Valmiki’s Joothan and Nasrin’s Lajja as Literature of protest
“Better is to live one day virtuous and meditative than to live a hundred years immoral and uncontrolled” (The Buddha)
A. Temjenwala .Ao*
Literature is a mouthpiece for the weaker section. Religious caste system and fanaticism are two sides of the same coin. The evils caused by irrational thoughts are beyond measure. Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan and Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja echo the voice of the unheard. Joothan stands for the untouchables, and the evils practiced under the hierarchy of caste system. It is this evil that pulls down the ladder of success in the lives of millions of untouchables. Autobiographical dalit writing is a new trend in the current dalit writings. It is not a chronological record of the writer but it is the pathos of his people. It is a mirror to the lives of his people. And as such in every page we find the elements of protest. Nasrin as a humanist writes about the evils of fanaticism and religious extremism. She strongly condemns any inhuman practice meted to the minorities in her country as well as other counterparts. Her Lajja is a documentation of the brutalism of Muslims on the Hindu minorities of Bangladesh. This paper aims to project elements of protest and how literature connects people towards a rekindling of empathy in solving the fundamental issues of life.
Keywords: protest, fanaticism, dal, Black Panthers, Babri Masjid, Dronacharya, humanism, motherland, patriotic, communal
Literature of Protest: An Overview
Protest as we know today may not have existed earlier. But the idea represented by this term was known to the people and the poets since time immemorial. They did express their resentment against unjust economic, social and religious situations. It may be, because there is an inherent tendency in man to protest. If this is so, then we know that with the passage of time thin non-conformist expression have assumed the dimension of a philosophy which in its ultimate analysis is a quest for freedom, liberty, and injustice in any given society throughout human history. In a society, protest provides human alternatives for safeguarding not only one’s natural rights but also to ensure social change. According to Douglas O.Willium, “Protest is not ideological in its orientation, but is, essentially activist” (1970:9). The basic ingredients of protest that naturally comes into conflict with the establishment are a consciousness regarding fundamental rights, a tendency to struggle, and a sense of independence and liberty. Protest is, thus, primarily the result of intense human consciousness, which involves values. It is both a manifestation of human concern and an endeavour to add meaning to human existence by strengthening the concepts of social justice, equality, and liberty. Protest has the quality of identifying itself with the downtrodden and the oppressed. We can say that it is a process of upholding human values as they cannot be taken as eternal and unchanging. Emmanual G. states that “Most frequently we make rearrangements in our value hierarchy; values once considered crucial become less relevant and, therefore, less important while others, once relatively lower in our estimation take on new importance. Values do not have to be eternal and unchanging in order to be values” (1970: 47-48). Protest as a value and as an effective medium will serve its purpose only if it is used with relevance to real situations obtained in actual life processes. Literature is a good medium to reflect such values through protest. A writer who while struggling or confronting the condition of his times and society, earns values in a new and fresh way and explores them in the context of real life situations.
The right of protest and resistance had been known to ancient Western thinkers and philosophers. They have contributed a lot to the formulation to these concepts. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who propounded the theory of evolution; August Comte (1798-1857) who formulated and explained three stages of intellectual development-progress from the theological mode of thought through a metaphysical mode of thought; Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who, influenced by Charles Darwin, propounded the theory of social evolution; Karl Marx (1818-1883) who based his social theory on class conflict connecting it to the development of technology on the one hand, and the resultant changes in the production of goods, and services and the relation among social classes on the other; all these people gave significant dimensions to the concept of protest that revolutionized the ancient and the medieval thinking patterns. These developments in understanding the socio-cultural-political contexts have, undoubtedly given new meaning to these concepts whereby we enter the modern age. Protest has the property of both negation and refusal in its preliminary stages but later on it transcends. It reaches out for new values and norms. Herbert Marcuse has aptly said “The radical refusal, the protest, appears in the way in which words are grouped and regrouped freed from their familiar use and abuse” (1972:103-104). Protest is deep rooted in human nature and it is also reflected in social behaviour and functioning. Internal pressures and external circumstances combine together for the realisation of protest. Protest in literature is more of anticipation than an expression of a society.
In India, from the upanishadic down to the present age ‘Varna Vyavasta’ continues to be the cornerstone. It was, no doubt, hierarchical because it always “differentiated between higher groups and lower groups. The caste system is one expression of this social hierarchy.” (Kuppuswamy: 1972) There have been persistent attempts to make this structure more open and flexible. Non-vedic creeds of Jainism and Buddhism had been such great socio-religious movements which challenged almost all the cannons of the Brahamical concepts and the rigid social norms. By emphasising a moral principle of conduct for the individual rather than ritual duties, Buddhism disengaged itself from the hierarchical independence of the caste system. Kosambi rightly said “This was the most social of religions” (1975:105). India has a long tradition of literary protest that has changed considerably with time i.e. as man’s relations with his surroundings have changed; simultaneously the very spirit of literary protest and dissent has changed. In the medieval age, attempts were made to break the caste system. The Bhakti Movement of medieval India embodied a revolt against the inequality inherent in caste as well as against the intellectualism of the traditional paths to salvation (Moksha). Saints and Sufi poets of medieval period raised their voice against idolatory, the rigours of caste and showed in their writings he futility of such practices. They believed in love that transcends all barriers. This initial literature echoes the need for social change and freedom from the bondage of caste apartheid. In the modern age, one can discern corresponding artistic and literary revival in almost all the artistic, literary genres, forms and styles. Socio-cultural-religious renaissance created a great resurgence in literature, music, painting and sculpture. Literary protest is related to the real life and the world around it. But it does not confine to it alone. It transcends through the subversive use of language, symbols, and images. Literary protest is multi-dimensional as it upholds certain values in a specific environment and is concerned with the ironies, contradictions and paradoxes inherent in the expression of dissent, protest and freeform. A protest writer does not necessarily; seek inspiration from religion, philosophy, or the socio-political system. Among many protest writings, the writings of the backward classes in India call for minute attention. There is a deep sense of anguish, injury and resentment in their protest movements. Their ideologies are double-edged, expressing o the one hand “feeling of dissatisfaction, dissent and protest with the existing situation (with an awareness of relative deprivation)” and on the other “working out a positive programme for removing the malady” (ed. S.C.Malik: 254).
