40.1: Caste and Life Narratives

Caste and Life Narratives

Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter 2017

Guest Editors: S. Shankar and Charu Gupta

Cover Illustration: J. Nandakumar, Gandhi after Pune Karar, acrylic on canvas, 54 inches by 66 inches, 2010.

My Birth is My Fatal Accident”: Introduction to Caste and Life Narratives by S. Shankar and Charu Gupta

Life narratives ranging from autobiographies and biographies to blogs and pictorial art have historically played a vital role in both the affirmation as well as interrogation of caste identities. However, serious study of life narratives in relationship to caste is still relatively underdeveloped. The scholarship on caste (or the varna-jati complex) is vast, as is the study of life narratives as a genre—it is the conjunction of the two that especially merits sustained scrutiny. The study of caste is animated by a Critical Caste Studies that takes its bearing from Dalit Studies, a lively area of scholarly endeavor in recent years, in order to explore diverse phenomena within the varna-jati complex. The scrutiny of life narratives in conjunction with caste promises to expand the scope of inquiry into life narratives by bringing new cultural contexts into the discussion and by enabling the formulation of new theoretical questions of genre. Such an investigation contributes to the study of caste by directing attention to fresh archives and by making available for analysis in powerful ways questions of identity. The critical work of studying caste in conjunction with life narratives is most pertinent with regard to India but includes the South Asian diaspora as well as other countries such as Japan.

Speaking Self , Writing Caste: Recovering the Life of Santram BA by Charu Gupta

Through the life writing of Santram BA (1887–1998), a veteran Hindi writer and radical caste social reformer from Punjab, this essay illuminates a social history of caste in North India. Santram started writing in 1912 and published more than eighty books, including his memoir Mere Jeevan ke Anubhav. While Santram has remained on the margins of academic scholarship, the essay underlines that his life narrative produced multiple meanings of caste, where on the one hand, he became a staunch advocate of intercaste marriages, and on the other, he enacted a language of caste reform and respectability with ambiguous implications. This contradictory straddling makes his life narrative both a complex and politicized form of resistance and critique of caste, while simultaneously appearing as an account of accepted caste models and messages.

The Dalit Personal Narrative In Hindi: Reflections On A Long Literary Lineage by Tapan Basu

My essay is an attempt to track the long literary lineage, stretching back to the early decades of the twentieth century, of the emergent genre of the Dalit personal narrative in Hindi, which has begun to make itself more and more visible in North India since the concluding decades of the century. I shall argue that these narratives are, without a doubt, the legatees of a tradition of anticaste writing and a vibrant, though largely unremarked upon, Dalit print culture that flourished in Uttar Pradesh through the 1920s and beyond. Special reference is made, in this regard, to the literary work of Swami Achhutanand, the doyen of the anticaste movement in North India, and to his influence on later generations of undercaste writers in the so-called Hindi belt. The essay also contains some reflections on the nature of the Dalit counterpublic, which comprises the social constituency addressed by the contemporary Dalit personal narrative in Hindi.

Tamil Dalit Literature: Aesthetics, Politics, and Life Narratives by Parthasarathi Muthukkaruppan

By critically engaging with vernacular Tamil discussions on the category of Dalit literature, this essay argues that the specific aesthetics of life narratives and their ontological determination of the authorial subject have in many ways played a historical role in shaping the entire field of Dalit literature in Tamil. Further, this essay brings to the fore the contradiction between such ontological determination and the historico-political nature of the Dalit subject. In doing so, it also critically engages with a larger problem: the relationship between the aesthetics and politics of Dalit literature.

Bending Biography: The Creative Intrusions of “Real Lives” in Dalit Fiction by Laura R. Brueck

This paper focuses on the writings of Uday Prakash and Ajay Navaria, both Delhi-based Hindi-language authors whose literary work focuses on the dynamics of caste in contemporary India, to consider each author’s innovative use of metafictional narrative techniques to blur the boundaries between “real” and fictional life narratives. I argue that reading these texts through the critical lens of postrealism allows us to reconsider the apparently arbitrary generic distinctions between auto/biography and fiction in Dalit narratives with a careful analysis of the strategically interventionist employment of real lives in Dalit fiction.

