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Indrani Das Gupta


Indrani Das Gupta: Bama’s Sangati







Re-Telling History/Re-Thinking Nation: Analysing Bama's Sangati

Novel, the multi-vocal, polyglot form is inextricably linked with the 'imaginings' or 'invention of nation'. Located within the imperial project, the novel was appropriated and adopted by the colonised to interrupt the colonialist history and to rewrite and re-tell their indigenous history. However, this arrogated genre became the very means to silence certain groups and communities (Dalit, tribals) and render them confined to the margins of history. Dalit fiction inevitably caught up in the vortex of political, economic and historical domination and subjugation in their appropriation of the novelistic genre attempts to articulate and refashion an identity, in the words of Raj Gauthaman, to 'shout out their selfhood, their "I"' (qtd. in Holmstrom 2005: xv) which challenges the elite and dominant historiography.

This paper seeks to examine the form and structure of the novel as expressed in Bama's Sangati (2005) by analysing the oral practices in juxtaposition with the written mode as a means to articulate a new political consciousness. The reconceptualisation of the form of the novel is a strategy, I argue, to overcome the hegemonic practices of the nation-state and to render audible the silences inherent in the narrative of modernity as represented in the discourse of nationalism. Bama's Sangati through its experimentation with form, structure and the incorporation of different modes of register, both oral and written, involves an engagement with historical processes to 'tell[s] the story of nationalism', which is 'narratively committed to telling of a particular kind' (Kaviraj 1992: 2), and thus, signify a 'new voice of social change' (Nayar, "Politics" 2011: 366).

Novel, Historical Imagination and Nation
Before I propose to examine the novel itself, I seek to look into the relationship between novel, language, form and the representation of nation. 'Nation-ness' as 'the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time' (Anderson 1991: 3) continues to dominate contemporary political and historical thought even in this era of globalisation and multiculturalism though, as Sudipta Kaviraj mentions, is no longer an 'object of discovery but of invention' (Kaviraj 1992: 1). Born out of various intersecting strands of capitalism, industrialisation, and the rapid advances made in the field of technology in the form of printing presses and production processes, the rise of the novel or a narrative is enmeshed in the development of modernity itself. These modernising processes linked to the concomitant rise of middle classes as well as the development of the imperial project led to the novel becoming a key instrument within the colonial encounter. Though India had a rich tradition of written texts in Sanskrit and other regional languages, inception of the genre of the novel is essentially thought to be imitative of Western models. Sisir Kumar Das opined that the 'novel in India grew out of the tension between the Western models and the indigenous narrative traditions' (qtd.in Singh 2002: 2). The inevitable rise and popularity of the genre of novel in India 'coincided with a new and unprecedented interest in history and historiography' (Mukherjee 2002: xvii), signifying the relationship between fiction, history and nation-state, encapsulated in Sudipta Kaviraj's phrase 'narrative contract' (1992: 33). If history is the recovery and the interpretation of events of the past through stories, then these narratives become the logical site to 'imagine a community'. And also, if the emergence of novel along with the introduction of English language was more of a political gesture to reify the logic of imperialism beneath the veneer of civilisation, then the appropriation of the novel by the colonised becomes, in the words of Meenakshi Mukherjee, 'a potent site for discussing crucial questions about language, culture, colonisation, and representation' (qtd. in Paranjpe "Rajmohan's Wife" 2002: 143). The inauguration of the novel in colonial India, called by Mulk Raj Anand as the 'weapon of humanism' (qtd. in Joshi 2002: 37), expressed the inadequacy of indigenous, native knowledge under the colonial impact as well as the celebration of a new mode of political and individual expression. In this regard, Gauri Vishwanathan's path-breaking study Masks of Conquest (1989) observes that the deployment of English education in India within the institutions served to Anglicanise the natives as well as functioned 'to fortify colonial interests in India while camouflaging ("masking") British intentions' (5). Thus, the new form of prose sought to shape social and political reality and while 'imitative' became the space of 'dissent' and 'consent',' corruption' and 'consumption'.

