Monday, January 23, 2012

[ZESTCaste] The maali who weeded out myth

The maali who weeded out myth
[From my Sunday Guardian books column]
Sunday, January 08, 2012
Jai Arjun Singh

Early in A Gardener in the Wasteland, a new graphic novel based on the
work of the 19th century social reformer Jotiba Phule, there is a
deliberately provocative panel about caste discrimination. 1840s
Poona, the text tells us, was "a hellhole of a town. A mob runs it: a
Brahman mob". The words and the imagery evoke the lawless American Old
West, preparing the ground for the advent of Phule as a Wyatt
Earp-like figure who will help clean things up. The drawings show
decadent, hoodlum-like Brahmins ("Pass the Gangajal, will you," one
says to another, crudely probing his ear with his finger) lording it
over the "lower castes". One of them – shamelessly usurping the
peasants' hard-earned money – is depicted with bags of loot and a bank
robber's eye-mask.

These depictions can be mildly discomfiting even to readers who
unconditionally denounce casteism (I admit to being briefly taken
aback when I first saw them, and a friend who flipped through the book
thought some of the content was extreme), but subtlety is beside the
point here: this book is based largely on Phule's polemical tract
Gulamgiri (Slavery), which was an attack not just on the caste system
but on the very foundations of the Brahmin way of life. He was quite
the abrasive, first-strike radical, definitely not above expressing
strident views if it helped make a larger point about social
hypocrisy. Consider his skewering of the creation myth about the four
castes being born from Lord Brahma's mouth, arms, groin and legs (did
Brahma menstruate in all four places, he asked sarcastically), or his
irreverent deconstructions of the Vishnu avatars. (The Matsya avatar,
he said, was a pointer that the invading Aryans came by sea.) Some of
his arguments may seem muddled today, but one must never forget the
context in which they arose, or the righteous anger that fuelled them.
As an example of whimsical means being used to achieve a desired goal,
I personally find them less objectionable than Mahatma Gandhi's
suggestion that the Bihar earthquake was divine punishment for

Deeply influenced by Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, Phule was sceptical
of the idea that freedom from British rule would be a good result for
all Indians; surely the non-Brahmins would be worse off than before?
Writer Srividya Natarajan and artist Aparajita Ninan juxtapose his
ideas with their own modern-day journey towards understanding the
issues around caste discrimination, and with other historical
struggles such as the Civil Rights Movement and the French
revolutions. (One drawing based on the Delacroix painting "Liberty
Leading the People" has a dark-complexioned Liberty followed by a very
motley group of people ranging from Martin Luther King to Karl Marx to
the Buddha!)

There are minor weaknesses in the narrative, among them the unevenness
of the role played by Jotirao's wife Savitribai. The authors wanted to
stress her importance in her husband's life – and as an
activist-visionary in her own right – but because there is so little
historical information on her, they were reluctant to fully
incorporate her into the story, and she ends up making filler
appearances (to inform us, for instance, that her husband too had
subscribed to the Hindu way as a young man). Another passage that
didn't quite work for me was the paralleling of the Parashuram story
(genocidal, axe-wielding maniac slaughters his enemies wholesale) with
the 2002 Gujarat massacre. The intent here was probably to suggest the
potential for violent oppression when a group of people becomes too
powerful, but the linking is problematic because it implies a specific
strain of brutality in the DNA of Hinduism – when in fact any form of
isolationism (or religious fundamentalism) can cause similar

Ultimately this book is a reminder that no old story is sacrosanct;
that "history, like myth, changes depending on who writes it and who
reads it". We have had a few such reminders in recent times, but the
furore over A K Ramanujan's Ramayana essay suggests that we need more
(and dare one say it, perhaps a few of the liberal voices need to get
as shrill as those of their opponents). A Gardener in the Wasteland is
also a useful introduction to Phule – it has certainly motivated me to
get hold of a Gulamgiri translation soon. For quicker access to some
of his writings, you can try the excerpts included in Ramachandra
Guha's fine anthology Makers of Modern India, including the intense
essay "The Condition of the Peasantry". (An interview with Guha about
that book is here.)


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