Periyar as a Biopic: Star Persona, Historical Events, and Politics by Swarnavel Eswaran

This essay engages with the biographical picture Periyar (2007) to analyze how history is represented through the life of one of the most significant revolutionary figures in Indian politics of the last century. It explores the representation of Periyar through the persona of Sathyaraj, a leading star of Tamil cinema, and analyzes the episodic structure of the film to study the strength and weaknesses of making a biopic on the life and times of an iconic leader for a mainstream audience. On the one hand, such a project entails addressing all the significant events along with the key figures who played a major role in Periyar’s revolutionary politics of dismantling caste and religion. On the other, the lengthy storyline based on Periyar’s eventful life disallows the time for reflection and the focus on the deeper philosophy of Periyar’s radicalism, for instance, his investment in public drama as a theater of protest.

Affective Returns: Biopics as Life Narratives by Bindu Menon

This essay is an exploration of caste and life narratives in the specific genre of biopics. Addressing itself to traces, absences, conjectural histories, and public discourse, the essay tries to understand an event of caste violence in early twentieth-century Travancore and its continuing relevance in structuring relations in cinema. It explores the impasses in normative history writing in the context of early cinema and argues how powerful counterarchival imaginations in cinema limn a counterhistorical narrative through the force of affective veracity.

Caste Life Narratives, Visual Representation, And Protected Ignorance by Y. S. Alone

Caste life narratives in India that have emerged through Ambedkarite social, cultural, and political movements have challenged the Brahmanical metanarratives of aesthetic canons as well as the nature of language and representation. Representation in this case is not an abstract entity but operates more at a physical level, empowering people to express their experiences in language. This essay is an attempt to interrogate pictorial representations that artists produce from the idea of caste life experiences. The essay also attempts to unfold a perceptual means of understanding as well as conceptual formulations through the critical framework of “protected ignorance.” The paper addresses the works of artists who have used caste to enter the realm of pictorial space to narrate the stark realities of caste life ignored by liberals who canonized modernist aesthetics as Brahmanical. The essay offers brief explanations of theoretical formulations of protected ignorance, a critical account of different interpretative frameworks that evolved in twentieth-century and contemporary India, and analyses of a range of pictorial representations that have come through critics of caste life.

Mangala Bansode and the Social Life of Tamasha: Caste, Sexuality, and Discrimination in Modern Maharashtra by Shailaja Paik

Over the past three decades there has been an increasing academic interest in the field of popular culture and cultural studies. However, in the Indian context there is little study about the popular practices of caste-based cultural forms and sexual labor. Most significantly, scholars have rarely considered the so-called “immoral” and “vulgar” “folk art” of Tamasha (folk theater) and the lives of Tamasgiranchya (Tamasha performers) worthy of systematic analyses. In this essay, I deploy the oral history and life narrative of a Dalit Tamasgir woman, Mangalatai Bansode, to examine the hitherto unexplored potentials and problems of intimate and interlocking technologies of “deviant” sexuality, labor, and struggle for survival; the community’s social, cultural, and political battles; private and public patriarchy; and Maharashtra state’s politics regarding “folk culture.” I provide micro-level details of Tamasgiranchya’s historical experiences of poverty, hunger, education or the lack thereof, occupation, and the strategic deployment of khandani business, body politics, and sexual economy of erotic excess. I unravel how ruling elites both in colonial and postcolonial periods constructed Tamasha as a despised form of hereditary performance, and how Tamasgir women have had to struggle constantly to preserve their honor within and without the Dalit community, enhance their social status, and earn their family’s livelihood. Ironically, Tamasha continues to be a degraded form of performance that has provided possibilities and power, however limited, to some women.

