Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, born in 1876, was an extraordinarily talented and educated Native American woman who struggled and triumphed in a time when severe prejudice prevailed towards Native American culture and women. As a writer, she adopted the pen name ‘Zitkala-Sa’ and in 1900 began publishing articles, criticizing the Carlisle Indian School. Her works criticised dogma, and her life as a Native American woman was dedicated against the evils of oppression.
Bama is the penname of a Tamil Dalit woman from a Roman Catholic family. She has published three main works: an autobiography, ‘Karukku’, 1992; a novel, ‘Sangati’, 1994; and a collection of short stories, ‘Kisumbukkaaran’, 1996. The following excerpt has been taken from ‘Karukku’. ‘Karukku’ means ‘Palmyra’ leaves, which with their serrated edges on both sides, are like double-edged swords. By a felicitous pun, the Tamil word ‘Karukku’, containing the word ‘karu’, embryo or seed, also means freshness, newness.
The chapter contains two extracts from two different autobiographical episodes from the lives of two women – Zitkala Sa and Bama. Both are victims of social discriminations. Zitkala Sa is the victim of racial discrimination whereas Bama is the victim of caste discriminations. In both the extracts, the writers look back on their childhood and reflect on their relationship with mainstream culture which ill-treated them when they were child.
But both the accounts are not simple narratives of oppression. Rather they reveal how oppression was resisted by both the narrators in their own ways. Zitkala-Sa and Bama were very young but not so young that they would not understand the evil scheme of the mainstream culture. The injustice of their society did not escape their notice also. Their bitter childhood experience sowed the seeds of rebellion in them earlier on.
Both the accounts are based in two distant cultures. The first is that of Native Americans and the second is that of the Tamil Dalits. But the commonality that brings them closer is the fact that in both cases, the mainstream culture marginalized the underprivileged section of that society. This gave rise to the conflict between the mainstream culture and the marginalized community, which is exquisitely showcased in ‘Memories of Childhood’.
The writer recalls that her first day in the land of apples was bitterly cold, with snow covering the surroundings. Besides, her first experience at the school, where she was admitted with other Native American boys and girls, was equally unpleasant. The noise made by the breakfast bell crashed into her ears. The clatter of shoes and the constant clash of harsh noises were pretty annoying. Zitkala longed for freedom, but it was useless to think of it.
A white woman placed them in the line of girls who were marching into the dining room. The narrator noticed that they were Indian girls, who wore closely clinging dresses and stiff shoes. The small girls wore sleeved aprons and had shingled hair.
She was feeling extremely uncomfortable in the school dress. Besides, her blanket had been taken off from her shoulders, making her feel all the more embarrassed. She found other Indian girls more immodestly dressed than her, in their tightly fitting clothes.
She also saw boys come in from the opposite door. A small bell was tapped, and every student pulled out a chair from under the table. The narrator also pulled out a chair and sat down. But she was surprised to find that she was the only one sitting.
Just as she began to rise, a second bell was rung. All were seated and she had to crawl back into her chair again. She heard a man at one end of the hall, and he was praying. The other students sat with their heads hung over their plates.
As the narrator was glancing at the surroundings, she caught the eyes of a paleface (white) woman upon her. She wondered why the woman was looking at her keenly.
After the man ceased his mutterings, a third bell was tapped, and everybody started eating with a knife and fork. Zitkala instead started crying. She probably had never eaten using knives and forks. All the new changes were too much for her to take.
The eating-by-formula was not the end of her woes. Her friend Judewin knew some English, and she had overheard the white woman talk about cutting their long and heavy hair.
The thought of having her hair cut was unacceptable to the narrator. Her mother had taught her that only skilled warriors who became prisoners in war had their hair shingled (cut) by the enemy. In their society, short hair was by worn by mourners and shingled hair by cowards.
Judewin thought that the school people were strong, and they will all have to allow their hair to be cut, but Zitkala was ready to put up a fight. She told her friend that she would struggle first, and not submit willingly before the oppressors.
