Updated: February 5, 2013 14:42 IST

Multiple layers of untouchability

Bageshree S.
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Vasudeva's Family.
Special Arrangement Vasudeva's Family.

Here’s a novel that is a scathing critique of caste hierarchies.Bageshree S.

Vaidehi’s well-known Kannada novel Asprushyaru, a sharp critique of the oppressive caste system, is finally available in English 30 years after it was first published. Re-reading the novel now in English as Vasudeva’s Family, after three decades that have seen many fiery debates on the question of caste, is an interesting exercise.

Asprushyaru (which literally means “untouchables”) was first published in 1982. This was the period that saw the emergence of subaltern voices in the political and literary spheres in Karnataka, Dalita Sangharsha Samiti being in the forefront of this articulation. It was the heyday of Bandaya (protest/resistance) literature. While there have been critiques of the caste system in Kannada literature even before Independence, the 1970s and 80s saw the emergence of a strong Dalit voice that asserted itself as the agent of change.

While Asprushyaru obviously does not represent this new voice, it is a novel that offers a scathing criticism of caste hierarchies, with all its complexities and nuances, from the narrative location of a Brahmin household. The novel revolves around the family of Vasudevaraya that is struggling to grapple with the changes sweeping all around it. The crisis is set off by the inter-caste marriage between the progressive Brahmin Bhaskara, son of the conservative widow Partakka, with a woman from the “lowest of low” Koraga community. There are a range of responses to this, from utterly conservative to the radical.

It is important to note that Vaidehi’s choice of an uppercaste narrative location does not blunt the critical perspective from within that world. As K.S. Vaishali notes in her introduction, the author never flinches from unveiling the “macabre and inhuman” aspects of untouchability. The excellent storyteller that she is, Vaidehi delicately etches micro details of conflict and negotiation of a family, especially within the “streeloka” of the inner rooms of a household. She captures the turmoils and contradictions of women who can sympathise with a Dalit woman, and yet seriously resent any attempts to cross the boundary of caste which gives them a social standing even as it enslaves them within it.

One of the notable things about Asprushyaru is the several layers of untouchability it unveils. While the dehumanising notion of purity and pollution between Brahmins and non-Brahmins forms the foundation of structured discrimination, there are also hierarchies within the broad category of Shudra and Dalit castes and within various sub-sects of Brahmins. For example, Koosas and Koravas are “untouchables” to castes which are themselves “untouchable” to Brahmins. This apart, women as a whole are physically (literally as in the time of menstruation) and metaphorically untouchables in several ways.

Also striking is the creation of the character of Saroja, who organically emerges as a strong, articulate and rational woman capable of defying not only gender boundaries but also that of caste. This is particularly striking when contrasted with Vasudevaraya who leverages his patriarchal position to espouse a progressive cause at the end of the novel, in a dramatic turn of events. She is also a significant contrast to Bhaskara’s wife (whose name Thukri is Brahminised to Kumudini) who never seems to have any agency of her own.

Reading the novel in 2013 — when Dalit literature itself has completed a quarter century and raised many questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the politics of liberal humanism as opposed to radical assertion — some aspects of the novel might seem a little fragile. For instance, that no Dalit character in the novel is himself/ herself an agent of change. They are either victims or simply swept along as the world around them changes.

Interestingly, the translation is called Vasudeva’s Family and the translator’s dedication cites the world-as-one-family ideal of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.” This emphasises the broad humanist framework of the novel, where “everyone” is in some sense untouchable and everybody needs to forge connections. This also implies a levelling of various kinds of social hierarchies, a position that is problematised by the radical Dalit politics of today.

This, however, does not take away from the strengths of the novel that have stood the test of time. What is particularly notable is that while there has been a propensity in recent years to downplay the horrors of traditional society while emphasising the cruelties of modernity, Asprushyaru can nowhere be faulted for celebrating the “native”. It offers no justification for obscurantism and conservatism in the zeal for critiquing modernity.

Translating a work like Asprushyaru is not an easy task given that it uses the dialect spoken in coastal Karnataka and is replete with very specific regional references and idioms. It is a tough task for a translator to capture cultural nuances without rendering the prose clunky. Sushila Punitha, who had earlier translated U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Bharathipura (which also deals with the question of caste from a different perspective), constantly endeavours not to iron out the rich nuances of Vaidehi’s language. She retains many Kannada words in the narrative, providing elaborate footnotes, glossary as well as a separate list of kinship terms.

To what extent should a translation remind the reader that it is a translation? How much glossing is too much? These are always contested questions. While the painstaking effort to retain the flavour of the original is admirable, Vasudeva’s Family seems to go slightly overboard at times. One occasionally wonders if retaining a certain Kannada word or literally translating a stylistic expression adds anything significant to the narration.

Vasudeva’s Family, Vaidehi, Oxford University Press, $39.75

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