Understanding Dalit Politics and Aesthetics Through a non-Dalit Paradigm: A Reading of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and Ulhannan Thoppil’s God’s Own Unotouchables

Tanu Sharma, University of Delhi

Download PDF Version

Abstract

Underpinning the aesthetics and politics of Dalit literature the essay offers a critical analyses of two novels namely, God of Small Things and God’s Own Untouchable’s by non-Dalit writers. The intention is to see how these texts have come a long way in the history of representation of Dalits by non-Dalits from objects of pity and sympathy to politically conscious subjects. Unlike their predecessors such as Premchand, Mulk Raj Anand, Bonomli Goswami, S K Pillai, and others, both Arundhati Roy and Ulhannan Thoppil have represented the Dlait subject as dynamic personality fighting the system of caste not through a narrative of pain but through a narrative of rebellion.

Speaking on the aesthetics of Dalit literature Sharan Kumar Limbale in Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature (2010) posits three major features of Dalit literature, “first, the artist’s social commitment; second the life-affirming values present in the artistic creation; and third, the ability to raise the reader’s consciousness of fundamental values like equality, freedom, justice and fraternity.” (Limbale 2010: 120). While I see Limbale’s theoretical and literary underpinnings of Dalit literature as deeply invested within the political realm, D R Nagaraj[1] on the other hand as opposed to this politics of rage sees in the cultural myths, history, and folklore a revitalizing of Dalit consciousness which in itself is not apolitical.

Another feature that concerns the contours of Dalit literature is the ethics of representation. In other words, who can represent the life of a Dalit, the atrocities of caste system with its’ recurrent political streak. This is where the realms of theory and lived experience coincide. Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkais’s responses in The Cracked Mirror (2012) generate a series of ideas, which reflects upon the ethicality of the representation of Dalits. For Guru a “lived experience” of being a Dalit is a prerequisite condition to express a life lived in oppression and constant challenge. But Sarukkai’s departure from Guru’s point is to be understood in terms of ownership/authorship divide. He puts light on the fact that in terms of experience “there are many elements of that experience that the owner is not really an owner of. We own our experience only in a particular meaning of that term and we may have control over only some elements of that experience.” (Sarukkai 2012: 39). The oppressor-oppressed linkage involves an oppressor and he/she being instrumental in creating an oppressing life, for the oppressed partakes of the ownership in this grid as the one who is being oppressed has no control over the conditions that are being generated to oppress him. In Dalit literature when we look at the works of non-Dalit writers and their representation of Dalits, an ethical balance needs to assumed in order to partake of an authorial domain where lived experience has a major stake.

In the following section I intend to look at two novels by non-Dalit writers dealing with the theme of caste which clearly seems to make a stringent argument against it through critical scrutiny. It is my contention to assess at the same time the radical potentiality as well as limitation of the discourse that these two texts generate. Both Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize winning novel The God of Small Things and Ulahannan Thoppil’s 2012 novel God’s Own Untouchables have central to them the theme of caste and its manifestation in the Indian society. This essay intends to see these novels involving in a historical revisionism where narratives of the subaltern voices are mediated, critiquing the entrenched system of caste.

Roy’s deep and rich narrative has central to its focus the untouchable protagonist Velutha whose “scandalous” affair with the upper caste Ammu clearly subverts the social construct of caste based laws. As a revisionism in history the narrative—through the focalization of Estha and Rahel, Ammu’s monozygotic twins, runs back and forth in time when the two of them after returning to Ayemenem after 20 years attempt to recapitulate and put in place the misplaced pieces of the historical puzzle of their life, of Ammu’s, and of Velutha’s. The epigraph to the novel, “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one”, implies a diversity of many narratives that history has produced. Roy’s narrative incessantly breaks the historical appropriation of the low caste by the high caste.

