and effective workers with high posts in government, but the DMK was, and still is, selective about the castes it gives power to. Pandiyakannan’s father was rewarded with a government job, but only as a sanitation worker: a job deemed suitable for a Kuravar. Pandiyakannan’s father accepted the post and remained a supporter of the DMK, as well as a thorn in its side, for as long as he lived, organising and leading a sanitation workers’ union in Virudhunagar.
Pandiyakannan’s father was adamant that his son receive an education. Growing up, Pandiyakannan said, he was virtually the only literate member not only of his household but also of the community he lived in. The relationship between the novel’s protagonist, Balan, and his father, Pandi, is a portrait of Pandiyanannan’s relationship with his own father:
Balan sees beyond his father’s anger and aggression and loves him for his true generosity: he wants his son to have what he was denied. He buys the papers everyday and has Balan read them out loud for everyone at the tea shop. This way they all learn about politics together. Balan and his father become friends. Balan’s father is very proud of him. He loves to watch his mouth as he reads aloud. He sits in the front row at all Balan’s plays. He brags to all his friends that his son is a writer.
Like his father, Pandiyakannan had a knack for theatre. His teachers encouraged him to start acting in the sixth standard, but he preferred writing. He later tried to make a career in the Tamil film industry as a script-writer, and even worked briefly for the director T Rajendar, father of the famous actor Silambarasan T R. But he met with little success in cinema and, eventually, the pressures of supporting a family forced him to find a government job. He has worked for the government for nearly thirty years now and written on the side.
“The state,” Pandiyakannan explained, “sees the Kuravars the way the characters in the book see pigs. They castrate them and keep them penned up just like the pigs in the novel. That’s why I called it Salavaan.”
Pandiyakannan’s first works were plays. After quitting the film industry, he started a theatre troupe called Friends Art Collective. Government authorities took issue with their plays and Pandiyakannan was transferred from Virudhunagar to the city of Nagercoil in the deep south. It was in Nagercoil, away from everyone and everything he knew, that he began to read seriously and decided to write a novel. There, he made the acquaintance of the late Sundara Ramaswamy, one of the last century’s great Tamil writers.
“It was Sundara Ramaswamy who introduced me to literature, gave me books,” Pandiyakannan said. He recalled the ones that impacted him most: “I especially loved Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky and Kafka.” It was Chinua Achebe that inspired him to leave theatre and film behind and write a novel. “I remember reading Things Fall Apart. The book is about how the British take over a village and criminalise the natives’ cultures and traditions. I thought: This is our story; I can write something like this.”
Pandiyakannan used to be part of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association and claims the influence of socialist-realist writers such as Maxim Gorky, but his prose bears little of the didacticism, of the tendency to tell rather than show, which characterises the work of Gorky and those he influenced.
The opening passage of Gorky’s Mother reads:
Every day the factory whistle bellowed forth its shrill, roaring, trembling noises into the smoke-begrimed and greasy atmosphere of the workingmen’s suburb; and obedient to the summons of the power of steam, people poured out of little grey houses into the street. With sombre faces they hastened forward like frightened roaches … In the chill morning twilight they walked through the narrow, unpaved street to the tall stone cage that waited for them with cold assurance … The mud plashed under their feet in mocking commiseration.
Striking as this passage is, the prose is too abstract and sensational, unwilling or unable to describe anything without telling the reader what it means. This style has had a pervasive impact on Tamil literature concerned with the margins of society. Its theatricality and abstraction, however, have been balanced in some of the literature it has influenced by a competing documentary or even ethnographic impulse, expressed in an abundance of dialect and elaborate descriptions of local customs and daily life that lend these works a certain naturalism. Although this trend may not have produced many literary masterpieces, it has given readers a wealth of information about Tamil society, often compensating for the paucity of material in the social sciences.
