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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Community, culture and literature in post-independence India

Raju Solanki

‘Navratri’ is a nine day festival. A perforated earthen pot with an earthen lamp inside is kept on a ground under open sky. Women dance with dandiya (a wooden stick) in a circle surrounding the pot at night. They call it ‘garabo’, a word derived from ‘garbh’ i.e. embryo. Navratri is celebration of recreation and procreation, production and reproduction. It celebrates life. Women worship mother goddess, the nature, the almighty. 

In any Indian village, which is indisputably divided between Caste Hindus and Dalits, the festival of Navratri is celebrated with same intensity and passion in every settlement distinctly formed on the lines of traditional castes. Though divided they are guided by same passion of procreation. And they believe they all are sons and daughters of mother goddess, however illusionary it is in the reality. 

Ek Laldarwaje tambu tania re lol’, (the tents have been erected at Lal Darwaja) is one of the most nicely and melodiously composed songs of Navratri. The song was written against the back drop of medieval age, beautiful fort city of Ahmedabad and its ruler AhmadShah Badshah who along with his commanders was quite unexceptionally, rude and harsh to his subject, which was undoubtedly Hindus. The women folk having acclimatized with their tormentors preserved the painful memory of subjugation and submission in this song in their own unique way. The mothers-in-law used to say, “He vahu tame na jaso jovane tya, Badso bado mijaji” (O, daughter-in-law! don’t go there to see, the Sultan is very arrogant!). 

Amidst gaiety and festivity of Navratri, when women sing this song, they simply fathom the unconscious past and create an awesome world of energy and joy where the ‘arrogant’ badshah becomes a thing of oblivion. The bitter memories of past have been diluted and what remains is a harmoniously blended melody of life leading to catharsis of age old prejudices and taboos born from confrontations and conflicts. Is this not what we call culture, the melting pot, the unequivocal voice of humanity?

In India, ‘community’ is a word often misconceived and misinterpreted. In a village if you ask a man from any caste, say Patel, "Who are the people living in this village?" the prompt answer would be, "we Patel and ‘others’". Every caste is a ‘community’ living on an island perfectly separated from each other settled within geographical boundaries consecrated and sanctified by Manusmriti – the ancient code of conduct. The castes are communities and communities are castes, so overlapping with each other these words are that they often used as synonyms. Indian caste system is so futile, treacherously suicidal, that some times, not only ‘victims’, but even ‘oppressor’ feel isolated. 

The word "community" is derived from the Old French communité which is derived from the Latin communitas (cum, "with/together" + munus, "gift"), a broad term for fellowship or organized society. One explicit meaning of commune is “a small group of persons living together, sharing possessions, work, income, etc., and often pursuing unconventional lifestyles.” This definition is sickeningly true for every caste in India. 

Post-independence Indian literature attempts to combine two processes, two narratives, one is emphasising on consistent struggle to unshackle the age-old clutches of caste system and another voices recurrent frustrating failure of socio-economic change. ‘Juthan’, a story of a Chuhra boy is a conspicuous example of both narratives. The Chuhras, a sweeper caste, converted to Shikhism, following a dramatic and historic event in Shikh history. Stephen Cohen has given very illuminating insights into the lives of Chuhras in his book, ‘the untouchable soldier’. We cannot understand, and evaluate ‘Juthan’ without the historical perspective of the great Chuhras.  

As you all know, the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, was killled by Aurangzeb in 1675. In a daringly expedition, his mutilated body was snatched from mogul army in Delhi’s Chandi Chawk by three Chuhras and carried back to Teg Bahadur’s son, the great Guru Govind Singh. As a reward for their effort the sweepers were admitted to the Khalsa and bestowed with the title, ‘Mazhabi’, the faithful. They thus became the special sub-caste of outcastes in the Sikh community, and in fact distinguish themselves between recent and historic converts to the faith. After Guru Govind Singh, the Mazhabis were patronised by Ranjit Singh and they were formed into separate companies, one attached to each high caste battalion. The ultimate and supreme sacrifice of Chuhras could not transform the caste-ridden Hindu-Sikh mentality. 

After the defeat of the Khalsa, the Mazhabis saw no military service for several years. They were classed as criminal caste by the British. Eventually the Dogra Maharaj of Kashmir, Gulab Singh recruited them as pioneer troops for his own army. Pioneers were infantry trained for road, canal and construction tasks; when attacked they could defend themselves, unlike ordinary labourers. In addition, these tough untouchable Shikhs were useful to the Maharaja for overseeing his Mohamadan subjects.  

When the mutiny broke out the Mazhabis were drawn into the British Indian Army and formed the first Pioneer Sikh Regiment. They were soon put to good use; marched to Delhi; they were instrumental in breaking the resistance of the mutineers. A second regiment was raised in 1858 by John Lowrence, and a third followed shortly. The three Pioneer units saw extremely varied service, at one time or another they were employed in china, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. After mutiny, the Chuhras became unwilling victims of the theory of the ‘Martial Races’. The meek was disarmed and sent to sweeping, his hereditary profession. The meek could not inherit the earth. 

‘Joothan’ narrates the painful saga of an untouchable boy in the most tantalizing manner:  The third day I went to the class and sat down quietly. After a few minutes the headmaster’s loud thundering was heard: ‘Abey Chuhre ke, motherfucker, where are you hiding … your mother …’ I had begun to shake uncontrollably. A Tyagi boy shouted, ‘Master Saheb, there he is, sitting in the corner.’”

