Sunday, January 08, 2012

The maali who weeded out myth

[From my Sunday Guardian books column]

Early in A Gardener in the Wasteland, a new graphic novel based on the work of the 19th century social reformer Jotiba Phule, there is a deliberately provocative panel about caste discrimination. 1840s Poona, the text tells us, was “a hellhole of a town. A mob runs it: a Brahman mob”. The words and the imagery evoke the lawless American Old West, preparing the ground for the advent of Phule as a Wyatt Earp-like figure who will help clean things up. The drawings show decadent, hoodlum-like Brahmins (“Pass the Gangajal, will you,” one says to another, crudely probing his ear with his finger) lording it over the “lower castes”. One of them – shamelessly usurping the peasants’ hard-earned money – is depicted with bags of loot and a bank robber’s eye-mask.

These depictions can be mildly discomfiting even to readers who unconditionally denounce casteism (I admit to being briefly taken aback when I first saw them, and a friend who flipped through the book thought some of the content was extreme), but subtlety is beside the point here: this book is based largely on Phule’s polemical tract Gulamgiri (Slavery), which was an attack not just on the caste system but on the very foundations of the Brahmin way of life. He was quite the abrasive, first-strike radical, definitely not above expressing strident views if it helped make a larger point about social hypocrisy. Consider his skewering of the creation myth about the four castes being born from Lord Brahma’s mouth, arms, groin and legs (did Brahma menstruate in all four places, he asked sarcastically), or his irreverent deconstructions of the Vishnu avatars. (The Matsya avatar, he said, was a pointer that the invading Aryans came by sea.) Some of his arguments may seem muddled today, but one must never forget the context in which they arose, or the righteous anger that fuelled them. As an example of whimsical means being used to achieve a desired goal, I personally find them less objectionable than Mahatma Gandhi's suggestion that the Bihar earthquake was divine punishment for Untouchability.

Deeply influenced by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, Phule was sceptical of the idea that freedom from British rule would be a good result for all Indians; surely the non-Brahmins would be worse off than before? Writer Srividya Natarajan and artist Aparajita Ninan juxtapose his ideas with their own modern-day journey towards understanding the issues around caste discrimination, and with other historical struggles such as the Civil Rights Movement and the French revolutions. (One drawing based on the Delacroix painting “Liberty Leading the People” has a dark-complexioned Liberty followed by a very motley group of people ranging from Martin Luther King to Karl Marx to the Buddha!)

There are minor weaknesses in the narrative, among them the unevenness of the role played by Jotirao’s wife Savitribai. The authors wanted to stress her importance in her husband’s life – and as an activist-visionary in her own right – but because there is so little historical information on her, they were reluctant to fully incorporate her into the story, and she ends up making filler appearances (to inform us, for instance, that her husband too had subscribed to the Hindu way as a young man). Another passage that didn’t quite work for me was the paralleling of the Parashuram story (genocidal, axe-wielding maniac slaughters his enemies wholesale) with the 2002 Gujarat massacre. The intent here was probably to suggest the potential for violent oppression when a group of people becomes too powerful, but the linking is problematic because it implies a specific strain of brutality in the DNA of Hinduism – when in fact any form of isolationism (or religious fundamentalism) can cause similar atrocities.

Ultimately this book is a reminder that no old story is sacrosanct; that “history, like myth, changes depending on who writes it and who reads it”. We have had a few such reminders in recent times, but the furore over A K Ramanujan’s Ramayana essay suggests that we need more (and dare one say it, perhaps a few of the liberal voices need to get as shrill as those of their opponents). A Gardener in the Wasteland is also a useful introduction to Phule – it has certainly motivated me to get hold of a Gulamgiri translation soon. For quicker access to some of his writings, you can try the excerpts included in Ramachandra Guha’s fine anthology Makers of Modern India, including the intense essay “The Condition of the Peasantry”. (An interview with Guha about that book is here.)


  1. Had no idea they even made graphic novels about this kind of stuff. You've just opened up a whole can of worms there, or a whole new universe, depending on how you look at it. Amazon time!

  2. ... perhaps a few of the liberal voices need to get as shrill as those of their opponents
    A thought worth pondering over, Jai. And thanks for introducing the book