The word ‘Dalit’ is found in several Indian languages. According to Molesworth’s Marathi-English dictionary (of 1975), Dalit means “ground, broken or reduced to pieces generally.” It is derived from Sanskrit ‘dal’ which is again borrowed from Hebrew. ‘Dal’ in Hebrew may be used in two senses: ‘it may refer either to physical weakness or to a lowly insignificant position in society.’ And when it is used in combination with another Hebrew root-word ‘anti’, it describes an economic relationship. It is clearly indicated by Harvey Perkins as,
Dal is derived from a verbal root which recognises that poverty is a process of being emptied, becoming unequal, being impoverished, dried up, made thin…. So there is social frailty (and those suffering from it) are easily crushed and have not the means to recover. (1994:29)
Thus, the Dalits are people who are broken, crushed and torn apart so much so that they are unable to rise and better themselves. The name expressed their feelings of solidarity and kinship with Black Panthers who were engaged in a militant struggle for African-Americans’ rights in the United States of America. The name found a ready acceptance among untouchable communities all over India. This was the first time they had been able to name themselves, as a collectivity, rather than be named by others. Dalit is a political identity, as opposed to a caste one. It expresses Dalits’ knowledge of themselves as oppressed people and signifies their resolve to demand liberation through a revolutionary transformation of the system that oppresses them. As Bishop A.C.Lal said in his address to the first Dalit Solidarity Conference, meeting in 1992 in Nagpur, a place of immense symbolic significance since it was there that Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism on 14 October 1956: “The word ‘Dalit’ is a beautiful word, because it transcends narrow national and sectarian frontiers. It is a beautiful word because it embraces the sufferings, frustrations, expectations and groanings of the entire cosmos” (Lal 1995:xiii). For centuries, the Indian society has been the most hierarchical among the known civilisations. The literature of this country, until very recently has never focussed on the problems of ‘untouchables’ or the so called ‘Dalit.’ They were never mentioned because the pen has, by and large, been in the hands of those who wielded power. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a few upper-caste Hindu writers who attempted to portray the lives of the untouchables tended to be driven either by a zeal for social reform or by sentimental compassion. The works of these writers can be termed as ‘emotionalistic’ literature. Seldom did anyone touch an untouchable character realistically, like an ordinary human being full of vitality and hope as well as despair. For a long time, both in pre-independence and post-independence India, the low castes did not have any formal education which would stimulate them for a genuine literary movement to protest against the monopoly of the established literature. It is only in the post-independence era that some educated ‘untouchables’, who tasted the fruit of modern education, realised the need for an alternative mode of thinking and launched a new literary movement. The movement started in Maharashtra, the home town of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, who throughout his life fought for the rights, liberties and equalities of the downtrodden. The Dalit Panthers formed in 1972 was a movement against the caste Hindu. Their manifestos include all the revolutionary parties seeking to destroy the Hindu Varna System. Its declared enemies were the landlords, capitalists, moneylenders. The movement gave rise to Dalit Sahitya. This movement gave rise to Dalit literature which embodies the agonising trauma of the lives of India’s Untouchables, from first hand experiences. The following questions loom around when we talk of Dalit literature: What is Dalit literature? What are its ideological concerns? Who is a Dalit writer? What are the aesthetics to be taken into account? Limbale’s answer to some of these questions is,
By Dalit literature, I mean writing about Dalits by a Dalit writer with a Dalit consciousness. The form of Dalit literature is inherent in its Dalitness, and its purpose is too obvious to inform Dalit society of its slavery and narrate its pain and suffering to upper caste Hindus. (2004:19)
Protest in literature is a kind of evolution. It is a course of change and the need for reform. Dalit literature is a literature of protest. And a Dalit writer is one who writes with the experience of his community, the pain of his past burdens subverting the history, revitalizing the denigrated spheres of language and creating an alternate vision of the future. Raising the consciousness of the Dalits, and recovering their self respect and challenging the traditional Hindu values are the Dalit writers’ expressed goals. In this process Dalits rebelled against the exploitative character of Hinduism and the institution of caste and expressed their ideological protest through literature, in the form of poems, dramas and novels. Second is their refusal to perform traditional duties. The disobedience assumed two forms, one an organized planned and overt protest and the other an unplanned, unorganized and covert protest. The emergence of an alternative literature was not without its historical antecedents.
Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan as literature of protest
Om Prakash Valmiki (1950- ), as a writer has done much to stake out a space for Dalit literary expression, well exemplified by his narrative. He is a voice who echoes the woes of the Dalits or the Subaltern. Autobiographical method of narration is a current trend in expressing oneself- in individual and social life. “The autobiographical method of narration is characteristically modern western fictional technique” (Naik 1982:170). Valmiki’s Joothan (1997) translated into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee as Joothan: A Dalit’s Life (2003) pose as naive yet pregnant with the oracles of an untouchable. It gives one the effect of Alice Walker’s Color Purple and Sharankumar Limbale’s Akkarmashi, the former create certain guilt in the White readers as they cannot tolerate the suppressed voices and the latter represents a composite character of the downtrodden caste which contradicts the Gita. Valmiki, was inspired by Ambedkar. His Joothan portrays the element of emancipation. It is a literature of response to the horror of existence perpetuated by the institution of caste-apartheid. He gives a historical account of the life of an untouchable in India of the 1950s.
Joothan is a memoir that adds to the archives of Dalit literature. He speaks of the ground realities and contradictions that had been shut down with thick walls of denial. In his preface to the Hindi Edition, he wrote, “Dalit life is excruciatingly painful, charred by experiences” (J vii) The title of the novel ‘Joothan’ literally means food left on an eater’s plate, usually destined for the garbage pail in a middle class, urban home. However, such food would only be characterized ‘joothan’ if someone else besides the original eater were to eat it. The word carries the connotations of ritual purity and pollution as ‘jootha’ means polluted. Valmiki gives a detailed description of collecting, preserving and eating jootha. His memories of being assigned to guard the drying joothan from crows and chickens, and of his relishing the dried and reprocessed joothan, burn him with renewed pain and humiliation in the present.
Valmiki in one instance of the novel writes, “I had to sit away from the others in the class, and that too on the floor. The mat ran out before door... sometimes they would beat me without any reason”(J 2). When he was in Class VI, the headmaster asked Om Prakash to sweep the school and the playground. He writes, “The playground was way larger than my small physique could handle and in cleaning it, my back began to ache. My face was covered with dust. Dust had gone inside my mouth. The other children in my class were studying and I was sitting in his room and watching me. I was not even allowed to get a drink of water”( J 4) He was badly discriminated for his caste in India. He says, “I swept the whole day....From the doors and windows of the school rooms, the eyes of the teachers and the boys saw this spectacle.” (J 5) Om Prakash was made to sweep the school and playground for the next couple of days and this only came to an end when his father who happened to be passing by, saw his son sweeping. He confronted the teachers and then walking away from the school holding Om Prakash’s hand, he said loudly for all of them to hear, “You are a teacher....So I am leaving now. But remember this much Master... (he) will study right here...in this school. And not just him but there will be more coming after him” (J 6). Valmiki describes his childhood in the village in Barla district of Uttar Pradesh. He writes about the ill treatment meted out to him when he was at school because he was an untouchable. He describes the trauma he went through when he was asked to spend three days sweeping the school courtyard instead of accompanying his classmates belonging to the higher castes, in the study class. Despite the barriers of caste which proved to be a hindrance at every step throughout his years in school and college, Valmiki persevered to get better education and evolved. While describing the events in Bombay much later in his life, Valmiki highlights the fact that education is not the solution to the ills of the caste system. On having been mistaken for a Brahmin because of his adopted last name, “Valmiki” (used to denote a community of untouchables in Uttar Pradesh) he found out that just the revelation of his real caste to well-educated middle class people was received by shock and a sudden change of attitude towards him. Even his own relatives were hesitant to invite him for a wedding as he refused to let go of his last name because it would reveal their caste. Omprakash Valmiki constantly stresses on the differences between the Dalits and the caste Hindus, the Savarnas, with respect to their various religious beliefs and customs, he subtly contests the belief that the oppression of the Dalits by the Savarnas is justified as per the Hindu religious laws because the pork-eating Dalits living on the outskirts of villages and towns actually do not belong to the Hindu religion.
