An unwritten disclaimer to Kancha Ilaiah’s novel Untouchable God could have read: The characters in this book may be fictitious but any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely deliberate. Which begs an additional tagline: This novel is not for faint-hearted humourless Brahmins, especially those with an inability to laugh at themselves.
From a scholar whose books have been loved and despised, depending on which side you are; Ilaiah’s ‘fictionalised’ uncensored portrayal of caste, gender and religion and their nuanced interplay through the lives and manoeuvres of six Brahmins living in an India blistering for freedom from ‘the other’ is refreshingly non-pedagogical, yet steeped in history. It is intensely satirical and plants a giant slap on the faces of those who not only profess caste, but also those who like to believe that it no longer exists.
Ilaiah’s narrative comes alive in the stories of the slimy six — Veda Shastry of Tamil Nadu, Banerjee Babu of Bengal, D.C.Tilak of Maharashtra, Krishnamurty of Karnataka, Namboodri of Kerala and Appa Rao of Andhra Pradesh — culturally diverse zealots connected by the overarching camaraderie of being born Brahmins. As the stories unfold, Ilaiah peels off the layers of hypocrisy and strange schizophrenia that infests the world of upper castes to whom the very physical existence of untouchables is despicable but whose own existence inextricably depends on preserving the untouchables in their shit.
Whether it is D.C Tilak’s declaration (see quote) or Krishnamurthy’s and Appa Rao’s rather unsuccessful attempt to plagiarise a Dalit poet’s fiery works, the book effectively stereotypes just how devious Brahmin/upper caste minds work.
But Untouchable God is not just about an older generation of upper caste male Hindu bigots. Their relationships with, treatment and repression of women is a recurrent theme, whether through Namboodri’s sexual sambandham with a lower-caste Nair woman, the outburst by an unnamed young woman in Veda Shastry’s kitchen, the widows of Benares “who have to give themselves to the ‘priests’, their guests and friends” or the traded freedoms of an apparently poised upper-caste researcher Mala who grapples to shake off her own chains. By corollary, there are powerful characters like Sakku Bai and Saraswati and, later, references to the indispensable role of women in the American civil rights struggle, suggesting the inevitability of women’s liberation for striking at the foundations of caste.
Untouchable God rips apart hypocrisies at various levels. It mocks the dichotomous existence of the bhadralok communists represented by the lives and inner conflicts of junior Banerjee and the play-acting Gayatri Roy, just as it exposes the insidious seepage of caste into other religions in India.
The closing chapter places all these home truths on an international stage, by bringing in an African-American appropriately named Isaiah who travels to India inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Ambedkar to draw parallels with his own struggles with race. Of course, the book does not explain everything. The helplessness of the Dalit Ezhumalai, as he says, “do not do this thing, Isaiah, we will have to pay for it later when you are gone” contrasts with Isaiah’s own account of his family and the courageous black movement in America and questions about Buddhism are left unanswered.
The language is raw, provocative, scathing, dark, honest and firsthand. Through the lens of caste and religion, the story is actually a fine work on human behaviour in a stratified but interdependent society. At a time when Mirchpur and Dharmapuri are today’s realities, the novel is a disturbing reminder of how little has changed, amid how much. It makes us sit up, confront, laugh, question, hope, and hang our heads in shame, all at once.
…we are men of mind. Where are our hands? I tell you, our hands and instruments must be the Shudras and the lower castes. We must make them beholden to us,