Mariamma's shame

Mariamma, a young woman from the paraiya community, was on her way home from collecting firewood when Kumarasami, a high-caste landowner, attempted to rape her. She managed to escape and ran home. Afraid that his reputation might be in ruins, Kumarasami ca

Illustration by Savi Savarkar: Dalit painter and printmaker, born in Maharashtra, India, in 1961. The symbols are Om and the swastika, a Hindu symbol adopted by the Nazis.

An extract from a story by Bama, one of the first Dalit women writers to be recognized and translated.

The naattaamai, the headman of the paraiya community, sent word for Mariamma and Manikkam to be brought in front of him... the men gathered in front of the community hall and sat down. The women stood behind them, watching.

It was the turn of the junior naattaamai to speak: ‘Silence everyone. Here is a case where our entire community’s reputation is at risk. In a village where there are many caste communities, if someone of our caste behaves disgracefully, then it brings shame on all of us. As it is, we paraiyas are treated with contempt. And now this happens...

‘Today, Mariamma, Samudrakani’s daughter, who had been out gathering firewood, and Manikkam, son of Chellayya... left their firewood leaning against the banyan tree and went together in secret to the pump set shed belonging to Kumarasami the Mudalaali (landowner). It happened that the mudalaali came that side on an errand and saw them there together, behaving indecently.’

When he finished, everyone began muttering to each other... The junior naattaamai called out to Mariamma’s father, Samudrakani.

‘Look here, pa Samudran, tell your daughter to fall down and beg forgiveness. The village will forgive her and make her pay a small fine of 10 or 20 rupees and that will be the end of the matter. If not, tell me, can you pay off a really big fine?’

Samudrakani listened to this, went up close to his daughter and said: ‘Well, girl, you heard what he said, didn’t you? Why are you standing there like a stone then? Beg forgiveness, you bitch, I have suffered enough shame because of you.’ He stared at her in fury.

‘Ayya, I never did any of that. It was the mudalaali who tried to misbehave with me. But I escaped from him and ran away.’ She began to weep loudly.

At once some of the men at the meeting began to shout once more. ‘Do you hear that? Slut of a girl! In order to get out of it, she promptly sticks all the blame on the mudalaali. These creatures will come and dig out your eyes when you are awake.’

Half the people there agreed. Nobody spoke much after that. But the women continued to mutter among themselves.

Anandamma said: ‘It was the mudalaali who tried to rape her. She was scared out of her wits, refused him, and ran away. Now the whoreson has turned everything around and told a different tale. I actually went with her that evening to fetch the firewood that she left behind.’

‘What can you say of these men?’ Susaiamma replied sadly. ‘There’s no way of convincing them of the truth, even when we are sure of it. They never allow us to sit down at village meetings. They won’t even allow us to stand on one side, like this.’

‘It is you female chicks who ought to be humble and modest. A man may do a hundred things and still get away with it’

But Muthamma disagreed: ‘You seem to know such a lot. Her own father keeps a mistress, everyone knows that. She could be a bit of a slut herself. She might have done it, who knows?’

‘Everybody in the village knows about her father’s kept woman, even a baby who was just born the other day. Did anyone call a village meeting and question him about it? They say he’s a man: if he sees mud he’ll step into it; if he sees water, he’ll wash himself. It’s one justice for men and quite another for women.’

While they were arguing among themselves like this, some of the men came up yet again, scolded them, struck them with their shoulder cloths and drove off.

Meanwhile, Mariamma’s father stood next to her saying: ‘What’s the good of standing there like a boundary stone? You should have used your sense before it came to this. Now fall to your knees and beg forgiveness.’

But Mariamma kept standing there as if she were dead; as if she felt nothing. She didn’t say a word.

Her father got angrier still and began hitting her as hard as he could. Even then she stood still, in a state of shock.

A woman spoke again: ‘They are making the poor girl suffer so much, but do they beat the boy, Manikkam? And none of them has the brains to find out whether it wasn’t the mudalaali who was doing wrong in the first place.’

When Mariamma saw her father advancing towards her to beat her again, she was so terrified she fell down at last and asked for forgiveness. Nobody asked Manikkam to prostrate himself. After this, Mariamma was asked to pay a fine of 200 rupees and Manikkam a fine of 100 rupees.

The naattaamai finished the proceedings by saying: ‘It is you female chicks who ought to be humble and modest. A man may do a hundred things and still get away with it. You girls should consider what you are left with, in your bellies.’

Manikkam’s father paid 50 rupees straight away, and brought a big brass vessel as guarantee for the rest of the money he owed.

Poor Mariamma didn’t even have a paisa in hand. Her father sent the younger daughter Annamma home to fetch the big brass vessel.

Mariamma didn’t sleep a wink that night. She even thought that it might be best to hang herself with a rope. She sat and wept all night long. Her little sister, Annamma, tried to comfort her by saying: ‘Don’t cry, Akka (big sister), please don’t cry.’ Their youngest sister, Seyakkodi, sat up in bed and began to whimper. At this, Mariamma patted her to sleep and lay down at last.

Extracted with permission, from Bama’s book Sangati: Events published by Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India, translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström, Oxford University Press (2005).