Usha Bande

    One of the major features of the late 19th and early 20th century has been the interest evinced in the under-privileged which was reflected in the literature of the period. In the 19th century, religious and social reformers like Ishvar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Dayanand Saraswati, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and others ushered in the Indian renaissance. They tried to give a new life to the decadent contemporary society. This ideology of social change was shared by the litterateurs and fiction writers in almost all the Indian languages turned their gaze to the farmers, the down-trodden and the outcasts.

    Numerous writers started exposing the social evil in their poems, plays, stories and other writings. While the prose pieces gave facts and figures, the genre of drama, fiction and poetry awakened social conscience by dramatising the plight of the deprived classes and indicting the society for heaping indignities upon the oppressed. Mulk Raj Anand, K. Shivram Karanth, T. Shivshankar Pillai and others wrote moving accounts of the ugliness, squalor and the misery of their lives, of the downtrodden.

    Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1933) written in English is the story of Bakha in which Anand exposes at great length the sense of self-degradation and the loss of human dignity suffered by Bakha and his community. Karanth’s Kannada novel Choma’s Drum (1919) narrates a moving story of a bonded labour who wishes to gain self-recognition by owning a piece of land. Likewise, in T.Shiv Shankar Pillai’s Malayalam novel Scavenger’s Son (1919), Chudalamuthu makes desperate efforts to live like a human being. The attempts of these and many more writers from Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and other Indian languages to reflect the aspirations of the unrepresented class have been laudable. However, it has been felt, of late, that these earlier writers were observers from the outside. In their works the oppressed are always cast in a mould. They are meek, weak, humble and incapable of voicing their protest. They suffer injustice mutely and even though disgusted with life, are apologetic about their existence.

    This abject picture is corrected to an extent by the post-Independence writers. The oppressed are given a voice; they protest, they are not the helpless victims, rather they defy if need be. Interestingly, these characters are intelligent and show a sense of human dignity and understanding. It is significant to note that they are portrayed by authors who are themselves from the upper strata of society. The myth that only a Dalit could identify with the problems of their class and caste is exploded to a certain extent.

    In the Great Indian Novel, the author has given voice to Eklavya. He is no longer the tongue-tied pupil blindly devoted to his guru. He is defiant and aggressive and has the guts to refuse to comply with the uncharitable demand of his revered teacher. Kamala Markandaya’s Nector In A Sieve, a novel of the 1950’s, has Rukmani, a landless farmer’s wife who is aware enough to accept the scientific spirit of the times. When in the town, she uses her ability to write to earn a living. Another farmer woman, Mulk Raj Anand’s Gauri, protests against her husband’s words and at one point fights tooth and nail to save her honour. In Bhabani Bhattacharya’s novels the farmers, the village iron-smiths and others are individuals not just stock characters. They show self-respect. Suruchi, in Shadow From Ladakh, views Jhanak (the untouchable woman) as "the spirit of the age", having "courage, the resolve to grasp life between her hands; and the boldness to fight tooth and nail to secure whatever she deeply wanted" Even beggars have been the subject of many stories and poems. Som P. Ranchan’s ‘Blind Beggar’, sitting astride a Shimla road is perceptive enough to know the passers-by. He, as the narrator, is quite intelligent and far from being a pathetic, stinking presence.

    Another section of the society dealt with is the domestic servant class. The post-colonial Indian urban society demonstrates, in a way, the continuation of the colonial culture. It is a servant-dependent culture. The condition of the domestic servants is depicted by authors in almost all the literatures of India’s regional languages . How the servant children protest makes an interesting thematic study. Sudha Narvane’s Marathi short story Suud (Revenge) portrays the defiance shown by Veenu, a servant boy. Ill –treated by the mistress of the house the young lad takes his revenge on her child. He teaches abusive language to the child and makes him repeat the unutterable in the presence of guests. He runs away after accomplishing his mission. In another Marathi short story a young maid servant is fascinated by the beautiful clothes, earrings and other goodies possessed by the daughters of the house who are her age. Once humiliated by the eldest daughter, she cuts holes in her new birthday sari and feels satisfied for having avenged herself on her tormentor.

    In Shashi Deshpande’s novels, many of the protagonists understand the maid’s plight. She even gives due representation to the problem of a slum girl, raped by her close relative.

    Tribals have also been given voice in the post-modern writings. Rajendra Awasthi’s Jangal Ke Phool, a Hindi novel, reveals the life of the Bastar area of Chhatisgarh. Mahashweta Devi’s incessant concern and struggle for the tribals has earned her name and good will of the tribals. Mahasweta Devi asserts, in an interview, that the tribals do not need our sympathy. They require our understanding. "The tribal society’, she says, "is devoid of the evils we have in social structure. Theirs is a clean society where women are respected". Pratibha Ray portrays the Bonda tribe of Orissa and makes them audible.

    One of the significant post-modern trends is subversion of the given myths. Critics term it dedoxification. Writers subvert an existing myth to correct a given picture. Contemporary Indian literature gives voice to the subaltern to expose the society’s attitudes towards poverty, discrimination and power politics. The oppressed are no longer inarticulate. By telling their story, by writing about their conditions and circumstances, the writers are bringing out new post-colonial fiction, one that examines the materiality of the local and the present rather than the cultural legacy of the inherited past, one that poses a new set of questions about social stratification. As Gangadhar Gadgil observes, "The development of modern literature in Indian languages is closely associated with the social transformation that has been taking place in the country for a century". These portraits enable us to see the oppressed, the downtrodden and the subaltern as humans, not just "helpless victims" but men and women with their specific individuality.