Showing posts with label Caste. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Caste. Show all posts

7.12.2011

On Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus"

I have been reading Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History for a seminar on India I am leading this summer with a group of Philadelphia-area high school teachers.

Doniger's book is a big, sprawling text, the culmination of a distinguished career as a scholar and teacher of Hinduism. That said, it's hardly a conventional or comprehensive volume on the subject. One of the most marked limitations of the book is that it doesn't really work as an "Introduction to Hinduism" for undergraduates; it is more a "deep" narrative requiring a more persistent level of attention than a college text book can safely presume. That's not to say that you have to be a member of the AAR to follow along; while there are some sections that might be of interest mainly to specialists, Doniger's book on the whole is directed at interested bystanders (like myself).

The group with whom I was reading the book did feel at times overwhelmed by the amount of detail -- the very large number of names and terms that came up over the course of the book. Doniger's book presumes knowledge of certain basics, and it lacks the usual introductory overviews one might expect of books intended to be comprehensive (Pankaj Mishra, writing in the New York Times, nevertheless referred to it as "staggeringly comprehensive"). While I have talked to people who dislike Doniger's informal, and sometimes idiosyncratic, writing style in The Hindus (one friend on Twitter complained of her penchant for bad puns), the group with whom I was reading the book actually enjoyed that aspect of the book; the informality helped them stay engaged.

As for structure and content. One of the most familiar criticisms of Doniger's early work was the focus on representations of sexuality in the Hindu tradition, an emphasis which which mainstream, middle-class Hindus resented in a somewhat predictable fashion. Here Doniger both engages and transcends the middle-class and high-caste biases of "Hinduism" and aims for a broader optic -- which explains the "alternative" in her title. Doniger picks three thematic threads -- one of them being gender and sexuality, another being the treatment of animals, and the third being the representation of various kinds of social "others" -- Dalits, Adivasis, and Shudras -- in the various primary texts Doniger considers. While chapters on texts such as the Rig Veda and the Upanishads do have some general introductory material, at the core of each of Doniger's chapters are readings that focus on one of the three themes I indicated.

There was a discussion of the benefits and dangers of Doniger's approach at Chapati Mystery (down in the comments) shortly after the book was released, and a very careful and considered follow-up post by Doniger shortly thereafter. I would recommend everyone take a look at those discussions, as they actually get at the core of the value of Doniger's work, as well as the potential disagreements or controversies it may provoke.

The key paragraph in that post might be this one:

I would particularly like to comment on the argument that the cases I cite, of concern for and sympathy with the lower castes, are just a few rare instances, not characteristic of Hinduism as a whole. This is indeed true, and, yes, I did fish them out, the way people who do not just want to say that all the Germans were Nazis fished out people like Schindler and the other “righteous Christians” who were heroes; the fact remains that many Germans, perhaps even most Germans, were Nazis. So too, without apologizing for Hindu attitudes to women and the lower castes, I wanted to lift up a few counter-instances to show that you cannot simply condemn Hinduism outright, as so many Americans want to do, for the cases that always hit the newspapers, of atrocities to Dalits and women. The balance here becomes clearer if you read the whole book, which does set these liberal, hopeful instances against the backdrop of heavy prejudice against women and Dalits. Indeed, what makes the counter cases so heroic is precisely that they are fighting against a powerful culture of oppression.

It isn't just a question of what is the Real Hinduism -- which is certainly more complex and strange than the dominant narrative would like to acknowledge -- it's also imperative to focus on how knowing about alternative traditions and counter-currents in Hinduism carries with it an implied politics. There is a backdrop of especially caste discrimination and violence in the Hindu tradition (and by extension, the Sikh tradition as well). But there are also stories and counter-narratives that show things playing out in a very different light, all of which are as authentically "Hindu" as the texts and practices of the main stream. Because there is no canon in Hinduism, those counter-narratives can be picked up and used -- and the tradition and the culture can continue to evolve.

* * *

I go way back with Wendy Doniger; indeed, some of my very first blog posts in 2004 dealt with the controversy at that time over her work as it was being reported at the time: see blog posts here and here. And there were numerous other posts and discussions over the years, especially at Sepia Mutiny, where her name was invoked by conservative Hindus as exemplifying everything that was wrong in western scholarship about India. She became such a punchline that a satirist calling himself SpoorLam found it fit to include her name in the following mock-litany of anti-Hindu entities:

We must rise and march to the new dawn of consciousness! We shall never stop marching until the ultimate greatness and tolerance and supremacy of our greatness is known by all! California State Education Board! MF Husain! Wendy Doniger! Anjana Chaterjee! Romila Thapar!

They shall shit themselves with fear at the brilliance of our Hindu civilisation! All you self-hating self-abasing so-called Hindus, understand the illimitable depths of the Universe can only be understood by wearing khakhi shorts.

Hindus are the best. If you don't acknowledge this, you know nothing. My name is SpoorLam and the Abrahamics shall bow to my tolerance, which is so much more tolerant of all other kinds of tolerances. (link)

I quit Sepia Mutiny a year ago, and I no longer have the level of interest in the to and fro of the debate over "communalism" I used to. Nevertheless this book might help bring closure to the "Rajiv Malhotra" era; it provides, through the weight of the scholarship behind it and the breadth of its empirical sources, a strong image of the kind of complex Hindu tradition that earlier works could only hint at.

