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Book Review: Of Oppressor’s Body and Mind

UNMASKING THE CASTEISM OF THE DOMINANT CULTURAL DISCOURSE

22nd January, 2021

Written by Hunardeep Kaur

Artwork by Rachel Mathew

Turning their backs to the sun, they journeyed through centuries;

Now, now, we must refuse to be pilgrims of darkness.

That one, our father, is bent from carrying, carrying the darkness 

Is now bent; 

Now, now we must lift the burden from his back.

Our blood was spilled for this glorious city

And what we got was the right to eat stones

Now, now we must explode the building that kisses the sky!

After a thousand years we were blessed with sunflower giving fakir;

Now, now, we must like sunflowers turn our faces to the sun.

-Namdeo Dhasal 

Through the essays ‘on language, literature and cinema’, Maitreya exposes the casteism often inherent in the creation and representation in popular and mainstream cultural media such as cinema and literature. By deconstructing the often celebrated and praised literature and cinema, Maitreya allows the reader to investigate these cultural spaces through a different perspective, a perspective that stems from an awareness of the dialectics of hegemony and oppression.

Manacled Hand. Bleeding Arm, Raised. A Sunflower. A sunflower blooming from the manacled, bleeding, raised hand. It is rare that the cover of a book evokes such painful and powerful emotions in a way that the visual becomes a text in itself so much so that it articulates the discourse of resistance which is undivorced from the trauma and history of oppression. Yogesh Maitreya’s book, Of Oppressor’s Body and Mind, succinctly yet powerfully posits a challenge to the ‘cultural hegemony’ of the dominant castes with the book cover becoming as important a challenge as the essays themselves. 

In the words of Suraj Yengde, “Untouchability and casteism are not things of the past. They are real and present. They are everyday and personal”. Maitreya explores the realities and presence of casteism in present day India by interrogating the operation of caste and caste ideology in the dominant cultural context. Through the essays ‘on language, literature and cinema’, Maitreya exposes the casteism often inherent in the creation and representation in popular and mainstream cultural media such as cinema and literature. By deconstructing the often celebrated and praised literature and cinema, Maitreya allows the reader to investigate these cultural spaces through a different perspective, a perspective that stems from an awareness of the dialectics of hegemony and oppression. As Maitreya himself writes in the preface to the book, “Each essay makes the reader realise the existence of caste and how it is dehumanising his/her senses while seeing or reading things in India produced by dominant caste people along with brahmanical ideology”. The book then explores what Maitreya calls, ‘the working of the caste through oppressor’s body and mind’.

The book, consisting of nine essays on language, literature and cinema, gives the reader a critical eye with which to understand the ideological framework involved in the process of construction and production of culture. The monopolisation of English language by the “upper” castes becomes the issue that the first essay of the book deals with. By narrating his personal experiences with regard to access to English language and the snobbery of educational institutions vis a vis English, Maitreya exposes the element of power that often underlies the use of a particular language. English as the ‘language of pedagogy’ then becomes discriminatory and exclusionary. 

As Maitreya writes, “In the domain of ‘language of pedagogy’, I found TISS living in a false consciousness. The medium of instruction was English. Students in this institute come from various caste, class, and religious backgrounds, and people like me are suddenly pushed into a world governed by western discourses, mostly shaped in and around English language. It was assumed here that everyone will understand what is being taught in English; it is expected that everyone understands English equally well and if they fail to do so, they are confronted with the challenge of being forced to perceive themselves as failures in comparison to their peers”. 

The near absence of Dalits in the English media in India is further a testimony to the monopolisation of language by the dominant castes to the exclusion of Dalits from access to language and the knowledge associated with it. The dynamics of power and knowledge are then to be understood in the context and politics of language. It would be appropriate here to quote Maitreya, “I realised that the subconscious will of maintaining linguistic hegemony, to deoxidise Dalits in their intellectual pursuit, so as to create a socially exclusive class of privileged ones, is widespread around us. This ultimately leads to the exclusion of Dalits from gaining a philosophically contesting position in the same language- English”. The language that Rita Kothari called ‘the casteless language’, then has to be looked at in terms of how caste hegemony can and does operate in an apparently ‘casteless’ language. 

