Round Table India talked to Joe D’Cruz on 12th July, 2015.
Joe D’ Cruz is a renowned Tamil writer, novelist, famous for his novels, Aazhi Soozh Ulagu, and Korkai. Joe D’ Cruz hails from the coastal village Uvari in Tamil Nadu and his novels and his works revolve around the life, struggle, history, culture, and other marks of the coastal people in Tamil Nadu. His novel Korkai published in the year 2009 won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2013. The interview took place amidst growing ostracisation of the writer in the literary circle, which could be seen as a result of his social background.
You have been under a series of attacks, the latest being a case filed by Meenavar Viduthalai Iyakkam. Unlike many others who were vociferously supported by mainstream media and mainstream liberal groups, there seems to be a strange silence with regard to your issue. There seems to be a conspiracy to silence you.
First of all, the organization called Meenavar Viduthalai Iyakkam is not an organisation at all. It is run by an individual and is the kind of organization one calls as a ‘letter-pad organisation’. The individual is doing such things to serve his vested interests. Some people have these qualities—if they wish to hog the limelight, they would take issue with someone who is popular and is in the limelight.
As far as I know, there have been no adverse comments on my works Aazhi Soozh Ulagu and Korkai. I do not consider all these as controversies or as issues—these relate to an individual person and that’s about it. I am neither in a position to seek support nor in a position to demand an audience with regard to these issues. I do not think it is needed either. These issues have piqued the attention of the media very much—many news channels, predominantly the English ones, came to my house without my asking. I do not pay much heed to such attention. I am a people’s servant and not a full-time politician. I mean, you can see the condition in which I live. I work in a company for food and survival and I work for the cause of my people as it makes me happy. If I could pawn my works for personal gains, for making money, or for political mileage, it could have changed my material circumstances. But, even if you come and see me after a year or so, you would see me living in the same conditions.
There have been some comments from certain sections that Joe D’Cruz is creating a fuss, all of a sudden, to gain popularity. But (in a stern and angry tone) I never volunteered to speak to anyone about these issues, and I do not need to do it. I know very well that the society will not offer me a golden crown, for I speak the truth. Since I speak the truth there would naturally be some protest from the society, from the community. My community lurks in darkness and leads a primitive lifestyle. When I tell them about their history, their culture, their embracement of Christianity and so on, and when I ask them to seek the truth, it creates a lot of questions and there arises a big question on their lives lived in the darkness—these questions and questionings will lead to a solution.
When someone rises up from the community and speaks up to the society that it is painful to be oppressed—when I speak up the truth—it creates a lot of anger. This is because, the people who get angry feel that we, the community, have to live in oppression, lead a low life, live in darkness, so that they could be our saviours. I mentioned in another interview that if the poor people fail to remain poor, if they gain mobility and attain economic development, the so-called godfathers of the poor, the so-called saviours, their basic existence would have no meaning. I am talking of the ones who claim to hold the oppressed—the scheduled castes, the Arunthathiyars—close.
The so-called saviours, if you see, who these saviours are—they are always the upper-castes. It is those who are at the top of the social ladder, who pose for pictures with us, hold meetings about us at five-star hotels. You see, they will not care to take the ones they claim to protect to these hotels, but they will take the photographs and videos of the oppressed for elite audiences to portray themselves as the saviors of the oppressed. While doing so, you will see them in International flights, you will see them attending international conferences and seminars, and it is a five-star, no, a seven-star lifestyle that they lead. But, if someone from the Arunthathiyar, Pallar, Paraiyar or fisherfolk community comes up and speaks up, they would want us to get killed, they would dare to kill too, because we tell the truth and they don’t like to hear the truth. We have come to write; despite knowing that such things happen, very much anticipating these things and these people.
To serve the cause of people is similar to what Avvaiyar said, Aram Seyya Virumbu (love for the righteous thing). When you are instilled with this love for what is righteous, support for peoples’ causes will happen automatically. What has happened to me is the conspiracy of those who showcase themselves to be righteous, but are not in reality righteous.
