Why University of Kerala made poems of a tribal bank clerk a mandatory reading in its FYUP programmes

Lijina Kadumeni with her mother Lakshmi M K. Photo: Special Arrangement.

You betrayed
the innocent us, incapable
to discern truth and falsity.
Your invasion was thorough
and you ruled over the land.
(Excerpts from Lijina Kadumeni's Pattaya Kadallasu or Title Deed. Translated by Dr Lakshmi Priya N)

Kasaragod: For most of the 400-odd residents of Sarkaria Ooru, a Scheduled Tribe settlement in Kasaragod's hill panchayat of East Eleri, Lijina K K (28) is a clerk at the women's service cooperative society in neighbouring Kannur's Therthally. But to the world of poetry, she is Lijina Kadumeni, a prominent voice of the tribespeople and women folk.

This academic year, the University of Kerala has made her poems a mandatory reading in the newly launched four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) in the Department of English. "We have included her poetry in Kerala Studies, a compulsory subject for major and minor courses in our department," said Dr Lakshmi Priya, Assistant Professor in the university's Institute of English (Department of English). She has translated several of Lijina's poetry into English and is working on bringing out an anthology of her works.

The University of Kerala has also included her poem 'Pattayakkallaathu' (Pattaya Kadalassu in Malayalam or Title Deed in English) in the Malayalam honours programme for affiliated colleges. Lijina Kadumeni is the first female poet from the Mala Vettuvan tribe, said poet and English teacher Aswani R Jeevan, whose PhD was on tribal poetry.

Lijina writes her poems in the Mala Vettuva dialect, an amalgamation of classical Senthamizh and Malayalam. Her works have been translated into Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and English. They delve into her people's struggles for land after being rendered landless, the seclusion of her sisters during menstruation, the caste discrimination they live through, the birth pangs of childless women, and the struggles of working mothers. "Lijina's poems are a vivid and honest depiction of tribal life through a woman's perspective," said Aswani R Jeevan, who teaches English at G Narayanamma Institute of Technology and Science, an engineering college for women in Hyderabad.

For Lijina, her poetry is her life and the life of her people. "I write on subjects I have lived through and the stories my mother told me," Lijina told Onmanorama. Her mother Lakshmi M K (47) was a tribal promoter for 10 years. Promoters are appointed by Kerala Scheduled Tribes Development Department (STDD) to be the bridge between tribespeople and the government, and ensure government benefits reach them. "My mother has trekked the hills, going from door to door, to hear their stories and find solutions to their problems," said Lijina. When she returned home, Lakshmi would discuss her day in detail with her daughter, shaping her views and politics. "My poetry became a medium to tell the world about us," she said.

In her school days, Lijina started learning Bharatanatyam and also started writing poetry and prose in Malayalam in her school days. After Class 12, she joined a college in Payyannur to pursue a BSc in Zoology. "I had to drop out because I did not get a hostel room. I was afraid of travelling alone to college," she said. She did a one-year course in accountancy and a junior diploma in cooperation (JDC), another one-year course, to become eligible for a job in cooperative societies. "Now I want to do BA Malayalam in distance education," she said.

Lijina's poem, which was translated to Tamil. Photo: Special Arrangement

But Lijina kept writing in Malayalam and posting her poems on Facebook. During the Covid lockdown, she switched to the Mala Vettuva dialect. Her first poem in her language was 'Corona'. "I wrote it to create awareness among my people," she said. Since the dialect does not have a script, she used the Malayalam script and gave the Malayalam translation in the same post. She wrote in Mala Vettuva for another reason, too. "At home, we speak Mala Vettuva but we're afraid to use it in public. Most of us fear attracting attention. I wanted to change that and promote our language, making everyone proud and comfortable to speak it," she said.

According to the 2011 Census, the community has around 18,000 people in Kannur and Kasaragod districts. More than 70% of them are in Kannur. Mala Vettuvans are farm labourers and have a thorough knowledge of farming. If they owned land, they cultivated rice and pepper. They are good hunters and trackers, according to the Kerala Institute for Research Training & Development Studies of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (KIRTADS). However, Lijina's poems started going viral outside her community, on social media. Not as much as within the community. Perhaps it was because of the novelty of the language, she said. Popular and well-known poets started sharing her poems. Soon she started getting calls from online and office publications, asking for her poems. "I send my poems to them only if they ask. Otherwise, I post my poems on Facebook," she said.

PhD scholars started making her poems a subject of their research. "I believe my poems were included in the university syllabus because of their research work," she said.

In 2022, Sukumaran Chaligaddha, a poet who writes in the Ravula tribe language, and Suresh M Mavila, who writes in the Mavila dialect, compiled the work of 40 tribal poets and brought out 'Gotra Kavithakal' (Tribal Poetry). Lijina's 'Pattaya Kadalassu' was one of them. "We owned the forest and farmed the land. Today, we are forced to stand before the government with pleading hands for three cents and four cents of land. That is what I said in the poem," she said.

Last year, she brought out her first anthology of 20 poems, 'Mylarasu'. In March, she was invited by the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters) for its Annual Festival of Letters in Delhi. Over 700 writers and scholars from more than 100 Indian languages took part in the festival. "I presented my poem on the birth pangs of childless mothers," she said.

Lijina's poetry not only brilliantly captures the political and aesthetic sensorium of her community but also often explores themes of gender and indignity, said M R Vishnuprasad, a performance poet and art researcher based in New Delhi. "When she writes about land rights, her tone becomes more reflective and critical. By including her poems in the curriculum, students will gain a better understanding of how history treated indigenous people unjustly," he said. Dr Lakshmi Priya appreciates the intricacies of indigenous ways of life in her poems. "They also deal with the nuances of female lived experiences in relation to the community as well as the larger society," she said.

As I begin my day's lessons,
the text quotes Guru
"One caste, one religion for humankind,
One caste, one religion for humankind
While I smile within, listening,
the teacher announces,
"ST students should bring
your caste certificates tomorrow".
(Excerpts from Lijina Kadumeni's Caste, translated by Dr Lakshmi Priya N)

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