Valmiki devotes several pages to the ironies that his new identity entails. While in Bombay, he is taken to be a Brahmin by a Maharashtrian Brahmin family, indicating the possibility of ‘passing’ if one travels far enough from the place of one’s birth. In western Uttar Pradesh, however, this surname (Valmiki) does not lift him up from his Chuhrahood and the attendant untouchability. Among the Buddhists he is seen as a casteist because he refuses to shed this identity marker as a badge of self-assertion, a declaration that he does not want to hide his Dalit identity. Valmiki points out the daily dilemmas Dalits face in a caste-based society that makes it almost impossible to shed one’s caste marker and leave behind the stigma attached to it. Though they work day and night unrelentingly, the reward they get is heaps of insults. In the light of these experiences many questions arise like why Dalits have to rely on upper castes, though they work day and night in all the seasons without permanent shelter and unequal pay? Why are the upper caste people treating them inhumanly? Why are the minority upper castes ruing the majority of Dalits in the whole country? Is social change not possible in the Hindu society? Can the subaltern speak? Will dominant sections allow Dalits to speak in this repressive social system? Likewise there are many questions that strike one’s mind when we read such books. In Valmiki’s words:
We need an ongoing struggle and a consciousness of struggle, a consciousness that brings a revolutionary change both in the outside world and in our hearts, a consciousness that leads the process of social change. (J:x)
Valmiki reminds us of the need and importance of struggle and Dalit social consciousness to make people aware of the struggles they face to make new directions for life, which can organize all the weaker sections. Ambedkar, an indefatigable documenter of atrocities against Dalits, shows how the high caste villagers could not tolerate the fact that Dalits did not want to accept their joothan anymore and threatened them with violence if they refused it. Valmiki has thus recuperated a word from the painful past of Dalit history which resonates with multiple ironies. Mahatma Gandhi’s paternalistic preaching which assumed that accepting joothan was simply a bad habit the untouchables could discard, when juxtaposed against Ambedkar’s passionate exhortation to fellow untouchables to not accept joothan even when its refusal provoked violence, press against Valmiki’s text, proliferating in multiple meanings. It is not surprising; therefore, that one of the most powerful moments of the text is Valmiki’s mother’s overturning of the basketful of joothan after she is humiliated by Sukhdev Singh Tyagi,
Sukhdev Singh pointed at the basket full of dirty pattals and said, “You are taking a basketful of joothan. And on top of that you want food for your children. Don’t forget your place, Chuhri. Pick up your basket and get going.” That instant Valmiki’s mother emptied the basket right there and said to Sukhdev Singh, “Pick it up and put it inside your house. Feed it to the baratis tomorrow morning.” She confronted him like a “lioness” when he pounced on her to hit her. (J 11)
Her act of defiance sows the seeds of rebellion in the child Valmiki. He dedicated the text to his father and mother, both portrayed as heroic figures, who desired something better for their child and fought for his safety and growth with tremendous courage. His father’s ambitions for his son are evident in the nickname, Munshiji, that he gives Valmiki. The child Valmiki rises on their shoulders to become the first high school graduate from his basti he pays his debt by giving voice to the indignities suffered by them and other Dalits. Valmiki’s inscription of these moments of profound violation of his and his people’s human rights is extremely powerful and deeply disturbing. For instance, the higher caste people mock at him when he achieves academic progress. It shows that one cannot change one’s fate of been born into low caste no matter what religion or how one excel in studies. “Let me see how bright you are… you will remain a Chuhra, however much you study”(J 28-29).
Autobiography fuses past, present and future. As Trotsky states, “this book is not a dispassionate photograph of my life... but a component part of it. In these pages I continued the struggle to which my whole life is devoted. Describing, I also characterized and evaluate; narrating, I also defend myself and more often attack”(Broughton 2007:130). Joothan is constructed in the form of wave upon wave of memories that erupt in Valmiki’s mind when triggered through a stimulus in the present. These are memories of trauma that Valmiki had kept suppressed. He uses the metaphors of erupting lava, explosions, conflagrations and flooding to denote their uncontrollable character. The text follows the logic of the recall of these memories. Instead of following a linear pattern, Valmiki moves from memory to memory, showing how his present is deeply scarred by his past despite the great distance he has travelled to get away from it. He presents the traumatic moments of encounter with his persecutors as dramatized scenes, as cinematic moments. The event is narrated in the present tense, capturing the intensity of the memory and suggesting that the subject has not yet healed from the past traumas so as to put them behind. We see a full dress re-enactment of the event, from the perspective of the child or the adolescent Valmiki.
Valmiki places his and his Dalit friends’ encounters with upper caste teachers in the context of the Brahmin teacher Dronacharya tricking his low caste disciple Eklavya into cutting his thumb and presenting it to him as part of his gurudakshina or teacher’s tribute. This is a famous incident in the Mahabharata. By doing this, Dronacharya ensured that Eklavya, the better student of archery, could never compete Arjun, the Kshatriya disciple. Indeed, having lost his thumb, Eklavya could no longer perform archery. In high caste telling, the popular story presents a casteless Eklavya as the exemplar of an obedient disciple rather than the Brahmin Dronacharya as a perfidious and biased teacher. When Valmiki’s father goes to the school and calls the headmaster a Dronacharya, he links the twentieth century caste based relations to those that prevailed two thousand years ago. By showing his father’s ability to deconstruct the story, Valmiki portrays Dalits as articulate objects who have seen through the cherished myths of their oppressors. When in a literature class, a teacher waxes eloquent about this same Dronacharya, Valmiki challenges the teacher, only to be ruthlessly canned.
