SUBALTERN SPEAK : Meena Kandasamy


City-based poet, writer and translator Meena Kandasamy lends her voice for the historically oppressed

By Lakshmi Krupa

In urban India, where caste, seemingly, does not interfere with day-to-day activities, many take the life opportunities they are offered for granted, even as caste cripples the lives and careers of a vast majority. It is this realisation that, in a broad sense, led 26-year-old city-based Meena Kandasamy to examine caste from close quarters and lend her voice for the sake of the oppressed. “I come from a very mixed background–almost four different backward castes including a Dalit,: she says, at the beginning of our discussion that lasts a good half hour, even as she traces her own life experiences and brush with political awakening.”My grandparents and my parents had an inter-caste marriage adding eclecticism to my identity,” Meena explains.

From 1997, around the time of Ambedkar’s centennial celebrations, when his thoughts  and writings gained momentum again, Meena’s interest in the subject grew deeper. “The Dalit Panthers were also on the rise when my understanding of Dalit issues was increasing and soon after finishing school, I started edited a bimonthly magazine, The Dalit, that was being brought out by the Tamil Nadu-based Dalit Media Network,” she says. Meena has also translated the works of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panthers Party) leader, Thol.Thirumavalavan, including his speeches and books. “I have noticed that the market sells only Dalit first-person accounts on oppression and poetry and there really isn’t much in English that talks about their take on politics and what the thinking Dalit wants, and so I decided to translate Thol’s works,” she adds.

Born to academicians whose “careers staggered because of caste” Meena decided to focus on writing poetry and published her first collection, Touch, in August 2006 and worked for the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka soon after. “I grew up in Chepauk and as a child of the 80s, the Lankan Tamil issue was something I had heard about a lot and was familiar with almost everything that was happening,” she says. In 2007, she wrote a blog post about the death of Tamilselvan adn was then invited by TamilNet, “a newswire service that was independently reporting the war from Lanka” to wrier. Many people from war-torn areas in Sri Lanka would talk about what was really happening on the ground over Skype. I would receive these conversations (in Tamil) from Norway and spend hours translating them to English,” she adds.

Caste is not only self-defeating, Meena observes, but also reflects directly on the control a society exercises over a women’s sexuality. “If the system does not allow a woman to marry a man because he is from another caste, like honour killings for instance, is it not a direct oppression of her sexuality?” she asks. Caste identity, she says, is a double-edged sword in the sense that while it allows her to speak on certain issues boldly as she herself a part of the community, it also shuts the doors in many other areas. “I cannot escape that identity, it is who I am,” she says with a smile and continues, “But sometimes, even in my artistic work, critics look for political meanings while I yearn for a critical acknowledgement for exactly what it stands!”

So is politics on the cards for this youngster? “Never! Now I have the freedom to say what I want without sugar-coating it,” Meena says with a laugh. “But what I would like to see is an intense politicisation of our people; for them to be aware and make demands from governments. When people lack basic sanitation facilities what good will a television set do?” she asks, before signing off.

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