When she got the chance to escape, she crept upstairs unnoticed. She entered a large room. It was dark, as the curtains were down. Zitkala crawled under the bed farthest from the door. After some time, people started searching for her. She heard Judewin call her name, but she did not answer.
Finally, the women and girls who were looking for Zitkala entered the room in which she was hiding. She held her breath while the others searched the room. The next thing she remembered was being dragged out.
She was resisting, kicking, and scratching widely. She was carried downstairs and tied to a chair. At she felt a cold scissor blade against her neck gnaw One of her thick braids. This was the end of her resistance. She lost her spirit.
She was reminded of all the humiliations she went through since the day she parted with her mother. She was deeply sad, and nobody comforted her. She missed her mother and felt like an animal driven by a herder.
This is the second part of the unit. The narrator takes us back to her childhood when she was a carefree child studying in the third class. The walk from school to home was hardly of 10 minutes. But it would take her half an hour to one hour to cover the distance. The entertaining sights would tie her legs and stop her from going home.
The performing monkey, the snake charmer, the cyclist who kept pedaling for many days, the Maariyaata temple and the Pongal offering being cooked outside it were just some of the interesting sights. And then there were other things going on in the market like a political procession, puppet shows and stunt performances. The market was full of seasonal fruits and stalls. The narrator felt spellbound by all the variety.
One day, when the narrator was returning home, she saw a threshing-floor set up on her street. A landlord was watching over the proceedings. The people of her caste were driving the cattle. Just then, she noticed an elder of her street.
He was carrying a small packet, holding it with a string. It contained some vadai and the packet had become wet. The narrator thought to herself that the packet might come undone, but still the elder was not touching it. The way he walked made Bama shriek with laughter. The elder crouched while handing over the packet to the landlord.
The narrator returned home and told her elder brother Annan about the incident. She was laughing berserkly, but Annan did not seem to be amused. Annan told her that the elder and they were considered low caste. The landlord belonged to the upper caste. The upper caste people thought that if low caste people touched them or anything that belonged to them, they or it would be 'polluted'.
That is why the elder was carrying the packet by its string. After hearing this narrator did not want to laugh anymore. She felt infuriated and provoked. She wondered how these fellows thought so much of themselves. She felt compelled to touch the wretched vadais herself.
Annan told Bama that because they were born into a low caste community, they were never given any honour or dignity or respect. He advised her to study hard and learn all that she could, because only education could help them throw off all the indignities.
These words made a deep impression on Bama. She studied hard. As Annan had urged, she stood first in her class and because of that, many people became her friends.
The first part deals with the account of Simmons, An American Indian, who fought against the prejudices of the society against American Indians.
She describes her experiences on her first day at the Carlisle Indian School.
The customs and rules of the place were strange and new to her.
She was forced to wear clothes that were considered undignified in her culture
At breakfast, she was embarrassed as she did not know the routine of the place.
When she comes to know that they were planning to cut her hair, she protests by hiding under the bed, even though she knew it was futile. In her culture, it was the cowards whose hair was shingled.
She felt like an animal driven by a herder.
The second part is an excerpt from the autobiography ‘Karukku’ by Bama – a Tamil Dalit.
She was in her third grade when she becomes aware of the indignities that the lower caste people face.
She happens to see an elderly person from her community abase himself in front of a higher caste person as he was not supposed to touch the food that he was ordered to fetch for the landlord.
Later, her brother explains to her that the incident was not at all funny as she initially thought, but very pathetic. The people from the lower caste were treated as untouchables.
She was deeply saddened and decided to study hard to overcome discrimination.
Question 1. The two accounts that you read above are based in two distant cultures. What is the commonality of theme found in both of them?
Answer: The two accounts given in the chapter ‘Memories of Childhood’ showcase the physical and mental exploitation of the weaker sections. Though both Zitkala-Sa and Bama are far away from each other in their time and culture, they suffer at the hands of the authorities.