The teacher told them that Dronacharya had fed flour mixed in water to his famished son, Ashwatthama in lieu of milk. After listening to this, Valmiki stood up and asked “So Ashwatthama was given flour mixed in water instead of milk, but what about us who had to drink mar? How come we were never mentioned in any epic? Why didn’t an epic poet ever write a word on our lives? To this query the teacher screamed, “Darkest Kaliyug has descended upon us so that an untouchable is daring to talk back.” Getting a long teak stick he said, “Chuhre ke, you dare compare yourself with Dronacharya… Here, take this, I will write an epic on your body.” (J 23)
Valmiki’s reconfiguration of the myth also inter-textualizes Joothan with other Dalit texts, which frequently use the character of Eklavya as representing the denial of education to Dalits. The modern Dalit Eklavya, however, can no longer be tricked into self-mutilation. While the education system is indicted as death dealing for Dalits, Valmiki pays tribute to the Dalit organic intellectuals who help nuture the growth of Dalit consciousness in him. While one of them is his father who has the temerity to name the headmaster a Dornacharya, another is Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu (‘Jigyasu’ means ‘curious’ and is an acquired identity after shedding a caste-based one whose rendering of Ambedkar’s life is put into Valmiki’s hands by his friend Hemlal. Like Valmiki, Hemlal, too, has shed his stigmatized identity as a Chamar by changing it to Jatav. Reading this book is a transformative moment for Valmiki, rendered in the metaphors of melting away of his deadening silence, and the magical transformation of his muteness into voice:
I felt as though a new chapter about life was being unfurled before me. A chapter about which I had known nothing. Dr. Ambedkar’s life-long struggle had shaken me up. I spend many days and nights in turmoil. The restlessness inside me had increased. My stone-like silence had suddenly began to melt. I proceeded to read all of Ambedkar’s books that I found in the library. (J 72)
This moment, narrated at length in Joothan, gives us a key to how marginalized groups enter the stage of history. Valmiki underscores the way Dr. Ambedkar has been excised from the hagiography of nationalist discourse. He first encounters him through the writing of a fellow Dalit, passed on to him by another Dalit, in a library run by Dalits. Joothan thus has the twofold task of celebrating and honouring Dalit assertions, and attacking and dismantling anti-Dalit hegemonic discourses. Valmiki mocks and rewrites the village pastoral that was long a staple of Indian literature in many languages as well as of the nationalistic discourse of grass root democracy. Valmiki portrays a village life where the members of his caste, Chuhras, lived outside the village, were forced to perform unpaid labour, and denied basic requirements like access to public land and water, let alone education or fellow feeling. The tasks involved in reaping and harvesting are described in terms of intense physical labour under a scorching sun and the needle pricks of the sheaves of grain. Valmiki shows that he performed most of the tasks under duress, and was often paid nothing. The most painful of such episodes is the one where Valmiki is yanked away from his books by Fauz Singh Tyagi and dragged to his field to sow sugarcane just a day before his maths exam.
He said, ‘Abey, Chuhre, what are you doing?
“I am appearing the Board exams. Tomorrow I have to do the maths paper,”
“Study at night… come with me. I have to sow cane.”
He held Valmiki by the elbow and dragged him to his field where he spent the whole morning sowing cane. (J 57)
Valmiki like many other Dalit writers, demands the status of truth for his writing, taking issues with those find Dalit literature lacking in imagination. Valmiki’s insistence that all persons and events in Joothan are true poses a considerable challenge to postmodernist critics who propose that autobiography’s truth is ‘constructed,’ that the autobiographic narrator shapes a presentable self by reprocessing his/her memories in order to fit the present. Dalit autobiography claims the status of truth, of testimony. Naming people and places by their real names is one of the strategies through which Valmiki establishes the status of Joothan as testimony and it give Joothan the status of documented Dalit history. In the novel Valmiki narrates an incident which took place at Devband. Valmiki and his friend Bhikuram were send on an errand by their teacher Brajpal from Barla to Devband. They were asked to collect wheat from his house. Upon reaching the place, they were invited to share food with the family and allowed to sit with them. Unfortunately somebody came to visit the place where they were. Learning that they were from Barla, he “fired” a question, “What is your caste?” To this Valmiki answered that they were from the “Chuhra caste” (J 51). Then without sympathy they were beaten and obscenities began to be hurled on them by the elder whom showed hospitality at first. In Valmiki’s own words:
His eyes were fierce and his skinny body was harbouring the devil. We had dared to eat in their dishes and sit on their charpai, a crime in his eyes. I was standing below the porch, frightened. The elder was screaming, and his voice had drawn a crowd. Many people suggested that we should be tied to a rope and hung from the tree (J 51).
Here we find the hollowness of their hospitality. Valmiki points out that to receive hospitality one should belong to the upper caste. Such is the plight of the low caste, dalits. Joothan, then, is a multivalent, poly vocal text, healing the fractured self through narrating, contributing to the archive of Dalit history, opening a dialogue with the silencing oppressors, and providing solace as well as frank criticism to his own people. For the fact that Valmiki has become a speaking subject indicates that Indian democracy has opened some escape hatches through which a critical mass of articulate, educated Dalits has emerged. On the other hand, the harsh realities that he portrays so powerfully underscore the fact that the promises made in the Constitution of independent India have not yet been fully met. Joothan is a book that voices the demand of the Dalits for their rightful place under the sun. Resolving the problems of Dalit identity is an immensely difficult task. It appears that only through the forging of alliances with oppressed communities elsewhere in the world on the basis of human rights can some change be brought about. Despite the challenges, the forging of a Dalit identity is of great importance. The fact remains that Dalits still endure discrimination of different kinds; they are still poorer, have less to access to education and less hope of a bright future than the privileged castes. Dalit literary theory has emerged as a reaction to dominant group critics’ negative evaluations of Dalit writing. From a Dalit perspective, it offers a distinct formulation of the nature and purpose of literature in general, an evaluation of the canon of Indian literatures, and framework within which Dalit writing should be read and evaluated. Valmiki has travelled from illiteracy to literacy and from the village to the city. In his socio-cultural and literary transition he has had many hardships; he felt doubts whether Sarvana Hindus would experience the hardships while reading his autobiography, Joothan. He says “A manifesto for evolutionary transformation of society and human consciousness, Joothan contrasts its readers with different questions about their own humanity and invites them to join the universal projects of human liberation” (Joothan xxxix). Dalit autobiographies construct the human society on the basis of humanity. If anyone accepts Dali literature it is the construction of human relations.
Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja as literature of protest
Taslima Nasrin (1962- ) came to limelight as a poet, columnist, and strong feminist. Her Lajja (1993), she earned the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists and clergy. Her book was banned in her country and a Fatwa (religious ostracization) was issued against her. Further, she had to seek political asylum in France to save her life. Taslima was extremely bold; she remained untrammelled by all these and kept writing on similar lines. It is not just because she is intrepid; it is her uncanny knack of storytelling and an extremely limpid writing style that make her extremely popular among the erudite circle. Her book Lajja, is set in the backdrop of the Babri masjid demolition saga, back in the year 1992, which caused a strong religious, political and social impact, and resulted in riots in sensitive areas throughout the subcontinent. The stage is set in Bangladesh and the tale revolves around an extremely patriotic Hindu family. Suranjan, a prodigal middle aged man with little or no accomplishment in his life to boast about, is a son of a doctor (Sudhamoy) with strong national values. Sudhamoy supported his clan during the national movement and worked for the cause of the nation and in turn, his own countrymen for whom he stood for rewarded him by mutilating his genitals! Despite all this, he strongly believed that Bangladesh was his home and refused to move to Kolkata (India). Suranjan despite being deprived of opportunities due to his religious background, very much like his father, loves his motherland. Sudhamoy’s wife Kiranmoyee is depicted as a very kind and a loveable character who stands by her husband and her family during the testing times. Their daughter Maya, a vivacious lady is distraught with compatriots’ attitude towards them and her family’s idealism to remain in their country even during the hour of peril. The story speaks about the atrocities and cruelties inflicted on Hindus (a religious minority in Bangladesh) in general and Sudhamoy’s family in particular during the riots. The story is gripping and the climax is extremely poignant. Taslima in her tale buttresses her fiction with facts. Her attempt in this book is not to malign any religion, it is an earnest entreat to the human race to embrace humanity and shun fanaticism.
The book subtly indicates that communal feelings were on the rise and the Hindu minority of Bangladesh was treated unfairly. It shows the absence of secularism under the shadow of Islam dominated state. The plot centres on a Hindu family of Bangladesh, the Dutta family of four members; a young man named Suranjan, his father Sudhamoy, his mother Kiranmoy, and his sister Nilanjana (with pet name Maya). The story recounts an environment of communal frenzy with the help of these four characters. In a far off place in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, on 6th December 1992, Babri Masjid is demolished, and the demolition has repercussions even in Bangladesh, a different country, and a far off place from Ayodhya. The fire of communal rioting erupts, and the Dutta family feels about this in their own way. Sudhamoy, the patriarch of the family feels that Bangladesh, his motherland shall never let him down. Kironmoy as a faithful wife stands by her husband’s views. Suranjan their son cares very little about the events. He sleeps happily, does not feel any necessity to take refuge in the home of one of his Muslim friends, and believes that events in a far off foreign place in India should not affect his countrymen. Nilanjana curses her brother’s apathy and coaxes her brother to take the family to a Muslim friend’s place. She says, “Dada aren’t you going to wake up and do something before it is too late” (Lajja 1). We find an element of protest in the attitude of Suranjan when he raises the questions as:
Why should he flee his home simply because his mane was Suranjan Dutta? Was it necessary for his family –Sudhamoy, his father, Kironmoy, his mother and Nilanjana, his sister –to run away like fugitives just because of their names? Would they have to take refuge in the homes of Kamal, Belal or Haider just as they had done two years back? (Lajja 1)
He resolved “I won’t leave my home whatever the circumstances.”( Lajja 2) In his voice we find courage and ownership. But gradually we find that all these courage and sense of belonging are crushed by the dominant Muslims, all in the name of religion.
In the wave of the events of the after-mate of the demolition of Babri Masjid Nasrin through the retrospective thoughts of Suranjan brings the episodes of the past: both pre and post-independent Bangladesh. The exodus of 1947, 1971 and 1990 are vividly portrayed where the Hindus were forced to leave their inheritance of their forefathers to flee to India. In the year 1971, when Sudhamoy was a doctor on the staff of the S.K. Hospital in Mymensingh, protest against the Pakistani soldiers erupted. A terrified Kironmoy had said, “Let’s go away to India. All our neighbours are leaving one by one.” That instant, he became “furious” and said, “You go if you want to … I am not running away from my home. We’ll kill those Pakistani dogs and get our freedom. Come back if you can, at that time.” (Lajja 9)
In the words of Nasrin “As the Babri Masjid had been destroyed by Hindu fanatics it would be the Hindus in Bangladesh who would have to suffer.” To save herself Nilanjana decides to become a Muslim. She says, “La Ilaha Ilalahu Muhammadun Rasulullah is all that you need to say to become a Muslim. That’s just what I’ll do, and I’ll call myself Feroza Begum.” (Lajja 12). But when it comes to women irrespective of their religion they were always a prey at the hands of the dominant men. Sudhamoy recollects an incident where a young student of his was stripped off her sari in the middle of the street by a “gang of boys”. She was a Muslim and so were the boys, at this Sudhamoy consoled himself with the thought that when it came to young women it was not a matter of “Hindus and Muslima but a question of the weak always being bullied by the strong.” Here lies the point of Nasrin, that women were the “weaker sex” and as such were oppressed by the men who were the “stronger sex” (Lajja 17-18). Many flee from the situation instead of standing up in protest, like Asit Ranjan who sends both his daughters to Calcutta for their safety. Reacting to the exodus of his fellow Hindu friends Sudhamoy said, “When there was a war in the country, you ran away like cowards. After we won our independence, you came back to assert your heroism, and now, at the slightest provocation, you plan to go back to India. Honestly, what a bunch of cowards you are” (Lajja 19).