Salavaan is a novel in this tradition. It is not as coherent or powerful as Gorky’s novel of proletarian uprising, but, unlike Mother, it has close descriptions of work, and the dialogue is not redolent of the stage. It possesses a greater intimacy and objectivity than Gorky’s work, plunging the reader deep into the everyday world of its characters without interpreting it for them. Readers are unlikely to find anywhere else such intricate accounts of sanitation work – which, in conversation, Pandiyakannan called “a permanent war, a daily battle with death.”
The rain quickened. It started to run along the roofs down into the open septic tank. The tank it had just taken two drums to empty was filling up again. Appa knew what to do immediately. He balled up some old sacks and used them to dam part of the drain that ran into the tank. He used a shovel to rake up the sand that came with the water and gave it to Amma. Amma made a wall of sand around the tank to keep the water out. Instead of running into the tank, the water was now diverted toward the entrance and onto the street. Appa removed the balled-up sacks from the drain and started to remove the water mixed with shit with a bucket. Amma took the bucket from him and emptied it into the drain. … They would have been beaten up if anyone saw them doing this. But it was midnight and raining. The tank still had to be emptied. Kumaran waded in up to his knees. Two workers dangled Kumaran by his arms and lowered him in. A layer of dried, crusted shit lay three feet beneath him. They let him go and he landed knee-deep in shit. The bucket passed through the usual chain of hands and the drum was filling up. The shit was hard as cement. If they dumped it in the drain it would stop the water, so they emptied it into the drum. It was cold and raining, but Kumaran felt like he was being burned alive. His eyes burned and his entire body was sweating. It was like someone had rubbed chillies all over him. It would have been worse without the rain. So many died in septic tanks. The bosses lied that they went to work drunk and drowned and gave the other workers double pay to keep them quiet.
Toni Morrison called anger a tiny emotion. Lashing, explosive anger in prose often quickly exhausts tension that a writer would do better to control and sustain. This is part of the difficulty in writing about subjects, like manual scavenging, that are quick to provoke outrage. Pandiyakannan describes manual scavenging without overt condemnation, without lectures on the dignity or degradation of labour. He describes it as one should describe anything: with precision. His prose is all the more powerful for it.
They filled two drums. Kumaran raked up the last two buckets of shit with his bare hands. He scraped the shit from the cistern walls and signalled for them to throw down the broom. Balan brought the broom from the bathroom and held it out for Kumaran. He couldn’t reach it from below. Balan gripped the broom between his toes and lowered himself down into the cistern. He hung from the two edges of the tank like he was doing pull-ups until Kumaran grabbed the broom. He supported himself with one hand while he gave the other to one of the workers, who pulled him up as if he were a bucket.
The cistern has three sections. The first for solid waste drained from the toilet, the second for semi-solid waste and the third for liquid waste, separated by horizontal dividers made of metal wire. Whoever jumps in crashes against these dividers. Sometimes men slip and fall in by accident and crash into whoever’s bent over down there. Both suffocate and faint and die at once.
Balan climbed up out of the tank slowly. Kumaran waved his hands like he was wiping tiles. If he opened his mouth to speak, he would start to suffocate. He finished his work, standing back upright regularly to breathe. Balan hung down in the same pull-up position as before with his legs dangling. They formed a chain. Kumaran grabbed on to Balan’s legs while the rest grabbed hold of Balan’s arms and hauled them up one after the other. Kumaran was pleased to be reborn.
You can only write like that from experience, Pandiyakannan insisted, not just in reference to this passage but throughout our conversation.
Pandiyakannan did not name any Tamil writers among his influences. “It’s because,” he said, “Tamil culture, whether it’s cinema or literature, is very fanciful. It lacks realism entirely.” Although these claims are not entirely convincing – Tamil literature is too broad a category to speak of so generally, and Pandiyakannan’s beloved Dostoevsky and Achebe themselves wrote a great deal about things they never lived through – they reflect a just sense of neglect and a genuine bitterness about the way “subaltern” literature in Tamil is produced and consumed.
