This paper tries to bring forth the issue of the same reader finding the same text with opposite meanings, to be precise, pro-dalit and anti-dalit. It reads the texts, Manu Joseph’s Serious Men and Santhosh Echikkanam’s Panthibhojanam and shows how the same texts appear to be pro-dalit and anti-dalit to the same reader. Thus, the process of reading becomes a phenomenon that leads the reader to a dilemma. The texts seem to deceive themselves and make the reader perplexed about the questions of methods of reading, the actual meaning and above all, the political correctness that the author and the reader are supposed to have. While discussing these, the paper uses the theoretical stances of post structuralism, especially Barthe’s idea of “the death of the author”. By and large, the paper tries to raise the problems a reader faces with the very process of reading and the challenges that contemporary literary criticism/ the interpreting business puts before the reader.
Key terms: Dalit, anti-dalit, multiple meaning, political correctness, and perplexed reader etc.
‘Dalit literature’ or ‘Dalit Aesthetics’ reflects all the developments happened or still happening in the field of reading-writing-interpreting business in the contemporary Indian scenario. I use the term interpretation business alluding to what Immanuel kant called, interpretive turn. The ‘interpretive turn’ to Kant “was essentially introduced by Immanuel Kant two centuries ago through the idea that what we experience as reality is shaped by our mental categories, although Kant thought of these categories as stable and transcendent.” (Lye)
The very idea of Dalit literature is an offshoot of a very strong historical and socio-political situation and literary- theoretically it uses the scales of post structuralism and post modernism by breaking the conventional power-centered meanings and the grand narratives such as the nation, its culture and its makers. The readings of literature of Dalits, by dalits and for dalits employ a great portion of literary criticism in the current Indian scenario. The popular history of dalit literature starts from literature written about dalits bynon dalits and passes through literature written by dalits about dalits. In the process of dalit literature evolving into a stream of both literary genre and a critical theory, it abandons the first group as blind attempts to be the saviors or patrons that never make changes and asserts its identity/definition as “literature written for the dalits, by the dalits of the dalits” (Valmiki). Thus by consciously compartmentalizing a set of works in the name of a caste group the proponents of this claim puts forth dalit literature as a manifesto of their politics based on identity and creates ruptures on the grand narratives such as literature as voice of whole humanity and the author as one without biases. As much as it tries to claim the authorship of dalit literature only for dalits, it raises the question ‘can a non dalit write dalit literature’. By understanding the sufferings that a large section of people went through/going through and by finding oneself on the oppressors’ side in a larger context a non dalit needs not have to or no ethical right to claim the authorship of dalit literature in its strict sense. However, this view does not stop one from writing about the dalits or for the dalits. A lot of literature is being produced all over India about dalit causes by non dalit writers. This paper does not aim to repeat the discussions and debates on the issue of labeling dalit literature by looking at the author’s caste identity, instead, it attempts to point out the issue of how much dalitist or anti dalitist could a work be on dalits by non-dalits. To be clear, it addresses the issue of reading two fictional works that address the dalit cause in their own ways and leaving the reader perplexed with the question ‘was it pro dalit or anti dalit. Thus it tries to bring forth the issues of reading and interpreting fiction at a time when the very idea of meaning is in question and at a time that proclaims the death of the author and searching for the birth-identity of the author alike.
The two texts I have chosen for analysis are Serious Men, an award-winning novel by Manu Joseph and “Panthibhojanam”, a short story in Malayalam by Santosh Echikkanam. Both these texts have the cause of dalit suffering as their underlying motif. They look like narratives of the contemporary Indian condition of the Dalits and untouchability which is more psychological than physiological and more subtle than visible. The question I try to put on this paper is whether they look like or are they real narratives of suffering. In fact there have been observations that support both the views and a reader who is concerned with the question of political correctness gets confused amidst these possibilities of two readings which are quiet opposite to each other. Moreover, the writer himself/herself may get bewildered in front of this phenomenon of their texts disclosing/deceiving themselves.
