As the Bharatiya Janata Party looks set to take a general election majority in an India increasingly hostile to minorities, Ragini Mohite reviews Githa Hariharan’s important novel on caste inequality and Dalit experience.
Githa Hariharan, I Have Become the Tide (Simon & Schuster, 2019), 322pp.
I Have Become the Tide, by Githa Hariharan, is a novel about Dalit lives and caste inequalities across the ages. The author of The Thousand Faces of Night (1992), The Art of Dying (1993), Fugitive Histories (2009), as well as other novels, essays and children’s stories, Hariharan crafts three narratives in this novel. Chikka, the son of a cattle-skinner, finds a home in Anandagrama, an egalitarian society of people who reject the trappings of caste in ancient India; in the contemporary period, Asha, Ravi and Satya, three Scheduled Caste medical college aspirants grapple with discrimination in higher educational institutions, and Professor Krishna becomes besotted with the poetry of an ancient Saint Kannadeva. Each narrative strand incorporates histories of Dalit resistance to the caste system which has historically subjugated and segregated them to the social and economic margins, labelling them ‘Untouchables’, over thousands of years. This community exists outside the four-tiered system of Hindu varnas, relegated to work considered impure such as garbage collecting, leather work, and so on. Yet, Dalit resistance also has a rich history in the works of Babasaheb Ambedkar (architect of India’s constitution), Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule and many others since, with members of the community also converting to Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. Upon Indian independence in 1947, constitutional protections were put in place to protect these Scheduled Caste communities, including the abolition of untouchability, passing of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, and Reservations to enhance political and educational representation. From the 1950s and 1960s, works by writers like Namdeo Dhasal, Annabhau Sathe, Shantabai Kamble and so on gained visibility; these figures were also social reformers and activists. Nonetheless, atrocities against the Dalit community persist in alarming numbers in twenty-first century India, particularly with the rise of Hindu Nationalism or Hindutva. In the face of this brahminical onslaught on minority communities, it is essential for these subaltern Dalit narratives to be at the forefront of critical discourse and literary production.
Set in South India in approximately the twelfth century, Chikka, the cattle-skinner’s son is completely isolated, having run away from his father’s funeral holding his drum. At Anandagrama he finds friends, an occupation as a washerman, and a family with Mahadevi. Here, Hariharan evokes the Bhakti movement which originated in South India around the eighth century and spread across the subcontinent. Alternately called a reform or revival movement, it produced devotional poetry in regional languages by poets like Tukaram, Kabir, Akka Mahadevi and others, comprised of diverse philosophical positions, and included people from all communities. The songs in Hariharan’s novel are discourses on the characters’ experiences as the downtrodden, rejected by the upper-castes and their temples and streets, and a declaration of their humanity. These songs recognize that unlike the holy water sprinkled on stone idols, temple-fronts, and upper-caste bodies, the rivers by which they live belong to everyone: ‘only those who have sweated day after day/ know what it is to be soaked, O friend.’ (p.122) This is a means of asserting ownership over the natural world by a community that has long been denied that right in society. Rivers are central to this poetry and witness the generations of physical labour performed by the community that washes clothes, tills land they do not own, sings at funerals, or skins carcases. These songs are heartfelt and memorable in themselves, and as poetic subversions to the prose. Explicit in Chikka’s and Mahadevi’s narrative is the need to educate their children, to preserve and memorialize their history of resistance and their dream of egalitarianism, to assert ‘that what she lived and loved did happen.’ (p.239) It is through this impulse that their son Kannappa becomes the poet-saint Kannadeva.
The most poignant narrative is that of Satya, the medical student who faces increasing isolation and institutionalised casteism: abused by his professor, his attendance record is fabricated thereby halting his scholarship on which he is entirely dependent. Satya’s discomforting reality holds a mirror to the casteism present in Indian higher education institutions today, including the experience of Rohith Vemula whose suicide in 2016 sparked widespread outrage and student protests. While Asha suffers casteism at her nursing college and among acquaintances, Ravi discovers anti-caste activism while studying zoology. The prevalence of anti-reservation sentiments in higher educational institutions is not overstated, with Dalit students considered interlopers, socially segregated, and accused of meddling with the system of meritocracy. Hariharan portrays the daily indignities heaped upon the characters by peers and teachers alike and the varying degrees of financial difficulties resulting from generations of economic disenfranchisement. The Bhim Shakti group that Ravi joins invokes Ambedkar’s call to ‘educate, agitate, organise’ through Senthil, a Dalit professor. The drum, originally played by Ravi’s grandfather at funerals, connects him to Chikka: ‘it speaks clearly. Its voice is strong. It speaks of power, not shame.’ (p.140) Water bodies, life forces of the South Indian peninsular and the subcontinent at large, provide Hariharan with the best metaphor for the growing tide of resistance and dissent. Unlike the stagnant, polluted canals and ponds along which Dalit settlements housing Ravi’s s family and Chikka’s father are relegated, the tumultuous flowing and intermingling of chaotic rivers best signify the gathering momentum of the Ambedkarite movement, the flowing bodies of protestors filling the streets.
In the third strand, Professor Krishna, a Forward Caste university scholar faces hate and threats from Hindutva groups for daring to critically study ancient poetry written on palm leaf manuscripts in his Kannada-language critical monograph which subtly weaves a connection between the three narratives. In revealing that Kannadeva’s words are really those of multiple poets with shared experiences, he exposes the appropriation of Dalit poets as ‘casteless’ Hindu ‘saints’ to fuel the same exclusivity that their poetry condemns. In this criticism, the largely masculinized notion of ritualised purity and nationalism is also pinpointed. Such appropriations gloss over the creative contributions of female poets and scribes, and Mahadevi’s poems get subsumed into the composite image of Saint Kannadeva. Hariharan indicts right-wing movements who use politicised violence to further the Hindu Rashtra(Hindu Nation) agenda by indoctrinating foot-soldiers, weaponizing online trolls, referring to dissenters as ‘rakshasas’ or demons (p.206) to be defeated by those charged with religious and patriotic fervour, in a manner reminiscent of the murders of left-wing, anti-caste activists like Narendra Dabholkar, M. M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare, and Gauri Lankesh since 2013.