Zitkala-Sa was a victim of cultural invasion while Bama suffered class and caste discrimination. Both of them were rebellious and refused to submit. Zitkala-Sa, kicked, screamed, and resisted her hair being cut but had to give up. Similarly, Bama is furious to see her community humiliated but was helpless. They both reacted positively and became champions in their own ways.
Question 2. It may take a long time for oppression to be resisted, but the seeds of rebellion are sowed early in life. Do you agree that injustice in any form cannot escape being noticed even by children?
Answer: Zitkala-Sa realised as soon as she entered the school run by the whites that they meant to change her into a different person from the one she had hitherto been raised to be. By taking away her cloak, which was an integral part of her native dress, they stripped her of her modesty. Her moccasins were taken away and she was given hard shoes to wear. The discipline that she was subjected to, violated her sense of freedom. She resented the fact that her hair was cut and shingled much against her wishes and this was the final blow to her self-respect. Her mother had always told her that short hair was worn as a sign of mourning, while shingled hair was a sign of cowardice.
Bama, on the other hand, was only in grade three when she was told by her brother that the humiliation that they often suffered was on account of the fact that they had had the misfortune of having been born into the caste of untouchables. She had seen an elder of their street being subjected to humiliation by the landlord and incidents such as these, seen early in life, impacted her deeply.
Question 3. Bama’s experience is that of a victim of the caste system. What kind of discrimination does Zitkala- Sa’s experience depict? What are their responses to their respective situations?
Answer: Both Zitkala-Sa and Bama belonged to ‘marginalised communities’ and faced oppression and discrimination during their childhood.
Zitkala-Sa came to know that the school authorities were going to cut the long, thick hair of the native American girls. It was a shocking news for Zitkala-Sa because in her community shingled hair was worn only by cowards.
She hid herself under a bed in a large room. But finally, she was caught and dragged out. She resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. She was carried downstairs and tied fast to a chair. She cried aloud, shaking her head all the while. But the cold blade of scissors gnawed off one of her thick braids. The poor girl was the victim of racial discrimination. She fought bravely and struggled till she was overpowered.
Bama was eight years old when she saw an elder of her community carrying a packet containing some food. The manner in which the man was holding the packet appeared funny and weird to the girl and she almost shrieked with laughter. Later, she came to know that the people of upper caste felt that they would be ‘polluted’ if the people of lower caste touched them. When she heard this, she didn’t laugh anymore, in fact, she felt terribly sad. She found it disgusting. She felt so agitated and provoked that she wanted to touch those Vadais herself right then.
Question 1: At the dining table why did Zitkala-Sa begin to cry when others started eating?
Answer: Zitkala-Sa was disturbed due to the constant noises and murmuring of people. She was also sad for having lost her freedom and moreover she was being watched by a pale-faced lady when she was at the dining table. Due to all these things she started crying.
Question 2: According to Zitkala-Sa what does ‘eating by formula’ mean?
Answer: According to Zitkala-Sa, ‘eating by formula’ meant following an eating-decorum in the dining room. At the sound of the first bell the pupils drew a chair from under the table. All were seated when the second bell was sounded and when the third bell was tapped everyone started eating with forks and knives.
Question 3: How did Zitkala-Sa’s first day in the land of apples begin?
Answer: The first day in the land of apples was a bitter-cold one. Secondly, the atmosphere of the school was dictatorial and regimental, which was detested by Zitkala-Sa.
Question 4: Why did Bama reach home late after school?
Answer: On her way back from school, Bama got attracted by the little trivialities on the street. The buzzing market, the snake charmers, the lemurs in cages etc, all caught her attention. Thus, it took Bama thirty minutes to return home from school.
Question 5: Why was Zitkala-Sa in tears on the first day in the land of apples?
Answer: Zitkala-Sa was in tears on the first day in the land of apples because she did not like the regiment like treatment in her school and was forced to part with her heavy, long hair. She also missed her mother badly.