But quite significantly, the 'conflictual' terrain of nationalistic discourse involving competing stories as represented in the pages of a novel was 'remarkably ill at ease on the question of caste' (Ahmed "Nations" 2007: 53). Nation-state was organised and built around the principle of equal rights to all, as Benedict Anderson 'imagined' nationalistic discourse of constructing a nation as a 'community of horizontal comradeship' (1991: 40; emphasis added). But this was not seen in reality, as many groups like the lower caste, women, tribals were not included to be a part of the process of nation-formation. This resulted in their being caught up in the narrative or representation by 'Others', wherein, the others were belonging to both the higher class and Brahmanical patriarchy.

Dalit literature was an outcome of this elision within the historiography of the nation, and a creative expression to represent and rewrite the narrative of the nation 'from below'. Concerned with what Gayatri Chakravarthy Spivak had provocatively asked, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" (1988: 271-313). Dalit literature is primarily an aesthetic expression to destabilise both literary and political hegemonic discourses to voice and articulate their identity and individuality out of the depths of oppression and exploitation.

Form, Politics, and Novel
Dalit, derived from Marathi literally meaning 'broken' was a confluence of several philosophers' ideas like Ambedkar, Jyotibha Phule, Periyar, movements like the Dalit Panthers movement and the Dravidian movement. Characterised by a new idiom of language and a content infused with the violence and roughness of everyday life, Dalit literature is marked by protest and anger. Raj Gowthaman suggests that Dalit literary convention 'ruptures both content and craft' (qtd. in Krishnaswamy 2014:149) to negate established traditions and to inspire the readers towards 'social purpose and commitment to justice' (2014:150).

If Jawaharlal Nehru in Discovery of India had suggested that 'to build the house of India's future, strong and secure and beautiful, we would have to dig deep for the foundations' (qtd. in Paranjpe Making India 2013:1), then Sangati can be seen as a 'political project' to 'dig beneath the foundations' so as to intervene in the processes of nation-formation and history as well as to provide what Frantz Fanon demanded, 'credibility, validity, life and creative power' (qtd. in Paranjpe "Rajmohan's Wife" 2002: 148) of a literary expression considered of minor value.

I would thus, engage with the form and different registers in Bama's Sangati as not only as an aesthetic literary expression but as a discursive strategy keeping in mind Ranajit Guha's description of historiography or nationalistic discourse, in his essay "The Small Voice of History", as being the 'Memory of the State' (qtd. in Narayan "DomiNation" 2005: 126), examine the fissures inherent in the narrative of nation-state- a writing of history, to re-construct the stories of the past.

Sangati: Hybridisation of the Novel and Nation
Sangati published in 1994 was the second novel written in Tamil by the Dalit writer Faustina Bama and marks a difference of form from her earlier novel, Karruku (1992, trans. 2000) which written as a first-person narrative belonged to a rich tradition of testimonial autobiography. Karruku in its representation of the unending suffering of an individual spoke for the 'collective memory, identity, and experience' (Nayar, "Postcolonial Atrocity" 2012: 238) of Dalit community and thus, sought to revise the Dalit historiography mentioned by Kancha Iliah as a 'history of white pages' (qtd. in Gajarawala 2013: 170). But, Sangati in its use of several narrators displaces the accepted convention of even Dalit autobiographical genre to represent the individual's 'significant life experience' (Beverly 1992: 92) and instead elucidates a collective whose happenings and anecdotes recounted by multiple narrators represents the trauma and the pain of oppression, defined by the translator Lakshmi Holmstrom as 'perhaps the autobiography of a community' (2005: xv).

Treating Sangati as merely an 'ahistorical, ethnographic expression of Dalit identity, "at home" (Gajarawala 2013:169) within the category of 'authentic lived experience', would merely lead to ghettoisation, of which Sharmila Rege had warned in her essay "Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint" (2003: 90-101). This would point towards tokenism rejecting the attempts made by a Dalit to articulate a distinctive voice and expression. I, on the other hand, propose to read the novel as located within the interstices of an oral, folkloric tradition in confrontation with written, documented mode of narrativisation, so as to define this novel which works 'against, parallel to and as a supplement to history' (Amarakeerthi 2003: 25). If the form of the novel itself is a manifestation of the written form which coupled with the fact that both the narration of history and nation demands the written mode, then the multiple narrators rendered in manifold voices and idioms in Sangati intersect with these written registers of history and democratic politics to both register subversion and continuity of the history of exploitation.

