Navaria’s book “Unclaimed Terrain” polyphonic voices of resistance and self-hood express Dalit experiences in ‘modern’ India. His stories paint carnivals of the dialogic imagination says Ashoak Upadhyay. Ashoak Upadhyay
e rode a horse, wore a turban, carried a sword and as a local band blared out of a truck, his baraatis danced.” This is no ordinary village wedding that Mahim Pratap Singh is recounting. It is a Dalit’s marriage party in a village near Jaipur in Rajasthan “…a state with the highest rate of crimes against SCs, with three recent attacks on Dalit weddings.”
Against this violent backdrop the wedding procession represents a great achievement for the Dalit community that has faced upper caste rage at its members’ audacity to emulate Thakur traditions; for a low caste groom to imagine he could ride a horse at the head of a joyful procession of baraatis! Yeh himmat! But it happened; the Bairwas had their way and Pooran married Khushi in style.
The ceremony and its trappings were all the more sweet for Pooran and Khushi because of a funeral. Two years ago, in the month of March 2015, local Rajputs attacked a funeral procession, shoved the body being carried on a bier to the ground; the procession was attacked; the Dalit villagers did not stay quiet. They filed an FIR. Eighteen of the Rajput perpetrators were booked, five arrested. “It was then”, says Santram, a cousin of Pooran who was a victim of the attack, “that the Rajputs relented.”
This anecdote is uplifting; it ends on a high note for it describes Pooran’s ambitions to become a civil servant, of his brother to find government jobs, preferably with a uniform that would provide Dalit boys with “a level playing field.”
In another story, a Dalit wedding procession just about to take off is interrupted by:“‘Kill these bastards. Not one should be left alive. None.’”That is the call to an unrelenting brutality of upper caste oppression. “A crowd of seventy-five or eighty demons had gathered and were standing before…” the wedding procession,. “In their hands were pikes, axes, sickles and lathis.”And how are they confronted? “Nine or ten old men emerged from inside the house with their hands folded…they had taken their turbans off…”
What was to have been a festival of colour turns into a bloody nightmare, made all the more tragic by the play of power and helplessness. The writer ratchets up the brutality till it almost seems to become–for the Thakurs–a collective sport; for upper castes the oppression of Dalits is fair game; even for a priest decked out in the symbols of his Brahminical order,“sacred thread, string beads and forehead marked with three stripes.”
You, reader, can smell the stink of evil.
There is no redress here. When the wedding party turns up at the police station this is what it is greeted with:“‘Get the hell out of here, you bastards. You don’t even have any food. We’ll take your jewels away. I’ll lock you all up night here. I’ll throw each and every one of you into hard labour, sister fuckers!’”
The uniform and the sacred thread are the two symbols of evil.
he first happy-ending story of Pooran and Khushi is from The Indian Express (May 21 2017). The second blood-soaked one is from Ajay Navaria’s collection of short stories, “Unclaimed Terrain.” The newspaper report is from Rajasthan; The quotes from Navaria are from his story “Subcontinent”. Its pan-Indian implication is just one of the ways in which his fiction differs from the news report: from journalism. News reports are necessarily temporal/topical, in the here-and-now. In Navaria’s fiction every word contains the past and portends the future even as it describes the present; there is no resolution; its non-linear fictiveness consigns it a truth far more profound than the empiricism of news reports.
“Unclaimed Terrain” by Ajay Navaria, Translated from the Hindi by Laura Brueck, Navayana Publishing Pvt. Ltd. 2013
Navaria’s representations of Dalit experiences mirror Albert Camus’ view that “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” For the truth surely is far more complex, dense and marked by contrariness of objective conditions and subjectivities coping with those conditions. In the stories of the “Unclaimed Terrain” Navaria offers the reader more than just the multilayered truth contained in the Dalit experience. He offers the reader the option to participate in that multilayered experience; which is why none of his stories offer the reader, unlike journalism, the option of closure. There are no endings, happy or otherwise in his stories,only beginnings; every end is a beginning.
So there are no arrivals; none of his protagonists becomes a free agent in the sense that Pooran in the news report may appear to have become. We do not know from that feature anything more than what it tells us. In Navaria the sense of finality is always tentative, always replaced by the ambiguities of arrival; for Navaria the enigmas of the journeys are more exciting as narratives and more profound as markers to a wider universal truth about the dialectics of caste oppression.
