In Conversation: The Uncharted Territories Covered By “Bheda,” The First Dalit Odia Novel

22 September, 2017

In 2010, Akhila Naik, a writer based in Odisha’s Kalahandi district, became the first Dalit author to write a novel in Odia. His book, Bheda, follows the story of a Dalit school principal’s son, Laltu, who drops out and becomes an activist. Laltu takes on the powerful upper-caste duo of a businessman and a politically influential lawyer who runs an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakha in the village.

The book served as an important corrective to Odia literature, which has seen few representations of the Dalit experience. Bheda also brought to fore issues such as corporate loot of natural resources in Odisha, the resultant environmental degradation, and the Brahminisation of Odisha’s culture, among others.

In July 2017, an English translation of Bheda, by Raj Kumar, a professor at Delhi University who belongs to the same Kalahandi community as Naik, was published by Oxford University Press. Martand Kaushik, a senior assistant editor at The Caravan, spoke to Kumar about Bheda and the society it portrays.

Martand Kaushik: How did you come upon Bheda, and what made you decide to translate it?

Raj Kumar:Bheda came out in 2010 as a novel. It had earlier been serialised in a magazine called Paschima, which is a very small-time Odia magazine, published from western Odisha. I read it when it came out and I was so happy with the kind of issues it raised, and with the language, the structure, the style. I became really interested in making Bheda available to a large audience, and that is how I decided to translate it.

MK: A striking aspect of the novel is its narrative strategy. Each chapter is from the point of view of a particular character, which also allows Naik to move back and forth in time. Through each character’s point of view, he adds more detail about the events in the novel.

RK: This is purely an experimental novel. Since Akhila is a professor of Odia literature, he knows about the nuances of literary form. So every character is not only getting connected with others in the story, but he [Naik] is also trying to explore different issues with each of them. This has to be understood as a Dalit writer experimenting with or willingly, perhaps, trying to experiment with various literary forms.

MK: Traditionally, the preferred genres of Dalit literature have been autobiography and short story. Bheda is a departure from that.

RK: The first genre in Dalit literature was poetry. Poetry, as we all know, in Wordsworth’s words, is a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” So whatever Dalit writers and activists wanted to say, they expressed it through poetry. After poetry came autobiography—because their life was what they knew best. After autobiography, a few anthologies of short stories came out, but not many novels.

To write a novel, it takes long time because it is an ambitious project. You have to develop characters, plots, events. The Dalit writers, they did not write novels earlier—[when they began writing novels] they wanted to not only experiment aesthetically, but also speak about their issues. The first Dalit novel was Joseph Macwan’s Angaliyat, which came out in 1986, around the time of the anti-reservation movement in Gujarat. After Angaliyat, we have now quite a good number of Dalit novels, the important ones being Untouchable Spring by G Kalyan Rao; The Hindu by Sharankumar Limbale; Bama [Faustina]’s novel Vendetta; P Sivakami’s Grip of Change; and a very recent one is Gypsy Goddess, by Meena Kandasamy. Akhila Naik’s writing of a novel is similar to the kinds of experimentation Dalit writers have been doing in other languages.

MK: Could it be said that another reason there are few Dalit works in the genre of fiction is because fictional portrayals of caste oppression might be dismissed? In the introduction, Naik writes: “No incident in the novel is imaginary or exaggerated. I witnessed and experienced all of them myself.” It suggests an anxiety that, if oppression is portrayed as part of a fictional work, it will be misunderstood as imaginary.

RK: Novel or novel form as we understand in literature is both real and imaginary. There is that link in the genre. But as we all know fiction is also a work of imagination, so there is definitely anxiety—over whether the point that [the author] is making about caste oppression, as you said, is really reaching the reader. Nevertheless, the novel form is a kind of wider space whereby things like the idea of equality, freedom, caste oppression, gender, environment, education can be addressed. All these themes that Akhila talks about in a novel would not have been possible to write in a short story or autobiography. He is definitely putting both fact and fiction but at the same time, he is also trying to bring out issues which Odia literature never raised before. This is the first major novel whereby caste issues are being addressed in the public sphere.

