HOD, Dept. of English,
Burhani College of Com. & Arts,
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You Rendered Me Invisible: The Occlusion of Caste in Indian English Fiction
“It will not be denied, I think, that until V.P.Singh decided to implement the Mandal Commission Report, caste had no place in the narrative milieu of the secular self. It was not that caste was ignored but, a certain opacity was nevertheless always attached – … – to it.”
Vivek Dharaeshwar, “Caste and the Secular Self”
Academic discourse in the last decade has focused its attention on the assertive apathy or evasive indifference that caste has received in Indian English fiction. This has not gone unnoticed by the academia. Scholars like Dilip M. Menon, Vivek Dhareshwar and others have time and again commented upon the fact that Indian English fiction, since its emergence in the late nineteenth century to the present, has shied away from dealing with issues related to caste in any significant manner. This occlusion has the possible outcome of being indifferent to or doing away altogether of a central fact of Indian society – a fact that is ‘so present and yet so invisible.’ Considering the circumstances under which English language was introduced in India, and the appropriation of the language by the elite of the country for the so-called progressive and nationalistic purposes, this does not come as a surprise. In Dhareshwar’s words, English, being the language of modern subjectivity, has allowed caste to be approached only at one remove, as something restricted to the domain of the vernacular (ibid).
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This paper is an attempt to explore how Indian English fiction has systematically occluded the treatment of caste as if caste were, to borrow Clifford Greetz’ phrase, an “experience-distance” concept (Greetz, of course, treats caste as an example of “experience-near” concept for Hindus and Buddhists – Greetz 1983: 57-58).
It is not suggested that caste is altogether absent in this genre, but its presence is almost always marginalized, often subsumed, and thereby obscured. According to Webster, that which is obscured is inconspicuous and subsequently insignificant. Thus it follows that Indian English fiction has more or less established that caste is of no importance to Indian life and society, or at least, not important enough to be dealt with as a concept that requires critical attention. Perception of indifference often is the result of a process of peripheralization. Accordingly, this paper proposes that Indian English fiction treats caste as either non-existent or as a notion that is peripheral, rather than as a reality that has penetrated deeply into the body politic of the nation.
Indian fiction in English is characterized by an extra ordinary focus on the upper middle-class (read upper caste) life. This comes as no surprise as English has almost always been the language of the elite, a language which opened up access to a wider world of power and privilege. The circumstances of the introduction of English education, and the famous (or infamous ?) minutes by Macaulay wherein he stated in no uncertain terms the need to create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (emphasis added) more or less anticipated an agenda of constructing a modern subject untouched by the cultural imperatives of our nation.. Though the agenda set by Macaulay was thwarted by Indians who not only mastered the language, but also subverted it so as to “write back to the empire”(to borrow Rushdie’s much popularised phrase), the literature produced in this language could not boast of any serious efforts to reverse or alter the power relations embedded within our own nation. Discourses in English remained, and still remain to a great extent, complicit in a progressivist narrative that treats caste as one of the many “deplorable primitive practices that infect, contaminate or corrupt the secular body politic” (Dhareshwar: 1993) and hence, have to be kept out of its purview.
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Among the first generation Indian writers of English fiction, who consciously or unconsciously tethered their themes to indigenous contexts, Mulk Raj Anand remains unchallenged even today in his expression of anger and frustration at the caste and class inequalities pervading a hierarchic Hindu society. Barring him, no other writer of Indian English fiction has treated caste as an issue deserving serious academic or critical attention. This does in no way mean that there was or is a complete absence of characters from deprived classes in the English fiction writer by Indian writers. Quite a few examples from this genre can be taken out to show the presence of characters from the deprived classes – Raja Rao’s “Javni” in his short story by the same name, Bhedia, the caste system in India">low caste idiot in “On the Ganga Ghat” by the same author, the low caste boy of Sudhin Ghose’s novel The Flame of the Forest, are only a few instances to prove the presence of characters from the lower caste in Indian English fiction – presence only, not a representation that attributes qualities of individuality intellectual capabilities or even a desire to question a system that has shackled them into a life of animals rather than that of human beings. They are either content to live the life of abject humility and servility that they had always been condemned to lead, or are rendered obscure by the dominant hegemonic forces.
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Raja Rao’s “Javni” is a typical example for the kind of representation that the characters from deprived classes are given in Indian English fiction. This short story is the portrait of a low caste domestic servant in the home of a Brahmin family. She is eternally devoted to the family for whom she works, and is happy with her life that makes her slog from morning till late in the night, and to eat in the “byre, in dirt and darkness.” The short story glorifies her as “simple, pure and uncomplaining.” It is Ramappa, the narrator of the story who feels agony and frustration at her abject style of living. While he who is a Brahmin is disturbed over her plight, she is simply surprised at his vexation at something as normal as a low caste domestic help eating in darkness. Sitting with her while she has her dinner in darkness, Ramappa muses –
“I heard an owl hoot somewhere, and far, far away, somewhere too far and too distant for my rude ears to hear, the world wept its silent suffering plaints. Had not the Lord said: ‘Whenever there is misery and ignorance, I come’? Oh, when will that day come, and when will the Conch of Knowledge blow?
