Tag Archives: caste

Book Review: Leila by Prayaag Akbar

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In a strictly-segregated metropolis of an India in a believably near future is a sector known as the East End, the last bastion of liberal sensibilities. Everywhere else, sectors are divided by caste and religion (and the way these dovetail neatly with class), and each one upholds its own standard of morality and customs – or in the lingo of apartheid, “culture” and “community”. Beyond the sectored zones are the slums, the only places that remain more or less precisely as they always were. In this almost-here India are looming walls, their partitions enforced by armed Repeaters, men who move like mobs, imposing law and order with their long bamboo staves. To a city plunged in drought, the excesses of the East End, with its swimming pools and its oblivious prosperity, its sexual mores and overall happiness, are less bearable than usual. On the night of a party at one such house – where the affluent, interfaith couple Shalini and Riz live with their toddler Leila – the Repeaters storm in. Riz is murdered. Shalini, arrested and sent to the Tower, spends bides her time for years, waiting for a transfer that will allow her to search for Leila, or at least the truth about what happened to her.

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila opens on a mother longing for her child, trapped in what we see through her eyes primarily as an era of misogyny. Shalini has waited years for a tribunal that will allow her to work where she will have access to bureaucratic records. If Leila is still alive, she would be nineteen years old. It was on the night of her third birthday that the family was shattered, and Shalini has honed the need to find her to become the pure purpose of her existence. Memories of her baby are interposed by the grimness of what has happened to them all, and how Leila is unlikely to still know her at all. “When I think about this, it’s like I’m burning on the inside. She wouldn’t know me if we crossed on the road. To her, I am an emptiness, an ache she cannot understand but yearns to fill. No. I have left more, a glimmer at least. The blurred outline of a face. A tracery of a scent. The weight of fingertips on her cheek. The warmth of her first cradle, my arms.”

The narrator, Shalini, is a brilliantly etched character, one of the finest portrayals of privileged Indian womanhood seen in recent fiction. The author has honed her so convincingly that she maintains our empathy even when the more unpleasant sides to her personality are seen. At a rally not long before her arrest, where she finds out for the first time that her domestic worker’s locality has been without water for three years, her discomfort is evident. This is what happens when she sees a woman scratching an old mosquito bite: “The wound, a small black ring with a flaky white centre, looked deeply ugly against her dark skin. A spot of scarlet appeared and bubbled into a small drop. This she wiped with the pulp of her grubby finger. I turned away, suddenly sick, desperate to move to the better section, where at least the men weren’t wearing all this stinking polyester.” Yet, we somehow forgive her, accepting her moments of remorse, such as when she is put to work at the Purity Camp where new inmates are indoctrinated, and introspects: “I learned to properly sweep the floor with a jhadoo, down on my haunches… For the first time, it occurred to me that no one – not Riz, not I, our friends, family – had through to buy long-handled mops and brooms for our homes. Did we enjoy keeping these women’s noses to the ground as they cleaned? We brought in televisions and cars and phones and everything else from abroad, why not these simple things?”

That rally that Shalini accidentally attends also serves to complicate the politics of the time and place she lives in. Gradually, the various sectors had rigidified not from pressure from the very top, but from hardline stances from within. Riz and Shalini left their respective sectors for the East End precisely to avoid religious fundamentalism in their original ones, and were able to carry on with their lives with the surety that theirs too was a sector that would protect its own ways. At the rally she encounters the political rhetoric behind the segregations and the insistence on “purity”. She can no longer see it only in its fragments, in small differences of opinion that she can dismiss or look down upon. But neither can she quite see it all. Even once she is a resident of the Tower, having lost that life completely, she retains a mismatched admiration, tinged with nostalgia, for how it all works. She remembers: “Riz’s parents used to serve this special kebab, spicy, soft as pastry, prepared by a thirteen year-old, a bawarchi boy who came to their kitchen from the Qassab Slum outside their sector. They were happy to have him and he was happy to have such good masters. A fine system.”