I have not said much about this issue in any forums, but I have always maintained that these groups which conspire to silence the voices from the oppressed communities, which sideline those who rise from the oppressed, are my enemies and are not my people. Even in Uvari, people had put up placards and banners in praise of me and there were greetings placed in the Uvari Church, which I see as a form of recognition. My people have supported me.
Like you said, publisher S Anand of Navayana and translator V Geetha, both of whom refused to go ahead with the publication of the translated version of your award-winning novel, Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean Ringed World), epitomise such liberal groups who conspire to silence the voices of the oppressed. In a way, your ostracisation started with S Anand and V Geetha’s decision not to publish the translated version of your novel.
Before commenting on that, I would like to tell you about Dhritarashtra alingan in Mahabharata. Dhritarashtra is a selfish, self-centered person, keen only on his and his children’s welfare. One can say that the entire unfolding of Mahabharata is a result of this attitude of Dhritarashtra. One of his peculiar qualities is that, when he dislikes someone, he would embrace the person and in the process smother him/her to death. I see such groups as possessing this particular quality of Dhritarashtra—they make sure that they keep you under their control and smother you to death.
I did not know about the existence of Navayana and do not maintain any relations with the publisher. I have been greatly involved in the process of translating Aazhi Soozh Ulagu along with V Geetha. Everyone knows how difficult it is to read this novel due to the dialect used in it. It is impossible to translate the book without the help of the author. I neither knew about V Geetha’s political inclination or ideology at the time, nor did I care to know. V Geetha was among the first few who called me and praised my novel at the time of its publication. She volunteered to translate the novel in English and I agreed. For close to three and a half years I worked with her, clarified a lot of things for her, and cared for and gave attention to the translation process—I checked each and every word of the translation to make sure that the meaning and context were not lost during the process.
The Sahitya Akademi Award for the novel Korkai was not announced at the time and many asked me why Aazhi Soozh Ulagu was yet to be translated. I used to think it is due to the difficulty in translating the book, but I also felt that there was a deliberate move to stifle the book from being presented to a wider readership. The people who swear by mother Tamil, who claim to be the loyal servants of Tamil—the ones who claim to even breathe Tamil—these people have thrived talking about Tamil, but have done little service to it. They are the ones who have violated mother Tamil. It is one thing to translate foreign scholars, but is it not important to translate the works of Tamil scholars and literati to other languages as well? There have been hardly any efforts undertaken in this direction.
If my novels are translated and presented to a worldwide readership, it would register the presence of my community in the popular psyche at a larger scale. I often say that there is this particular community which thrives in our society—the brahmins—constituting about three to four percent of this country’s population. Everybody knows about their presence, their life, and that they thrive. A community that does not even constitute four percent of the population lives in the popular imagination of the entire society. There is, however, a community called Pirada Vannaan, and how many would even care if the Pirada Vannaan thrives or not? The reason is that there is no documentation of the lives of such communities. It is important to document our lives—there has to be poetry, prose, commentaries, short stories, novels—and such documentation has to keep coming. Else, these communities will not even be considered as part of our society. This understanding has come to people like me only recently. It is only now that my eyes are wide open to this reality. This (process of documentation) cannot be done by one single individual and requires the effort of thousands of individuals. When such individuals come out, speak up, it is a threat to the existence of the so-called saviours and they will do everything to stifle such voices, and employ tactics to divert these individuals from these endeavours.
If one group opposes us directly, the other, which travels with us, employs certain methods to misdirect us.
