The Writing on the Wall(s)

Last Saturday was a long day. A fellow student-traveller staying in my hostel and I decided to walk from Coonoor, a hill town close to Ooty, to an adjacent town situated at a slightly higher altitude. Instead of trekking alongside the main road we decided to follow a more circuitous route through rolling tea plantations and winding mountain footpaths dotted with small hillside villages. Eight hours and nearly thirty kilometers later, we finally reached the summit at Kotagiri and collapsed on a grassy knoll overlooking a scenic point where the Western Ghats converge with the expansive plains. The view was breathtaking.

While walking on the main road leading into the town center I noticed a gentleman with a red and blue scarf draped around his neck. I immediately recognized the scarf as a political article worn by members of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panthers Party; VCK), the state’s largest Dalit political party. I introduced myself in Tamil as a foreign doctoral student studying Tamil political history and inquired about his scarf. He identified himself as the founder and district organizer of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal activities in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu. He inaugurated the district branch twelve years ago to mobilize local tea plantation workers who often lack access to basic amenities including drinking water and health services. An extended conversation followed in the regional party office over tea and biscuits during which he showed me a number of news clippings detailing local party activities. A couple hours later, my fellow trekker and I returned to Coonoor on a local bus; walking back was certainly beyond question!

Just a couple days ago I arrived in Madurai via a night bus. Bus journeys that used to consume a full evening now last for little more than several hours. A new arterial network of highways has expedited road travel throughout the state. While this is often a boon, it has several draw backs for night travelers. By some stroke of magic, my night bus from Coimbatore to Madurai lasted for a meager four hours, which landed me in the vacant Madurai streets and 2am. But, vacant streets have their own story to share that is often obscured by bustling crowds congested traffic.

Social and political movements publicize their presence through brightly hued messages scrawled on public walls and sprawling political banners. In a sense, by reading the writing on the wall, one can gauge the strength and presence of local Dalit movements. Dalit movements throughout India have embraced B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, as a champion of Dalit assertion and his image is almost universally present on Dalit propaganda. In this regard, the contrast between Coimbatore, where a Dalit movement is yet to emerge, and Madurai, a city with a legacy of Dalit political assertion, is visually apparent. In Coimbatore, I was hard-pressed to find Dalit iconography in the public sphere. In Madurai, busts of Ambedkar, murals of snarling panthers and other motifs adopted by the movement pervade public culture through banners, billboards, statues and murals. At 2am, this sight was in clear view.

Michael Collins
PhD Student
University of Pennsylvania

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About plcflash

This site provides a forum to share recent translations of Tamil speeches and essays. I hope it can be of use to both a general and an academic audience.