Government Brahamana as a Counterhegemonic Autobiography
In Dalit literature, autobiographies have played an important role, for it has been the most adopted style by writers in this literature. The reason for using such a style, according to Aravind Malagatti, is that the dalit has disappeared from Dalit literature. Moreover, he believes that ‘dalitism’ of a dalit can only be captured through the narration of experiences and this also becomes the reason why Malagatti himself chooses this style, in his book titled Government Brahamana.
Also, Malagatti believes that the narration of experiences should be done by the dalits themselves, for he believes that there are chances of the subject matter or literary purpose being transformed. This is the reason why, in his novel, he says, “I would like to read my life on my own and I would also like to be the first reader of my life.” Malagatti prefers to write about his experiences himself, rather than someone else writing about it. He prefers to be the voice for his community, instead of someone else, who is a non-dalit, rendering a voice to the community.
For Malagatti autobiographies are often written for self-gratification, but in Dalit literature, autobiographies are evidences of a shared experience and according to Malagatti, ‘relating one’s experience means being beetle nut to people’s mouth when one is still alive’.
Autobiographies, by definition, are often considered to be accounts of people’s personal lives. In autobiographies the common themes are quest or revelations. But, in general, what an autobiography does is that it creates the self through distance, enlightenment and destiny. In the novel Government Brahamana also, we see these three elements being present. When we look at the first element, distance, we need to look at how this distance is not created only by the self or the persona of an autobiography, but also by the people around the persona.
For instance, in the first chapter of the novel Government Brahamana, we see that Malagatti is distanced from his village friends, as well as, his city friends. His village friends who studied with him, try to maintain a distance from him and have started addressing him ‘ri’ rather than maali. He says, “No matter how much he attempts to get close, they shy away from him. They no longer talk to Maali or tease him like before. Instead, they move farther and farther away. Reason: they are under the illusion that he is a ‘big man’ now.” So this distancing of him by his village friends has made him feel alien in his own village. Now, just because Malagatti, according to his village friends, has become a ‘big man’ does not mean that he gets accepted in the city by his city friends.
According to Malagatti his city friends are just another facet of his village friends. Later on, in the novel, we see that this distancing is carried out by Malagatti himself, when he feels that caste has seeped into the day to day affairs of the society. For instance, in the novel, when Malagatti used to get invitation to visit his friend’s house, he would go honoring there invitation, but then he could never escape the enquiries that took place regarding his caste and says, “My attempts to changing the topic would be ignored.”
The second element of an autobiography is enlightenment. Enlightenment is often said to open one’s mind to the realities of life and see through the subtleties of it. Since, the novel Government Brahamana is episodic in nature, according to G.N. Devy, it has “epiphanic moments” in a caste society. These epiphanic moments reveal to Malagatti how the modernity in India was truncated due to the existence of caste, in its subtleties. For instance, in the novel, we see how Malagatti’s father was not allowed to teach despite the order given by the government, just because he was a dalit.
Moreover, Malagatti narrates an incident in his father’s life, where after getting independence, his father thought that they will be free from this caste system and went to the wells in the town and started drawing water from it and splashing it on the ground, as a witness to the independence received by India. But, unfortunately the people threw hot water in his father’s chest, as a punishment for using the well of the upper caste and the next day after independence, everyone (dalits) reverted to their old way of drawing water from the well outside the village.
The third element is destiny, in which the self comes to an understanding of its identity in the society. Here, in this novel, we see that based on all the experiences Malagatti undergoes, along with his community, brings him to an understanding of the caste and its hegemonic nature in the Indian society. Moreover, according to Malagatti, these experiences have only made him tolerant, but has not brought significant changes in the society.
According to Georges Gusdorf, autobiography can be looked at in two ways: Axis of Referentiality and subjectivity. Axis of Referentiality is basically the main subject matter in the text. Here, in the novel Government Brahmana, the Axis of Referentiality is caste. In the novel, Malagatti talks about how caste is still prevalent in subtle ways.