Manu Joseph’s Serious Men is set in the city and slums of Mumbai. It has parallel and cris-cross narratives of Ayyan Mani, a dalit last grade servant in the Institute of Theory and Research working under the director of the institute Dr. ArvindAcharya. The novel unfolds through the family and institute episodes of both Ayyan Mani and Acharya. It is a satire on the issues such as the Brahmin pride, pseudo science, the brahminical attitudes towards the dalits and so on. Ayyan Mani, a Hindu turned Buddhist is given the image of an intellectual crusader for the dalit cause. He projects his son as a prodigy through his cunning schemes. By the end of the novel, the upper caste officials of the institute come to know about his schemes and he manages to manipulate the situation into a revolt between the Brahmin officials and the lower caste employees of the institute by making use of the dalit minister who is portrayed as a funny caricature to make it happen.
Santhosh Echikkanm is one of the leading names in contemporary Malayalam short story and a writer who uses his medium to respond to social issues creatively and critically. His stories ‘Komala’, ‘Daveed Code’ and ‘Panthibhojanam’ discuss the issues of debt in middle class family and media sensationalism, the cruelties in the field of real estate and the caste conscious in Malayali upper class society respectively. As mentioned earlier, this study focuses on the issues arise as reading the story titled ‘Panthibhojanam’.
Panthibhojanam owes its title to SahodaranAyyappan’s- one of the leading figures of the Kerala renaissance- historical act of serving a feast for the low caste along with the upper caste people. It was called ‘panthibhojanam’, ‘sharing dine’. In this story, we see a 21st century avatar of the historical act said above in the form of sharing dinebetween a group of upper caste women- advocates with a dalit lady advocate in order to influence her not to appear for the prosecution in the trial of an offence that an upper caste man abuses a low caste by calling the caste name. The upper caste advocates-they show their superior attitude in the name of caste and hatred towards the low caste in various places- plot this sharing dineto win the case which is sure to fail otherwise. The story ends where the character of a Brahmin advocate vomits the fish curry she had from the dalit’s lunch box, showing that the brahminical attitudes towards the dalits are still there behind all the performances of progressiveness- the act of eating fish an example.
Coming to the issue discussed in this paper, neither of these stories claim the label of ‘dalit literature’. Nevertheless, they obviously come under the scope of dalit literature/criticism with their choice of themes or motives. As I mentioned in the beginning, this is not an attempt to label them neither dalit nor anti-dalit. I would like to try analyzing the ways in which these works get their identity as either of these in the process of reading. In the contemporary Indian scenario, it is politically correct to be with the cause of dalits. And, it is common sense that a writer will always try to be politically correct as much as possible. In this sense, both the works under concern try to address and present the cause of dalits and the not-so much-changed upper caste attitudes and thus appear to be with the oppressed. So far, it is okay and the works find their space in the line of the number of works written on the topic. Unlike, the earlier works that call for revolution or radical changes, these works withdraw from the scene just by presenting the issue from their own viewpoints. Panthibhojanm unveils Malayali’s masked caste consciousness and Serious Men ridicules the upper caste mentality towards the dalits and portrays a dalit’sanger towards their situations and his strange efforts of rebel and triumph.
If we stop the process of reading and interpretation at this point or argument, no issue arises. One can reach the conclusion that both these works are two examples of contemporary Indian literary ways of responding to the issue of caste discrimination and being politically and ethically correct by showing camaraderie with a people who areoppressed for centuries and trying to stand on their own feet. Then how does the question of being anti-dalit arise? Actually the question is not of the works being anti-dalit but the possibility of reading the same text as pro or/and anti-dalit at the same time. Such a phenomenon is a product of the contemporary atmosphere of reading/interpreting business that is highly influenced by the theoretical stances of post structuralism that offer multiple meanings or perspectives. It is based on the subjective experiences of the reader often. Moreover, these kinds of readings often tend to place the author on the villain side. Before going into the issues/aspects related to this phenomenon of multiple reading let me go through the second or perhaps the next of the many other possibilities of reading of these texts that is the reading that makes them sound anti-dalit.
To talk about Serious Men, what makes it anti-dalit is what often happens with mainstream narratives, the portrayal of dalits in a derogatory way. Though, Ayyan Mani is portrayed as a sensible man who understands the fate (of course man-made) of his people and a warrior in his own ways, his acts are crooked and in total he is a schemer. His struggles are shown as the attempts of a jealous who even uses his own son’s life to execute his revenge that is historical in color. He actually risks his son’s life without having thoughts of what may happen to his future once the ploys are revealed. The portrayal of the dalits as crooked and senseless becomes more visible with the portrayal of the dalit minister. The fact that his is the only politician-character appears in the novel makes it more notable. He is given the image of a leader who became so only because of his caste and will do whatever to keep his community’s honor. There is no space for the very idea of truth or truthfulness. Thus his character may be looked at as the anti-reservation stance the novel puts high.