Question 6: What comic incident did Bama narrate to her brother? Why was he not amused?
Answer: Bama narrated the incident of seeing an elder of her street walking towards a landlord, carrying a food packed by its strings without touching it to her brother. Bama’s brother was not amused as he knew that the elder’s behaviour was due to him being an untouchable.
Question 7: Which words of her brother made a deep impression on Bama?
Answer: Bama’s brother told her that as they were untouchable, the only way they can earn respect was by making progress by studying hard. These words made a deep impression on her.
Question 8: What is common between Zitkala-Sa and Bama?
Answer: Both Zitkala-Sa and Bama had experienced discrimination in their childhood. While Zitkala-Sa had been a victim of oppression at the hands of the whites in her boarding school, Bama felt and experienced untouchability early in life for being born in an untouchable family.
Question 9: Why did Zitkala-Sa resist the shingling of her hair?
Answer: Zitkala-Sa did not wish to get her hair cut because her mother’s words were deeply embedded in her mind. Her mother had told her that only the hair of prisoners of war shingled by capturers and short hair was worn by mourners.
Question 10: What sort of shows or entertainment attracted Bama?
Answer: The snake charmer, the performing monkey, the pedalling cyclist, street plays, puppet shows, and stunt performances were a few interesting things that were watched by Bama in the bazaar as she got attracted by them.
Question 11: What were the articles in the stalls and shops that fascinated Bama on her way back from school?
Answer: On her way back from school, Bama witnessed a variety of interesting things which fascinated her such as the dried fish stall, the sweet stall and the stall selling fried snacks. The other things that fascinated her were needles, clay beads and instruments for cleaning out the ears.
Question 12: How could Bama rise above the indignities?
Answer: Bama could rise above the indignities by studying hard and learning as much as she can. This way she would make new friends and earn the respect of the people of upper class in her classroom.
Question 13: How long would it take Bama to walk home from her school?
Answer : It would take around 30 minutes to an hour for Bama to walk home from her school as on the way to home from her school Bama would spend time watching the various shows going on the streets, the shops and the various items kept there for sale.
Question 14: What did Zitkala-Sa feel when her long hair was cut?
Answer: When her long hair was cut, Zitkala-Sa felt anguished and pained and felt like an animal driven by a herder. She thought that she was a wooden puppet who had been tossed about in the air. She also cried and missed her mother very much and felt like an animal driven by a herder.
Question 15: What was the advice that Annan give to Bama? Did she follow it?
Answer: Annan told Bama that as they were untouchables, the only way for them to earn respect was by studying hard. Yes, Bama paid heed to his advice by studying hard and standing first in her class.
Question 16: “I felt like sinking to the floor,” says Zitkala-Sa. When did she feel so and why?
Answer: When Zitkala-Sa’s shawl was removed from her shoulders, she felt very embarrassed due to her clinging dress. That was when she felt like sinking to the floor.
Question 17: What did Judewin tell Zitkala-Sa? How did she react to it?
Answer: Judewin told Zitkala-Sa that the hostel authorities were going to cut the long hair of girls. She also told her that they would have to submit, for they could not fight the strong authorities. However, Zitkala-Sa disagreed and decided to put up a fight and resist it.
Question 18: Why did the landlord’s man ask Bama’s brother in which street he lived? What was the significance?
Answer: The landlord’s man asked Bama’s brother in which street he lived so that they could know about his caste. The significance was that people belonging to different castes lived in different streets.
Question 19: Why was Zitkala-Sa terrified when Judewin told her that her hair would be cut short?
Answer: Zitkala-Sa is an American Indian. In her culture, short hair is worn by mourners and shingled hair by cowards. So, she got terrified when Judewin told her that her hair would be cut short.
Question 20: When did Bama first come to know of the social discrimination faced by the people of her community?
Answer : Bama first came to know about the social discrimination faced by the people of her community when she was a student of class three and saw, on her way back from school, an elderly man carrying a small packet containing some eatables by a string without touching it.