10.13.2010

Mulk Raj Anand: on the Language Debate and his Aunt's Caste-related Suicide

For a long time I resisted reading much of Mulk Raj Anand's work -- there simply seemed to be too much, and much of what I had looked at seemed overblown and under-edited. Also, I was impatient.

Re-approaching him as a more mature reader leads to somewhat of a mixed bag. Novels like The Road and Coolie are highly readable and focused. Meanwhile my view on Untouchable remains essentially unchanged, and I did not much enjoy Two Leaves and a Bud -- a novel that seems a little too inspired by the "Quit India" fervor of its time to be of much interest to us today.

As often happens, I've come to understand the novelist a little better by delving into his personal biography, with two particular questions in mind: what made him want to be a writer, and what made him want to be a writer in English? Along those lines, I've been reading sections of Anand's autobiographical novels, Seven Summers, Morning Face, Confessions of a Lover, and The Bubble. While there are a fair amount of material in these books to be skimmed or skipped (often the now-dated discussions of politics and ideology), there are also some more personal sections that seem intensely interesting. Below, I'll quote a little from a section of Anand's Confessions of a Lover that deals with the death of the protagonist's aunt, Devaki.

Finally, I've also started reading, generally for the first time, Anand's various essays, anthologies, and what letters are available (as far as I know, no authoritative biography of the writer has ever been written -- seems like a remarkable absence). One that seems to be of particular interest is Anand's essay on language, The King-Emperor's English, or The Role of the English Language in the Free India (published in India, 1948).


9.27.2010

Why I don't like Mulk Raj Anand's "Untouchable" (and a few examples of novels dealing intelligently with caste)

When asked to suggest a novel that describes the caste system in India, the first one that comes to mind for many people, especially outside of India, is Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable. But turning to that novel always feels like a cop-out to me, and I wish it weren't quite so 'canonical' as it is. It's not simply that Anand isn't himself from an 'untouchable' caste (or as we would say now, a Dalit) -- in fact, most well-known Indian writers who have addressed caste in their works have come from upper caste backgrounds. The problem with Untouchable is that it doesn't really come close to being convincing in its attempt to approximate the perspective of Bakha. A passage that is a case in point might be the following:

The blood in Bakha's veins tingled with the heat as he stood before it. His dark face, round and solid and exquisitely well defined, lit with a queer sort of beauty. The toil of the body had built up for him a very fine physique. It seemed to suit him,to give a homogeneity, a wonderful wholeness to his body, so that you could turn round and say: 'Here is a man.' And it seemed to give him a nobility, strangely in contrast with his filthy profession and with the sub-human status to which he was condemned from birth.


The strength of this passage might be in Anand's interest in depicting the physicality of Bakha's body -- he was clearly reading modernists like Joyce and Lawrence as he was writing, and the novel is strongly marked by that. But the weaknesses are also evident, starting with phrases like "a queer sort of beauty," which is effectively a kind of exoticism (purely exteriorized), rather than an observed description. Another phrase that troubles me is "a wonderful wholeness to his body," which sounds like Lawrence or maybe Hardy -- and again, it's an ideological descriptor; what it says is hard work makes Bakha beautiful. Anand does not really show us here anything that is particular or unique about Bakha himself, as an individuated character.

And this kind of problem recurs throughout the book. Bakha's actual caste is never named; he is simply described as an "untouchable." The book, in the end, works better as a work of Gandhian agit-prop by proxy than it does as a novel.

There are actually much better novels that deal with caste issues in one way or another. I mentioned Godaan in some recent blog posts -- and that might be one place to start. Another book that comes to mind for me is Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, which is a really closely observed look at the experience of a group of characters from the Chamaar caste in Bombay after independence. And yet another novel that comes to mind might be The God of Small Things, though Roy's novel is so over-loaded with themes (including also incest, the separation anxiety of twins Estha and Rahel, the Communist party, etc.) that it's sometimes hard to say what the novel is primarily about.

One book dealing with caste I would unreservedly recommend is U.R. Anantha Murthy's novel, Samskara. This is a novel published in 1965, originally in the Kannada language. It was translated into English in 1978, and is pretty widely available in the west (it's currently still in print at Amazon). The power of Anantha Murthy's novel lies in its close attention to the specifics of Brahminic rituals, and the sometimes convoluted logic of 'pollution' in a village Brahmin society. The limitation, perhaps, is that Samskara is so narrowly focused on Brahmins; the other caste groups are present as potential threats (or objects of desire).

Finally, when I raised a question on Twitter ("what are your favorite novels dealing with caste?"), Jasdeep of the Punjabi translation blog Parchanve had this answer: "Anne ghorhe da daan by gurdiaal singh(novel), Kutti vehda by maninder singh, Kaang (punjabi short story)". I must admit I've read none of these, though I've heard others (specifically, Prof. Rana Nayar Punjab University) speak quite highly of Gurdial Singh -- stay tuned.