By and large, the novel was praised high as a satire on the time it was made in. In this sense, the novel- may or may not be the author in terms of Barthean reading- do not show the anger and the rise of the dalits in the brightness and colors they actually have but makes fun of the very cause and action programme of the dalit politics that is based on the ideologies and methodologies of identity politics.In effect, by showing the up raising of the dalit workers in the last chapter as an outcome of mere anger and gut reaction the novel dismisses all the ideological and intellectual scaffolds the dalit mass movements are backed by. The fact that the novel explicitly discusses the aspects of dalit politics through the character of Ayyan Mani-the very act of his conversions is representational- and the minister it makes itself inescapable with the age-old argument that the plot is incidental and unintentional. Thus a reader who is concerned with the representations in a text is made to believe that the novel carries anti-dalit/dalit politics stances within it. Even if it should be read as a satire, it is a satire on the developments of identity politics and its ways. Hence, by ridiculing the dalit movements through simplification and imposing crookedness around it the novel becomes highly politically incorrect.S Anand in his article, “The arduous journey of modern Dalit literature” observes that,
“IN MANU JOSEPH’S DEBUT NOVEL Serious Men—praised by one critic as “one of the very best novels ever to come out of South Asia” and the winner of The Hindu’s inaugural Best Fiction award in 2010—the protagonist, Ayyan Mani, is a manipulative, sly, scheming Dalit-Buddhist who almost gets away with passing off his partially deaf son, Adi, as a prodigy, a genius who can recite the first 1,000 prime numbers. The garb of satire—where almost every character cuts a sorry figure—gives the author the license to offer one of the most bleak and pessimistic portrayals of urban Dalits.” I quoted this to show one of the many criticisms that read Serious men, in terms of its negative portrayal of dalits.
Unlike Serious men, Panthibhojanam tries to keep its seriousness and commitment throughout the text. It obviously attempts to expose the double stand the progressive upper caste people of Kerala often carry within. However, in the attempts to sympathise the modern dalit condition, it also portray dalits as senseless or vulnerable people who could be influenced easily even with food. Though an advocate, the dalit protagonist behaves just like an ordinary woman by letting herself fall into the food-trap of the upper castes. She falls down in the illusion that she is accepted in the upper caste/class circle and by doing so she is actually forgetting all the hardships that her people passed through/passing through. So again in the eyes of a reader concerned with the issue of representation and micro politics, the story ends up with the message that it is not the upper castes but the dalits themselves are their hostiles.
So far, I have tried to give two ways of looking/ possibilities of reading the same texts. The issue intended to be discussed here is that it is the same reader who find both the possibilities ormeanings. In other words, the very process of reading makes the reader or perhaps the critical reader perplexed. Barth already professed the death of the author and the need of the birth of the reader. By making the text opened thus for interpretation he replaced the autonomy of the writer. Thus he undid the very possibility of the authorial intention. John Lye while discussing the challenges of literary theory, points out the following observations. A text is, as Roland Barthes points out, etymologically a tissue, a woven thing (from the Latin texere, to weave); it is a tissue woven of former texts and language uses, echoes of which it inherently retains (filiations or traces, these are sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices, and woven of the play (‘play’ as meaning-abundance and as articulability) of language. A text is not, and cannot be, ‘only itself’, nor can it be reified, said to be ‘a thing’; a text is a process. Literary Theory advocates pushing against the depth, complexity and indeterminacy of this tissue until not only the full implications of the multiplicities, but the contradictions inevitably inherent in them, become apparent. (Lye)
Knowingly or unknowingly, every interpretation is a practice of what Barthe theorized. Hence, when a reader finds the same text as pro dalit and anti dalit without looking at the author’s background or intention he/she is finding the act of reading as a process that leads him/her manywhere or nowhere. S/He finds that the act of reading/understanding was a deconstruction or deconstructions of the text as the reader changie the centres that determine meaning. The centre that makes the texts analysed pro-dalit is our notion of political correctness and the writer’s commitment. Here, the writer’s commitment is not the writer’s intention but our belief about the nature of writing which is almost a grand narrative in the postmodern context. So the first meaning that takes the texts as reflecting the dalit cause is a product of the reader’s belief that literature always stands for the oppressed or it can never be politically incorrect. The next moment, he takes away the centre called political correctness and finds that the text conveying a meaning that is totally against what he perceived first. In other words, what he perceived was based on his prejudice regarding the works. The next reading is based on his experiences of reading about reading/interpretation. However, he remains confused not knowing which is the actual meaning or which one should he stand with. Most importantly, the writers as persons may also become readers of their own works and they may also find the texts revealing to them various and different meanings. Here the perplexed writer-reader may find the texts deceive themselves.Lye’s observation about the ways in which the question of truth appears in contemporary literary theory is relevant here….” there is no foundational ‘truth’ or reality — no absolute, no eternals, no solid ground of truth beneath the shifting sands of history. There are only local and contingent ‘truths’ generated by human groups through their cultural systems in response to their needs for power, survival and esteem. Consequently, both values and personal identity are cultural constructs, not entitles.