“The headmaster had pounced on my neck. The pressure of his fingers was increasing. As a wolf grabs a lamb by the neck, he dragged me out of the class and threw me on the ground. He screamed: ‘Go sweep the whole playground … Otherwise I will shove chillies up your arse and throw you out of school.’”

“Frightened, I picked up the three-day-old broom [now only a cluster of] thin sticks. Tears were falling from my eyes. I started to sweep the compound while my tears fell. From the doors and windows of the schoolrooms, the eyes of the teachers and the boys saw this spectacle. Each pore of my body was submerged in an abyss of anguish.”

This is a story of a boy, whose forefathers were assigned the most derogatory tasks like sweeping the roads, cleaning the cattle barns, getting shit off the floor, disposing of dead animals, working the fields during harvests and for them conversion and military prowess the social amelioration has remained a mirage. In this era of Jingoism where every Tom, Dick and Harry sings ballads of patriotism and middle-class intelligentsia thrives on media-sponsored war-hysteria, the story of ‘Juthan’ points to infallible and water tight divisions of Indian society; gives perceptive images of shocking realities and compels us to change our world view and perceptions. 

I started with an example of a song sung during Navratri. I said that this song is an example of cultural assimilation and catharsis. Any insignificant Dalit basti with its modest resources celebrates the festival of mother goddess. However, the question is why the social disabilities and cruelties inflicted on Dalits since the ages have never become theme of Navratri songs? Because, has the religion diluted the oppressive nature of social realities? Because, has the cultural assimilation not been complete? Or because, the ‘dalit’ narrative has been distorted by inter-faith perceptions and Dalits simply imitate cultural tattoos engraved by upper caste masters? 

Inter-community relations, biases, preconceived notions, stereotypes perceived as ‘culture’ often form the basis of literature and post-independence Indian literature may not be an exception. The first vocabulary of Gujarati language compiled by Magan Desai, the man who later came to be known as pioneer of Magan-Madhyam and published by Gujarat Vidhyapith had given the meanings of various caste/communities, like Vaghari as ‘dirty, unclean, rustic, mean’ (मेलो, गंदो, असभ्य के नीच माणस), Baraiya as ‘thief’ (चोरी के लूंटफाट करनार), Hajam (barber) as ‘idle’ (नवरो माणस),  Kumbhar (potter) as ‘unskilled’ (अणघड), dhedvado as ‘dirty and unclean place’ (गंदी अने अस्वच्छ जग्या). Quite unimaginable and disgusting stuff from the stable of tolerance and penance! 

In the end, I would like to categorize post-independence Indian literature in two broad categories. One is simply narrative, descriptive, narrates society as it is with all its follies and futilities. Another is futuristic, revolutionary, optimistic, portrays struggles of suppressed humanity with all its strengths and stupidities. The revolutionary songs of Andhra poet Gaddar represents the India - suppressed and subjugated, dishonored and disgraced.  It fills our hearts with optimism, shatter our submissiveness and assert that new order is possible, new world is possible.  

“Ye gaon hamara, ye gali hamari. ye basti hamse hai. Har chiz hamse hai. mitti ke liye hum hai, mahelon ke liye hum hai. gulam ke liye hum hai, salam ke liye hum hai. bone ke liye hum hai, Katne ke liye hum hai. hal apana, hashiya apana, hathoda apana, kulhadi apni to, ye jalim kaun hai, uska julam kya hai.” (ये गांव हमारा, ये गली हमारी. ये बस्ती हमसे है, हर चीज़ हमसे है. मीट्टी के लिये हम है, महलों के लिये हम है. गुलाम के लिये हम है, सलाम के लिये हम है. बोने के लिये हम है, काटने के लिये हम है. हल अपना, हसीया अपना, हथोडा अपना, कल्हाडी अपनी तो ये जालिम कौन है, उसका जुलम क्या है?) Gaddar’s songs bring forth the unheard, subaltern, the voice of meek, which is certainly not week. It transfuses new hope in our Stale, fragile hearts and transgresses deep into our self nurtured, self addressed, hypocritically ‘secure’ comfort zone.

Here in my language, I may have found similar powerful voices in Sahil Parmar : “Azadi avi to ene rangi kala kuchade, (आज़ादी आवी तो एने रंगी काळा कुचडे - when independence came, it was humiliated) kagal me bandhine Alyu gadhadane na punchhale (कागळमां बांधीने आल्यु गधाडाना पूंछडे - wrapped in a paper, it was tied with tail of a donkey) or in Shankar Painter (Tu gamade mara avaje re ho vira mare kalammvala (तु गामडे मारा आवजे रे हो वीरा मारा कलमवाळा - O writer, my brother, come to my village). Dukhiyano bheru thaje re ho vira mara white collarwala, (दुखियानो भेरु थाजे रे हो वीरा मारा व्हाइटकोलरवाळा - O white-collar, my brother, help the vulnerable!)

Let us hope, the literature of Dalits, Tribals, subaltern will bring profound optimism and vigour in Indian literature and enrich our lives and broaden our vision.

(paper presented in national seminar organized by Shree P N Pandya Arts, M P Pandya Science and Smt D P Pandya Commerce college, Lunavada on 31 January, 2013.)

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