Ilaiah, Kancha (2013). Untouchable God. Kolkata: Stree-samya Publishers. ISBN: 978-81-85604-33-6 Pp. 248, Rs 350/-
Dalit social scientist Kancha Ilaiah fires yet another salvo against Brahminical Hinduism from his armoury, this time in the form of a novel titled Untouchable God. The novel lacks an engaging narrative and focuses instead on the creation of the caricatured portraits of six Brahmins— 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 so as to reveal the pan- Indian stranglehold of casteism. Examples of exalted brahminhood, firmly ensconced in their privileged niche in the social order, these men systematically exploit and despise both dalits and women. Namboodri of Kerala, heading a temple trust, considers it a matter of right to coerce a dalit woman into a ‘sambandham’ while reducing his widowed sister-in-law to the status of a non-entity. Ved Shastry, their leader, has no moral scruples while ordering a murderous assault on a dalit man while sanctimoniously proclaiming the ‘justice’ of his action. Gentle irony is used to unmask the hypocrisies which lie beneath the ‘radicalism’ of Banerjee Babu and Gayatri Devi, bhadralok communist intellectuals. The ‘rebellious’ mould of Banerjee Babu’s character is shot through with elitism, conservatism, and status quoism, while Gayatri Devi dabbles in communist ideology before comfortably settling in her bhadralok world of privilege and status. Appa Rao attempts to plagiarize a dalit poet’s works, albeit unsuccessfully. The author’s indignation is most pronounced in his portrait of D.C. Tilak, where he even distorts history to create a character very different from venerable historical figure of Tilak in the freedom struggle. His venomous hatred of Christians, Muslims and dalits alike spurs him to create a right-wing organization with “a militant network” called “Bharatkhanda Protection Sangh” which is a thinly disguised fictional veneer for the RSS. Ilaiah exposes the xenophobia and the dangerous use of religious revivalism by right-wing ideologues like the fictional Tilak to simultaneously fan the fires of communal hatred and oppress dalits to maintain the ‘purity’ of a Hindu nation.
Though there are continuities between his earlier polemical work and this debut novel, the departures that Ilaiah makes from his earlier stance are very significant and noteworthy. In Why I am not a Hindu, Ilaiah, while critiquing Hindu families as following a patriarchal model, had posited dalit society as an exemplary one in which relationships between men and women were far more egalitarian and non-oppressive. The comment on the opening page of the novel “Men were men whatever caste they were born in” indicates the distance Ilaiah has travelled from his earlier book and the tenor of this statement is followed up in the rest of the novel when he exposes the equally pitiable condition of Brahmin widows, and dalit Nair women forced into ‘sambandhams’ in which they are merely reduced to objects of sexual gratification for upper-caste Namboodiri men. While his earlier work was an example of the Manichean imagination which works in terms of binaries (dalit vs upper-caste), and did not take into account other coordinates of gender and race, the novel’s sharp critique of patriarchy, whether dalit or upper-caste, is a redeeming feature of the novel which is otherwise riddled with many flaws. What is exemplary about the novel is his remarkable dissection of the interplay between caste, gender, religion, class and even race. The bigoted mindset of the Brahmins is revealed equally in their hatred and contempt of the dalits, and their oppression of women, both of whom are routinely exploited for their labour and treated as chattel. Ilaiah not only lashes out at the hierarchical structure of the caste system, he reveals the hierarchy prevalent amongst the various dalit sub-castes as well.
In the last chapter of the novel, fortuitous in some respects, the novel introduces a black American sociologist, haunted by his own history of racism and slavery, on a visit to India, confronted by the shocking realities of casteist violence in rural and urban India. The narrative of the novel, if it can be said to have one, comes back full circle as the Afro-American man is accompanied by the Christian convert son (who, too, narrowly escapes an attack by upper castes) of the dalit man, aptly named Pariah, on whose life a murderous assault was made in the first chapter for the ‘crime’ of thinking about metaphysical and social issues. Ilaiah attempts to bring an outsider’s perspective to bear upon caste realities, which are shown to be all pervasive and confined not just to Hinduism. Dalit converts to Christianity
are also treated as pariahs, and Christian priests are shown to be as dogmatic and chauvinistic as their Brahmin counterparts. Ilaiah reveals, with scathing contempt, the insidious manner in which caste has permeated other religions in India. The novel uses the staple tropes of dalit literature— pollution taboos, geographical segregation, belief in endogamous marriages, caste violence, economic exploitation and inferiorization of dalits. The light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek humor of the novel often mutates into dark, morbid humor, a fitting weapon to reveal the vicious and pernicious nature of the social system. The novel’s mockery of Brahminical ritualism (for example its jet-speed chanting of shlokas, incomprehensible to everyone) and hypocrisy becomes scathing and trenchant when it reveals the malignant nature of the system.
The novel is disappointing on several fronts. Readers’ expectations regarding an in-depth, exhaustive and authentic account of dalit life are not fulfilled; the dalit characters in the novel are reduced to shadowy figures, deprived of agency, easily victimized and manipulated by the upper-castes for their own political purposes. What he offers, instead, are caricatured portraits of Brahmin zealots and their machinations in preserving their hegemonic status. In place of a flowing narrative, the several portraits are strung together, almost forcibly, by thematic connections. All his ire is directed only against Brahminical fanaticism. In the context of the attack on Pariah ordered by the Brahmins, it is imperative to mention that Ilaiah doesn’t even deign to take cognizance of the innumerable attacks on dalits by members of the other backward castes which have routinely taken place in the past few years. (For example, in Dharampuri, Tamil Nadu 400 dalit houses were burnt down by the most backward caste, the Vanniyars. In Lathor in Orissa in 2011, the perpetrators of the same crime were members of an OBC caste called Mehar.) Why he glosses over the role of members of other backward castes in such atrocities against the dalits is a question worth pondering. Ilaiah seems to be still stuck in the first phase of the dalit emancipatory movement.
The novel ambitiously attempts to cover a vast geographical territory and a time span ranging from the 1880s to the 1960s, covering the freedom struggle, social reforms, and even the civil rights movement in the US. The disappointment caused by the absence of an engaging narrative is further compounded by Ilaiah’s frequent lapses into pamphleteering which are understandable in a polemical work but quite out of place in a novel. Yet, Ilaiah’s expose of Brahminical conspiracy to subjugate the dalits, his searing depiction of their selfishness, brutality and hypocrisy and his vision of a casteless utopia is commendable. Ilaiah addresses issues related to caste, class, gender and religion that, he claims several times in the course of the novel, even social reform movements and Marxist revolutionaries have skirted.
Preeti Gupta Dewan
Preeti Gupta Dewan teaches English literature at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University. She also translates Hindi literature into English. She is interested in 20th Century literatures and Indian literature.