Which is why the title of his collection, “Unclaimed Terrain” is so apt; it is almost like a metonym for all the multilayeredness of the Dalit experience with its collapse of arrival and departure, of linear time, of teleology in the emancipatory process. For Navaria, the aspirational axioms by which Dalits have lived since Dr.B. R. Ambedkar–education, flight from villages (urbanization), the English language–have their problematic, remain stations on journeys without end. And yet…
In the story, “Hello Premchand” Dr. Ambedkar (an apparition, fiction-within-fiction) appears before the protagonist and reminds him ofthe power of ‘Refusal’; by refusing to work, you can… “ ‘spread more havoc and disaster in a week than Hindu-Muslim riots should in three months.’” Not a far stretch of imagination that: think of the Dalit cattle-carcass collectors, or the shit cleaners in villages refusing to do their work, perhaps like Bartleby in Herman Melville’s great story simply saying “I would prefer not to.”
Navaria’s characters do refuse; their refusal begins their journeys of emancipation, their journeys into burgeoning self-awareness and consciousness shaped not just by objective realities but by their subjective responses to them. In most stories the terrain of emancipation remains slippery; there is no pinnacle of emancipation in these stories; each peak becomes base camp for another journey even when it would appear the protagonists have achieved just what was expected of them. In many of the stories, the victims of brutal sadistic caste oppression become ranking civil servants, business executives and live the urban and urbane life. But…the past haunts them, the present torments them and both are contained in their future.
How does Navaria deal with these journeys and ambiguous destinations? Laura Brueck, who has translated this edition (on which this review is based), has a book on Dalit writers very appositely titled “Writing Resistance…” In her Introduction she offers the proposition that Dalit fiction writers do not have “a singular oppositional idiom.”
Focusing on Navaria alone, one sees her point that for this Dalit writer, binary oppositional narrative forms can sink into crass social realism, journalistic narratives (however competent the latter may be) of the Dalit experience. Navaria is not interested in appealing to bleeding-heart liberals who seek comfort in the palliatives of quick-fix emancipatory modes of resistance. As a Dalit himself he shuns the binaries of social realism; he prefers to crawl into and bring to light in all their rawness the subjectivities of Dalit oppression and self-awareness however mottled the latter might be. So for this reason alone, liberation-as-being is irrelevant, mere propaganda. For Navaria the states of becoming are the crucibles for a liberating consciousness.
ow does Navaria work his fiction to this end? Brueck suggests that Dalit writers like Navaria create a “space” (italics in original) for “different discourses that are all relevant to the Dalit experience in Indian society.” It is a space that “privileges above all others the voices of Dalits and entertains topics and issues that are often ignored in more mainstream discursive spaces.”
How could Navaria have privileged Dalit voices and more importantly, Dalit states of self-awareness, in order to authenticate them simultaneously and without consigning any one of them a causality? From his fiction it seems to me that he moved beyond the realm of writing about Dalits, beyond the sub-continent to continental Europe, cutting through space and time to settle on Fyodor Dostoevsky. In that Russian writer whose novels and stories dissect the Russian soul with its variety of self-expressions, it seems, (from the stories under review) that he discovered the artistic devices in order to capture those “voices” of Dalit experiences; of states of becoming.
Reading Navaria’s stories, one cannot but be struck by their affinity to one essential feature of Dostoevsky’s artistic uniqueness —polyphony. In Dostoevsky, as Mikhail Bakhtin points out in his groundbreaking“Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics” the writer pushes dialogue to the most artistic level of polyphony, or “multi-voicedness.” Dostoevsky’s “polyphonic novel”, Bakhtin says, does not deal “with ordinary dialogic form, that is, with an unfolding of material within the framework of its own monologic understanding…” (18). Dostoevsky’s polyphonic fiction is not constructed “as the whole of a single consciousness absorbing other consciousness’s into itself…” It is “formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses none of which entirely becomes an object for the other…” (18).
The uniqueness of the polyphonic composition allows for the participation of the reader in the very act of what Bakhtin calls “dialogicality”. Second, it calls for the author-as-god to exit the scene; there is no room for a “non-participating third person” –the Author. Dostoevsky breaks away from other great Russian writers like Turgenev, even Gogol in this respect that the magisterial voice of the author-as-omniscient being is completely missing in his polyphonic fiction.