Akbar has a style that is prone to loveliness and adept at finding tenderness even in so dismal a storyline, with evocative lines such as, “She sits by a window, centred precisely in a square of sunlight. Once in a while a frizz comes loose and falls on the side of her face like a lash of laburnum…” In one of the most surprising, endearing passages in the book, Shalini and Riz become physically intimate for the first time as teenagers, and she tries to not have him roll her T-shirt off completely, despite already being braless. “He looked at me again, smile gone, confused. Nothing’s wrong, I said, I just can’t take my shirt off. He laughed and wanted to know why. For many minutes I refused to explain, as he nibbled at my breasts and my ribs, sure that I would yield. When he didn’t stop asking I had to explain. Innocent of where this afternoon would lead, I’d forgotten to shave my underarms.” Elsewhere, and quite unrelatedly, he subverts the common word “godman” into “man-god”, cleverly defusing and lampooning the term.

It is astonishing how multi-pronged this novel is in its critiques. It critiques not only, and most obviously, the overt dangers of theocracy creeping into statehood, but brings individual accountability into the equation in very subtle ways. Shalini, having survived the night of the raid on her family, is ostracised by the same people who had enjoyed the freedoms she had had in the East End. Meeting one such friend years later, she hands her a gift, nailpolish in a pink box, for the friend’s daughter. It is declined ignominiously. “Pari isn’t this type of girl. Her father would never let her use it…. We have to bring up girls the right way. It’s the main thing. Everyone is watching. Comparing. Until a good man takes her away we have to be careful.” The friend is utterly unaware of the irony of her phrasing. She has simply allowed the establishment to enfold her and her mind, in exchange for a comfortable security.

Indeed, Leila’s power as a political novel lies not at all in what seems to be its overt premise of the authoritarian state, but in the undercurrent of easy privilege that lies just beneath it. This is what makes it lose its dystopian tag and firmly contextualises it in the current and the real. In doing so, it also throws up a great many questions toward the literary firmament. How often does something qualify as a dystopic work merely by recasting the privileged in the role of the helpless? How often are readers more horrified to recognise someone like them in a book about extremism than by what takes place daily in democracies held together by their votes, in their names?  This mordant truth is finely elucidated by Akbar throughout the novel.

In one telling scene, Shalini tracks a woman named Sapna to a slum, believing she will find Leila there. Sapna laughs bitterly as she explains to her own daughter who Shalini is: “Remember this woman. The Tower is where they put high-borns…. Still they get big, big buildings. Toilets, fans, electricity, flush. Even when they break the rules they’re too good to be put out here with us. But us? Our crime is being born. We don’t get anything. We don’t deserve it.” Through Shalini’s eyes, we see gender politics. Through her choices and reactions – through the fact of her having those choices, which produce those reactions – we see the truly large picture: caste, class and communalism in a late-capitalist backdrop.

Leila is a devastating debut, a book that both mirrors and forewarns the India of today.

(An edited version appeared in Biblio, July-Sept 2017)

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The Venus Flytrap: Cassandra In The Kingdom Of Closed Eyes

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A boy is knifed in a train and bleeds to death on his brother’s lap on a station platform and no one sees. A young woman is stabbed and bleeds to death on another station platform and no one sees, but someone covers her with a shawl so that her womanly shape isn’t visible, for that is all they can see of her. Something cold sits on my heart, listening to them; how do they do it, looking me straight in the eyes and blithely revealing that they are among the unseeing?

They don’t register the headlines, the statistics, the faces, the stories. They demand proof even as it plays out before them. They claim blips and skewings, and when faced with facts, claim conspiracy. Last weekend I saw someone carrying a poster with a version of Bob Dylan’s words: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Some – no, many – deaths don’t count because some (many) lives matter less than others. There’s a quota that can never be filled enough for them to say “Enough”. That’s not a riot, they say. And a riot’s not a holocaust. And at least a holocaust is not… well, no one will be left to finish that sentence.

And someone will ask me (I know the script) – how can you connect them, the boy with the skull cap and the girl with the stalker – and like a fabulist I will have to try to prove a theory of invisibility. About how there are reasons why some people can only see some things and not others. And I will play right into their hands when I tell them: when a girl was raped on a bus five years ago, you lit candles and raged, when the same thing happened to another girl in Salem a month ago, you scrolled past her, just like you did the one whose body was towed in a garbage truck, the pregnant one found brutalised at the bottom of a well, the one who was never written about at all but whom you would have ignored anyway.

