Upon its publication in 1996, the Kannada writer Siddalingaiah’s autobiography Ooru Keri (Neighbourhood) was immediately judged to be one of the most significant works of Dalit writing in Kannada. What was distinctive about it was that, as the great Kannada literary critic DR Nagaraj pointed out, it resounded with a “poor man’s laughter”, taking joy in the many pleasures of both childhood and adulthood that cannot be suppressed even by the most iniquitous social structures.
The first chapter of Ooru Keri, ‘Magadi and Manchanabele’, is a beautiful account of Siddalingaiah’s childhood set within the frames of family, caste, high religion and folk religion, school, and perhaps most importantly landscape—a landscape that, as in Pasternak, teems with life and seems to redeem human acts of injustice and spite. Of course, Siddalingaiah’s story is not fiction, not even by the current convention of seeing memoir as a construct that is also ‘fictional’. But equally, reading the account of the “I” of this piece of autobiographical prose, we see that, like the pooris that are so rarely available to the child Siddalingaiah and are always viewed and eaten with wonder, fiction too may be a kind of luxury good not available to all, and sometimes the fiction writer’s instinct expresses itself more coherently in other prose forms. Poetic and ruminative, Ooru Keri appears this month in an English translation by SR Ramakrishna, published by Navayana as A Word With You, World: The Autobiography of a Poet.
OURS WAS THE LAST HOUSE in the Dalit colony. There had once been a house beyond ours, but its roof had collapsed, and mud walls, three or four feet high, were all that remained of it. Like me, children from the other houses climbed onto the squat walls and peered into the distance for a glimpse of their parents returning from work. We sometimes shouted out to them to come home soon. Whether they could hear or see us from such a distance we didn’t know. The fields, owned by a man called Ainoru, stretched some five or six hundred feet beyond these walls. His beautiful house stood on the land, as did a huge well and a pump cabin. The water from this pump irrigated his fields. As for the people of our colony, it was a big thing if we got any water to drink. Our people trudged to a flower garden some distance away and fetched water from the well near it. I never saw anyone but Dalits fetching water from this well.