Continental Divide

The fantastic fiction of the new India remains less strange than the hard lives of its poorest people.

Although Indian law technically prohibits caste restrictions, taboos intended to maintain the segregation of Untouchables are still widely observed. Viramma, her husband Manikkam, and their three children (nine others died of various diseases) live in the village of Karani, a few miles outside the former Portuguese colony of Pondicherry, one of the largest cities in Tamil Nadu. As Untouchables, they live in a ghetto on the outskirts of the village with other members of their caste. They draw water from separate wells and worship at separate temples. They are agricultural laborers and serfs to the local landowner, for whom they perform a variety of back-bending tasks for miserable pay. (One of the features of Untouchability is ritual defilement and physical "impurity"; hence, executioners, gravediggers, butchers, pig herders, leather workers, and launderers are a few professions also characterized as Untouchable.) If, on some days, there is no gruel and lentils, Viramma, her husband, and their children go to sleep hungry: It is a truth without any nuance.

The bare facts of Viramma's life are shockingly cruel, but the book doesn't pander to the reader's moral outrage. Viramma, whose storytelling talent is prodigious, dutifully traces a life marked by universal human experiences: childhood, marriage, sex, children, work, community. Her language is rich, vivid, and, when sexuality is concerned, definitely bolder than that of your mother-in-law.

Speaking of having sex with her husband on the floor of their mud hut in Karani, Viramma says: "At those moments, he was ready to do anything. Once, to punish him for having been so brutal at the start of our marriage, I made him lick the soles of my feet and my toes!... I found out with him that the ears and the hollows behind the knees are places that give great pleasure. Not only that. I looked admiringly at his little hairy balls and his sting which was thick and hard as a sugar cane with its violet head. I was always very moved at those times, and I felt feelings I had never known before."

Viramma's words construct a whole cosmology that the reader has never known before: With its detailed descriptions of countless religious ceremonies, harvest rituals, and day-to-day secular customs, Viramma is the anthropologist's dream sourcebook. Viramma recounts the sociocultural landmarks of her life with a combination of infallible memory and engrossing vivacity, in such a way that every ounce of turmeric powder, each banana leaf or stick of incense are the necessary building blocks of a life steeped in tradition.

Tradition is ultimately Viramma's salvation and her crushing burden. What could hold this woman together but the belief that her dharma--"behaving well in life"--will ultimately save her, at least spiritually, from lifelong slavery? How else could she justify her miserable lot in life but through the belief that only the gods have control over it? And conversely, with Viramma's station in life fully legitimized by Hindu religious beliefs, what hope of change is there for her and about 130 million others?

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