Fortress Out of Air

Scenes from the modern literature of Brahminism

Hand signs from the Sundhya, or Brahmin daily prayers. For certain Tamil writers in the twentieth century, several of them Brahmin, a new world and new literature from Europe allowed them to see themselves, and therefore Brahminism, in a new aspect. Sophie Charlotte Belnos / Wikimedia Commons
30 November, 2021

CASTE HAS BEEN AN OBJECT of study for around a hundred and fifty years now, but our attitude to it remains ethnographic. Bahujans are written about as objects of research through which caste might be understood, as if caste is about them and not dominant castes. This attitude extends to literature. For liberal readers, literature becomes about caste only when new—usually Dalit—voices from the margins share their worlds and experiences as ethnographic data. A review of Imayam’s novel Beasts of Burden in the Hindustan Times last year says that he “writes about the family’s life and daily activities with ethnographic details.” T Janakiraman’s novels also describe in great detail the milieu of Brahmins with roots in Thanjavur living in Madras, but they are never called “ethnographic.”

In the minds of our readers and critics, caste stands opposite the human as such. A reviewer for Feminism in India, writing about Bama’s famous autobiography Karukku, says that its “nuance is incredible, as she describes not only her experiences as Dalit and a woman, but also the loneliness of her everyday life”—as though nuance is to be found only beyond experiences marked by caste or gender. Oxford University Press advertises Ocean Rimmed World, the English translation of Joe D’Cruz’s novel Azhi Suzh Ulagu, as “an insider account of the fishing community of the Tuticorin coast,” as if D’Cruz is less a writer than a native informant.

A review, from 2019, of Poomani’s novel Vekkai—Heatin Scroll says: “Poomani doesn’t wish to make this about caste, but he makes it clear enough that the systemic violence stems from the astounding inequity at the foundation of our social structure.” But the foundational inequity is caste; and the novel, about a boy from a landless Dalit family who kills an upper-caste landlord, is also very much about caste. The critic thinks, almost as a reflex, that a universal human drama transcends supposedly sectarian matters like caste. Indian liberalism—or late Brahminism—takes casteless and universal to be synonymous, when its entire universe is caste.

Dalit writers are saddled with a burden that Brahmin writers never face. They must pick one: Dalit or literary, Dalit or universal. This has frustrated many, most famously Imayam, who asked, “How come when you write it’s literature, but when I write it’s Dalit literature?” In Annihilation of Caste, BR Ambedkar argues adamantly that caste is not a Dalit problem. Dalits, being outside caste, cannot be responsible for its abolition. The Hindus are responsible. It is their house, and they have to demolish it. Ambedkar’s use of a house and my use of the universe as metaphors for caste are not arbitrary. In Hinduism, the body, the house, the village and the cosmos are homologous, each standing in for the other.