V Geetha is talented and has clarity in her understanding of society. She was the one who introduced Navayana to me and told me that S Anand would do his best to promote my book. I went to Delhi for some work and got to meet Anand there. At the very first instance he commented that, “It is not that great a work (referring to the novel) and I can give you a maximum of twenty-five thousand rupees. I can arrange for five to six reviews and you will get five copies of the (translated version) book. This is the best I can do for you.” This was the offer. As its author my work is a priceless gem for me. That is how every writer feels. He did not even understand this basic impulse of a writer and talked solely in terms of money. As far as my economic condition goes, I am the President of a shipping company. So I do not need money. I expect recognition and valued criticism from intelligent readers. You can understand how I would have felt to see the ugly mindset of this person. I came to Chennai and apprised V Geetha of Anand’s response but she insisted that he would promote the book well. The agreement was signed at V Geetha’s residence and I left it to these people to proceed further. I work in a commercial establishment and know the value of a legal document (the agreement). There is a binding on the party to publish my work.
It is then that the Sahitya Akademi Award was announced, and after receiving the award, around April 2014 or so, I posted my support for Modi on Facebook. I do not associate with the ideology of the BJP, or any political party, or their communalism, etc. I was a layman when I started out in my company and I have climbed to a position without any favour or recommendation. For someone like me, who is from the fishing community, to rise to a certain position, it takes a certain journey. I see Narendra Modi as an individual who has climbed the ranks, after coming from an ordinary background. He is a tea vendor’s son after all. I am not singing paeans to Modi, but I see him as an individual who rose from the lower rungs. He appeared to be the best prime ministerial candidate at the time. I see him as someone who came after a lot of struggle, someone for whom it would not have been that easy to sail through the ranks of BJP—there would have been great efforts to sideline him. I saw him as someone who knows pain, humiliation, and hunger. Do you think Rahul Gandhi would know any such pains? Does he know hunger? Would he have seen a ten rupee note, or for that matter even a thousand rupee note? Does he have the need to? This was the thinking behind my support of Modi.
After this statement, I went to Mumbai for a shipping conference and while I was there, there were a series of calls from V Geetha, who excitedly informed me that my Facebook account was hacked and a statement was posted in support of Modi. I clarified to her politely that it was indeed I who had made the statement. She asked me to change my stance and that it did not adhere to her principles. She told me that she would not publish the translated version of my novel. I said okay but added that the agreement had legal ramifications and I can sue them if they did not respect the contract. But she did not relent. I came down to Chennai and there was such a hue and cry—my communist friends were calling on me asking for clarifications. There was tremendous pressure to strangulate me, my decision. I could have utilised the opportunity—they simply asked me to claim that my account was hacked, but I stood my ground.
You have explained your decision to support Modi, and the kind of ostracisation you faced from the so-called liberal brigade as a result of the decision. But we understand that Navayana’s publisher, S Anand, had no qualms in working with an upper-caste sympathiser of Modi, Bibek Debroy, for preparing the annotated edition of Dr Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste. Do you think Modi is a red herring here? Do you think there was a larger issue at play?
This is all about politics. On the one hand they would have a Modi sympathiser in their ranks, and on the other they would employ the discourse around Modi to silence people like me.
There are certain people who claim to be the supporters of Periyar, who brought revolutionary changes to Tamil Nadu. These people live off the fame of Periyar by claiming to be his supporters. But they are actually an insult to the fame and glory of Periyar. In the same way, these people who claim to be supporters of Ambedkar, who live off the fame of Ambedkar, are indeed an insult to Ambedkar’s legacy.
Can you brief us about the plight of fishing communities in general? We understand that unlike the mainland communities who can claim ownership over land, fishing communities cannot claim any ownership over the ocean. What they possess is nothing but labour.
Yes. The sea is the common property of the fisherfolk. Fishing communities can be classified into three, the traditional fisherfolk, the occupational fisherfolk, and the commercial folk. Traditional fisherfolk are by birth fishermen, like the Koli community in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. They can be easily identifiable as the oppressed. And here, in islands such as Pazhavarkadu, and in coastal areas, you can see communities such as Pattinavar, Siriya Pattinavar, Valayar, Valaignar, Kadayar, Paravar, Muthurayar, Ambalakarar, Naataar, Palli, Sembadavar, Odakaran, Bharathar, Mukkuvar etc.There are about 21 communities, collectively known as Bharathavars. The members of these communities are fishermen by birth—our nature is such that, we see the ocean as our Thaai (mother), and she is a common property of all, she is our Kadalamma (mother ocean).