Nasrin advocates her voice of protest strongly in the character of Sudhamoy, by using him as her mouthpiece. The Bengalis of Bangladesh were subjected to be sidelined by their counterparts. Though Sudhamoy urged his fellow Bengalis to be identified by the person first, his cries were in vain. He would often say that ‘no religion had created this race (Bengali) and he wanted his people to know no communal barriers, and live together in perfect harmony (Lajja 25). But in Bangladesh “unity” was being sought not between people of the “same nation”, but between people of the “same religion” even if they lived in two different countries. Because of this aspect people of a different religion were considered as outsiders even in their own country.
Suranjan was being threatened to be beaten up by the Muslim boys of his neighbourhood. He walks on the opposite side of the street not because he was afraid but because he felt “ashamed” of the boys who were threatening to beat him. These boys were all familiar to him and to some his father has often given free medical treatment. Nasrin says, “Shame most affected those who inflicted torture, not those who were tortured!” she mocks at the irrational behaviour of the Muslim fanatics. In a conversation with Akhtarujjaman on the issue of Babri Masjid when the visitor inquired whether supports the demolishers, Sudhamoy replied, “Evil people have done evil work. All I can do is feel very sorry about the whole thing” (Lajja 35). Nasrin does not support any particular religious group. But she raises her protest for the cause of humanity and irrationality. Sudhamoy further says,
Ironically, all religions point towards one goal-peace. Yet it is in the name of religion that there has been so much unrest and lack of peace. So much has been shed and so many people have suffered. It is indeed a pity that even at the close of the twentieth century we’ve had to witness such atrocities, all in the name of religion. Flying the flag of religion has always proved the easiest way to crush to nothingness human beings, as well as the spirit of humanity. (Lajja 36)
Many people renounce their religion and identity to preserve their life and family instead of protesting against the inflictors. People like Akhtarujjaman say, “I have given up my dhoti too, quite some time back. For the sake of my dear life, my friend” (Lajja 36). Little does he realize that he sold his right and freedom in saving his life. Suranjan mocks at the farcical declaration of Bangladesh that his country believed in communal harmony. Nasrin brings the metaphor of a “cat” to show the element of escapism. Suranjan on 9 December “longed to become a cat” (Lajja 59). Suranjan’s younger sister was forcefully abducted from her house right in front her parents. Here Nasrin voices the insecurity of the minority and the weaker sex. They were prey to the dominant and fanatic Muslims. When the “frenzied” and “savage” ruffians entered the house on that fateful day, they screamed, “You bastards! Did you think you could get away after destroying the Babri Masjid?” (Lajja 147) Then they began to destroy all the household things. After they had satisfied themselves ransacking the house they “wrenched Kironmoyee off her daughter, broke Maya’s grip on the bed and left as swiftly as they had come, carrying their prize with them” (Lajja 147). All these happened to the Dutta family just because they were Hindus. All attempts to find Maya failed. The family was now on the verge of breakdown. The father who was patriotic enough to stay in his home country despite warning now lay paralyzed. His daughter was abducted and his young son had no courage left to stand against the system. His wife wailed day and night for her dear daughter. Under such circumstances, where law governing bodies turn deaf ear to the plight of the people, it deem better for them “to take poison and kill themselves” (Lajja 157). In Nasrin’s words “It was obvious now that it was pointless for Hindus to try and survive in Bangladesh” (Lajja 157). When one is blind with hatred and when religious leaders misguide their followers everything around will be full of obscenities. When Suranjan went out in search of his sister people on the street shouted “Here comes one of those bastards responsible for breaking the Babri Masjid! These buggers should be kicked out of the country to India” (Lajja 184). The feeling of fellow countrymen and the propagation of oneness in love by religion were long forgotten. It is against such atrocities that Nasrin raises her protest. Slowly in the novel we find that all the strong characters break down. It is like the famous African proverb “A man cannot stand alone against his tribe.” Suranjan with a heavy heart decided to tell his father to move out of Bangladesh to India. But the answer Sudhamoy gave brings out the meaning of the title, he said,
“Is India your father’s home or your grandfather’s? From your family, who the hell stays in India? Do you want to run away from your own homeland... doesn’t it make you feel ashamed?” (Lajja 213)
In reply to his father Suranjan raises some fundamental questions of protest saying, “What homeland are you talking about, Baba? What has this country given you? What is it giving you? What has this country of yours given Maya? Why does my mother have to cry? Why do you groan all night? Why don’t I get any sleep?” (Lajja 213) In the midst of despair and hopelessness Suranjan began to worry not for his sister Maya but for his own future and “his heart quaked with fear and apprehension” (Lajja 215). All these events occurred for one single reason that is ‘religious fanaticism.’ Nasrin states that “Religion is the opium of the masses” (Lajja 134). At the end after much debate and ordeals, the whole family of the Duttas were shocked as Sudhamoy announced, “Come, let us go away.” As he said these words “shame swept over him” (Lajja 216). It was the culmination of a saga, submission of the weak to the strong. In Lajja we find Nasrin’s confirmed view that it is because of religious disharmony there is bloodshed, hatred, illiteracy, ignorance, injustice and inequality all over the world. She is of the view that she feels justified in exposing the truth about the Muslim leaders in Bangladesh who took advantage of the Hindu minorities of Bangladesh in the name of religion.
