14 May 2006

Joseph Macwan’s Angaliyat (The Stepchild)

A Syrian filmmaker called his film "Extras" because, according to him, "in an oppressive society we are all extras." Joseph Macwan’s Angaliyat, which won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1988 but is yet to be translated into another Indian language, likens the Dalit community to the stepchild, condemned to remain "on the periphery of the stepfather's family," as it holds its mother's finger (angali) while she enters the new home. Prefaced with an excellent introduction, Rita Kothari's English translation for OUP notes that Angaliyat is the first novel in Gujarati written by a Dalit about the Vankars, a weaving caste, many of whom converted to Christianity like Macwan to escape oppression.

While the whiplash of the derogatory Charotari term "dedh" (now banned) used of some groups cannot be conveyed in English, Kothari does a good job of limning the struggle of four "transgressive" Vankar lives on the outskirts of a village run by the landowning Patidar and Thakurs in the Charotar region of Gujarat. Teeha, brave and unstinting, is in love with Methi whom he rescues from the harassment of upper-class louts in the village where he and Valji have gone to sell their cloth and, as a result, suffer for his presumption. There are surprises: the wronged Vankars see the British in India as an impartial authority free from casteism and corruption and, despite the presence of Gandhians among the Vankar elders, a Congress-led independent India is feared for the coming "ram rajya" which would mean elevation of the higher castes to national office and further repression of the Vankars, and for the loss of livelihoods through the resulting industrialization. In the story, Valji and Teeha are killed, mourned by Methi, who has stayed devoted to Teeha even after his marriage to someone else, and Kanku, Valji's wife, who then remarries in defiance of upper-caste norms.

According to the editor, the suffering and the experiences of the Vankars have not been accommodated within Gujarati mainstream literature which has been distinguished by a "privileging of the literary over the political and substantive." Macwan's complex novel with its many forms of storytelling is "a tale of a culture that is extinct and pushed into oblivion." It is not written to re-establish "its prestige but to acknowledge and sing of its strength and character." A poignant claim, alas, given the upper-caste BJP's success in communalising Dalit youth (not necessarily the Vankars) as its stormtroopers in its violent campaigns against Muslims in Gujarat. Nevertheless, we found Angaliyat new and humbling as we bowed under the weight of the experiences of the oppressed in pre-independence India. We'd like to re-read it but we fear that our professor-friend is anxious for the return of her book.

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