MK: What are the differences between the way Odia literature has addressed caste and the way Bheda is addressing it?

RK: There are a few upper-caste writers who raised caste issues earlier, like the important work by Gopinath Mohanty called Harijan. It is a full-fledged novel about the scavenging community but there, the characters don’t fight. They become the victim. There are a couple of other short stories written by upper-caste writers such as Basant Satpathy. [Upper-caste writers] think that Dalits are always to be portrayed as victims: meek, docile, helpless. When we read Akhila Naik’s book, we see a different consciousness in Laltu. He organises not just a Dalit movement but also tackles other issues—for example, forests have to be protected, and those who are part of corruption have to be checked. Gender justice [has to be pursued]. This suggests that Dalits are ready to fight for their rights and claim for equality—not as a victim but as a fighter. This is the basic difference between the upper-caste Odia writers and Akhila Naik.

MK: The book is set in Kalahandi, which is known to be one of the most backward districts in the country. Bheda suggests that it’s not a lack of development that has impoverished the region. In fact, it argues that the capitalist development that was supposed to annihilate poverty has brought this ruin.

RK: The novel talks about the kind of development that is taking place in Kalahandi. Both Akhila and I incidentally happen to be from that area. Kalahandi is definitely, the way we understand it, synonymous with poverty, malnutrition, et cetera. But the district is also very rich in resources and minerals—manganese, iron ore, even diamonds. Both Akhila and I think that Kalahandi is a manmade disaster—it was made poor because of political apathy.

Kalahandi had thick teakwood, which was taken by corporations and politicians in early 1950s and 1960s. When Rajiv Gandhi visited Kalahandi during 1980s, he publicly announced that out of every rupee [spent by the government on welfare], 85 paise is being eaten by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, and only 15 paisa is reaching the people. In 1991, PV Narasimha Rao singled out the KBK region—Kalahandi, Balangir and Koraput—as the most backward. A lot of money was pumped into the region, which did not work because most of the money was eaten by bureaucrats and politicians.

Akhila Naik questions the whole idea of development. Without equality between people, it is not possible to have development policies. The term Kalahandi refers to: “Kala” is black and “Handi” is pot. It got the name from its soil which is black and very fertile. But we don’t get monsoon properly. Every other year, there is a drought and if there are successive droughts, there is famine. People have no way to stay in their villages, so there is also mass migration, because work is not available. If you go to villages in Kalahandi, you will find that there are not many people—in some villages there are only old people who cannot work outside or women or children.

For the past several decades, Kalahandi is experiencing a kind of calamity which is manmade. If the government wants, it could provide irrigation. We have land but no water—it is government apathy rather than lack of resources in Kalahandi. In fact, we produce a high rate of paddy per hectare, not just at in the state but also nationally. We also have the best rice which can beat basmati, called Dubraj. It is only that people have become indifferent. They don’t have faith in the government. They are becoming passive onlookers rather than being active agents to bring change.

MK: Capitalism and development are brought into the world of the novel by “upper-castes,” whom Naik shows to be outsiders through folklore and history. He suggests in the novel that Brahmins migrated to Kalahandi after the colonial rule began, and that along with bringing capitalism, they also Hinduised and Brahminised the culture of the region.

RK: Local history suggests that there were no Brahmins [before colonial rule began]. Kalahandi was dominated by tribals and lower castes. Even the king of Kalahandi was tribal. At one point of time, they let the Brahmins in. It is believed that most of the UP [Uttar Pradesh] Brahmins first came to coastal Odisha and then travelled to western Odisha, where Kalahandi is located. They not only settled down but also colonised the area. Upper-caste culture came in, and that’s where there was a debate; whether the tribals and Dalits will worship their own god or they will inherit a god which is worshipped by Brahmins.