Velutha’s grandfather, Kelan, was among a number of Parvanas, Pelayas, and Pulaya who converted to Christianity to escape the oppressed life of an untouchable which “… didn’t take them long to realize that they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire.” (Roy 2002: 74). Being a Pulaya before converting to Christianity actually made them Christians Pulayas after the conversion which did not make them touchable rather made their life more miserable by deprived them of Government benefits because Christianity apparently made them casteless and thus entitled to no caste benefits. If Vellya Paapen, Velutha’s father, represents an “Old World Paravan” (Roy 2002: 76) whose gratitude towards the upper caste almost verges on being subservient to them then Velutha clearly debunks such a role playing which is reflective in his inadvertent demeanor and is as much a concern for his father because, “It was not what he said, but the way he said it. Not what he did, but the way he did it.” (Roy 2002: 76). His phenomenal chemistry with Ammu, Rahel and, Estha brings vibrancy to his character as not just someone who is assertive and imbues a sense dignified presence but at the same time is capable of reciprocating emotions of love. He exhibits the small tales of history against the big ones. Velutha as an alternative world order and story teller to Ammu, Estha, and Rahel provides them with care as Rahel remarks that his taking care was not to decimate it with adult carelessness but like a dream to let life be and travel with it.

Roy’s representation of the untouchable Velutha is not just limited with his effervescent presence but his association with the Naxalite movement seems to be making a case of political radicalism as well. But this political radicalism which stops short of making him an active member does not possess the agency to match his uninhibited personality. Roy’s novel adopting an anti-communist stance seems to be clear enough which caricatures its leaders while exposing the core of communism which is not insular to casteist ideology because “… communism crept into Kerala insidiously. As a reformist movement that never questioned the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely traditional community”(Roy 2002: 66). K.N.M Nair and Namboodripad’s are criticized for their patriarchal and feudalistic ideologies even after being key leaders of the party.

Roy also exposes the pollution/purity dichotomy malevolently endorsed by the high caste as evident in Baby Kochamma’s reaction to Vellya Pappen’s revelation of the “illicit” relationship that has happened between Ammu and Velutha. She contemptuously remarks for Ammu, “How could she stand the smell? Haven’t you noticed? They have a particular smell, these Paravans.” (Roy 2002: 257). She epitomizes the cruel deep-seated aversion towards the low caste characters. Her misrepresentation of facts regarding Ammu and Velutha’s relationship leads to brutal assassination of Velutha. As opposed to this Ammu is enamored of how Velutha had changed so much whose body has become contoured and hard. Brinda Bose in her essay, “In Death and in Desire”, remarks that Ammu not just sees the potential of Velutha’s red politics through his body but also through his mind as well. Approving of his Left leanings Ammu hoped that “it had been him that had raised his flag and knotted arm in anger. She had hoped that under his careful cloak of cheerfulness, he housed a living, breathing anger against the smug, ordered world that she so raged against.” (Roy 2002: 175-6). According to Bose then it is not just bodily gratification that Ammu seeks of Velutha “but she seeks also to touch the Untouchable.”(Bose 2007: 125). Bose sees the play of erotic desire between them as a moment of no momentary aberration in History rather they become “the sources of alternative revolutions.” (Bose 2007: 126).

Although the same erotically and politically defiant body of Velutha’s faces the mutilation at the hands of upper caste, Roy towards the end of the novel seems to be diverting to the utmost broken taboo of touch and un-touch with all its radical potentialities as, “Then carpenter’s hands lifted her hips and an untouchable tongue touched the innermost part of her.” (Roy 2002: 337). What least they could do was to stick to small things; for their love held no future. The promise to meet tomorrow may or may not be fulfilled but we already know Velutha would never have “fathered future generations” or “died of natural causes” (Roy 2002: 339) as his individual fate seem to have already been sealed before he could outlive others.

The second novel that this essay intends to discuss is Ulahannan Thoppil’s God’s Own Untouchables. The crux of Thoppil’s narrative is a re-visioning into the nature of history which becomes a central theme in his politics of caste. The novel also criticizes the institute of religion, the so called markers of caste identity such as color of the skin, the Christian missionary movement, and the issue of reservation. Thoppil also bring out the idea of humiliation which according to him is necessary to define a Dalit consciousness not in terms of underestimating one’s potential but using the shame as a catalyst to sustain the anger and rebel against the caste system. At the same time he also shows the internal dissent among the low caste as well which clearly hinders with their solidarity and also exposes the fragmentariness of a modern Dalit identity that looks for benefits through reservation even if that means turning a back to your own roots and values.