In 2015, after learning from the activist Bezwada Wilson that manual scavenging is still widespread in India, Perumal Murugan, one of the most famous living Tamil writers and a Savarna college professor, wrote a disturbingly kitsch poem in the voice of a manual scavenger for the Carnatic vocalist T M Krishna to take to the stage:
Should foetid faeces (shit) be picked by human hands?
What eternal suffering! Do we care?
Is this civil? Is this fair?
This society, is this civil? Is this fair?
Are we even human beings?
“Perumal Murugan only knows what others have told him about scavenging,” Pandiyakannan said. “When I write, I use the same hands that have carried shit.” But while Krishna and Murugan’s collaboration has reached a wide and international audience, Pandiyakannan’s work remains – even in the small world of Tamil letters – neglected.
One of Pandiyakannan’s favourite novels is the Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov’s Farewell Gulsary!, published in 1966. Its protagonists are Tanabai, now an old man but once a hero of the Russian Revolution, and the equally old and frail Gulsary, once a decorated racehorse. Stalin’s regime pushes them into poverty, homelessness and obscurity. The novel consists of Tanabai recounting his life story to his horse as they wander in search of a home. Aitmatov’s attempt to preserve the history of the Russian Revolution against Stalinist erasure inspired the final section of Salavaan, where Pandi tells Balan how he led a historic sanitation workers’ strike.
This is what happened. There was a man in Virudhunagar referred to in the novel as Karuppana Thevar. He came to Virudhunagar as a poor load-bearer. Like Pandi, he was a skilled wrestler, and the two became close friends in the ring. At a time when Virudhunagar, then called Virudhupatti, was rife with theft, the town’s businessmen – mostly, Pandiyakannan said, from the Nadar community – hired Karupanna Thevar and his affiliates to guard their carts and godowns. He used the opportunity to become a kind of don, and eventually no one could sell anything in Virudhupatti without paying him a commission. From Pandi, he learnt that pigs are very lucrative: they eat anything and breed like anything. He made a fortune forcing the town’s sanitation workers to feed and rear his pigs for free.
Under Pandiya’s leadership, the sanitation workers go on strike against the town’s moneylenders. The moneylenders task Karupanna Thevar with getting them their money. At the same time, the businessmen that rely on Karupanna Thevar secretly want him gone. He doesn’t keep his pigs penned, but lets them loose in the town. His battalions of pigs destroy shops and attack people. Too scared to anger Karupanna Thevar, they complain to the municipality chairman, who strikes a deal with Pandi to put a stop to the strongman.
The municipality announces that pigs are no longer allowed in public and Pandi rounds up a group to catch and kill Karuppana Thevar’s pigs. In retaliation, Karuppana Thevar’s men invade the sanitation workers’ colony, breaking into houses and raping women. Fed up with the unrelenting violence they are subjected to, the sanitation workers go on strike, leaving the entire town foul and stinking. Pandi and a few others go into hiding.
Readers are unlikely to find anywhere else such intricate accounts of sanitation work – which, in conversation, Pandiyakannan called “a permanent war, a daily battle with death.”
The municipality is in crisis. The authorities and the police go to the colony and lure whoever they can into breaking the strike with the promise of higher pay and permanent jobs. They take them to the composting lot in lorries, separate the men and women, lock them up, torture them and rape them. They try to find out where Pandi is, but fail. They give everyone in the lot new clothes and some gruel, split them into pairs and take them into the town to clean the drains in the streets and houses under police supervision. They force the workers to clean shit, shards of glass and the corpses of chickens, dogs and pigs, all with their bare hands.
A journalist documents some of these atrocities and soon the jilla collector is forced to announce that he will dismiss the entire police force – although this never happens. The news reaches Pandi and he and his group strike back. They break into the houses of the town’s authorities and connect their taps to their septic tanks. The next morning, it is septic waste that they pour into their coffee.