The question of how caste operates and reproduces its hegemony through language is further dealt with in the essay “Savarna Translators of Dalit Literature: Conflict in Representation”. In this essay, Maitreya highlights the limited translation of Dalit literature into English and further underscores the problematics of translation of Dalit Literature into English by Savarna translators. The selective appropriation of the narratives of Dalits, the commodification of Dalit literature in translation and the tokenisation of Dalit representation in the cannons of translated English literature are issues that are brought out by Yogesh Maitreya. In words of Maitreya, “The epistemological positions of Dalit writers and their Savarna translators are not only different, it is opposite to each other given the privileges Savarna translators inherit and rejections which Dalit writers face in their lives for their outright, explicit narratives against caste(s). Therefore, at this juncture, translation of Dalit literature by Savarna writers does not remain mere literary practice; it acquires connotations of representation, power and privilege”.

The issues of representation in terms of caste can further be explored in the domain of cinema. The ‘Angry Young Man’ phenomena of the 1970s was manufactured and sold at the cost of the social history and realities of Dalits. According to Maitreya, the anger of the ‘Angry Young Man’ was that of the Dalit-Bahujan masses but the social history of the anger of Dalits underwent a complete erasure in the expression and representation of anger. To quote Maitreya, “The Bollywood, with an irresistible effect of visuals, mobilised the anger of masses (consumers) and gave them Angry Young Man, who manifested their anger on the screen while fighting against enemies: state, feudalism but never against caste. On screen, this Angry Young Man possessed the anger of Dalit-Bahujan masses but playing the role of Savarnas characters, seldom being an identityless proletariat”. The obliteration of the history of Dalit anger was accompanied by an attempt to placate this anger by making Dalits the consumers of this phenomenon. As Maitreya says, “During the 1970s, Bollywood had sold the anger of the proletariat-class among Dalits in the name of Savarna actors and characters. And its consumption only proved venomous. I can feel this very close to me, right at home, often inside me”. Further, taking up the examples of movies such as Vicky Donor, Court and DDLJ, Maitreya makes the reader question the patriarchal, casteist and sexist imagination that often characterises the mainstream Bollywood movies. The ‘false consciousness’ that movies like DDLJ create in the viewers is disturbing and status quoist to say the least. Maitreya also problematizes the idea of representation of the ‘hero’ of the movie who is always portrayed as a heterosexual male often fair skinned and belonging to khatri caste. In words of Maitreya, “For decades, Bollywood has been suffering from the khatri male complex, so much so that every other movie has a Khatri character playing the hero”.  

One also encounters the issues of representation, appropriation and invisbilisation of Dalit experiences and history in mainstream literature. Yogesh Maitreya critiques two of Manto’s stories and establishes that though Manto as a writer is sympathetic to “lower” caste characters in his stories, yet he lacks an awareness of the socio-historical realities of Dalits. As Maitreya asserts, “But today I find Manto’s sympathy useless: it comes from an ignorance of the social reality of caste. Sympathy which derives from ignorance is as dangerous as violence”. This critique is followed by an appreciation of the short stories written by Dalit writers who have been able to successfully present the complex realities of caste and caste oppression. These stories include “Namantar'' by Jayawant Hire, Baburao Bagul’s “Revolt” and “Baluta” by Daya Pawar. 

This thin volume of essays performs not just a pedagogical function for the readers but also sensitises the reader to the often neglected aspects of the problematique of representation and cultural hegemony in mainstream culture. The book posits a challenge to the linguistic hegemony of the so-called “upper” castes and questions the cinematic (mis)representation and literary tokenization of Dalits and their experiences. At one level, the book then becomes significant as a counter-cultural phenomenon as it poses a challenge to Brahmanical hegemony, by questioning the mainstream cultural values. Also it is published by Panther Paw Publications - a publishing house that promotes Dalit writing and is anti-caste in its very nature unlike big publishers that seek to publish anything that has a market value. At another level, the book leaves the reader with questions about the acceptability and celebration of mainstream cultural values and entities that are inherently casteist, encouraging the reader to refuse to passively accept and consume the ‘products’ of mainstream culture. What better way to end than in the author’s own words as put in the poem.

“A Poem of An Anti-Caste Publisher” - 

My protest won’t shout; hail no slogan

It will however have a voice that will

disturb you, in the moment of silence

when you think everything is alright.