As the novel opens we are told of Priest Reverend Aaron Pathrose Micha’s, a Dalit, appointment as the Archdiocese of God’s Own Country. As he confronts the journalist who are eager to interview, the author clearly condemns the way society sees the progress of a Dalit in terms of an extraordinary event while disregarding the fact of the struggles been undertaken to achieve it. One of the interviewers wants, “to cook up an exotic story that Pulaya Priest was appointed the Archbishop of God’s Own Country” (Thoppil 2012: 3). The phrase “Pulaya Priest” is in itself an anomaly which shows how the caste-less religious institutions such as Christianity have been inverted in the Indian society which has created caste hierarchies there as well. But Aaron Micah who is “Never ashamed of his past…admitted his parents lived untouchables, converted neo Christians but he was born a Christian.” (Thoppil 2012: 3).

Further highlighting the genealogy of the missionary movement in India Aaron Micah states how it never pricked the Christian conscious the visual of heartless atrocities being done towards the untouchables until the missionary movement started. It did not affect the high caste whose material interests remain unaffected which meant full exploitation of the untouchables, extracting every labor from their body and depriving them of even the basic human needs. The exposure of such hypocrisy becomes a stark reality where a change of religion does not guarantee a life which is not exploited through all pervading caste structures where one’s caste follows him/her wherever he/she goes.

To strengthen the theme of Dalit consciousness Thoppil’s narrative seeks to delve deeper into the pages of history to understand the variegated nature of the experience of an untouchable which is not just mired into the brutal structures of caste oppression but also seeks to try, apprehend, acknowledge, and inspire from the seeds of rebel that are as relevant to dig as other forms of experiences. For Aaron Micah it is his encounter with Sister Thomasina after which events take an interesting turn and he is shown a part of his historical lineage in a new light. Her confession to him a few days before her death sheds light on the life of Aaron Micha’s father, Pathrose Micah. She confesses to him about her unrequited love for a man about whom she still thinks and wishes to meet and who turns out to be no one else but Aaron Micah’s father, Pathrose Micah himself. The next chapter details the fortunes of Pathrose Micah who was an army man and served in the World War two. The constant reference to his dark skin is an ironic underpinning of the ludicrous notion of relating the color of a person which signifies his/her low caste origins. For Pathrose Micah whose life in the army has taught him “great lessons of human dignity” and that “the army is a powerful social leveler.” (Thoppil 2012: 23), is a man of assertive nature. He understands the reality of his existence as belonging to the low caste but does not seem to accept its logic. After spending a night at Thomakutty’s place, Thomakutty’s father, Thomman Master, finds in Pathrose Micah a suitable match for his grand-daughter Mariaachi (who later becomes sister Thomasina). However Thomakutty’s disinclination for this match is because of his reservation against Pathrose Micah’s roots who he suspects to be of an untouchable caste. Pathrose Micah’s rationale behind not believing in the caste system as because he is a Christian like Thomakutty is discredited by the latter who says, “You may believe anything you like but the truth is that in this country everyone has a caste, whether one likes it or not…” (Thoppil 2012: 32). Eventually not just Thomakutty but other members of the Christian community after knowing the fact that Pathrose indeed belongs to an untouchable caste opposes Mariaachi’s betrothal to him. Pathrose leaves the place after arranging his marriage with a shopkeeper’s daughter Kaali who also belongs to an untouchable caste. This whole episode serves to augment the critique of how caste has seeped itself into other religions as well which disregards a person’s merit or worth.

The narrative goes back to Aaron Micha who is visiting his hometown, Kerala, after seven years to meet his father Pathrose Micah but gets perplexed after not finding his father at his home. The hypocrisy of the Church is also evident in the behavior of the Vicar who is also not insular to caste based discrimination and snubs Aaron Micah by not even offering him a stay at his home. Aaron Micha, after spending the night on the pavement outside his father’s house, next morning when he wakes up, everyone from the colony seems to be surprised after seeing a Bishop amidst them.

After Pathrose Micah’s return, he and his son along with other members of the neighborhood sit together and endeavor to dig into the history of their ancestors. This act of consciously invoking one’s past especially by the Dalits is an important imperative in defining a Dalit sensibility, consciousness, subjectivity, and belongingness which is also a basis for the paradigm of their radical progressivism. We saw in Roy’s novel how the heterogeneity of alternative history shapes the narrative which seeks to present those unsung events, disparaged by the casteist framework of history, exuberantly disrupting the flow of Big things by Velutha, the God of Small things. Thoppil also seems to be undertaking the same task of historical revisionism while adopting a different narrative structure altogether.

