Changing lives and aspirations

Was Ambedkar a feminist? When I asked this question at a conference in the University of Leeds, U.K.; the speaker appeared perplexed, and the rest of the panellists and audience burst into collective laughter. In the larger context of Dalit oppression in India, it is crucial to understand how Dalit men are different from or similar to upper caste men as custodians of their respective patriarchies. This is the reason why in our pursuit of scientific study of multi-layered systems of social oppression, not only how to locate the ultimate victims, but also what the ultimate forms of emancipation are remain a matter of challenge for scholars of all disciplines in social science. How to describe victims and processes of victimisation, who also become perpetrators of another kind of oppression? Fortunately, there is a good of scholarship showing that women are the worst victims of all kinds of oppressive systems. Of course, there is need for more. However, how distinct is the nature of their suffering and what are the ways they devise to overcome are some crucial questions that continue to haunt scholars of feminism today. This research work seeks to explore such questions as part of the attempt to unravel distinct forms of interplay of forces of custom, tradition, and caste; and also in the larger context of modernity.

The major research is based on rigorous fieldwork in Nampalli in South India that the author largely conducted in 2004-05. The arguments presented here, however, should not be restricted to South India. During the period, the author lived and interacted with Dalit families, and built up a very special relationship as a participant observer. Indeed, this was accompanied by various forms of challenges for a foreign scholar, which she describes in vivid detail, particularly the suspicion and mistrust her presence often created in the minds of locals. The main research revolves around the life stories of three Dalit women: one is Kalyani, a leader of the micro-credit savings groups of the village; Vani, a grandmother of four, and the last one is Leela, the girl in the host family. A substantial part contains the description and analysis of the elopement and subsequent marriage Leela. By following their lives, the author claims she sought to examine the transformation unfolding in Dalit families, and the narrative that emerges recognises the shifting gender relations among Dalits.

How can a study of the lives of only three women be generalised? The author recognises that for a substantive analysis of this subject in a complex, diverse society like India, where even Dalit society is internally very diverse, and hierarchised, the life stories of three women have their own limitations in reflecting larger trends in society. That is why she attempts to compensate this by four ways, which she does in a very impressive fashion. First, she uses the life histories and oral testimonies of three generations of Dalits in Nampalli. She compares their accounts of labour, marriage, education, reproduction and conditions of life in general. She also uses detailed genealogies to triangulate this information. Furthermore, she examines the lives of women in Dalit households in slightly varying class positions in Nampalli in order to examine various aspects of upward mobility. Most importantly, she also uses similar studies from other parts of India that are comparatively closer to her study. One of the major highlights of her research is the detailed description of the methodology she offers in the book. For any scholar, particularly one embarking on doctoral research, this book should be of immense value

The entire study is driven by the objective of locating the notion of honour, prestige and respect among South Indian Dalits. In Nampalli, according to the author, Dalits were attempting to raise their social status through the pursuit of paruvu-prathisthta-gauravam (prestige-honour-respect). What does this mean? According to her, paruvu-prathisthta-gauravam is “a constellation of embodied, appropriated values, which shape actions and aspirations in everyday life.” She further argues that this is gained and lost in different ways, but the control of female sexuality is the most important manifestation in the regular lives of Dalit patriarchy.

In the final chapter, the author quotes Bernard Cohn’s famous essay titled, ‘The Changing Status of A Depressed Caste’ 1955), and persuasively argues how her hard-earned material provides distinct insight into the subject. All in all, this lucidly written book, whose narrative style is full of literary richness contains hard evidence of an emerging major voice in Dalit scholarship from Western academia.

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 7:14:09 PM |

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