Interspersed with the liberal use of songs and proverbs, abuses, and speech idioms in Sangati, the thread of the narrative as encapsulated in the proverb '[I] reared a parrot and then handed it over to be hauled by a cat' (2005: 10), examines the trajectory of neglect, abuse, and violence that permeates the lives of Dalit women who are doubly ostracised on account of the interface between gender and caste. The incorporation of proverbs, songs, littered with linguistic idioms of the paraiya community function to not only make alive the indigenous practices and rituals of a folkloric community but recaptures the 'past which is inbuilt into the present' (Narayan, "National Pasts" 2004: 3533). The centrality of these oral practices and folkloric customs in the lives of the Dalit women is pronounced in the grandmother's statement '[E]ven if there's no kanji to eat, the women can never be stopped from singing loudly and ululating' (Bama 2005:17). The songs sung by the grand/mother figures resonate with the cultural memory and universality of suffering. Proverbs exemplifies 'resistance to forgetting' and functions as a reservoir of cultural and shared past that has 'never stopped being an event' (Nayar, "Postcolonial Atrocity" 2012: 242). If history as narrated by the professional historian who often enough belongs to the dominant, upper-caste order tends to be based on 'evidence', 'hard facts', then these sprinkling of jokes, songs, proverb embarks on a program to substantiate the marginalised aesthetic culture as not being 'artless' or insignificant. This is similar to what Chinua Achebe in the article, "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation", believed of an African writer that they should demonstrate, that they 'did not hear of the culture for the first time from Europeans' and 'that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity' (qtd. in Lindfors 2008: 555).

This incorporation of songs and proverbs assists in providing not only 'local colour' but, Bama also insists on using these, to borrow the phrase from M.J Herskovits, a 'grammar of values'1 (qtd. in Lindfors 2008: 558). That is, it directs our attention to the relationship between the individual and community, the past and the present and illustrates the 'interrelation of speech mode and communal life' (Irele 2008: 4476). Moreover, it tends to critique the binaries on which the model of progress and modernity was established –West/East, male/female, literate (written)/ illiterate (oral). If printed, documented works tend to make the world static and fixed, proverbs and songs tend to be located in the realm of eternity, it is 'timeless'. The violence perpetuated against women in Sangati is repeated across time through these oral and folkloric registers and is both a part of public and private event. Narrated usually by the grand/mother figures these oral practices refashion the mundane, drab reality of these exploited women as a 'living history' and 'help them to forge a connectivity with their own selves' (Narayan, "National Pasts" 2004: 3534). However, Bama doesn't stop merely at these ruptures in the program of modernity, but coalesces the oral as historical/mythic and the immediate/personal/ social as well as the written/distanced/political voice of history to 'build solidarity, assign responsibility for the causes of the trauma, and thereby to constitute a domain of political action' (Alexander 2004: 2). Mariamma episode (Bama 2005: 20-23) elucidates an alternative space where the oral/mythic/historical/collective voice renders the pain of collective of Dalit women, whose truth shall go unnoticed even if 'you even try to tell people what actually happened, you will find that it is you will get the blame; it's you who will be called a whore…. Are people going to believe their words or ours?' (2005: 20). These conversations and exchanges point towards the historic encoding of the Dalit as marginalised, devoid both of agency and subjectivity. The conversations gesture to what Dipesh Chakravarthy in "Globalisation, Democratisation, and Evacuation of History" had mentioned that the subaltern reading of history and historical developments bear testimony to a need for further democratisation of knowledge production (qtd. in Narayan, "National Pasts" 2004: 3533). While the historical/political voice 'did the mudalaali lie to us in everything he said?' (Bama 2005: 23) reveals the power and representation of knowledge formation as invested with the upper-caste. Mariamma'a narrative will always be subsumed into and by the narrative of the upper-caste, and their lived ordeal of being a women and a Dalit will forever forbid them to enter the realm of history. Bama observes why 'no different end to this story' (2005: 22) can be thought of as both Dalit men and the upper-caste prevent these 'doubly ostracised', the women to be silent (2005: 21) and who hence, can't be 'co-opted in the history, power, democratic processes and development schemes of the modern Indian nation state' (Narayan, "National Pasts" 2004: 3534).

