Scenes from the modern literature of Brahmanism
THE CASTE WAS AN OBJECT studies for about 150 years now, but our attitude towards it remains ethnographic. Bahujans are described as objects of research through which caste could be understood, as if caste concerns them and not the dominant castes. This attitude extends to literature. For liberal readers, literature only becomes a caste affair when new voices – usually Dalits – from the fringes share their worlds and experiences as ethnographic data. Review of Imayam’s novel Beasts of burden in the Hindustan times last year, says he “writes about the daily life and activities of the family in ethnographic detail.” T Janakiraman’s novels also describe in detail the milieu of Brahmins with roots in Thanjavur and living in Madras, but they are never called “ethnographic”.
In the minds of our readers and critics, the caste is opposed to the human as such. A review for Feminism in India, written on Bama’s famous autobiography Karukku, says that her “nuance is incredible, as she describes not only her experiences as a Dalit and a woman, but also the loneliness of her daily life” – as if the nuance only lies beyond the experiences marked by the caste or gender. Oxford University Press Announcement Ocean bordered world, the English translation of Joe D’Cruz’s novel Azhi Suzh Ulagu, as “an insider’s testimony from the fishing community of the Tuticorin coast”, as if D’Cruz was less a writer than an indigenous informant.
A review, from 2019, of Poomani’s novel Vekkai—Heat–in Scroll says, “Poomani does not wish to talk about caste, but he says quite clearly that systemic violence stems from the incredible inequity at the base of our social structure.” But the fundamental iniquity is caste; and the novel, about a boy from a landless Dalit family who kills an upper caste owner, is also about caste. The critic thinks, almost by reflex, that a universal human drama transcends supposedly sectarian matters such as castes. Indian liberalism – or late Brahmanism – considers casteless and universal to be synonymous, while its entire universe is a caste.