Why did the polyphonic novel find its greatest expression in Dostoevsky? Endorsing another Russian critic’s view that the polyphonic form is best suited to capitalism, Bakhtin adds that the “most favourable soil for it was moreover precisely in Russia where capitalism set in almost catastrophically and where it came upon an untouched multitude of diverse worlds and social groups which had not been weakened in their individual isolation, as in the West, by the gradual encroachment of capitalism.” (19)
avaria’s stories exhibit almost all the characteristics of the polyphonic form, or what Bakhtin also called the “dialogic imagination.” He is dealing, as a Dalit–from the inside as it were–with the objective conditions of a society trapped in barbaric social oppression; a modernity in which capitalism is as catastrophic as it was in Russia, with its widening rural-urban divide and cronyism; economic inequalities pile up over and top of, the most brutal class, gender and caste violence. How should a writer from the very bottom of the heap find his voice, the voice to represent the impact of all the inequities heaped on a people trapped in the cracks of a society dying and another waiting to be born? He sees the cracks where the light gets in, as the song by Leonard Cohen goes, but the light is fractured,refracted, distorted and he hears the muffled consciousnesses and he records them.
These voices cut across time and space; in the polyphonic form, chronology either in terms of events or narrative movement towards an end foretold in the ‘plot’ collapses; voices are all. And Navaria’s authorial voice recedes into the shadows, not to be seen or heard; even the narrator-protagonist (“Hello Premchand”) seems a fiction. There are exceptions that slip in; incongruous interventions about the American treatment of Saddam Hussain—an almost spontaneous interjection by a writer furious at the cruelties of hegemonic Power outside his own frame of reference.
In “Yes Sir” a story that fulfills the cliché of dark humor but is actually more profound precisely because of its use of multiple voices we see Mr. Tiwari a Brahmin as a peon who has mixed feelings and about for his scheduled caste boss. The story is not dialogical in the traditional sense; it is so, in the manner of Dostoevsky for it captures not just the inner turmoil of a Brahmin, son of a village priest smarting under his subservient position but the contrariness of that position as events unfold.
“ ‘Yes Sir’ is what he said, but the words scraped against his tongue. He felt as though he were being plunged into a deep well. He consoled himself with visions of Narotttam being transferred, a possibility he never failed to petition for during the morning prayers…Sometimes it crossed his mind to ask Vishnu for the demon’s death, but, as he stoically told himself, such recourse was not in his upbringing. After all, Tiwari reasoned, what harm has he really done me.?”As if this introspection does not point to the heterogeneity of consciousness of a high caste smarting under a supposed yoke, his dialogue with a fellow Brahmin, this time an officer junior to Narottam’s rank, exhibits all the contradictions and contrariness of self-awareness more fragile than either character imagines.
In “Subcontinent” polyphony takes another turn this time collapsing time and space. Between one paragraph and the next the voices in the protagonist’s head buzz like bees unsettling him; the past and present have meshed into one confusing haze; he is a victim of savage oppression, a child beaten by Thakurs raining curses and blows on a Dalit wedding procession. He is Mr. Siddharth Nirmal, executive in a government enterprise; his wife a college teacher. He is unsure of his life in the city, and the future appears bleak and the end of the story ambiguous, fraught with awesome possibilities that the reader is left to figure out. Is the end of the story a beginning for Mr. Nirmal?
In “Hello Premchand” polyphony takes yet another and radical twist. Intertextuality some might call it. But Premchand and Dr. Ambedkar appear as characters with their own voices. Or is it just the unnamed narrator simply imagining them, ghosts from the past? And why is he clicking away on the typewriter re-writing Premchand’s classic “Doodh ka Daam”? Multiple voices now appear in the new text, a fiction upon a fiction, the narrator’s text is more polyphonic; where Premchand’s text was a simple tale of caste oppression in the social-realism tradition, the narrator who is never identified, fleshes out the same characters gives them multiple voices with their self-images replete with contrariness. The story ends on the national anthem, the ghosts of Premchand, Babasaheb Ambedkar and the unnamed narrator/writer of the new text singing the first few lines of the national anthem, a triteness that still leaves the reader with the question: had the protagonist of the hypertext, Mangal Das, district Collector, found his destiny?
