Imayam wins Sahitya Akademi Award

His works capture the stark realities of the caste system and the lives of Mahadalits

Tamil writer Imayam, who calls himself a writer of the Dravidian movement and captures the stark realities of the caste system and the lives of Mahadalits, won the Sahitya Akademi Award for 2020 for his novel Sellatha Panam.

“I dedicate the award to the leaders of the Justice Party and the Dravidian Movement, particularly Periyar, Anna and Kalaignar [M. Karunanidhi], and Ambedkar,” he told The Hindu.

He is the first writer from ‘Nadu Nadu’ — Cuddalore, Villupuram and Arcot districts — of Tamil Nadu to win the award.

Sellatha Panam is about how money is rendered useless in a family that rejects its daughter for marrying a man from outside the community: after Revathi commits self-immolation, her parents rush her to hospital with money and plead with the doctors to save her. But the doctors declare that the money has lost its value.

Asked why he refused to be called a Dalit writer since he was writing about people on the fringes of society, Imayam, a schoolteacher, said it would be unfair to have such an identity while writing against the caste system and the shame associated with it. “I will become a supporter of a caste system. Can I become a good writer if I bear the humiliating identities of a caste system? Critics may call me a Dalit writer because they are casteists,” he said.

Born V. Annamalai in Cuddalore district, Imayam has written six novels, six short-story collections and a novella. In 2019, his first novel Koveru Kazhuthaikal, translated into English as Burden of Beast, completed 25 years. The story revolves around the lives of Puthirai Vannar, washermen who work for the other untouchables. It also won the Iyal Lifetime Achievement Award instituted by Tamil Literary Garden, Toronto.

“What moves me the most in Imayam’s works are his women. Though most of them come from the margins, they are never presented as victims. However small their role, they exercise agency, and one admires them for that. The grit with which his women face life is amazing — captured in Tamil for the first time with an everydayness that goes almost unnoticed,” theatre personality A. Mangai wrote in The Hindu in 2019.

His novella Pethavan poignantly tells the story of the problems faced by a family when their daughter falls in love with a Dalit. Though it bears a close resemblance to the love affair of Divya and Ilavarasan in Dharmapuri, it was written before the tragedy occurred. In this case, the father comes to the rescue of his daughter. When the caste Hindus in the village bring pressure on Pazhani to kill his daughter Bhakkiyam by pouring pesticide in her mouth, Pazhani consumes poison after making sure that she has reached her lover. His latest work Vaazhga Vaazhga is about the loss of innocent lives at political events.

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