Joe D’Cruz with his mother.
The traditional fisherfolk have this deep sense of care and affection for the sea and the seashore. The occupational fisherfolk are the ones who have migrated to the seashore from the mainland in search of economic opportunities and employment. One cannot see any hierarchy in the communities coming from the mainland, and we can simply call them occupational fisherfolk. They may not worship the sea and may not consider the ocean as their mother. Though there are certain differences between the occupational fisherfolk and the traditional fishing communities, the former’s existence cannot be contrasted with the latter. It is just that these communities would have worshipped the land as their mother, the fields and the mountains as their mother, as Aathaa, as it is the fields and the land that would have fed them. Basically, we do not face any problems from these communities. There is this third category, the commercial folk, a class of men who have risen from both the traditional and occupational fishing communities and just see commercial interest in the ocean. They draw strength from new technologies that are indifferent to the ocean. They may not even constitute about two percent of the entire fishing communities. They do not see the ocean as their mother—they violate her. Do you understand?
How do you see the existence of caste hierarchy among the fishing communities, say that of the Paravars in Kanyakumari – the Fernando castes who are located at the bottom of this hierarchy? What do you think would have led to the creation of this gradation/stratification among the fishing communities?
I come from one such community as well. There is this community called Paninthavar (meaning subservient) in Pondicherry—there are around some 150 families there. They are the traditional fishing folk, no doubt about that—but at a particular period in time, they were made to do certain chores that were considered infra dig—these families were made to do these chores across many generations. One can see the making of a caste hierarchy here. But, we are all Bharathavars. There are communities such as Pandi, Nattar, Karayar, Kadayar—some of the communities are in the SC list, like the ones who fetch salt, for example. But all people who reside by the seashore are one, we are all Bharathavars. At certain points in time, some would have been chiefs/kings, some would have been merchants. For example, the Chettiyars were once fishermen. If you ask them about it now they may not admit it. They must have made money by selling pearls and then would have built their bungalows. If one were to think of tribal warfare and ancient kingdoms, do you think an army venturing into the sea to conquer alien lands could have done it without the help of the fishing folk? For people to travel across the sea and to wage war in foreign lands are no mean feats and could have not been possible without the help of the fisherfolk. I am saying this to underscore the fact that, all these fishing communities, if we were to consider them in all these aspects and roles, could be identified as one social group, as Bharathavars. I want to work with the youngsters of all these communities and forge a common identity for us—of the Bharathavars.
This social stratification, its rigidity, is a result of social stagnation. Whichever were the dominant castes eventually created the principles that set us apart and divide us. Have you played this balloon game in your childhood, where children compete with each other to blow their respective balloons? If you had observed, there would always be one person who would keep a distance from this fight and watch the rest fight and cry. This person would have not wasted any of his energy, and his balloon would be safe as well. When the other children finally realise that there is this one person who has stayed aloof and venture forth to blow his balloon, they would have already lost much of their energy. Our communities are like this—we fight among ourselves, lose all our energies. Intelligent, enlightened communities should move forward, instead of quarrelling with and hating each other.
Do you see the Mandaikadu incident1 in the same light? The riots that happened in Kanyakumari?
Bhagavathi Amman1 is our Aathaa. There were vested interests on both sides. Hindu Nadars and Bharathavars share the same goddess. Once this is realised there will be progress. But vested interests do not want us to recognise this unity. We are all connected to each other. Brahmins or Nadars or Vellalars or Bharathavars—we all come from the same Aatha and should not stay apart from each other. It is the ignorance of this fact that created the riots. A fundamental aspect is that there is a relationship that runs across communities that can be traced back in time. It is after all, the brothers who fought among themselves in Mahabharatha, isn’t it?
