The Visible and The Invisible – Abhay Dube

Modes of Representation in Hindi Fiction

I must confess at the outset that I was a bit afraid when I begin to look for the literary representations of Ambedkar in Hindi creative writing. I thought that I am in for a business fraught with a kind of ‘political correctness’ not known for its introspective qualities. And, I had sound reasons to think so. In the world of Hindi speakers the impact of Ambedkar and his discourse is being felt lately both as a source of literary imagination as well as a potent force in politics. Therefore, a possibility of a linear narrative for and against the formation of dalit political community can easily have diminishing effect on the power of literary expression. While surfing for evidence, to my pleasant surprise, what I encountered was far more complex world of themes, situations, tropes, images and opinions. Another gratification I enjoyed from the fiction of last ten years, published or otherwise, belongs to the nuances of the inner voice echoed by the restless self of literary artist on the both sides of the fence, dalit and the non-dalit. Going by the traditions of cultural materialism I venture to say that in the dalit/non-dalit interface of Hindi literature, the power structure created by the dalit political practices is being subjected to a stern critique. Instead of providing the comfort zone it always looks for assuring its legitimacy, existing dalit political community finds a virtual battleground full of constant skirmishes on the pages of literature. A dialectic is already there to be seen as emerging. Contrary to the experience of Maharashtra, where a rich legacy of dalit literature never found a commensurate political success, it seems that North Indian shenanigans of dalit political power have of late created cultural conditions that leave the whole process open to the counter-narratives. In fact, I consider it as a classical situation producing the counter-narratives of emancipation suggesting different social possibilities within a discursive terrain of Ambedkar.

Now, a few words about my insistence on dealing with dalit/non-dalit literary interface. I could have easily chosen either/or, but I refrain from that because in the old fashioned Marxist terms I believe that for a dialectic to be effective has to be inside out. The creative output organised around the dalit themes dates back to the times of Premchand. I would, however, like to confine my inquiries to a very recent body of work. The purpose behind this selection is basically contingent upon a phenomenon, which I would like to call the ‘national memory of Ambedkar’. Since eighties due to various socio-political-cultural reasons the national memory of Ambedkar has established an ever-increasing presence over the vast land inhibited by Hindi intellectuals, irrespective of their social stock. It functions at two levels: a strong assertion of dalit literary sphere straining against the persistent rejection of traditional literary establishment and at the same time looking at its own world in self-critical vein; and an emergence of a variety of non-dalit writers taking keen interest in their own emancipation through the dalit cause, albeit in the manner of commenting on the failure of civilisation. Ambedkar finds his representation in both, palpable and visible in former, while invisible but definitely suggestive in later.

To illustrate, I take up Ajay Nawaria, a fast emerging dalit author in his own right, and Uday Prakash, a highly respected non-dalit storywriter. Nawaria represents a tendency of persistent questioning inside the ranks of dalit writers, while Uday Prakash’s stories are usually awaited keenly by discerning readers. Apart from the appreciable craft these authors impart to their stories, thematically they come out as uncompromising and refuse to subscribe the politically correct.

The Trope of Mohandas, and the Invisibility of Ambedkar
In a brilliant piece of literary imagination Uday Prakash creates the story of his untouchable hero, whose markers of personal identity exhibit a clear resemblance with Gandhi. He is Mohandas, son of Kabadas and Putli, husband of Kastoory, father of Devdas and resident of village Purbanra. A dare-devil act considering the fact that he does not hide his intentions to evoke the memory of a person who in one of his famous quirks expressed the desire to take another birth as an untouchable women while fighting all along the claims of Ambedkar. The hapless condition in which the post-colonial version of Gandhi finds himself again and again in the pages of this longish story, titled Mohandas, effectively closes down any sympathetic argument about what ever is left of the Gandhian project. The too obvious presence of Gandhi in the story has also been taken care of by the fact that no Gandhian person or organisation is shown available to help the untouchable avatar of Gandhi. The second daring act of imagination occurs when through a deep-rooted conspiracy the identity of Mohandas is stolen by an unscrupulous Brahmin element. To take back his identity the central character of the story launches a heroic struggle. In the third act of imagination, to help the hero the author fantastically recalls the three great figures of Hindi literature from the past, in which one appears as a chief judicial magistrate (GM or Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh), other as a SSP (SB or Shamsher Bahadur Singh), and the third one surfaces as a public prosecutor (HS or Hari Shankar Parsai). At this point in the narrative, the story becomes the case of Ambedkar’s invisibility, because in the prevalent overwhelming presence of the national memory of Baba Saheb, the author chooses not to import him as the co-fighter of Mohandas, thereby refusing to settle the long standing score of Gandhi-Ambedkar rivalry on behalf of the politicised dalit masses. This absence of Ambedkar confirms its presence in the paradox of an educated dalit fighting for his reserved seat in government jobs and at the same time belonging to a little community of bansfors (bamboo-makers) and professing a kabripanthi existence.