In both Valmiki’s Joothan and Nasrin’s Lajja, we find the elements of protests. They act as a mirror, which reflects the suppressed and biased lives of people who are innocent. In both these novels we find that it is because of the improper exercise of religious beliefs that people suffer. Literature acts as a mouthpiece for these sections of the people. It is like reflecting through a mirror the pains of humanity as we glide through the pages of Joothan and Lajja. The marks left by discriminating forces or agents will ever remain inscribed upon the hearts of the receiving party. One can realize the positive aspects of society when the cry of justice is made loud through literature. Protest literature is replete with contemporary societal inequalities, social and religious irresponsibility and opportunistic power politics. Limbale comments “Dalit literature is a revolutionary literature which has been waging a pen war against discrimination and untouchability among human beings, hatred, humiliation of human beings, injustice, slavery, orthodox ritualism, conservatism and Brahmanism. It militates against the faith in rebirth, fatalism, god, sin and virtue, religion.... It spurs man on to his development, welfare, faith in himself and introspection. So Dalit literature is a bunch of explosive thoughts which will lead the exploited people to new life, liberation, progress and development” (Limbale 3). Dalit autobiographies are recollections with a motive. They are no mere chronicle for archives of social history. Events are retained selectively. In all their biographies, the self is narratively reconstructed in a performance of identification. In Valmiki’s Joothan we witness that the past is re-visited, re-composed, re-assessed and recognised in the light that it finally shines at the moment of fulfilment. In both Joothan and Lajja we find the enemy within the caste and religion. Such literatures thus speak about “live and let others live.” The projection of ahimsa can be brought in by abstaining from hurling irrational and fanatical words. The voice of minorities can be beautifully brought out by arousing the minds of the readers through empathic elements.
Taslima Nasrin is a humanist, a rationalist, an atheist. A humanist is the well-wisher of all humans in the world. A humanist reacts to the human sufferings anywhere in the world. When Hindus are butchered by Muslim culprits in Bangladesh she condemned them. Similarly when Muslims are butchered in Gujarat (India) by Hindu culprits she condemned the Hindu culprits. She deeply studied the reasons for human suffering and writing for the human welfare in the world. The religious fundamentalists have misunderstood her. She is not against any religion. She is against those exploiters who are causing human suffering. Enmities between religions are causing wars between nations in the world. Every religion is brain washing the innocent masses and using them as scapegoats and sacrificing them as human bombs. Humanists want to educate the victims who think that they will go to heaven if they die for their religion. Humanists have explored all religions and want to help and educate the misguided superstitious masses to bring peace in the world. The religious fundamentalists should try to find out the knowledge in the point of view of humanist before threatening them to kill. Shame (or Lajja in Bengali) demonstrates Nasrin’s determination to speak out in favour of Islamic reform, religious tolerance and freedom of expression, and against Muslim extremism and other forms of fundamentalism. It is a blessing to exercise freedom of expression through literature but one should also know the limits not to exploit and reduce incidents of communal sensitivity to mere spectacles thereby hurting religious sentiments. Empathic love should be reflected in literature. It must be felt by the readers. One should be responsible for the outcome of the writings through which one projects the voice of resentments and protests. It should have a comprehensive and holistic approach. It should encompass the elements of unity.
1. Nasrin, Taslima. Lajja. New Delhi: Penguin, 1993.
2. ---. “They Wanted to Kill Me.” Middle East Quarterly, September (2000: 67-74).
3. Valmiki, Om Prakash. Joothan (The Left-over Food). New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
4. ---. “On Being Called a Hindu is like an Abuse to me.” Times Of India, January 23,(2010:1).
5. ---. “Democracy Held in Bondage.” Sangharsh/Struggle: E-Journal of Dalit Literary Studies, Vol.1. no.2 (2012).
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2. Ansari, A. Iqbal. “Free Speech-Hate Speech: The Taslima Nasrin Case.” Economic and Political Weekly 23 February 2008: 16.
3. Bannerjee, Himani. Textile Prison: Discourse on Shame in the Attire of the Gentlewoman (Bhadramashila) in Colonial Bengal. New Delhi: Shakti Malik Abhinav Publications, 1998.
4. Dangle, Arjun, ed. Poisoned Bread: Translation from Modern Marathi Literature. Bombay: Orient Longman, 1992.
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6. Gupta, R. Dalit Chetna Sahitya. Hazaribag: Navlekhan Prakashan, 1996.
7. Limbale, S. Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature: History, Controversies, and Considerations. New Delhi: G. Shah, 2004.
8. ---. The Outcaste (translated by Bhoomkar). New York: Penguin, 1970.
9. Rodrigues, Valerian. The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar. Delhi: Roopak Printers, 2006.
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11. Wankhede, S. Harish. “The Political and the Social in the Dalit Movement Today.” Economic and Political Weekly, 9 February, 2008: 52.
12. Zelliot, Eleanor. From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkarite Movement. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2004.
*A. Temjenwala Ao, PhD, is administrator in Straightway Christian Mission Centre.
**Professor in English, Nagaland University, Kohima Campus: Meriema.
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