Brahmanical Activism As Eco-Casteism: Reading The Life Narratives Of Bindeshwar Pathak, Sulabh International, And “Liberated” Dalits by Mukul Sharma

This essay centers on the life of Bindeshwar Pathak, a Brahmin by caste, narrated by himself and others. Pathak is the founder of the much-celebrated Sulabh International, a prominent environmental initiative working for the abolition of scavenging, which has largely been done by the Balmiki Dalit castes in India. Through Pathak’s life writing and Sulabh’s varied literature, along with interviews with Sulabh workers, scavengers, and Dalit activists who narrate their lives and the implications of Pathak and Sulabh for them, the essay argues that Pathak and his environmental movement often deploys caste and Dalits to reform and reinvent Brahmanical Hinduism with a human face. The retelling of various lives underlines that Pathak’s attempts to “liberate” scavengers are often mediated through a caste-bound Hindu religious, community, cultural, and everyday practice. Pathak’s anticaste plank is thus constantly blunted by a Hindu religious ecology that positions kindness against rights, charity against liberty, and reform from above against radical change, marking the limits of Pathak’s life narrative vis-à-vis caste.

Invisibility of “Other” Dalits and Silence in the Law by Sumit Baudh

For the first time, the 2011 census of India counted a population “other” than male or female. This essay takes a cue from the census and traces the invisibility of “other” Dalits, while attempting to break the silence about them in the law through life narratives. Formerly considered “untouchable” in the deeply unequal and hierarchical caste system of India, Dalits are also known as Scheduled Castes (SC) in the legal parlance. The invisibility of “other” Dalits and the silence about them is located in an emerging legal moment in which transgender persons are compared with “untouchable” Dalits but there is no legal understanding of persons who are both transgender and Dalit. The knowledge that comes from examining overlapping vulnerabilities would help strengthen tools, instruments, and rhetoric designed to address violence, discrimination, and social disempowerment globally. More particularly, given the background from which this essay has emerged, the ongoing campaign for decriminalization of sodomy in India and the upcoming “curative petition” in the Supreme Court could be informed by the “intersectional” understanding presented in this essay. Histories of discrimination, oppression, and indignities originating in the caste system in India could be pivotal to informing the broader agenda of liberation and human rights for all.

Stories Of Dalit Diaspora: Migration, Life Narratives, And Caste In The Us by Shweta Majumdar Adur and Anjana Narayan

In conventional academic scholarship, “diaspora” overwhelmingly is treated as a homogenous category. It is only in recent years that intersectional analysis, by attending to internal fissures that include race, class, gender, and religion has complicated and simultaneously enriched the study of diasporic lives. This essay focuses on Dalit lives and experiences in the Indian diaspora in the US. We explore caste and casteism in the diaspora based on the life narratives of three Dalit activists in the US. The essay not only establishes the salience of using life narratives in the study of Dalit diasporic lives, it also makes a significant contribution to South Asian American scholarship in the US that has only minimally centered Dalits and Dalit lives in the US. We conclude this paper with some observations about possible future directions in the study of Dalit lives in the US.

Caste in Japan: The Burakumin by June A. Gordon

While most writing on caste emanates from South Asia, there are other countries and cultures that operate under this feudal yet enduring system, Japan being one of them. The Japanese group who bear this yoke are called the Burakumin, individuals who have for generations inherited their outcaste status largely through the professions of their ancestors. Access to these communities is not only extremely difficult for “outsiders” but is also fraught with contradictions, as support is welcomed but the interpretation of what is found is scrutinized for political correctness. The Burakumin are a creation of Japanese history, but the experience of discrimination is all too real. The research for this essay involved several years of engagement with numerous schools and community organizations throughout Japan in areas with large populations of Burakumin. In particular, my focus was on the teachers and scholars who had committed their lives to working with Burakumin youth while simultaneously educating the larger society of Japan in changing a feudal mindset. This paper presents narratives of some of these individuals and the reciprocal impact of their work on their lives and those with whom they worked.