Immediately after its appearance on the pages of Hans, Uday Prakash’s story is taken note of by various sections of intellectuals due to its experimental style, deceptively simple narrative, and above all for its representation of a Hindu society going through a political and social flux. He depicts a rural and semi-urban scene, where a constitutionally mediated identity like scheduled caste, that has all along been reserved for ex-untouchables, is usurped by a Brahmin who while doing so feels no ritualistic trepidation. The unscrupulous Brahmin may have felt safe due to the secular-bureaucratic structure of this constitutional identity. But, the intentions of the author became more complex when characters of the dwija stock significantly don’t like to raise objection on a non-dwija claiming to be a Brahmin on the basis of the representational argument that these neo-Brahmins will increase the numerical strength of the community. On the face of it, Mohandas reflects an extremely gloomy scenario of the collapse of institutional egalitarianism and the resultant failure of the whole civilisation through the battered existence of a dalit, but at another and at a more concrete level it mounts a general critique of the representational democracy, and a particular exposition of the limits of the modernising Amedkarite project. The lament of Mohandas cries through the story that but for somebody of his own biradari placed highly in the govrnment or in poltics, his constitutional identity couldn’t have been stolen. As far as the literary representation of Ambedkar is concerned, trope of Monahdas and its lament, becomes synonymous with the tragic story of a little community whose weakness in the number game of politics takes away its rightful place in the ranks of the emerging dalit political community. This is not a deprivation inflicted upon him by tradition. It represents a larger problem of modernity calling for a post-Ambedkar realignment of thought process. Ignored from the political community, Mohandas encounters the acute violence of a hierarchical modernity, and his experience is so benumbing that the emancipating dalit iconography doesn’t work for him.

Palpable Ambedkar: the Crisis of Majoritarianism in Dalit Political Community
If Uday Prakash is existentially removed from the throes of the existing dalit movement (although his being non-dalit also provides him a vantage point usually unavailable to a dalit writer), Ajay Nawaria’s evocative fiction explores the current status of Ambedkar inside dalit discourse. In a remarkable episode of his (soon to be published) novel, Chakravyuha Ke Bahar, Ambedkar himself appears glowing in his full modern regalia. In a typically representative scene of Hindi’s mixed (dalits and non-dalit) intellectual gathering, which is in fact conceived as a dream sequence, Baba Saheb stuns everybody by his mere presence. He does not speak any thing of note, and is suggestively shown distributing sweets to children after disregarding the feuding dalit intellectuals. Why did Nawaria conjure up this scene, and immediately after this why did he shift the narrative to a scene of Ambedkar jayanti where bhangis are shown too reluctant to be mobilised? Why is it that heroes in these stories unfailingly belong not to the dominant dalit community of Northern India? Why are the pages of his novel replete with slogans exposing the modernist inner contradictions of a political community? To gauge the reasons behind the palpable Ambedkar, and to understand the meaning of various modernities from the eyes of a dalit writer, we have to enter the world of his finely composed stories.