You envision an egalitarian society. What do you think would be the right kind of politics to stand by? What kind of political solution do you envision, as a writer and as someone who is concerned about these communities?
Like I said earlier, there needs to be dedication and realisation, or what you call consciousness among the oppressed communities. I think there is growing consciousness among many communities—there is a realisation among the Pallars, Paraiyars, and so on that there is a void among them. I do not think the Brahmins would have had such a realisation. They believe that they are intelligent, but there is a certain decline in the horizon. The realisation among the communities that there is a certain void among them and in their capacities, and that they need to build themselves is the key here. I see this realisation, in a way, dawned as a result of the tensions among our communities. They say that for three thousand years there had been stratification. But every community in India remembers a time—not in the distant past—when they were the owners of land and in our case, when we were the rulers of the sea. If for three thousand years we were enslaved by the edicts of Manusmriti, then how is it that we still have claims to ritual honours in certain temples where Brahmins preside over as priests? I see this as a churning and as a process through which our society develops. Some use terms such as thesis and anti-thesis. There is a certain process here. The popular adage is that life is a cycle and that the ones at the bottom would rise and vice-versa. You know the Chakkiliyar community members were Rajas in Rayalaseema at one point of time and are now considered degraded. There is a realisation in this direction, and this process will pave the way for such (degraded) communities to rise again.
You see this as a process of dialectics?
You cannot define Indian society through borrowed concepts. There is dialectics but more than dialectics there is an ecological unity. The society is poised to grow out of not just conflicts but also through mutual understanding, respect, and love. People only see one side, the conflict, but there is a certain process of development. That is how I see it.
There is certain clarity in the way we see ourselves, our society, and there is a growing consciousness among ourselves. Do you think the seeds sowed by Dr Ambedkar and Periyar would remain fecund? They are poised to grow into giant trees. We are at a certain phase in this process of growth. Our children and grandchildren will reap benefits from those giant trees. That is why we write, document, and narrate our stories and histories.
You were talking about Dr Ambedkar and Periyar. What do you think about the Communist leader Singaravelu, who hails from the fishing community? Dalit-Bahujans have accepted Dr Ambedkar and Periyar as their leaders, but Singaravelu has not quite morphed into a leader and a rallying point for them.
Singaravelu is a great thinker and his contributions to the society are significant. It is true that he is not seen by the community as a leader. But unlike most Marxists he has not forgotten his roots. We have to take his thinking forward. Marxism has been failing repeatedly. It is time to appreciate Singaravelu as an original thinker rooted in our soil. I think this has to happen and one has to make it happen.
You mentioned the Koli community in Maharashtra. Newspapers have been recently reporting about a coastline road project – for elite car owners who constitute a small fraction of the population – that will result in the eviction of many Kolis from their land. There has been a spike in the number of clearances from the environment ministry for such projects along the coastal areas.
This phenomenon has been widespread. Why, even in Nochikuppam over here, there have been many instances of displacement. But look at how MRC Nagar in the same coastal line has developed. Justice has to be common to one and all. We need to highlight our sufferings. Our people are suffering in the name of development without reaping any benefits. We need to react diligently, without compromising, and reap the benefits of development, without giving up our traditional rights on our natural resources. We have to be co-creators of the development process and should not become victims of the pro-rich development agendas. Modi has always spoken about inclusive development. We, the marginalised communities, as both equal citizens and as enlightened voices, have to make sure that inclusive development happens.
How do you look at the process of conversion among certain fishing communities to Christianity? It is seen that it has helped the communities in terms of educational mobility, among other things?