In “Scream” Navaria’s dialogic imagination reaches its apogee; almost every moment in the text the reader is astounded to find contrarian views. At one point, the protagonist avers he will never take on a Christian name even though he is called “Kristaan” by his fellow Dalits. Yet a few pages later he calls himself “Tyson”. He is desperate to pursue his higher education in Mumbai, a victim of the worst oppression a Dalit can face in the village, an assault that scars him and creates its own contrariness, conflicting self-image and self-worth that will lead him down a perilous path, He wants money; he is willing to sacrifice education for money. He is urbanized, has fluent English, is educated, charming, urbane, women (and men) find him attractive and yet he questions all of these emancipator markers for their impact on his self-worth.
f Polyphony or the dialogical imagination is essential for Navaria to represent Dalit experiences at a time when the contradictions of Indian society– a perverted capitalism, a mai-baap state appropriated by the wealthy and upper castes, a Constitution that privileges Dalits with promise and little else and Dalit self-expression that falls into the cracks opened wide by these contradictions—then language as mode of expression of that polyphony itself needs to become more flexible. The old tricks will not work; the language of social-realism with its staid distinctions between mind and matter, subject and object will not suffice.
Did Navaria look around for a new linguistic device that collapses the distinction between the objective and the subjective, a device that allows a creative prose writer to use the language of poetry?The poetry of Charles Baudelaire, Stephen Mallarme perhaps? What is evident to this reviewer from his fictions collected in this edition is ‘the ecstasy of influence’ as Jonathan Lethem memorably called the impact of the free legacy, the ‘gift economy’ of writers to future generations of writers.
This inheritance is evident in Navaria’s frequent use of the poetic form. The Symbolists that Navaria’s fiction puts one in mind of most are Russian novelists and short story writers from the early twentieth century, those Soviet-era writers influenced by French Symbolist poetry to forge objects as modes of feeling and mood. Adam Thirwell in his introduction to Andrei Bely’s novel “Petersburg” mentions the writer’s use of reality as a “mobile category” where objects can evoke feelings or emotions not associated with them in ‘realist’everyday language. Here’s a description of a Petersburg skyline:
“Over there, there, and also–there; noxious cinders smeared everything; and on the cinders chimneys bristled; here a chimney rose up high; barely squatted–there; further off–a row of emaciated chimneys towered up, becoming in the end simply fine hairs;”(Petersburg,131)
Isaac Babel, the short story writer who was killed in the Stalin purges was not part of the Symbolist tradition but he couldn’t resist the poetic form in“My First Fee”. This is how the narrator, a twenty-year old struggling writer lonely, living in a garret rented from a Georgian couple, describes their love making in the room next to his: “On the other side of the wall, he and his wife, crazed with love turned and twisted like two large fish in a small tank. The tails of these two frantic fish thrashed against the wall. They rocked the whole attic, burnt black by the sun, wrenched it from its timbers and bore it off into infinity.”Sigizimund Krzhizhanovsky, another Soviet era writer, uses Symbolism extensively in his collection of short stories, “Autobiography of a Corpse”. Most of his stories are set in Moscow of the twenties. The narrator of “Seams” who says he has been forgotten by the world and calls himself—“minus1”–says, “I stop beside a green lighted panel and let pass—floating out of the fog into the fog—a caravan of clattering emptinesses.” No one gets off or in. Then. “…a bell jangles, and the steel encased emptiness, having set that emptiness down and taken it back on board, again rumbles off into the dusky day break.” (Autobiography…69)
Navaria’s poetic vision also mirrors Namdeo Dhasal, one of the founder-poets of the Dalit Panthers in seventies Mumbai. In his poem on the city, Dhasal calls Mumbai, “my dear slut”. But the ambivalence is evident; the city-as-slut is a “…soul mate/I will not leave you as worthless upstart.”(Bombay, 123). Did Dhasal read Babel’s “My First Fee”? The whore as fine lady/Muse is evident in that exquisite gem, Babel’s young love-starved and aspiring writer uses a prostitute as his first “reader”, his inspiration for his first fiction.
avaria uses Symbolist devices to great effect as much as he conjures sounds from word-objects to almost create a synaesthesia effect in the reader. The very first word in his first story describes, rather evokes the bleating of a goat about to be slaughtered. It foregrounds what we are about to read hear and feel. “To be born weak is a mistake” says young Kalu watching his father butcher Piloo, a kid-goat—his only friend. “But to remain weak is a crime.”
At first read, the italised words representing sounds, “chanaak” to register glass shattering in “New Custom” may appear superfluous. But read it carefully again, voice the italised word and the effects described on those around in the story become all the more dramatic. Nowhere is this more evident, in all its horrific detail than in the brutal encounter the nameless narrator of the most complex story in the collection, “Scream”. The sound of drumbeats, once again evoked through italised word-objects that in isolation sound silly, turns the assault on the Dalit boy almost auditory in its impact on the reader.