Aaron Micah’s encounter with the history takes him to the times of his great-grand mother, Poomachee, and grandfather, Meenan. Thoppil vividly describes the minimal existence of the untouchables in those times when the rules of caste were stringently followed. Facing deprivation from all sides the untouchables were not even let to have proper funeral ceremonies. Poomachee’s death gives no other option to Meenan but to dump her carcass into the river which resulted in a traumatizing experience for him and his community.

Apart from the many atrocities that the untouchables had to bear during those times I want to specifically point out a revealing fact which comes out of this process of historical revisionism and affects the consciousness of Aaron Micah. It is the story of his grandfather Meena’s biological mother Neeli Manka. She represents the spirit of rebelliousness which is indicative of the fact that a historical revisionism not only exposes the cruelty of the caste hierarchy but also how in every narrative there is a story of rebel, of courage, and of making an attempt to tear down the structures of caste that sustain it. Neeli Manka’s story of courage is not without her share of oppression as a little girl. Her attempt to overcome grief and hunger and to be concerned about her mother’s dying condition makes her bear the wrath of an upper caste Hindu. After suffering from hunger she decides to steal away the rice balls being kept in a temple’s courtyard by the priest for the crow’s to peck upon it in order to assuage the spirit of dead ancestors. For Neeli who considers herself as black as crow thinks that she could partake of the crow’s share for herself and for her mother. But being caught by the priest she gets thrashed badly. Her failure to gather any food results in her mother’s death and this impacts her psyche severely. Later on her simmering anger and humiliation takes on a radical bent as she gets associated with a group of radical rebels called Pulapedies “to avenge the atrocities committed by the powerful against the oppressed castes.” (Thoppil 2012: 127). She becomes a rage in her community and looked up as a powerful symbol of freedom from the oppressions of the upper caste. Even after knowing this fact that Meenan was Neeli’s son whose father’s identity was not known “Msgr. Aaron Micah never felt ashamed when he discovered his grandfather was a bastard or his great grandmother was a woman with an uncomplimentary past.” (Thoppil 2012: 125).

Conclusion

This is how Thoppil’s attempt in developing a revisionary historical meta-narrative is important for the project of conscious raising that fruitfully connects one with his/her past. Both Roy and Thoppil as non-Dalit writers seek to invest historically, psychologically, and radically with the lived experience of a Dalit existence. Being ethically minded they have brought out in their own ways about the nature of radical individualism, dealing upfront with the issue of caste and critiquing religious and political realm which in the modern times have also perpetuated the subtle workings of it. The representation of the Dalits in these novels is clearly not overpowered by the emotions of pity and sympathy but it also stands true that as texts of social critique of caste they at one level fail to provide viable revolutionary or radical intermediations that could structurally annihilate the caste. But this failure should not dispense with the fact that they bring new insight in to the nature of Dalit aesthetics and politics and work towards sensitizing the readership towards the atrocities that this system has generated and therefore must be shunned vehemently.

Note

[1] On Nagaraj’s idea of Dalit politics and Aesthetics see Flaming Feet and Other Essays.

Works Cited

Bose, Brinda. “In Desire and in Death: Eroticism as Politics in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.” Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Ed. Alex Tickell. New York: Routledge, 2007. 120-131.

Limbale, Sharankumar. Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature History, Controversies And Considerations. Tr. and Ed. Alok Mukherjee. New Delhi: Orient Balckswan Private Limited. 2010.

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New Delhi: Penguin, 2002.

Sarukkai, Sundar. “Experience and Thoery: From Habermas to Gopal Guru.” Guru, Gopal and Sundar Sarukkai. The Cracked Mirror. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012. 29-45.

Nagaraj, D.R. The Flaming Feet And Other Essays The Dalit Movement in India. Ed. Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi. Ranikhet Cantt: Permanent Black. 2010.

Thoppil, Ulahannan. God’s Own Untoochables. New Delhi: Times Group Books, 2012.

Tanu Sharma is pursuing M.Phil in English from department of English, University of Delhi. She also works at University of Delhi. Her area of interest is Indian English literature, Modern Indian Drama, Political Fiction and Dalit Literature.

The Golden Line: Volume 1, Number 2, 2015

Hits: 1339