At one point, he asked a wizened Devi to compare the bhadralok society of her origins with the Adivasi world in eastern India she wrote on for decades. “… they [Adivasis] were here. We came later… And then if we think of India as a nation, they are the people who are truly civilised… People ask me often that, ‘you are doing such great work, you are bringing them to the mainstream.’ I say, ‘no, that is not what I am trying. Mainstream has nothing to offer [to them].
They are much more ‘civilised’.” In her writing, Devi explored the ever-multiplying faultlines that divided her cosmos: Rich-poor, urban-rural, upper caste-lower caste, male-female, Adivasi-metropolitan. From that scrutiny came work that held reflection-shattering mirrors to Indian society.
Lately, many public figures have made an impression on Indian public life by engaging with their own community or ones they aligned with, like Devi. Buffeted and celebrated Tamil storyteller Perumal Murugan, and the assassinated public intellectuals Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, immediately spring to mind. In each of these cases, the writer or rationalist or public intellectual or historian, appears to have intervened in the public discourse of their place.
Perumal Murugan, who isn’t a mike-grabbing moral arbiter, makes for an unlikely public figure. In a recent interview to this paper, Murugan has spoken about his native Kongu Nadu in Tamil Nadu. Kongu Nadu’s tube-wells, its waterlessness, its rocks and bramble, form the wellsprings of his fictive inspirations. Since the late 1970s, Kongu Nadu’s poorer youth have migrated for blue-collar jobs to West Asia, Southeast Asia or urban southern and western India. Families depended on the womenfolk to run households while doing other jobs to supplement incomes sent home by their husbands. This opened up the mores of that society and somewhat equalised the female-male relations.
However, within this transforming milieu, the cul-de-sac of caste stayed put. In at least two of Murugan’s novels that are available in English, One part woman and Pyre, the stories become observations of Kongu Nadu’s social structure, where caste can consume all aspects of identity and erode individuality.
In the afterword to a recent English translation of Govind Pansare’s Who Was Shivaji, Marxist intellectual Prabhat Patnaik writes that Pansare’s lectures and talks in Kolhapur would run to packed audiences. Pansare led a life wedded to community engagement, he probed popular consciousness and tried to disabuse people of dogma, myth and falsehood, in intelligible language most Marxist intellectuals have been incapable of communicating in.
The Shivaji essay was originally a public lecture and resonated with Maharashtrians to the extent that it was published as a book with additions and corrections. In the lecture and the book, Pansare revisits some of the popular misconceptions regarding Shivaji, especially his calcified seizure by the Marathi right-wing.
As a rationalist and anti-superstition activist, Narendra Dabholkar made inroads in and around his native Pune through community work. In a recently published volume by SAHMAT, a sampler of writings by Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, there is a chapter where Dabholkar arraigns the Indian family system for stymieing the critical spirit at home.
Consciously or unconsciously, these thinkers have foregrounded their communities and attempted to push the social envelope. Is it possible to say something similar of our urban Anglicised counterparts of recent vintage?
The writer teaches at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities