In our second Books for Now session, we spent time with the autobiography of Dalit poet Siddalingiah Ooru Keri in its English translation, A Word with You, World. Siddalingiah’s Ooru Keri, which was written in two parts in 1996 and the early 2000s. It was published in S.R. Ramakrishna’s translation by Navayana. Find the book in our online store.
This session was led by Vijeta Kumar, a writer and professor of English at St Joseph’s college, whose writing we admire. She chose this text as the book for now, that moment in India before CoVid19 took over the airwaves — when anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests were flowering across the country, even as we saw sobering riots in Delhi. Vijeta invited law student and activist Kiruba for a conversation about what they loved about this book, and why it is relevant for us to read.
Here we present to you a broad summary with a few audio recordings of Vijeta and Kiruba reading out their favourite sections from the text.
Why Ooru Keri or A Word with Us, Now, for Books for Now?
This is a question we had asked Vijeta when we invited her to lead a session on Books for Now at Champaca.
For Vijeta, Ooru Keri was a book that she turned to in moments like the ones we lived in, in March 2020, with anti-CAA protests raging and the noise of the world pressing in on us, and there were so many questions that had no easy answers. This book made her laugh and helped her find a place in the noisy world in which we lived, and a book that helped her look closely to see where she fit into all of it.
Kiruba and Vijeta chose sections of the books that they loved the most; about Siddalingiah’s favourite quiet time spot that was a graveyard, his visits to various eateries in the city, his tales about travelling in a bus for the first time, about fame and success. For Vijeta, the book deserved to be in a city or food section of a bookshelf as much as in a section on caste or translation, since it really spoke about and to a life lived in the city of Bangalore.
For Kiruba, the book was resonant with Dalit Bahujan experience in the way it quite simply pointed towards how the private was quite unavailable in an everyday sense - and how it reminded her of her own private maps of private corners in her neighbourhood where she went away to be by herself and read. She picked her favourite section of the book in which Siddalingiah spent time in a quiet graveyard.
Vijeta recalled critic D.R. Nagaraj’s assertion that the sense of the private is dimmed in Dalit autobiographies, and there no private and public in Dalit childhood. She wondered, how do you become an artist without privacy? She felt that with Siddalingiah’s writing, she saw that you don’t necessarily need a room of one’s own, and you can create rooms of your own, in quiet graveyards, noisy bus stops, noisy workplaces and under trees.
The book was a series of vignettes, in which characters do not recur, and not every story is left complete. This made Vijeta think of critic D.R. Nagaraj’s point that Dalit autobiographies can be like bonsai trees: compact, with many normals packed into one. Siddalingiah’s disregard for chronology, and the classic bildungsroman, she found, did more than merely compress a life into a book, that too with a poetic texture.
Laughter, Ambedkar and Me
Vijeta also found that while a lot of Dalit autobiographies can be full of distress, violence and victimhood (and rightly so), this one was plain funny. Siddalingiah took the risk of laughing at himself, and making the reader laugh with him, even when showing the reader tragedy, humiliation or violence. She said that the reader is left to decide how to respond, and that Siddalingiah did not give the reader “the pleasure of witnessing his humiliation.” His rage is pumped with sarcasm, and the situations we are thrown into with him do not allow for simple readings.
Siddalingiah is also famous for a story that gave Vijeta joy and guidance, and led her to B.R. Ambedkar. The story is of how Ambedkar came to be called ‘Babasahab’. The story goes that Ambedkar loved to read books as a child, but had nowhere private to read. He climbed trees with his books but had a problem: he knew to climb up, but now how to clamber down. And so he would hurl his book down when he was done, and jump down (“a leap of faith”) to get home. One day, he fell into a pile of ash or ‘boodhi’ in Kannada, and all his friends called him “Boodhisahiba”. Ambedkar retorted: “You call me Boodhisaheb now, but I will be Babasaheb later.” Vijeta called this “such a stylish story”, full of swagger, and she found a great deal of strength in it. This story of Ambedkar’s swagger is never taught in schools, she said, but Siddalingiah in telling it, opened up Ambedkar for her. And while this story is entirely made up, it does something for the Dalit reader.
Readings from the book
Vijeta and Kiruba read out their favourite sections of the books. In the link below, Vijeta reads out a passage about how Siddalingiah handled fame, and what he “looked like”.
Kiruba read a section on bus-travel and vomit, which Vijeta said, should also be considered food writing.
Vijeta and Kiruba discussed some parts of the book that are lost in translation. The Kannada, the everyday language of home, doesn’t translate that well into English. And English here cannot quite capture the nuances of things like suffering and violence.
What did Bangalore look like in Siddalingiah’s time and what did hostel life mean for a Dalit young man? A vignette around trees.
As audience, we were in for a surprise when, as Vijeta wondered why Ooru Keri was translated into ‘A Word with You, World’, the translator, S.R. Ramakrishna, was in the audience to tell us!
Siddalingiah was a crucial part of the Bandaya movement in Kannada literature. In the words of D.R. Nagaraj, Siddalingiah took the rage against the world and made it into poetry. In his words,
“Siddalingiah’s uniqueness lies in his style. Here, an extremely intelligent and mischievous narrator uses irony and an essay-like tone to create new self-images”. - DRN
For Vijeta, these new self-images are of a new self-confidence, that gave her the courage to write with humour even when filled with rage, and to never give the reader the simple handle of witnessign the victimhood of a Dalit writer.
The session ended with questions and a warm meeting with the translator, and stories shared by Vijeta and Kiruba on their experiences in their homes.