Navaria’s poetic vision is evident in every story. In “Sacrifice” his first story, seemingly a simple narrative, dreams and reality merge, the butchered Piloo, the young narrator’s friend, brother, child, is a piece of meat but in Kalu’s dream, Piloo turns into a tiger “coming straight for us , with sharp knives in his hands. I saw Kaka turn into a goat.” But nothing is predictable in Navaria. Kalu grows up to become a butcher like his father and dies of alcohol and bidis. He redeems a life misspent in killing the ‘weak’ (after all he became a very efficient butcher) in his final moments as his slaughtered Piloo flashes through his fading consciousness.
In “Subcontinent” that all the artistic devices—the dialogic imagination/polyphony and its attendant collapse of time and space, Symbolism’s use of objects to create moods and the creation of synaesthesia effects on the reader—all come into play.
A multitude of voices speak to the reader, often in metaphorical language. What appears as the author’s history lesson—editorial comment as it were—is a voice from his past: “Savage wolves keep returning through the tunnel of history. 185 BCE, 3 September 1939, 10 January 1948…these are the marks of their poisonous teeth.” …” The metaphor of Canidae will occur through the story like a drumbeat.
Time collapses. We are shuffling from a tormented past to a shaky present and back again. The Dalit-narrator is an urbanized professional: “My eyes opened and I saw a broken piece of sky quivering in the square of the window,trapped. An immense black cloud had seized the feeble sun and wrung it, breaking its legs.” His wife tries to wake him up and goes to fetch him his tea. He notices her white T-shirt; on the back a print of a boy “sticking a thumb in the air while he clutched a bottle of some foreign drink….He was climbing my wife’s back…in the fleece of some charming sheep? The thought disturbed me.”
The metaphor of darkness swells with portents. Darkness outside his room flows into the darkness of an old well; the sense of space collapses: is he in Delhi or in his village in Rajashtan? Linear time too has crumbled: time past is time present. “I start to descend the crumbling steps of an old step-well surrounded by withered vines. I keep going down. Step by step…” till he is back…where? Hell? Where meanings are to be found?? All the reader knows is this: journeys never end.
Ajay Navaria is a Dalit writer; he composes from inside the vortex of Dalit self-consciousness. This sounds as much of a cliché as ‘dark humour’ ‘master storytelling’ to describe his art. Perhaps it would be more apt to say that he trains his ruthless spotlight into the deep recesses of Dalit consciousness wedged into the cracks and seams of our profoundly unjust and violent society; perverted by an old feudal order that refuses to die and a modernity that has been broken by its own contradictions and the resilience of that old order.
That is why Navaria casts doubts on the promise of urbanization and money to forge new identities free of the old order. Money is an agent of inversion Marx once said; Navaria’s characters in “Scream” particularly ‘Tyson’, seems to think so too. He turns out to be wrong; he has sold his soul for money; he knows it; he cannot help it. It gets him nothing but despair. The young Brahmin girls who are his friends want to free themselves from rural poverty but their emancipation in the city is brokered by a not-so-hidden prostitution racket. They scream; the scream is frozen; but Tyson can ‘hear’ it. There is no arrival, no emancipation: only the corruptible seed waiting to be planted in your consciousness.
Navaria is no simple chronicler; nor is he a pamphleteer-propagandist. He is an artist; a writer who has had the vision to travel across space and time to find in words, perhaps in a literary tradition itself, the revolutionary devices needed to put into this slim volume the tumultuous and tortured journeys of Dalits for an authentic self-expression and identity.
References Laura R. Brueck: “Writing Resistance. The Rhetorical Imagination of Hindi Dalit Literature.” Columbia University Press. 2014. Mikhail Bakhtin: “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.” Edited and Translated by Caryl Emerson. University of Minnesota Press. 1984. Thirteenth edition 2014 Andrei Bely: “Petersburg”. Translated from the Russian by David McDuff. Penguin Classics Isaac Babel: My First Fee. Accessed from: http://www.unz.org/Pub/Encounter1964aug-00006 Sigizimund Krzhizhanovsky: “Autobiography of a Corpse.” Introduction by Adam Thirwell. Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov. Published by New York Review of Books. “Bombay: Mosaic of Modern Culture,”.Edited by Sujata Patel and Alice Thorner. Oxford University Press.
Ashoak Upadhyay is a writer and former Associate Editor of The Hindu Business Line. He is a founding member of The Beacon.