Then they’ll say: where were you when the earth first wept (not yet born), or when that other silence stuck like tar (raising my voice, then as now, but it didn’t carry in the wind) or when those other dead were named (I hadn’t known then – but you had). As though their wilful, obstinate unseeingness is vindicated because of my not being omniscient. And they never turn the same question on themselves: where are you now, as this unfolds, and why do you justify it? And if you ask, they say flatly, “But there is nothing happening.”

They cannot see the forest burning for all the ashes in the trees. Cannot see structure, system, sense. Cannot see anything beyond their own noses, even as they fill with noxious smoke.

Here’s what I see then, if you can tolerate a Cassandra in the kingdom of closed eyes: nothing we have not already seen. Nothing humanity does not already know. Nothing humanity can forget – unless humanity has forgotten the meaning of itself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Delta Meghwal

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Delta Meghwal wanted to study. She was raped, murdered and towed away in a garbage tractor.

Delta was the first girl in her village (Trimohi, Rajasthan) to go to secondary school. Then she went on to Jain Adarsh Teacher Training Institute. She was Dalit. She was 17.

On the evening of March 28th, the hostel warden instructed her to clean the PT instructor’s room, where she was raped.

Returning to her room, injured and terrified, she called her father. The next morning, she was found dead in a tank. Police then took her body to the hospital in a municipal garbage tractor. The autopsy showed that there was no water in her lungs. She did not drown herself.

Pause. You didn’t know. Now – do you care?

Delta Meghwal was an artist. A painting she made of a camel in Class 4 was hung in Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje’s office. Is it still there – reproaching the politicians who haven’t spoken a word about her murder?

She is not the first woman – artist or otherwise – to meet a tragic end because her talent stood at odds with what was expected of her. I don’t see Buzzfeed articles, neatly packaging tragedy for public consumption, with images of her paintings. I don’t see a government agency being set up in her name to provide arts scholarships for underprivileged girls. When her devastated father tells a reporter, “I shouldn’t have educated her… maybe she’d still be alive”, all I see is the story of Delta’s murder being used to frighten disenfranchised parents into wanting less for their children.

Most of all, I don’t see your 140 characters of hashtagged outrage. And that is what makes me sickest of all.

When Jyoti Singh Pandey – valorised as Nirbhaya – was raped and murdered, the entire nation grieved publicly. We observed candlelight marches. We claimed her as sister and daughter. We demanded that laws be changed. If that solidarity is reserved only for those whose backgrounds don’t discomfit our smug lightweight activism, it is no solidarity at all. It is ugly hypocrisy. There is zero meaning to your still angrily shuddering at the words “Delhi gangrape” if you ignore Delta Meghwal today.

The mainstream media is silent. In Barmer, Pali, Jodhpur, Bangalore, Delhi and Bikaner, photos of small demonstrations show mostly men, protesting caste violence. Where are the women, the ones who cried for Nirbhaya?

Talking about Delta’s death means talking about caste, and our complicity when we ignore aspects of any power system that serve us, but not others. It means being uncomfortable.

Now, when I hear the words “the Delhi gangrape”, I want to correct the grammar. That was a gangrape that took place in Delhi in December of 2012: in that same month, in that same city, there were others, mostly with fewer perpetrators involved.

That year, 24,923 rapes were reported in India (more – more than we know or want to imagine – were not). 98% of those perpetrators were known to the victim. We chose to focus on one case in the 2%, conveniently othering the rapists on the basis of class.

What about Delta Meghwal – has she been othered too?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Casual Casteism Of The Term ‘TamBrahm’

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It was a night like so many others in my mid-twenties. My friends were already at the dimly-lit club, along with a very young couple, new to the clique. I was the last to arrive, and much inebriation had already taken place. “You must be a Tam-Brahm too, right?” asked the cheerful girl, shortly after we’d been introduced. Before I could launch into the response that my friends could expect of me, her boyfriend piped up: “No, she’s not. Brahmins don’t keep names like Manivannan.”