Take the history of Jagannath. Even though Jagannath was a tribal god initially, he was later Hinduised and Brahminised. So much so that now Jagannath is considered to be lord of the universe, and Dalit and Adivasis are not allowed into the Jagannath temple. This is another [subject] Akhila Naik talks about very subtly, that how it is not the local deity or culture being Hinduised and Brahminised but caste hegemony is so powerful, appropriated by the upper castes, that there is hardly any role to be played by Dalit and Adivasi in the making of the society, culture, literature, language.

As a result of cultural exchange, you find that even the characters like Mastrani [a Dalit woman in the novel] going to worship at a temple. She is not allowed to worship—she can’t go to sanctum sanctorum. That is a delayed realisation [for Dalits]. The cultural colonisation that I speak about is also part of caste hegemonisation [in Odisha]: everything that is culture, resources, monopoly, your power, employment, job opportunity—the upper-castes are trying to take over. [In the novel], the traditional gauntia [a village headman], supposedly a good person, loses power because of the witty, cunning attitude of Brahmins. That also shows how the locals of Kalahandi are simpletons, honest—because of maybe deprivation of education. They cannot compete with the outsiders and their manoeuvres. That’s where Laltu comes in—he becomes a rebel in order to not only stop their cultural colonisation through shakhas and other instruments, but to critique them, criticise them and bring a debate about who are outsiders, who are insiders, who are the real culprits.

MK: Laltu’s critique of religion is interesting. He assumes a rationalist stance: he criticises not only Hinduism, but also superstition in the ways of worship in the Dalit community.

RK: Laltu’s character is portrayed like Ambedkar. The way Ambedkar critiques Hinduism. Dinamastre [Laltu’s father] represents Gandhian ideology. Ambedkar had to also bring the idea of Dalit consciousness—the way he [Laltu] realises the kind of education Dalits should have, and critiques even the orthodoxy within Dalit community, which Ambedkar also did. But we need to understand that Laltu is an exception because he, being from a Dalit community, having been subjugated mentally and psychologically over years, is backward and illiterate. They cannot get away from certain religious beliefs. In Kalahandi, strangely, if you come to villages, you will find a mixture of tribal and Hindu. And when I say tribal, it is totemism. They believe in say, worshipping trees, snake, and certain animals and birds. But there is also a process of Sanskritisation. So Laltu’s character actually tries to bring a critique of not only Hinduism but also of the orthodoxy of Dalit communities. He tries to tell them to wake up. This kind of questioning has a long tradition in India, beginning from Lokayata [an ancient Indian school of philosophy that embraced empiricism and skepticism], Buddha—Kalahandi is full of Buddhist monuments. I am not saying that people were Buddhists earlier, but there is a presence of Buddhism in various localities of not only Kalahandi, but all of Odisha.

MK: The main antagonist of the novel, Banabihari Tripathi, almost appears to be an embodiment of Sangh ideology. He believes in the same version of history that the RSS propagates. Does this reflect reality? What role is the RSS playing in Odisha right now, and has it managed to make inroads into the Dalit community?

RK: The RSS made inroads into Odisha long back. What Akhila Naik does is sort of writing contemporary history through Banabihari Tripathi. You might recollect the two most important incidents from Odisha in contemporary times: one was [when a mob comprising] right-wing activists, including members of the Bajrang Dal, was responsible for death of the Australian missionary Graham Staines [in 1999]. [Staines] had been working among poor tribals, and was responsible for the opening of several hospitals. Dara Singh, who was convicted, is still in jail and happens to be a Bajrang Dal activist from UP. This is the RSS-Bajrang Dal angle.

The second big event that took place was the rape and murder of several Christians in Phulbani [the Kandhamal riots in 2008]. Now the case is in the Supreme Court. A nun from Kerala was openly gang raped. The father [referring to a priest] was paraded naked. So this riot was actually considered to be tribal versus Dalit. The RSS and the Bajrang Dal tried to help tribals to attack Dalits and Christian missionaries. These two incidents suggest that the RSS and the Bajrang Dal, their presence is there.