The interjections, opinions, and exchanges of these women are situated within a paradigm of Paula Richman's 'dramatised audience'2 (qtd. in McNamara 2010: 319-320), disclosing the gaps and the obfuscations rendered in the telling and the writing of the nation. The incident of Mariamma dramatises the confrontation between the oral traditions exemplified in the figure of the grandmother, whose helplessness mirrors the community's historical suffering: 'From your ancestors' times it has been agreed that what the men say is right' and her ire against her granddaughter's education as nothing more than a 'dream' and a wishful thinking that 'everything is going to change just because you've learnt a few letters of the alphabet,' (28-29) indicts the whole postcolonial nation-state and the written mode of history.

If Dalit aesthetics have been conceptualised as different and so inferior from the Brahmaniacal form of the novel, itself an imitation of the Western genre, the use of the array of voices in Sangati embodies Lawrence Langer's use of 'Durational time'3 (qtd. in Lorenz 2010: 84) which corresponds to the simultaneity of the past in the everyday present of the Dalit's lives. Moreover, being the repository of oral and cultural values she resists the printed or written narrative as being the only truth available, and commands both the narrator as well as the readers in attending the ills of print culture which, as Benedict Anderson suggested led to the development of the discourse of nation-state itself. This is, ironically, exposed again when the oral narrator takes recourse to the printed medium for the perpetuation of violence against the Dalit women-folk: 'hasn't all this been written about in books as well, haven't you read about it?' (Bama 2005: 29). The dichotomy between the printed medium as being civilised and a metaphor of progress and the oral tradition as being symbolic of the primitive is here soundly condemned.

Ironically, the song of the 'crab' (Bama 2005: 30) as a form of oral register and what gets documented in the novel as part of textual history all reveal a paradigm of violence wherein the category 'Woman' is the primary location of the enactment of violence which functions as a 'measure' to maintain the hegemony between the sexes. As a narrative of suffering and redefined as a collective memoir, this novel in its use of multiple voices, to use Walter Benjamin's phrase 'the chronicler is the history teller' (1968: 95), hybridises the narrative genre in its methodology of knowledge production. And thus, the contestory, polyphonic stories allow the Dalit women who are 'oppressed, ruled, and still being ruled by patriarchy, government, caste and religion… to break all the strictures of society to live. (Bama, Preface 2005: vii).

The "counter- culture" (qtd. in Shah 2001: 161) of Gopal Guru is strongly demonstrated in Sangati, wherein the 'aesthetics of violence' encapsulated through different registers combines with the discourse of political participation and substantive citizenship to envision a new political and social dimension within society. The scriptural and social authority sanctions what the mother should speak and think, denying her the agency even to participate in the nativity plays enacted in the villages, to marry the men of her choice, and to seek divorce; the narrator's rigorous interrogation of the scriptural agency articulated through the medium of her mother, 'I am sure that God doesn't want us to be living like slaves to the day we die, without any rights or status, just because of a cord round the neck,' (Bama 2005: 95) serves to unpack the violence which implicates all religion and which assists the perpetuation of inequality across time and cultures. This intrusion of the language of citizenship, rights, and self-dignity displaces and disrupts the authority and the power of the scriptural agency and thus, renders the discourse of nation-state to be insufficient and in need of a corrective measure.

