Review Article by Chandan Gowda “Ooru-Kéri: An Autobiography,” by Siddalingaiah. Translated from Kannada by S.R.Ramakrishna, published by Sahitya Akademi, 2003. 115 pages1 Rs.60.
Siddalingaiah is a rare figure in contemporary India. A writer, poet, folklorist, academic, founder of Dalit Sangarsha Samhiti and former member of the Karnataka Legislative Council, Siddalingaiah is an exemplary public intellectual. First published in 1996, his autobiography has already been translated into Tamil. It is fortunate that he has become accessible to an English audience at least now. The autobiography presents, in capsule form, events from Siddalingaiah’s childhood to the start of his adult career. Dates are absent in this book; they do not matter for this meditative autobiography. Siddalingaiah was born to a poor Dalit family near Magadi in Karnataka. Fortunate in having helpful relatives, his family moved to the Srirampura slum in Bangalore when he had finished his second standard in school. He soon developed an interest in studies and also became known for his oratory in high school. His unforgettable miniature sketches of his family relations, his hostel, his friends, his schoolteachers and the various characters in the slum are suffused with light-hearted wit and moral seriousness. Siddalingaiah’s wit holds us in splits while also reminding us of the absurdity of social hierarchies.
The book remarkably illustrates a political function of wit. An example: “A lecturer used to feel thirsty in class. He would give me the key to his Godrej almirah and ask me to fetch water. I would do as told. He was very orthodox. Why he still chose me to fetch water became a subject of discussion in class. He had mistaken me for a Lingayat. I was liberated from the task of fetching water after he came to know my caste (pg 76).” Siddalingaiah’s interest in poetry grew in high school. “For some reason,” he writes, he “liked the sprawling graveyard” near his slum where “lines of poetry came of their own accord.” He started taking an active interest in politics after he joined the Government Arts College in Bangalore. Skilled in public speaking, he soon became active in campus organizations. He also came into contact with political outfits like the CPI and CPI (M). Eventually, he along with Devanoor Mahadeva and B. Krishnappa founded Dalit Sangharsa Samhiti, the first statewide political organization of Dalits in Karnataka. It is delightful to read Siddalingaiah’s encounters with big political and literary figures of Karnataka at this time like Devraj Urs, P Lankesh, GS Sivarudrappa, Ki Ram Nagaraj, DR Nagaraj, Devanoor Mahadeva, among others.
Ooru-Keri takes us into a world screened from the view of the urban middle classes in India. The Dalits’ vulnerabilities amidst caste and class violence; their moral worlds; their gods and goddesses; the life-affirming acts of affection within their community: all of these are grippingly narrated in the autobiography. Transcendent values hold this book: a profound respect for life, faith in non-violence, and compassion. It is clear that Siddalingaiah, like Gandhi, conceives politics within a spiritual framework. The philosophical implications of this autobiography are profound and space permits me to only hint at them here. In a relation where one does not recognize the other as equal, are the dominated locked in struggle with the dominant? Frantz Fanon, the famous Algerian psychiatrist, thought so and argued that only a violent engagement would set the dominated free. Siddalingaiah offers a powerful, alternate perspective. He affirms his selfhood without a trace of resentment towards vicious social games while also quietly doubting the value of the very things prized in those games. A philosophy for a liberation of the self is present in the book in unarticulated form; it requires careful interpretation.
The autobiography is also a tacit consideration of the ethics and aesthetics of memory. It silently engages with two big questions: Why must we remember painful incidents? How should we remember them? A struggle for social justice is not complete if the hearts of the hardhearted are not changed. Always subtle, Siddalingaiah’s comments never offend. Addressing everyone as a member of a moral community, the entire autobiography is a gentle moral suasion. Siddalingaiah briefly describes events and situations, makes us see the pain in human relations and moves on without anxiety towards eliciting the “right” responses in the reader. Ooru-Keri is without doubt a major work. The translation is awkward in some places; also, a few Kannada words sure to be unfamiliar to nonKannada readers have been retained without the support of a glossary. These are, however, minor distractions in an otherwise compelling read. Last year, Siddalingaiah’ sequel to this autobiography was serialized in a Kannada weekly. Let’s hope it gets collected as a book soon.
1. Though the book was published in 2003, it became available only in middle of 2004.
Courtesy:The Indian Express, 12/19/04 (Selected Works of Chandan Gowda)