Saga of struggle
`Published in 1987 ... The Stepchild is arguably the first Dalit novel to be written in any language.'
JOSEPH MACWAN'S Angaliyat, skilfully translated by Rita Kothari from Gujarati as The Stepchild, works at four levels. It is a gripping tale of love, heroism, humiliation, revenge and death. It is a vividly coloured picture of the lives of two neighbouring villages in the Charotar district of central Gujarat. It is a document of the politics of the pre- and post-Independence years, as seen from the perspective of the downtrodden; and finally, it is an account of the struggle of one Dalit community against its upper-caste oppressors, spurred on by two opposing ideologies, the Gandhian and the Ambedkarite.
Teeha and Valji are neighbours and inseparable friends from the Vankar or weaver caste. (Surprisingly, the Vankars are a scheduled caste in Gujarat.) Valji and his wife Kanku would dearly like to see Teeha married. Unknown to them, Teeha is in love with Methi from Shilapaar village next door. Loyalties towards village and pargana sometimes override caste loyalties, and so there are hurdles in the way of their marriage, Teeha is the finest weaver in the district and a man of great physical courage.
Lack of self-awareness
The event that sets the story in motion occurs at Shilapaar. Teeha has persuaded Valji to accompany him there to auction their cloth. In the course of the auction, an upper-caste man notices Methi approaching with a pot of water on her head. He aims a stone at the pot, drenching her completely. Teeha springs to her defence. In the challenges and counter-challenges that follow, Teeha humiliates the man, Nanio Patel, so thoroughly that he swears revenge.
From here the story proceeds through many twists and turns of plot to its inevitable end, acquiring in the process an entire cavalcade of characters who play their various parts in the revenge drama. Some use the opportunity to serve their own interests. The community as a whole gets drawn into a situation they would rather not be part of. Ranchhod Dehlawala of Teeha's village is the key manipulator in the drama. A shrewd Congressman, later to become a Minister, he has enough powers to influence the course of events. On the other side of the line from him stand Bhavaankaka and Master. The spiritual Bhavaankaka tries to weigh the scales on Teeha's side, but fails. Master attempts to raise the consciousness of the Dalits so they may unite and fight the common enemy. He too fails. Dehlawala's strength lies precisely in the Dalits' disunity and lack of self-awareness. As he says to his nephew, "The day they achieve self-recognition, the sun will set on us."
Whatever the odds and however hard the struggle, Teeha knows the vital importance of fighting on. When Methi's brother Moti remarks, "One can't live in water and risk enmity with the crocodile", Teeha snaps back, "To hell with water and crocodiles... .people like us either become extinct or we suck up all their water itself... .the British sun is still warm. Once Independence arrives, our days will be numbered."
Dialogue as texture
It is observations like these that give muscle to Teeha's character. In fact, Macwan uses dialogue with tremendous verve to reveal character. The abundance of dialogue in the novel, peppered as in the above case with proverbs and sayings, serves to lend texture to the translation too, though English cannot reproduce the dialectal registers of the original. Rita Kothari explains in her insightful introduction that Macwan's use of the local dialect of Charotar, was a significant departure from the Sanskritised language that marked serious Gujarati literature.
While Macwan clears an independent linguistic space for his characters, he locates his female characters in the psycho-emotional spaces traditionally assigned to women in mainstream novels. Teeha and Valji are opposites in many ways. Teeha has a wider perspective on life than Valji. He is the leader, Valji is the led. But the women, Kanku and Methi, are like twins both beautiful and both pure. Kanku marries Dana after Valji's death, but only to stop people from ascribing an impure significance to their relationship. Marriage, ironically, gives them the freedom not to be husband and wife. Methi is on the point of committing suicide after leaving her alcoholic wife-beating husband. Teeha sees her in time to save her. From then on, she lives in his house, but separately, caring for him as a wife, but without actually being his wife, because she is still married to the other man. Teeha in turn cares for her and her son Goka as his own without ever overstepping the limits of their relationship into anything remotely sexual. In time he too is persuaded to marry to prevent tongues from wagging about him and Methi.
The latter part of the novel revolves around these emotional/ moral dilemmas. Ultimately, Teeha dies at the hands of Dehlawala's men. But the novel ends on a defiant note. Goka carries on Teeha's work. As Teeha's stepson, he is an angaliyat; and yet he is a truer son than the two born of Teeha's flesh and blood. They abandon Teeha's home and loom while he stays back to honour him. When Dehlawala inaugurates the first school in Ratnapaar village, and declares that whoever pays a donation of over Rs. 5,000 to the school, will have his name inscribed on the marble plaque. Goka steps forward to donate Rs. 7000, "In the name of Teehabhai Gopalbhai Parmar."
Published in 1987 as part of the wave of Dalit writing that burst forth after Gujarat's reservation riots of 1981 and 85, The Stepchild is arguably the first Dalit novel to be written in any language. Maharashtra, where Dalit writing began, has produced fine poetry, autobiographies, short fiction and drama, but no novels. Unfotunately, despite winning critical acclaim and a Sahitya Akademi award, Angaliyat remains untranslated in other Indian language. One hopes the present translation will open the door to others.
The Stepchild (Angaliyat), Joseph Macwan, translated by Rita Kothari, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 240, Rs. 295.
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