Famed Eelam Tamil and Dalit writer Dominic Jeeva passed away on 28 January 2021.
Jeeva was the editor of Mallikai, a monthly journal on Tamil literature for more than four decades, and courageously narrated intersectioning tales of oppression and marginalisation on the island.
We share below some excerpts of his work and words as a tribute to the renowned writer.
“In 1981, the UNP leaders, who shout themselves hoarse about democracy, summoned their military thugs and burnt down the Jaffna library, the biggest library in Southeast Asia. About the same time, caste fanatics in a small village, Ezhudumattuval, near Jaffna, threatened Dalit children at a school, seized their books and notebooks and set them afire. “Why did Tamil society choose to condemn one incident and remain silent on the other?
– Dominic Jeeva
The following videos are from iam.lk, recorded and transcribed over a decade ago.
My father had a barber shop in Jaffna, the “Joseph Saloon”. From Jaffna society’s point of view, we are from a lower caste. We are from one of the five lowest castes. The so called high caste, the ‘Vellalahs’ never accepted us.
In those days if I had studied well, I could have joined St. Patrick’s College. From there I could have sat the SSC examination. And if I had passed those examinations, I might have ended up being a clerk in Colombo. But you couldn’t go beyond that level.
I was smart at school. Once, the teacher was doing some sums on the blackboard. I thought he had got one sum wrong, but I was too scared to say. It was the teacher! But I couldn’t bear it anymore, and so I stood up and told him “Sir, this sum is wrong.”
The students began to laugh. The teacher couldn’t take it. He called me over. I went. He placed the chalk in my hand and asked me to do the sum, so I did.
But he couldn’t handle it. The children were all staring at us. He threw the chalk at my face.
“Why don’t you go and shave someone? Instead of troubling us!”
This wounded me so much. I still feel it here. I told myself I wouldn’t study. Not for these dictators.
One we went to Urumbarai. About 10 or 15 of us writers went there. To attend a meeting at the library, to talk about literature. Not politics.
They refused to let us into the library – “the low caste shouldn’t be speaking”. They are the ones that called us! But I said, let’s talk. Then they closed the doors. I was so scared!
But I said, “Friends, you can’t scare us away. Throw your stones.. we’ll still have our meeting."
Someone threw a stone and broke our lamp. But we continued to talk in the dark.
“Are you going to attack us? Even if you kill us, we will continue our meeting and leave only when we’re finished... Did we come here with knives? Or with bombs? We came with our tongues! Our most powerful weapon is our pen.” I continued, “We didn’t just come here, your children invited us!”
Some hooligans were gathering at the junction, waiting to attack us. There was this bakery owner, Nadesalingam. He came in his car and told us to get in. “This is my village. I’ll drop you all safely,” he said. So we got in.
At the junction, the crowd had gotten larger. They’d come to beat us. He stopped at the junction and told us to get out. So we all got out.
“Those in our village who want to beat these young boys, come forward!” he said. “You want to beat them? Come!”
Everyone was still. Then we got our courage back! Earlier we were scared. The next day, on Sunday, all the educated people from Urumpirai, the teachers and officers, came to our place to ask for our forgiveness. “We’re sorry for what happened in our village. It has never happened before.”
We started to talk about the Urumpirai incident a lot in our meetings. They got scared… We started talking about the injustice of the Urumpirai people to all other villages. We didn’t want to pick a fight. So we forgot about it. Just because of a few hooligans, the whole village isn’t like that. We faced many problems like that.
I had a crush on a girl once. She was well to do.
There was a big gate, like that, and a small gate like this, for bringing in the hay or for the cattle. And there was a shed for keeping jasmine near the small gate. That was our meeting point. She would stand behind the shed, and I used to stand next to the gate, resting my hand on it.
We used to talk a lot. Those days if a girl talked to you, you wouldn’t’ have a care in the world!
She loved me a lot. We used to talk like that a lot. Her name was Lilli. One day I went to our usual spot, placed my hand on top of the gate, and called out her name.
“Thambi…,” an old voice answered. I wanted to run, but I froze. “Young man, I’m the girl’s mother. I know it’s also my daughter’s mistake. I won’t scold you. Because you are also a mother’s son. I won’t say anything.”
“I beg of you to give your word – to a mother – and please don’t tell Lilli that I spoke to you… I’m begging you. Forget about her. I’m asking you to promise me.”