However, it is not right-wing casteism, but the powerful witnessing of Dalit experiences which is the heart of the novel. There are striking portrayals of community and solidarity: Asha checking up on her friends, empathising with their isolation; a local man ensuring that Senthil won’t be harmed for marrying a non-Dalit woman; Kannappa’s reluctance to part from his mother even for the prospect of education. The author includes songs, diary entries, news headlines, Facebook posts, research notes, and extracts and footnotes from critical texts and lectures in her contemporary narratives. Her inclusion of headlines detailing atrocities against Dalits are effectively jarring. That Chikka’s story is narrated in English seems anachronistic for the period of India in which it is set, making it seem timeless. However, Hariharan appears to acknowledge the political and historical significance of translation, and the title of her novel is taken from a translation of J V Pawar’s poem which is the book’s epigraph. Indeed, through this Anglophone novel, the reader is conscious of the history and cultural inheritance of Dalit literature in regional languages like Marathi and Kannada, and the enduring difficulties posed to dispossessed communities by the adoption of English as educational lingua franca. Asha, Ravi, and Satya share the burden of expensive textbooks over which they labour using dictionaries and struggling to ‘hear every English word he has not heard said before’. (p.93)
The rich, often translated texts and fictionalised manuscripts that Hariharan invokes are integral to traditions of orality and textuality and to the contemporary tide of Bahujan activism. Yet, both the novel and this review can but witness these narratives. As Hariharan acknowledges, ‘no privileged person in terms or caste or class can, despite choices made as an adult, really ‘know’ the lived experience of those who have been historically oppressed.’ (p.322) While Hariharan may sympathetically witness the experiences of Chikka, Mahadevi, Kannadeva, and even Satya, Asha and Ravi, the one character she can and does inhabit is Professor Krishna who admits that, while he can’t directly understand the experience of Kannadeva, ‘I can listen to his voice. I can read what is written about him. I can translate those words, study them. In fact, I must.’ (p.244) Her Professor, despite being a savarnaman (part of the four Hindu varnas from which Scheduled Caste peoples were excluded), becomes part of an academic community that has sought to translate ancient and contemporary Dalit texts thereby practicing allyship that, when unchecked, becomes appropriation. In invoking texts like Annihilation of Casteand An Anthology of Dalit Literature (Poems), Hariharan points readers to work that embodies Dalit experiences in a way that she, Professor Krishna, this reviewer, and other writers with caste privilege, cannot. It is only by listening closely and sympathetically to these voices that we may truly understand the despair, rage, and resilience that inhabits Dalit literature.
While it is impossible for either Hariharan or this reviewer to do justice to a full history of Dalit literature or the Dalit lived experience, I have included below a brief list of fiction and non-fiction anti-caste writings available in English:
- Babasaheb Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (1936)—in 2014 an annotated edition was published by Navayana with an introduction by Arundhati Roy
- ‘We Need to Talk about Caste: Roanna Gonsalves Interviews S Anand’, in Cordite Poetry Review (August 2016)—S Anand is the founder publisher ofNavayana, a publishing house which ‘focuses on the issue of caste from an anticaste perspective’ http://cordite.org.au/interviews/gonsalves-anand/
- Shantabai Kamble, The Kaleidoscope Story of My Life(1986) considered the first autobiography by a Dalit woman
- Namdeo Dhasal, Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld, Poems 1972-2006, translated by Dilip Chitre (2000)
- An Anthology of Dalit Literature, eds. Mulk Raj Anand and Eleanor Zelliot (1992)
- Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature, ed Arjuna Dangale(1992)
- Om Prakash Valmiki, Joothan, translated by Arun Prabha Mukherjee (1997)
- Sharan Kumar Limbale, Akkarmashior The Outcaste (2003)
- Sharan Kumar Limbale, Towards an Aesthetics of Dalit Literature(2004)
- Daya Pawar, Baluta (1978)
- Laxman Gaikwad,Uchalya translated by P. A. Kolharkar as The Branded (1999)
- An Anthology of Gujarati Dalit Literature, ed. S. Mishra (2011)
- Vijay Prashad,Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community (2000)
- The Prisons We Broke, Baby Kamble; written by Jina Amucha, translated by Maya Pandit (2009)
- Mulk Raj Anand,Untouchable (1935)
- Jyotiba Phule,The Whipcord of the Cultivator (1881)
- Jyotiba Phule, Gulamgirior Slavery(1873)– dedicated to the anti-slavery movement of America with the hope of emancipating the ‘shudra’ ‘from the trammels of Brahmin thraldom’
- Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon, We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement(2014) published by Zubaan Books
- Pandey, Manager, and Alka Tyagi. “Bhakti Poetry: Its Relevance and Significance.” Indian Literature45, no. 6 (206) (2001): 129-38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23345761
Details about Dalit History Month and a timeline can be found here:
Dr Ragini Mohite is a scholar of modernist and South-Asian literatures. She received her PhD from the University of Leeds. Her essays have been published in the James Joyce Broadsheet, South Asian Diaspora, Stand,and International Yeats Studies. She is currently working on her first monograph. Find her @RaginiMohite