Question 21: How did Zitkala-Sa try to prevent the shingling of her hair?
Answer: To escape the haircut, Zitkala-Sa crept upstairs unnoticed. She entered a large room and crawled under the bed in the dark. She stayed there for some time but was eventually caught.
Question 22: Describe the experience Bama had on her way back home which made her feel sad.
Answer: Bama got sad when one day on her way back home, she was an elder of her street carrying a small packet of eatables by holding a string.
She did not understand as how come a packet that has been wrapped twice become polluted if someone put his hand on it.
Question 1: What were Zitkala-Sa’s experiences on her first day in the land of apples?
Answer: The first day in the land of apples was bitterly cold and as the bell rang for breakfast, there was an annoying clatter of shoes which Zitkala-Sa no peace. Though her spirit tore itself in struggling for its freedom, it was of no use. She was placed in a line with the Indian girls and marched into the dining room. All the girls were rather immodestly dressed in tightly fitting clothes. As Zitkala-Sa sat down she observed that she was being keenly watched by a strange pace faced woman. Later her friend Judewin gave her a terrible warning that this pale faced woman was talking about cutting their long, heavy hair. Zitkala-Sa crept into a room and crawled under a bed and huddled herself in the dark corner so that she could avoid her hair being cut. But women and girls entered the room and dragged her out. She resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. In spite of her resistance she was carried downstairs, tied fast in a chair and her long hair was shingled.
Question 2: How did the scene she saw in the marketplace change Bama’s life?
Answer: Bama usually reached home late from school as she walked alone leisurely watching and enjoying the sights in the bazaar. One day on her way back, she saw the harvest being threshed. The landlord stood watching the work being done. It was then that Bama saw one of the elders coming down the street holding a packet by a string. The packet contained vadais for the landlord. At first Bama thought that the elder man was being funny. But later her brother told her that the elder man was of low caste, so he was not allowed to touch the vadais brought for the landlord. This scene infuriated Bama and brought about a change in her life wherein she decided to study well, make a position for herself and rebel against caste inequalities.
Question 3: What activities did Bama witness on her way back from school?
Answer: Bama’s home was a ten-minutes walking distance from her school, but it usually took her from half an hour to an hour to reach home. On her way back, many activities and sights caught her attention. Bama got attracted to many novelties and oddities on the street like the performing monkey, the snake charmer’s snake, the wild lemur in a cage, the pedalling cyclist, the Maariyaata temple and its huge bell, etc. She also noticed the Pongal offerings being cooked in front of the temple. There was a dried fish stall near the statue of Gandhiji and a sweet stall and a stall selling fried snacks.
Puppet shows, street plays, public meetings of political parties were other entertaining activities. She would see the waiters pouring coffee and vendors chopping onions. She also admired the various seasonal fruits that flooded the market.
Question 4: Describe how Zitkala-Sa tried in vain to save her hair from being cut. Why did she want to save her hair?
Answer: Zitkala-Sa’s friend Judewin warned her that her hair was going to be cut. Judewin knew a few English words and had overheard the pale face woman talking about cutting the native India girl’s long hair. This news shocked Zitkala. Her friend told her to accept her fate, but she was not ready to submit and decided to fight against this oppression. She disappeared unnoticed and went into a room where she crawled and hid under a bed, cuddling herself in a dark corner. But she was caught and dragged out. She then resisted by kicking and scratching wildly as she was carried down and tied fast to a chair. As they gnawed at her long hair, she kept shaking her head. No one came to her aid. Zitkala was desperate to save her hair because among her people short hair was kept by mourners and shingled hair was a sign of cowardice. So, she did not want her long hair to be cut.
Question 5: What are the similarities in the lives of Bama and Zitkala-Sa though they belong to different cultures?
Answer: Bama and Zitkala-Sa belonged to different cultures. But both had experienced oppression and discrimination in their childhood.
Bama was born in a lower-class family and was upset to see the humiliations suffered by the members of her community.