In one of his stories, titled As Dhamm Sanantano, the first person narrative subtly depicts the socialisation of a third generation dalit child in the modern- urban milieu whose first two generations were forced to flee from a excessively non-egalitarian and violent rural environs. Brought up as a scheduled caste, an identity bestowed upon him by Baba Saheb’s constitution making prowess, he leads the life superimposed by hate and inferiority complex. Modern sector brings for him comparatively better life. Still there are strong traces of humiliation. In the light of his distorted modern experience, this hero of Nawaria recalls how his rebellious grandfather fled from the village in search of a more equal world, which he ultimately got at the margins of the city. He also recalls how grandpa instructed his father that at no cost he should go back to the village. Migration to the city does emerge as dawning of liberation, but the forward-looking process stops at the borders of emancipation. Does Nawaria’s protagonist really measure the length his scheduled caste identity can carry him up to? Does he feel equipped to jump over the fence to mingle with the general middle class culture? Or, he is condemned to remain within a dalit existence mediated by a political theory of humiliation where deception of epistemological barriers waits for him everywhere?

Nawaria tries to resolve these issues in his equally fine story Patkatha, again a saga of three generations, albeit in expanded form. The main protagonist, an MBA by training, in the third part of the narrative finds himself in more cosmopolitan environs where he could have easily hidden his caste origin. In the earlier two generations, it was impossible to do so. In the village their khaitk identity was open to the constant violence and humiliation. The gradual development of the modern dalit identity takes place in two stages, firstly as a life long metaphoric reading of poor khatik who is also a devoted husband, secondly as a meek but well-informed struggle for dignity that culminates in the migration to the city. The third hero of the story is not hampered by the quota system and government job. In the time of globalisation he could jump over what I would like to call an Ambedkarite barrier. He holds a job in a multinational company. But, the moment he casually reveals his caste to a colleague, aspects of darkness invade his otherwise bright life. Here Nawaria conjures up a society in which discrimination on the basis of caste still vitiates the air, but at a wider social level his hero can feel succour in left-liberal values by mingling with a upper caste friend circle in a developed enclave of modernity. Obviously, a lot of water has flown in the rivers of this country since the Babu Rao Bagul wrote his classic Jab Meine Apani Jati Chipai, whose hero had to go through the violent reprisal when his caste was exposed by the conspiracy of events.

The dalit heros of Nawaria give us all three scenarios of Indian modernity, which must be of interest to an offbeat Ambedkarite intellectual. First, a land reform induced village modernity that prompts migration; second, a striving for dalit political community in the backdrop of the city that never culminates into an equal membership of the dwija dominated middle class culture; and lastly, a place where the writ of market runs but again dark existence of the ex-untouchable lurks silently.

Coming back to the palpable Ambedkar, it seems that Nawaria is not looking for the answers in any of these three modernities, although, to be fair to him, his hero must be safer in the possibilities of market forces, for even after rejection he does not flee and decides to stick to his guns. However, through the scene of Ambedkar jayanti in a bhangi tola and with a khatik and valmiki observer, he attractively drifts towards the rescue of the national memory of Baba Saheb from the majoritarian construction of dalit political community in the backdrop of its political success.

Counter-Narratives and New Social Possibilities
Counter-narratives are usually possible only when a power structure has taken up a definite shape. After establishing itself through a hard struggle, a highly creditable one in the case of dalits, it seeks a logical ground or a natural foundation. Now, the question may be asked as to who will provide it the required legitimacy through the cultural narratives. It seems that the dalit/non-dalit interface of Hindi literary sphere is too contentious to faithfully follow the suit in the name of Baba Sahib. Uday Prakash and Ajay Nawaria discount even the hints of subservience to the political project. In their work they produce the possibility of counter-narratives that engage with the insurrection of little selves in the meta-discourse of the dalit unity. They launch an incisive critique of the variants of Indian modernities, new and old, suspect them, and open a ground for new explorations.

To conclude, where does it all lead us? I have no hesitation in accepting that political rise of dalit has been an all-round radical effect on the process of our social development. In terms of liberal democratic values, formation of political community with its power structure in making is a major contribution of the Ambedkarite discourse. The literary representation of this process points to three basic questions. What is the status of egalitarian principal in the working of this political community? Is it condemned to remain a political community or, in the course of time, going to develop as a new social community envisaged by the theories of liberal democracy? And lastly, had Baba Saheb been present today to witness the developments of his project of social revolution in northern part of India, what would have been his reaction? Obviously, first two questions are directed towards the people like us, the social scientists, and the last question, the speculative one, can only be answered by the Uday Prakashs and Ajay Nawarias of this generation.

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