I touched her hand, gave her my word and left. I forgot about that relationship from that day. It was really only a crush, but more than that, how could I say no to a mother who begged like that? I told her, “Amma, this is the last time. I won’t even look at your daughter.”
Only through our own struggle, have we come up to this level. Not because he gave anything up for us. He won’t give it up. Why would he? When he’s been enjoying the benefits of this system?
All the schools, the land, the jobs, the houses – everything is in his hand. He was ruling us. He was suppressing us in the name of caste. Would he give all that up?
Now he’s saying because of the war, it has faded. I’ll show you the evidence. Here, here and here. In Karaveddy, in Orathurai, Kopai, Urumpirai… in Nallur. They won’t let us buy land. If our child wants a place at school, the village officer won’t accept it. Like a spider, he is keeping a leg in all places. He never accepted us, but we’ve come up to this level only because of our talents. He’ll never give anything up, because he feels proud to keep us as his servants. He doesn’t want to treat us as friend or equals. They’re not living in the present, but actually 100, 200 or 300 years ago, among the arrogance of his ancestors.
It is in Canada now, but before it was found only here. In Australia too. There they are building separate temples for each caste. For this caste and that caste. If the old caste system has really disappeared, how can it appear in Canada?
Then I joined the Joseph Saloon to learn the trade. I was about 12 years old then. But after, that I couldn’t take how Jaffna’s caste system and its arrogance was destroying my life. I was burning up with so much anger. Those days, I used to read the magazines, little ones, from South India. The more I read, the more I wanted to write. I was around 16 or 17 years old. I had this desire to write. In every incident, you could see the Jaffna man’s caste arrogance. He never acknowledged us.
Then there were protests for temple access. In Mavidapuram, a leading scholar called Suntharalingam. He stood at the entrance, holding a stick and stopped anyone belonging to the low castes entering the temple. None of the Jaffna scholars were worried about this kind of behaviour. But we stood by the entrance for days. I am a Christian and that was a Hindu temple. But it was a human right. My aim wasn’t to go in, but my people should be allowed to enter.
As these protests and struggles continued, the Communist Party in Sri Lankan opened a branch in Jaffna. There was a teacher called Karthikesu teaching there at the time. He cared for us and prepared us well. It was during this time that we started to think a little. We never had any hatred for the Sinhalese. We had nothing bad to say about the Sinhalese. But we couldn’t bear the discrimination in the name of caste by the Tamil man. Right in front of our eyes! Today’s generation won’t understand the pain we went through, in all kinds of ways.
Even though it has a thousand flaws and I have a thousand criticisms, it is still a wonderful land. Because that man came up through sheer hard work. He dug and dug at that soil and educated his son to become a government agent. He dug the dry soil. There was no water! No river! No tank! But he still managed to take his son to the highest position in Sri Lanka. We have to salute that man.
A father who cultivates tobacco, sends it to Colombo and doesn’t let his son come near, tells him you mustn’t come near the well, you mustn’t fetch water. And instead he educates him to reach the top. But when it comes to caste, he’s weak. That’s why I criticise him. I’m not saying all this in anger.
Whatever criticisms I have, I’m still a Jaffna man! Not only here, I would say it from the top of the world. I’m a Jaffna man! Because Jaffna’s such a magnificent place. One more thing. I sometimes think about this. It was his extremism, meanness and cruelty that created Jeeva. I curse him, but this curse only created me. In a sense, he’s my teacher, my school. Otherwise I would still be doing my father’s job in Jaffna. Would you have come to interview me? He made me think about new ways and I’m thankful to him for that.
See other interviews with Jeeva in Tamil below.
Also listen to a 2006 interview with SBS Tamil here.
“Maybe I'm repeating myself," said K. S. Sivakumaran in an interview with Le Roy Robinson.
"But let me say that Jeeva is one of the best examples of the revolutionary effect the progressive writers movement of the 1950s and 60s had on Tamil writing, demanding the depiction in literature of the poor and oppressed as opposed to that of the socially privileged and traditionally high placed. This movement highlighted the social relevance of literature and insisted that the writer be an activist for social change. There were many debates, of course, and Jeeva - and K. Daniel - I mentioned him before too - who both came from underprivileged and socially oppressed castes, were able, because of their courage, to write about social inequalities from the inside, as it were. They wrote about their own sufferings.”