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Remembering Lakshmi, 'Devi'

As a dedicated Mathamma, Devi's world consisted of the violent realities of caste oppression and sexual exploitation. Struggling to negotiate her convictions to abolish the practice of dedicating women to the goddess, she wanted to show her fellow Mathammas how it is still possible to struggle for one's own autonomy. Like her life, her death too was a centre of controversy.

Just as her life, Lakshmi’s death too is dogged by controversy. The news of her suicide was almost unbelievable, indeed shocking, since she was a fighter despite having had to struggle against poverty and sexual violence all her life. At the age of seven, Lakshmi, also known as Devi, an Arunthathiyar woman, was dedicated to her caste goddess, Mathamma, and performed as a dancer during the Mathamma festival in 10 villages of Thiruthani taluka in Tiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu. No one remembers her original name – she was known only as Mathamma like the other dedicated women in her village.

I met Devi in 2009 as part of my research project on dalit women activists in the office of the Rural Women’s Liberation Movement in Arakkonam. Looking famished, a bright-eyed woman with attractive features was introduced to me as the president of the recently formed Mathamma Relief and Rehabilitation Association and as one of the activists of the Rural Women’s Liberation Movement. As part of her campaign against the practice of dedicating women to the goddess, she rechristened herself Devi and refused to being called Mathamma. Devi was clear she wanted an identity for herself and not to be lost in the generality of being the “goddess”. However, she feared that removing her mangalsutra or thali, the symbol of her dedication to Mathamma might invite the wrath of the goddess leading to her death or some serious illness. Not surprisingly, many criticised her for not being courageous enough to remove the thali.

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