They were considered untouchables, were made to live apart, run errands and bow humbly to people of the upper castes.
On the other hand, Zitkala-Sa was a victim of severe prejudice that prevailed against the native Americans. In the boarding school, her blanket was forcibly taken off her shoulders. At the same time, the forced cutting of her long hair only made her feel like a defeated warrior, for in her culture, short hair was only worn by mourners.
Thus, both Bama and Zitkala-Sa have suffered as young marginalised communities.
Question 6: What oppression and discrimination did Zitkala-Sa and Bama experience during their childhood? How did they respond to their respective situations?
Answer: Zitkala-Sa was a native American who was forcibly sent to a Christian school. She resisted the strict regimentation in the school. She hated cutting of her hair because in her culture short hair was worn by mourners. When her friend Judewin told her that they would have to give in, she disagreed and decided to fight against it.
Bama, on the other hand, belonged to a marginalised, untouchable community. She was upset to know the discriminatory treatment given to the members of her community. She was infuriated at this inhuman practice of casteism. In order to gain respect from the upper caste people she studied hard and stood first in her class. Due to this many students from the upper class became her friends.
Question 1: In India, the so-called lower castes have been treated cruelly for a long time. Who advised Bama to fight against this prejudice, when and how?
Answer: Bama’s brother Annan told her about this class discrimination when she narrated him an incident in which a man was carrying a small packet by holding it by a string. He went to the landlord, bowed low and extended the packet towards him. Bama found this situation funny, but her brother told her that there was nothing funny when the man carried packet by the string for his landlord. The upper-class people believed that the low caste people should not touch them even though they were supposed to do whatever they (the upper caste people) wanted them to do for them.
Annan advised Bama to study with care and learn all that she could. She should stay ahead of others in her lessons so that they would come to her by themselves. Then only could they throw away all those indignities.
Question 2: Untouchability is not only a crime; it is inhuman too. Why and how did Bama decide to fight against it?
Answer: Untouchability is not only a crime; it is inhuman too. This fact was brought in front of Bama by her brother Annan when she narrated the incident of a man bringing vadais for his landlord by holding the Vada packet by a string.
Bama belonged to a community which is considered untouchable and low caste. High caste people regarded them as very low people whose touch will pollute them. Annan told her that the only way to get back honour and dignity was to study hard and progress; then only could they throw off all the indignities.
Bama decided to fight against such inhuman treatment. She studied hard and established her own identity. She could also make many friends because of her education. Thus, she was able to regain her dignity and honour.
Question 3: The two accounts that you read in the story are based in two distant cultures. What is the commonality of theme found in both of them?
Answer: Oppression and exploitation of the indigenous people, the women and the weak is the harsh reality of all countries and civilisations throughout the world. In a similar vein, the struggle of these marginalised people is something we can identify with. This is the thread of commonality running between the accounts of Zitkala-Sa and Bama.
The only difference between them is the time gap and their vastly different cultures. Zitkala-Sa is a native American who belongs to the late 19th century, whereas Bama is a prominent Dalit belonging to the contemporary era. Zitkala-Sa belong to a marginalised community which was exploited to the hilt. Her identity was questioned throughout and finally taken away from her. Bama on the other hand, is a victim of untouchability, casteism and strong discrimination.
Question 4: It may take a long time for oppression to be resisted, but the seeds of rebellion are sowed very early in life. Do you agree that injustice in any form cannot escape being noticed even by children?
Answer: Zitkala-Sa and Bama, both were school-going children when they witnessed rough treatment being given to them or their community.
Both episodes prove that injustice in any form does not escape notice even by children. Zitkala-Sa revolts and resists against the school authorities with all her might because she does not want her hair to be cut short like that of a mourner. Bama too realises the oppression that her community faces. She puts up a fight by bringing laurels to her community through her school achievements. Thus, she proves that she is superior to the so-called upper caste. So, it is rightly proved that children know of injustice and react to them in their own unique ways.