For instance, Malagatti talks about an incident which happens in his friend’s house who claims himself and his household to be progressive in nature. But, in reality they are rooted in caste discrimination because when they finished having their food and washed their plates, they kept those plates in the racks outside. When his friend’s son came to eat, he did not take Malagatti’s plate, rather his friend’s. And the plates used by him remained outside, till he left the place.
Another way of looking at autobiographies is subjectivity. But, when it comes to literatures like that of the dalits, the subjectivity in these literatures takes to the term collective subjectivity, because these experiences are not singular but shared, because of the suppressions and humiliations. So, the ‘I’ in the novel, resonates the ‘we’, because whenever Malagatti says ‘I’ he is not just talking about himself alone but also about the people belonging to his community. His “I” resonates the experiences of his family members, friends etc.
For instance, in the novel, when he receives punishments based on his caste, there he just does not talk about himself but also his other friends who have to go through similar humiliations and punishments. Though, in the novel, we see that Malagatti only describes the punishments he received, but the reader understands that this is the similar treatment that his three other friends undergo.
Writing is often considered as a weapon and autobiographies play an important role in using writing as a weapon. In the novel Government Brahamana, Malagatti uses autobiography as a style to counter hegemony. Counterhegemony is basically challenging the hegemony which in some way is systematic and questions the basis of authority through revolution. In the novel, Government Brahamana, the revolution is carried out through writing, in the form of an autobiography.In counterhegemony, the self counters the hegemonic notions of identity based on race and cultural purity, and in the novel, it is based on caste discriminations.
Counterhegemonic groups do not start off as radical or extremist groups, in the sense, they do not out rightly aim at violent assault on the established order, but through a gradual process of disarticulation and rearticulation, which is termed as ‘war of attrition’. In the novel, we see how Malagatti disarticulates the idea of India being modern and progressive and rearticulates us to the subtleties in which caste exists in the modern and progressive India.
For instance, in the novel, we see how both Malagatti and his roommate are treated when they fall in love with upper class women. The families of these upper class women refuse to get them married to the dalits because that will destroy the caste purity within the community. Another example that Malagatti gives shows the existence of caste discrimination, even in the distribution of the banana leaves. He tells how the dalits are given the lower part of the banana leaves and are not given the same leaves given to the brahamans. He also portrays how a modern India makes it difficult for dalits to come up in life. He narrates the incident of his roommate and tells his reader how the roommate was a research scholar, but unfortunately the experiences and constant violence towards his roommate drives the mate mad. Malagatti says, “Dalit friends who come with glittering dreams find their future getting lost more often than blooming.”
According to Alan Knight, revolution embodies two phases. First phase is a fundamental struggle between rival forces, with rival visions. The second phase is a process of revolutionary triumph and state building which marks a major break with the old regime. Apart from this there is a possibility for a third phase, which is the diagnostic revolution. In this phase, revolution is portrayed through writing and in the case of the novel, this revolution happens through the form of autobiography, where writing becomes a form of investigation.
For instance, in the novel, through his autobiographical writing, he tries to question the hegemonic powers by revealing the hypocrisy prevalent within the upper class society. In the novel, he diagnoses how the upper caste society adopts to certain practices of the dalits such as meat eating and liquor and yet call them unclean just because they follow this practice. Malagatti, in the novel, says, “Non-dalits have imitated the life of dalit in matters of food and drink. And it is not starightforward imitation. I know it is all done in a stealthy manner. But the question which haunted me then were: Isn’t it good to give up meat eating and alcohol consumption? Isn’t it better to wipe away the filthiness bestowed on dalits and try to bring about cleanliness?”
According to Malagatti the irony is that these upper caste people appropriated or imitated certain of their habits but they won’t allow the dalits to do the same.William k Carroll in his article Crisis, Movements, Counterhegemony says, “coming- into- being of a collective will requires a process of catharsis in which structure ceases to be an external force which crushes man, assimilates him to itself and makes him passive and is transformed into means of freedom, an instrument to create an ethno-political form and new source of initiatives. And this according to him becomes one of the facets of counterhegemony.