This is true – my surname comes from the Tamil bhakti movement; it’s in the verses of the Azhwars, including the foxy and mysterious Andal’s. Do I like my father’s name? Sure, I do. Am I proud of it? No, because pride is about achievement. I did nothing to achieve a poetic surname, just as my companions that evening had done nothing (not even karmically!) to be ranked upper caste. I was struck that a young person in a casual, urban social setting, that too in a state of intoxication, had maintained such a sound grip on how to peg people quickly. And the infuriating, ugly question thus raised: what could my caste background possibly mean to that setting?

Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice evening. But it was also an encounter that in many ways exemplified how caste still holds its gridlock in the minds of otherwise cosmopolitan – and even very lovely – people. I was raised abroad, of mixed heritage and caste-oblivious; I never encountered it as a personal marker until I tried to apply to college in India, at almost 20. This too was a privilege. Once I moved to Chennai, I found that almost all my friends came from atop the caste pyramid. This was not incidental: it spoke to the fact that the artsy, alternative, more affluent circles (what a Venn diagram; why aren’t our associations more diverse?) that I moved in were thus dominated. I was among the very few odd ones out, and was made, suddenly, very aware. Even if I hadn’t chosen to educate myself, there were countless slips, suggestions and jabs that reinforced the need.

I can relate several more of them to prove my point, but instead I’ll make a request: it’s time to retire the term “Tam-Brahm”. Don’t try to make a horrible thing sound hip. That it rhymes doesn’t make the history – or the present – it references any cooler, or more palatable.

When you sit with me – or to put a fine point on it, anyone who is not like you – in a conversation and cavalierly place the words “Tam-Brahm” on the table, it is more than just an uncomfortable allusion. It is a subtle act of aggression. Through this ID, what you make clear to me (perhaps unconsciously) are your rank in a hierarchy versus mine, your defensiveness about the caste system, your negating of centuries of violence, oppression and inhumanity, and most of all, your unapologetic embrace of all the same.

Casteism will not die until caste does. And you are so much more than what your ancestors did to other people – including, perhaps, to mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When The Devadasis Were Virgins

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Aruna Sairam shuffled onto my playlist with a song of a longing devadasi, and I called a friend who knew it well. He had the original Telugu text of Paiyyada, while I pored over an English translation. Together, we transliterated: ‘The one who rested his head on the fabric over my breast is embittered by me – aiyo…” At the end of our spontaneous cultural salon, he mentioned another Kshetrayya padam, one in which the raconteur says frankly to the deity Konkaneswara that it will cost a hundred gold coins just to enter her house, and three crore to kiss her.

The poem reminded me of one of my favourite devadasi songs in Tamil, which goes – “kathavai saathadi / kaasilathavan kadavul aanalum, kathavai saathadi”. “Shut the door, girl – if he’s empty-handed, even if he’s god himself, shut the door!”

When Rukmini Devi Arundale appeared on a Google doodle last week, it was the devadasis I thought of again. In the 1930’s, Arundale appropriated the devadasi dance known as sadir, angularised its sensuality, censored its eros and turned it into the caste-privileged form renamed as Bharatanatyam. This was part of a larger project of erasing their matrilineal, woman-centred culture, which had garnered disrepute (it came to be banned all over India). This should be widely-known, and isn’t, because of the sheer domination of one narrative over another. Before their fall from grace, devadasi women from as early as 8th century were known as: dancers, musicians, multi-linguists, land-owners, endowers of public infrastructure, impresarios, polymaths and poets. Today, they are dismissed as sex workers.

We forget them both: the mid-20th century devadasi in a system of ruin and abuse, and the medieval devadasi whose empowerment and erudition remains beyond what many women enjoy today.

I’ve also been reading about the Asur people of Jharkhand and West Bengal. I heard about them just a few days ago, when their traditional telling of the epic battle between Durga, my beloved goddess, and the buffalo Mahishasura, whom the Asurs trace their lineage to, became the stuff of headlines. A fascinating alternative rendering, not unlike how Ravana has the sympathies of Tamil people.

But I’m not convinced that the story we’re being told is the one the Asurs themselves tell. When the word “prostitute” was raised in reference to Durga, as a means of literally demonising those with this belief, I wondered – what if the original word was “apsara” (like the transgendered Mohini, who used her seductive charms on asuras too, before she bedded Shiva). What if, indeed, the word was something like “devadasi”? And if it was “sex worker” – well, as a woman who happens to be Hindu, I am frankly more offended by misogyny than blasphemy.

Another mythological word we misunderstand is “virgin”. It means a sovereign woman or goddess, by no means devoid of sexuality, and in complete control of her own. Hence, unmarried. Like a devadasi was, except to her god and her art.

Myths are full of history, and history is full of myths. We can love their messy richness, and if we must sieve them of anything, let’s sieve the manipulations that serve only their blinkered tellers.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 3rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Tamil Mourning Performances: An Essay In Motherland

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Motherland carries a long article on performances in Tamil funerals, specifically focused on two oppari singers from Ayodhyakuppam, Chennai, and the self-styled subculture star Marana Gana Viji. Read it here.

Book Review: Bhimayana by Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam (illustrations) and Srividya Natarajan, S. Anand (text)

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Midway through Bhimayana, the upper caste man whose complaint about not being able to find a job thanks to the quota system asks the woman who has engaged him in debate, “How come we don’t read about all this in our history books?” The question throws light on this graphic novel on the whole: a deeply polemic text in the guise of a beautiful comic book, its primary impetus is the construction of pedagogy. It’s tempting to forget this, and lose oneself in the many little joys that Gond tribal artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam have brought to its pages – a water tank that grows eyes and becomes Ganesh-like on the next page, the assortment of animals and trees pretty as fabric prints, and the much-praised dispensing of the conventional panel/box format altogether. It’s tempting, but also difficult, because it’s not so much that Bhimayana tries to rectify history than that it tries to reinvent a decontextualised present. Its overarchingly simplistic, almost absolutely dichotomized narrative of heroes and villains may suit its physical form, but not its purposes.

The trouble begins with the nature of the discussion that leads into the story of Bhimrao Ambedkar. Rather than open with the iconic activist’s life itself, he is introduced to us via a difficult contemporary question: affirmative action policies. The setting is an Indian city of the present day, and the frustrated job-seeker and his bespectacled companion are waiting for a bus. One assumes that the target audience for this book is an Indian one, then, and that the practical complications of imagining an India free of the hideous hegemony of caste will be addressed satisfactorily.

This isn’t the case – by the end of the book, one is left not stirred by hope, but disturbed by the vocabulary of the struggle. This includes everything from the use of a phrase like “India’s hidden apartheid”, which suggests that casteism is an institutionalized, legally sanctified segregation in our country rather than a socially abetted one, to the vilification of Gandhi as someone who “could afford a first class ticket in a foreign country” without a counterpart explanation of how Ambedkar went from not being allowed to drink water at his school to studying at foreign universities.

And the explanation is necessary, as the book is clearly for a foreign audience, and while caste is an indubitably evil system, it plays out in Indian society in ways that are more complex than this book chooses to deal with. But this also makes it quite suitable for children, with its very basic writing, and an odd mix of occasional rhyme and incongruent speech patterns that does strike a charming and whimsical chord. The intriguing artwork, of course, is a major plus point.

But the ultimate lack of political sophistication when dealing with such loaded subject matter remains disturbing. Bhimayana’s end result contains just little too much vitriol, a little too much victim vogue. And just not enough vision to live up to the story of Ambedkar himself – a hero who deserves celebration not as a divisive force, but as an example for everybody. And therein lies its fundamental problem: it’s not enough to say that casteism exists and to recapitulate newspaper reports and statistics about this fact. The fact is not in doubt. The solution is. Bhimayana neither posits nor inspires one. Its methodology of hero-worship as a means of engendering change smacks of party propaganda, while missing in all of this is a sense of the one thing that will truly eradicate the problem in the long run: compassion, love and respect for all humanity.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.