As the voting is going on in the novel, the 'performative', 'speaking' nature of voices questions the very edifice of democracy. The electoral process as the conspicuous marker of a postcolonial nation-state with its attendant democratic ethos, however, fails to reach out to this dispossessed community. The grandmother of the narrator in the novel relates how her vote has been rejected because she 'stamped on four or five pictures instead of one' (Bama 2005: 99). The symbols employed by the political parties are read within the immediate history of a 'felt dimension of being and consciousness' (Irele 2008: 456). The neighbour 'stamped on those pictures to which she could relate to and identify with, like the 'picture of the man ploughing', 'plough and bullock' as the only means of survival known to her (Bama 2005: 99). That the ideology of macro politics has no meaning or significance in the lives of these women is clearly expressed; but what is more illuminating is the fact of how this narrative is re-read and hence retold through the 'cultural codes' and 'habits of thought' (Irele 2008: 457). Here, the text through its subversion of the dominant language, articulates the disillusionment of the subalterns with the paradigm of the nation-state. The final nail in the coffin is delivered by the narrator's grandmother, who declares: 'Whether it is Rama who rules, or Ravana, what does it matter? Our situation is always the same' (Bama 2005: 99). Here, the reiteration of the mythical figures in the contemporary domain allows for a re-reading and revision of documented history in its conflation of the world of myth, religion and folklore into the everyday world of statesman and political systems.

The contestory voices should be seen also as destabilising the category of 'women' itself. The polyphonic voices seeks to foreground the 'difference' of Dalit women from the mainstream society of Indian women, and, at the same time, highlight the inadequacy of Indian feminism to represent and examine the trials and tribulations of Dalit women. So, Dalit women can earn, divorce, remarry unlike the upper-caste counterparts, but economically they are in worse shape (Bama 2005: 66-67). What is more interesting is Bama's political observation of the differences of practices within the Dalit community itself, like between paraiya and chakkili communities observance of marriage customs (Bama 2005: 91-92). This serves to undermine the homogenisation of Dalits in practice, since their categorisation in the Census held for the first time during British India. These terms like Dalit, Scheduled Castes are now been held as too reductive to account for their 'way of life'. The heterogeneous voices suggest numerous lenses and perspectives through which we can review their coping mechanisms as can be seen in the story of the young girl, Maikanni working in the match factory to support her family. Her reiteration of the phrase 'super' (71) invokes what Deniz Kandiyoti had observed as 'bargaining with patriarchy' (1988: 274), an active form of negotiation and strategic alliance with the oppressive structures of patriarchal society. The reconstitution of the novelistic genre in terms of its relocation to a syncretic space, where the oral and the written traditions intersect, contest and combine, activate a call for political activism to articulate an alternate national tradition with a Dalit at the centre. The inclusion of Ambedkar as a national leader serves to demonstrate the future course of action for the empowerment of Dalits, if only they were to 'act as he told [them] to do' (Bama 2005:103). The language of citizenship points to what Sharmila Rege observed 'how all our identities are not equally powerful' (qtd. in Holmstrom 2005: xvii) and this recognition is a testimony to not only to a narrative of unending suffering, but, at the same time, points to an assertion of political and cultural power.

If Kamau Braithwaite's collection of poems, The Arrivants speaks, in the poem titled 'Islands', that it is not 'enough to be free/of the whips, principalities and power' until one has the 'kingdom of the Word' (qtd. in Nair 2000: 236), then Bama's Sangati, with its array of voices, and a language which conflates as well as subverts the oral and written registers, seeks to move beyond the attribution of ethnographic fiction to Dalit literature per se and, instead aims to reconstruct the historical meaning of the past, in the hope of forging a new discourse of nation and community.

Notes
1 M. J Herskovitz's 'grammar of values', used in the context of African pre-modern, oral traditions encapsulates the use of proverbs as a structural, linguistic and emotional device to postulate the way a society functions.
2 Paula Richman's describes 'dramatised audience' as a rhetorical device used in the context of the narration of an event in its first telling as well as records the response of the audience. Used particularly, in the incident of Mariamma and Raakamma [the women who verbally abuses and publicly embarrasses her husband by lifting up her sari, to avoid being beaten (Sangati 61)]. Richman points out that the employment of 'dramatised audience' can be for these paraiya women, both a mode of participation and resistance to caste and patriarchy.
3 Lawrence Langer's 'durational time' was postulated in the context of Holocaust's narratives of memory and trauma. Differentiating between 'chronological time', which is the normal passage, flow of time to its teleological end, 'durational time' explores the continuity between the past and the present in its resistance to an end to the past reflected in the sufferings and pain endured because of Holocaust.

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