I had nothing to say. My heart beat fast. And closing my eyes, I sank into the primal flood, the moving fount of Being. Man, I love thee.”
Bhedia, the low caste idiot of “On the Ganga Ghat” is similar to Javni in more ways than one. His only desire is to be a good servant. In the words of the narrator, “Bhedia is so lovable, is Bhedia, you would have to create him like Brahma himself if he did not be. For him all things are so real, so simple …” Ramappa, the narrator of “Javni” too has something similar to say about Javni from whom the family has to part: “No, Javni. In contact with a heart like yours who will not bloom into a god?”
The strains are the same – reification of the eternal tolerance and humility of low caste characters – in other words, a hidden admiration or at least a silent consensus with a system that has kept them in servility and treated them like objects. Yes, the suffering is observed, an insinuation is made against the malady of caste system, but there is also a silent acceptance of a system that has transformed human beings into gods.
Other instances of the presence of the “castial other” in Indian English fiction can be cited from writers like Sudhin Ghose. But these representations are almost always done from an upper caste perspective. The ‘castial other’ of Indian English fiction often serve to act as a foil for the upper caste “respectability” and sophistication, to accentuate the despicably servile way of life of these socially and economically marginalized group, or to reinforce a status quo that has been in prevalence for centuries. A closer look at these representations also show that they often become a potent ground for identity formation and social positioning for upper caste Hindus. The low caste characters in Indian English fiction serve not just as a footnote, but as a constitutive footnote, perceived in a binary opposition to upper caste characters. This literature and the material culture getting represented around this, gets involved in a castiest discourse committed to constructing, even institutionalizing, stable categories in the body politic of the nation.
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It is interesting to note that the protagonists of English fiction by major Indian writers belong to the upper caste and class (the history of caste in India has always been one of class also).
Till the emergence of Dalit literature in English, Indian fiction in English has strangely been deprived of a protagonist who belongs to the low caste. If one were to posit Toni Morrison’s argument on matters of race to the issue of caste in the Indian context, it is appropriate to stat that the invisibility of caste in Indian English fiction is equivalent to allowing those from the low caste “a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.” Makarand Paranjpe, in his article “Caste of Indian English Fiction” argues that the Indian English writers have “lost” their caste identity because they are urbanized, educated, rich, and westernized. (It is difficult not to observe Paranjpe’s justification of not only the dominance of Brahmins in the authorship of Indian English fiction, but also their politics of representation).
In Paranjpe’s opinion, the Indian English novelists “espouse liberal, progressive and humanistic causes and values” (p. 2301).
May be, issues of caste do not come under this agenda in Paranjpe’s opinion. At the same time, Paranjpe also admits that “many novelists would appear to accept certain features of the caste system while rejecting its inescapable evils” (p. 2300).
English Fiction - Short Story (Reflections on The Fall of the House of ...
It is surprising to see that this historical evasion is happening in a country with a considerable lower caste population – a population that has always had an intriguingly intimate, and yet an incredibly separate existence within the dominant upper caste Brahmin minority. It is fascinating to see how the dominant discourse has failed in observing the disturbing, dramatic presence of the lower caste life. One can notice here a parallel to the centuries long historical blindness to feminist discourse in academia.
This brings us back to Toni Morrison. To rephrase her in terms of caste, it can be said that members belonging to the deprived castes “were not, in any sense that matters, there” [in the world of Indian English fiction]. E merely as “decorative-displays of the agile writer’s technical expertise.” One has to assume that as long as the author himself is not from the low caste, the “characters or narrative or idiom in a work could never be about anything other than the ‘normal’, unracialised, illusory” upper caste world that always provides the fictional backdrop.
Raja Rao’s Kanthapura has a character Rangamma who is no village simpleton. She gets a few newspapers from the city to read, acquires some kind of general education and talks to other villagers about how people in far-off countries travel in vehicles that move in the air, of speech that goes across the air, how one could sit in one’s own home and listen to what is happening in London or Bombay or Russia and so on and so forth. Pariah Ramakka, one of the low caste listeners to the litany of Rangamma asks an innocent question: “So in that country pariahs and Brahmins are the same, and there are no people to give paddy to be husked and no people to do it – strange country, mother.” Rangamma’s reply to this is equally innocent: “My paper says nothing about that.” Truly, Indian English fiction says little or nothing about the multitude who toil in the paddy fields and households of the elite, husk the paddy and provide the food that they eat.
 To know more about the representation of caste in Indian English, read the Dilip M Menon, The Blindness
 Toni Morrison, “Black Matters” – “…“the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognise an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”
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 Economic and Political Weekly, October 5. His article is about the dominance of Brahmins in the authorship of Indian English fiction.
 “Black Matters”