One suggestion may be to follow only the gut reaction as Susan Sontag suggests in her “Against Interpretation”. But the problem is that one may have more than one gut reactions like one find the texts under study as both pro and anti-dalit.
Anothersuggestion could be perhaps to deny the issue itself with the argument that one produces or receives a meaning according to one’s ideologies or beliefs. Again that kind of a production or acceptance could be that of prejudice only. Moreover, by arguing that one should confine to the meaning one produces according to one’s ideology/perspectives may be closing the possibilities of reading just as with the case of the reader’s intention as Barthe observed. More seriously that kind of an argument demands that the reader should be clear about his/her stance if not politically correct. Thus, as it is mentioned earlier, a reader who does not want to confine his/her ideology to one institution becomes branded by the proponents of each interpretations as the anti. With respect to the select texts, one may find it pro dalit with one’s sensibility towards the issue of caste system and by identifying the ways in which the upper caste mentality is portrayed in them. On the other hand, one may find it anti-dalit by the ways they have presented representation. A dalit-critic will definitely find them anti dalit as his/her gut reaction and vice versa. The problem arises when both these readers is the one and the same. Paradoxically though, won’the be called anti dalit if he/she supports the text or argue that it is pro dalit. Wont his/her political correctness may put on stake in a situation when he/she identifies the text only as either of pro or anti dalit by the dominant ideology?Thus, the confusion of the reader becomes more into a dilemma. He/she starts suspecting his/her political correctness and the ability to rightly interpret. In fact, this dilemma is the dilemma is the outcome of the contemporary critical practice as a whole. It is the dilemma that…“If there are no certain meanings or truths, and if human beings are cultural constructs not grounded in any universal ‘humanness’ and not sustained by any transhistorical truths, not only the role of literature as the privileged articulator of universal value but the existence of value itself is threatened. If interpretation is local and contingent, then the stability and surety of meaning is threatened and the role of literature as a communication of wisdom and as a cultural force is diminished. If interpretation is dependent upon the interpreter, then one must discount the intention of the author. The stability of meaning becomes problematic when one suspects the nature of the forces driving it or the goals it may attempt to attain.”
This paper, by totally agreeing with the fact that meanings are created by the reader(s), does not attempt answering these questions.
This paper is only meant to imprint this issue in the contemporary scenario of reading-writing-interpretation. It could be an issue discussed and debated over at various contexts. Still, I hope it is an issue needs to be discussed especially in the Indian context, where the question of political correctness is often an issue with various dimensions. To conclude, to Barthe, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author”(Barthe). We know that the death of the author is the birth of not one reader but many. And, the question is, can it be possible the birth of many readers within one person. Does the writer get reborn in the perplexed reader? Should the multi-faced reader abandon one meaning that is as important as the other, a product of his/her intellect, experience and reaction towards what s/he has read?
Joseph manu, Serious men, Harper Collins 2011.print.
Echikkanam, Santhosh, Komala : DC Books, Kottayam, Kerala :2010 p.61-69
- Anand, The Arduous journey of modern Dalit literature, http://caravanmagazine.in/essay/lighting-out-territory
Roland Barthe, The Death ofthe author,www.DeathoftheAuthor.com
 MA English and Comparative literature, Pondicherry University