There needs to be clarity when we use the term ‘conversion.’ There has been no conversion to Christianity. There is a certain trait/temperament among my people. We worship Kumari (Lady Goddess of Kanyakumari) as Aathaa (mother/goddess). I consider Siva as my grandfather. Murugan/Skandan as my machaan (brother-in-law). These deities are in a way our forefathers. I worship them, just as I would worship my father and that is how I worship Yesunathar (Jesus). This is our culture. Do not consider this as merely a question of religion and make it sound dogmatic or barbaric. I worship my father. Who are you to question it?
The Portuguese came with vested interests, as business was their sole motive. They introduced Jesus as their forefather and that is how we accepted Jesus as our forefather as well. You can see the portrait of Murugan (pointing towards the shelves), just as you can see the portraits of Jesus and St Anthony. This is not about religion per se; this is our culture and spirituality.
We see Lord Murugan as a human, as our forefather, just as Kannagi (Legendary Tamil woman character in epic Silapathigaram worshipped as Goddess) is. That is how we came to embrace Jesus as our forefather. It is wrong to see this as an issue related to religion. This is our culture and nobody can question it. There has been some progress (referring to Christianity) in terms of education and other things. They are just offshoots of the political interest of the coloniser. The education has also made us the coloniser’s clerks. We cannot forego our culture and turn into just clerks.
Can you make a comparison between your novel Aazhi Soozh Ulagu and Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea.’ The themes and background of both the novels are brilliant and one can find many parallels.
I had recently written a preface to the novel for another Tamil publication. As a lay reader, without any prejudice or foregone conclusion, the novel attracted me. A writer’s success is in immersing the reader in the frequency at which a particular work is composed. As a person born in the Neithal tiṇai (the Sangam poetic device which refers to the sea-shore and its associated life), and as someone who takes utmost interest in and appreciates each and every aspect of this landscape, Old Man and the Sea is dear to me. I felt as if every word in the novel was written for me. If I had gotten a chance to read this novel beforehand, I feel Aazhi Soozh Ulagu could have been written in a better fashion. The sea-waves, the sand, the landscape peculiar to Neithal, the hospitality of the people, the distinct dialect and vocabulary of the sea-faring people, the hand-wrestling competitions, and the wins and losses of individuals, all such themes peculiar to Neithal have been beautifully brought out by Hemingway. The novel traverses the imbalances seen in the life and culture of Neithal. The individual likes and dislikes, the temperaments, yearnings, sorrow and almost every aspect of the old man Santiago’s journey in the sea made me recall my own Thatha (grandfather) Thomas Andrew’s courage and stewardship.
The sand mafia in Nellai coast has created a lot of tension among the fishing hamlets.
Yes, this is a problem I am deeply concerned about. It is highly condemnable.
How do you see technological advancement in fishing and the changes that it has induced?
I am not against technology per se. Some of it has become indispensable to our life. The problem is with the imposition of technologies that are unnecessary and the ones that are used to make short-term and private gains. The question is who owns the technology and who decides on the uses of it. If the fishermen were to design, own, and use technology for themselves, there would have been a different picture altogether.
You were also associated with the Tamil movie Maryan. What do you think about the portrayal of the fisherfolk community in movies?
The way the community is portrayed is insulting as there is a lot of prejudice involved in the way movies portray the fisherfolk. I do not know if any of these film makers has ever set foot on any of our hamlets. I do not think they have any idea about our lives or struggles.
[Questions were framed by James Michael, Kadhiravan and Arun.]
1. The Mandaikadu incident refers to what is seen as the Hindu-Christian riots during 1982 in Kanyakumari district owing to alleged abuses on Goddess Bhagavathi Amman also known as Kanya Kumari. The timeline is important as the hardline organization Hindu Munnani, seen as instrumental in catalyzing the riots was formed as a reaction to mass conversion of Dalits to Islam at Meenakshipuram in the preceding year. The riot could be seen as a conspiracy of Brahmanism.
Kadhiravan works in a public sector bank. Arun is a Christian Bahujan and has submitted his thesis for completing his PhD. He hails from the coastal area of Karaikal. James Michael is an independent researcher based in Mumbai.