Leave a comment

11 Books to Read if You Want to Understand Caste in India

In Lithub, S. Shankar, author of ‘Ghost in the Tamarind’ lists 11 representative books that “serve as an introduction to caste”, that explore the intricacies and the indignities of caste in India.

Caste is not unique to India, and no country should be reduced to a single social category, no matter how intrinsic a part of its reality. Nevertheless, to understand India you have to understand caste, whose intricacies are unarguably difficult. It is not just one of the most prominent social features of India; it is at the heart of many of the past and present fissures of the country.

I grew up in India living the reality of caste every day. Even so I had to learn, and unlearn, many things about caste while completing my two most recent books: the novel Ghost in the Tamarind, which narrates an inter-caste romance between a Brahmin man and a Dalit woman against the backdrop of powerful anti-caste movements in southern India; and a co-edited collection of academic essays on caste and life narratives.

What exactly is caste? You might have heard somewhere (perhaps in a high school or college classroom) that there are four ancient and unchanging castes in India ranging from Brahmins at the top, through Kshatriyas and Vaishyas in the middle, to Shudras at the bottom, with a fifth group of so-called Untouchables—the preferred term now is Dalits—even further below. These, though, are only partial truths, for history is replete with examples of the changeability of caste, and in practice there are thousands of castes. One truth about caste, however, is undeniable: in all its manifestations through history it has been the name for a monstrous and irredeemable system of social hierarchy and oppression based on horrific notions of ritual pollution and exclusion.

The various social groups collected most recently under the name Dalit have felt the power of this irredeemable system with the greatest force. The Indian constitution, adopted in 1950, acknowledged in an enlightened moment that the historically disadvantaged Dalits needed special support to advance socially and economically, and then set out to provide it. Since then, India has had a Dalit President and a powerful woman Dalit Chief Minister of a state. Nevertheless, the oppression of Dalits, ranging from daily humiliation (such as the maintenance of separate glasses for Dalits in some village tea shops) through sexual violence to outright massacre (alas, so many that the name of Khairlanji, where in 2006 four members of the Bhotmange family were brutally murdered, must suffice as stand in) continues till today. Reality is never neat or singular.

This is one reason “the Boom in Dalit literature”—as some have called it—of the last few decades is so important. The Boom represents the entrance of new and vital voices onto India’s literary stage—that is into forms of artistic production from which they had formerly been excluded (of course, Dalits, often musicians and performers, have had their own powerful expressive forms going back centuries). Many trace the origins of the Boom back to Dalit writing in Marathi, which began to gather force in the Seventies. From there, the Boom spread to other languages, and now there are significant bodies of work in Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and other languages.

Read More

Advertisements


Leave a comment

The Non-Western Books that every Student should Read

Leading authors pick international classics that should be on student’s bookshelves, but are often neglected by universities.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

I teach it to my first years and return to the book through their degree. It is the perfect introduction to complex ideas: oppressive socio-economic political structures, forms of resistance and defiance, and the point at which violence becomes justifiable. Students always find the book challenging, disturbing and thought provoking. And that is exactly what university syllabi ought to be!
(Sunny Singh, lecturer at London Metropolitan University and author of Hotel Arcadia)

Malgudi Omnibus by R K Narayan

Every literature student should have space on her shelf for the complete works of R K Narayan. Or at least for a Malgudi omnibus, the fictional town in which he set many of his novels, including Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. Although Narayan has had Western champions, including Graham Greene and John Updike, his work is perhaps failing to find a younger readership. I teach on the creative writing MA and MFA courses at the University of Surrey, and will be playing my own small part in trying to keep his legacy alive on campus. What we can learn from Narayan ranges from his mastery of setting (Malgudi teems with life), his gently devastating comic technique, to his ability to tackle large issues (such as India’s sterilisation programme) with a light but keenly incisive touch.
(Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane, which was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize)

Flowers in the Mirror by Li Ruzhen

This Chinese novel from 1827 is a fantasy classic of the Qing Dynasty period, full of sophisticated philosophy, tense quest plot-lines and one of the most wonderful explorations of feminism I have ever read. Li Ruzhen picks up gender roles, caresses them, dresses them and then fully subverts them, creating a realistic, resilient, revolutionary yet humorous setting for the action of much of the novel in the “Country of Women”.
(Sabrina Mahfouz, playwright, poet and screenwriter)

Read More


Leave a comment

‘Spirituality united Gandhi and Ambedkar’: U R Ananthmurthy’s last interview

Earlier this year, Udipi Rajago­pa­la­charya Ananthamurthy (URA), the Jnanpith award-winning Kannada novelist, educationist and public intellectual, had declared that he would not live in an India run by Narendra Modi. This had provoked lacerating responses from right-wing Hindutva supporters. URA breathed his last on August 22, 2014, before the Modi government completed 100 days in office. Chandan Gowda of the Azim Premji University had interviewed the litterateur for an eight-part Doordarshan series, telecast in June and July. It is possibly URA’s last major interview. Excerpts:

UR AnanthamurthyWhat parts of the Gandhian legacy are important for you?

His suspicion of the modern world system is one. The modern world system will destroy the earth, will destroy the sky, will destroy the balance bet­ween nature and man because it is very greedy. Gandhi’s rejection was sometimes extreme. But extremes can open the gate of heaven, that’s what they have said. So Gandhi exaggerated at times, but in the main you know that. He used trains all the time. But he said we could live without trains. He rightly feared centralisation. Gandhi was also friendly towards nature. There are many valuable Gandhian ideas. The whole idea that small is beautiful comes from Gandhi. So he wanted such ideas to govern the whole country. He didn’t like big buildings. Continue reading


Leave a comment

UR Ananthamurthy, one of India’s most courageous writers, dies at 82

UR Ananthamurthy

One of India’s most courageous writers, UR Ananthamurthy, today died at a hospital in Bangalore. He was undergoing treatment for kidney failure.

The 82-year-old, who was Jnanpith awardee and renowned Kannada writer, was hospitalised for infection and fever 10 days ago.

An educator, writer, and commentator second to none, Ananthamurthy was a new voice in Kannada literature – part of the Navya movement. His novel Samskara questioned established caste conventions and caused controversy when it was published in the 1960s as it was strongly critical of Brahmin conventions.

Ananthamurthy was a staunch critic of the Sangh Parivaar. He had created a stir a few months ago when he said that he would not like to live in an India under Narendra Modi. Modi was then seeking to lead BJP to power in the parliamentary elections. The news of his death was greeted with  fire crackers in some parts of Karnataka. Ironically, the Prime Minister Modi gracefully tweeted on the writer’s death: “Shri UR Ananthamurthy’s demise is a loss to Kannada literature. My condolences to his family. May his soul rest in peace.”

“I felt completely broken when U.R. Ananthamurthy passed away on Friday evening,” said Shiv Viswanathan in a tribute in The Hindu. It was as if a cosmos had collapsed, a way of life had disappeared. It was not the achievements of the man as a writer and a public intellectual, but the man himself as an achievement that mattered.

Here are some of the reactions on Ananthamurthy:

Remembering UR Ananthamurthy: A socialist who took a stand against Modi

U.R. Ananthamurthy’s first novel was a landmark

It was impossible not to be influenced by UR Ananthamurthy

Samskara changed the course of Kannada literature

(Various sources)