In the novel, we see that Malagatti goes through this catharsis in the chapter My ex-Beloved, where he realizes that in loving an upper caste woman he is losing his identity as a dalit person. He also realizes that his love for the women had blinded him from seeing himself as a dalit man and distanced himself from the realities of life, thus making him think of the possibility of being accepted in the upper caste. This in turn makes him passive too, because in his relationship with the upper caste woman, he never has a say over things. When the woman wanted to end the relationship, he had to end it, because soon he realizes what he was losing in order to be with this woman. He realized that he almost lost his respect and dignity by wanting to be with the woman.
Carroll also, talks about the terms war of position and war of movement. In war of position, the writers or propagators, encourage the people to share the same view against hegemony, through persuasion and propagandas. But in the war of movement, action is taken on the authoritative powers through revolution. The novel, Government Brahamana situates itself more towards war of position, where through its shared experiences it is trying to persuade the dalits to take action and also it is trying to propagate the idea that caste still exists in modern India.
Counterhegemony is often a result of subalternity, which includes episodic, fragmented resistance and contradictory consciousness. We can witness this with regard to the novel. In the novel we see that there is resistance but in fragmented form. We see Malagatti or any of his family members retaliate only in few instances. For instance, in the novel, the only time we see Malagatti getting angry is when the professor of his college comes to his room and accuses him of indulging in the same practices as his roommate and also for portraying his roommate to be at fault for falling in love with the professor’s daughter.
Another place where we see fragmented resistance is from Malagatti’s grandmother, who speaks boldly to men and gets angry on them for trying to come and untie her saree. In the case of subalternity, there is also contradictory consciousness. Though Malagatti is trying to counter hegemony, yet he sometimes, falls into the trap of hegemony. Being a subaltern for a long period of time and experiencing injustice continually, he seems to have internalized certain attributes of hegemony. For instance, in the novel, when he wanted to go into the temple, two Brahmins ask him to be a fake Brahmin and ask him to sit with them to have the prasadham.
While narrating the experience, Malagatti experiences fear and tells the reader about being afraid of acting as a fake Brahmin. In this incident, we get to see how he has internalized the fact that being a dalit he is not supposed to sit with other Brahmins and is not worthy to have the prasadham. As a result sacrifice and escape become a ritual in counterhegemony, because if not so, one often tends to fall into the trap of hegemony. For instance, in the novel, Malagatti needs to sacrifice his love for the upper caste woman, because if he does not do so, he falls prey to the very hegemonic powers that he is trying to counter and will end up losing his identity.
In the novel, Malagatti portrays how he slipped into hegemony when he stopped writing his drafts and started writing letters to his beloved. The novel also shows how Malgatti tries to escape anything that hinders his counterhegemony and makes him revert back to hegemony. This becomes the reason why he sacrifices his love for his beloved, he stops going out with his friend and stops accepting invitations to visit other people’s house.
To conclude, Malagatti’s novel Government Brahamana is a counterhegemonic autobiography, because the narration of episodes from his life, enlighten him to the realities of being a dalit in Indian society and this enlightened self takes these experiences to question the hegemonic caste structure and attempts to decipher the cast discriminations within the modern Indian society.
Chalcraft, John, and Yaseen Noorani, editors.Counterhegemony in the Colony and Postcolony. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Caroll William K. Article: Crisis, Movements, Counterhegemony. Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements. Vol 2. 2010.
Carroll, William k. “Crisis, Movement, Counterhegemony.” Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements, vol. 2, 2010, pp. 168–198., doi:10.15417/1881.
Desai, Sonalde, and Amaresh Dubey. “Caste in 21st Century India: Competing Narratives.” Economic and Political Weekly, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 12 Mar. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.Mālagatti Aravinda, et al. Government Brahmana. Orient Longman, 2007.