The municipality announces that the jilla collector is coming the next day. He wants to reach a settlement with the workers and promises that none of them will be punished. Pandi and three others go to meet him. The police ambush them and drag them, unconscious, to jail. In lock-up, they are stripped naked and denied food and water. They are beaten and doused in septic waste.
They are taken to court as the accused in a fake case: among other charges, it says they stole Karupanna Thevar’s pigs. In court, however, the truth emerges. Pandi and his comrades are given three months for breaking and entering. Karupanna Thevar, accused in other cases, gets seven years – but is later released in three.
Pandi as a Kuravar, officially classified as a member of the Scheduled Castes, and Karupanna Thevar as a Maravar, and so part of Tamil Nadu’s Backward Classes, are unlikely friends – relations between the two groups are typically strained. Their bond grows out of estrangement from their respective communities, and both cross boundaries their people don’t usually cross: Karupanna Thevar joins an all-Dalit club to learn wrestling, Pandi proves himself in a party dominated by the landed castes. Both look to the Dravidian parties to fulfil their aspirations and work for them as campaigners, brokers and enforcers. Both are deceived and turned against each other by the same parties. The municipality, the police, the moneylenders and the merchants simultaneously hire Pandi to get rid of Karupanna Thevar and Karupanna Thevar to get rid of Pandi.
Ultimately, they are responsible for the atrocities depicted in Salavaan.
As much as Pandiyakannan’s novel documents a community and a place, it also documents how a political movement that offered hope to the marginalised betrayed them. I asked Pandiyakannan why he wrote the novel. He said, “I want people to know that this has been the experience of previous generations and that it should never be repeated.”
The events portrayed at the end of Salavaan took place in the 1970s. In 1993, the Indian government passed a law banning both the employment of manual scavengers and the construction of dry latrines. In 2013, it passed another law extending the ban to cover the cleaning of not just dry latrines but also drains and septic tanks, and also to provide measures for the rehabilitation of sanitation workers, including compensation for the families of workers who die on the job.
The implementation of these laws has been fraught and inconsistent. In a 2019 article for the Tamil edition of The Hindu, the journalist Jeyarani writes that going by India’s last census, from 2011, there are about 800,000 manual scavengers in the country. “Everywhere else in the world, sanitation work is no different from any other work,” she states. “Sanitation workers are accorded the same protections, compensation and dignity as other workers … But in India, sanitation work remains a caste occupation. It remains part of the practice of untouchability.” Laws and technological progress, she argues, are of limited use as long India remains a caste society.
Pandiyakannan describes manual scavenging without overt condemnation, without lectures on the dignity or degradation of labour. He describes it as one should describe anything: with precision. His prose is all the more powerful for it.
According to data collected by the Tamil Nadu division of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a movement for the eradication of manual scavenging led by Bezwada Wilson, the state recorded the second highest number of manual-scavenging deaths across the country over the last five years. The filmmaker Divya Bharathi has shown in her documentary Kakoos that, in instances of such deaths, the families of the deceased rarely receive the full compensation the government owes them.
Pandiyakannan is cynical about present efforts to end manual scavenging. “All that is fake,” he said. “Our society needs to treat certain people like animals to confirm their own humanity. Nothing is possible as long as that need persists.” When pushed, however, he admitted to having some hope and faith in a political solution, but with one caveat: “We need our own political parties and organisations. We can’t work with any of the existing ones.”
He continues to write and document unaddressed parts of Tamil Nadu’s history. In 2003, over one million teachers and government workers went on strike to protest delayed salaries and cuts to pensions and benefits. The Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was in power in Tamil Nadu at the time, with J Jayalalithaa as the chief minister. Her government responded with mass arrests and violence, and dismissed some two hundred thousand government employees – perhaps the largest such dismissal in history. Pandiyakannan’s next novel is about his experiences participating in the strike.
If, as Milan Kundera said, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” then writers like Pandiyakannan deserve our attention.
Ashik Kahina is a writer and translator. He currently divides his time between Chennai and Jaffna.