Politically, Odisha is the next state so far as the RSS, the BJP, Bajrang Dal are concerned, to experiment. Population-wise, the SC, ST, OBCs [form] more than 60 percent—Dalit population will be somewhere around 18 percent, tribals are 22 percent, and if you put OBC also, it will be more than 20 percent. It is a nice experimental ground for RSS, BJP, Bajrang Dal, actually. The kind of politics they are playing, which Banabihari represents actually, that every village you go, there will be a shakha and most of the locals are a part [of it]. The Naveen Patnaik government has already ruled for four times—20 years—so next you will see, politically, the BJP coming to power full-fledged. Banabihari Tripathi actually the person who represents what is happening in Odisha. In a way, he is the true character you will find in every Odia village.

MK: Could we discuss how the book presents its women characters? Do you think their representation is accurate?

RK: Mastrani, Laltu’s mother, is a portrayal of a Dalit woman. Like Dina Mastre, she’s well-read. She could have got a job. But she sacrifices for her family. Initially, she believes in certain practices which she inherits from the upper caste because of the process of Sanskritisation—imitating the upper castes. She goes to the temple, she keeps fasts, et cetera. But towards the end, she condemns the way upper-castes treat her, like not allowing her into the sanctum sanctorum. So Mastrani is not a flat character, but a rounded character. Towards the end, she rebels and she emerges as a strong character.

MK: There’s the figure of Santosh Panda, a Brahmin editor of a newspaper who is initially sympathetic to Laltu but later turns on him. Through him, there is a certain critique of the media: publications might now want to hire Dalit reporters but they are not comfortable with the radical views that might come with that. How do you see media’s role in relation to the Dalit movement?

RK: Santosh Panda seems initially supports Laltu because he takes on a corrupt government official that Panda also dislikes. But when it comes to real criticism, when Laltu cites history and says Brahmins used to eat beef, he cannot digest the fact. But I think, of course, that instance is from book—it is not myth-making but citing books. So that is the true character [of Panda]—a Brahmin has to support Brahminism and that’s why Laltu is ditched.

In the larger sense, the media is anti-Dalit. I am talking about national level—like the police is anti-Dalit, the courts or the corporate world. These are some of the things that I also write in the introduction [to the book].

Look at how much we read [about] Dalit issues. There was a survey earlier—how many Dalit reporters are there, how many judges. There are not only not enough Dalit representatives in every sphere of public life but overall, every part of civil society is perhaps anti-Dalit. That is what Akhila Naik is trying to say through Santosh Panda’s character.

MK: Education seems to be an important theme of the novel—Naik appears to be arguing that education alone cannot address emancipation for Dalits. You compared Dina Mastre to Gandhi and Laltu to Ambedkar. Through Dina Mastre’s ineffectiveness, it becomes clear that Naik is choosing Ambedkar’s politics over Gandhi’s. There is this idea that education alone will not do, and political engagement and activism is just as important.

RK: Education is important so far as consciousness-building is concerned because education has been emphasised from the very beginning [in Dalit activism], from maybe nineteenth century onwards, by all the non-Brahmin leaders, whether you talk about Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar and others. Education is emancipation, freedom. But education alone will not help. As we know from the narrative, Laltu leaves education halfway. But that education is a certain kind of education which will maybe give government job or a certificate, which Paulo Freire in his famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, talks about. Educations are of different kinds: one kind of education is like a bank, where you keep knowledge. Another is an education which will help you to realise your role, because finally education has to be used for a good purpose. That’s why it is the combination of politics, activism and education. Certain things like local history, the Constitution—all these build awareness and consciousness. So education is important.

But as Laltu talks about, the syncing of politics with education like Ambedkar did [is also important]. Ambedkar, had he wanted, could have been employed in high offices. But then he devoted his life and time to the Dalit movement. So Laltu is Ambedkar being portrayed in the novel. And this is perhaps the politics of Akhila—that education alone will not help.

This interview has been edited and condensed.