Just and Sensible Living:
Dalit endeavor to move from the Periphery towards the Center
A Study of Joseh Macwan’s The Stepchild
(Gujarati novel Angaliyat –Translated into English by Rita Kothari)
Live life the way Valji did. You have endured enough wrongs. Now learn to fight back. Your miseries will not disappear if you hold your own lives very dear. - Bhagatlike Bhavaankaka
When would this caste wake up? When would it understand truth? - Master
Main stream writing in our country has not given any importance to the lives and the ways of living of the lowest of the low, though our literature, sahitya, did take interest in the lives of individuals with no dislike, negligence or hatred for people born in ‘lower’ and ‘untouchable’ castes in spite of the fact that they were not living in affluence or with panditya. The lower, unprivileged castes were called untouchables for several hundreds of years and had come to be called Dalits which did not yet make any difference to huge sections of people. Possibly during the last seven or eight decades since leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jyotiba Phule, Bhimrao Ambedkar began a crusade to establish equality and justice. Dalit themes ignored and not given any prominence till these leaders took up the noble and necessary cause have been getting attention and importance during the last fifty years.
Malapalli in Telugu was produced by an eminent thinker and leader Unnava Lakshmi Narayana while serving a prison sentence in nineteen twenties. Joseph Macwan has come to be considered the first Dalit novelist in Gujarati. His Angaliyat translated into English as The Stepchild by Rita Kothari deals with the pre independence period. The novel got wide public attention and was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award in 1988. The translated version was published only in 2004.
The marginalized and the subalterns began getting attention of the whole country when Dalit novels in Regional languages began to be available in English translation. These works increased the readership and began offering the much deserved understanding and sympathy of the educated, elite readers. Dalit writing began to acquire the status of dignity and prominence too. Dalit writer Harish Mangalam who writes in his mother tongue Gujarati told Jayadeep Sarangi in an interview that besides being a corpus of pain and suffering, writing is the main weapon in their hands to awaken people against injustice. He further said: “Dalit literature depicts and speaks about the values of humanity, liberty and brotherhood which are basic virtues for unity of the people and a bulwark on which the nation-state can stand. A nation can neither be built on a shaky foundation nor be built without the above mentioned three basic and inevitable (sic) virtues of the people. Dalit literature promotes all the three ideals. Thus Dalit literature is positive and constructive about the process of nation building.”
Jayadeep Sarangi edited essays on Dalit literature in the book “Writing as Resistance - Literature of Emancipation.” This writing is not simply for emancipation, not merely writing as resistance. More importantly, it is writing with gusto and aplomb and élan for carrying conviction. Mangalam said with conviction “Dalit literature is not a cosmetic commodity and written only for entertainment.” Literature of the high order in all languages is never meant for mere entertainment. It is produced for embellishment and ennobling of human values as we see in the ancient writing of the scriptures and epics.
The ideology of Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar is the foundation on which Dalit thinking, expression, literary ideology have been built firmly as a superstructure. M.B. Gaijan in an essay on: “In Gujarat, Dalit writers since mid -70s of the twentieth century write about their social-cultural aspects, their existence, education and political issues in detailed (sic) in the novel form. Joseph Macwan’s Angaliyat (The Stepchild) is the first modern Gujarati novel. The novel presents socio-cultural reality of pre-independent and post-independent Gujarat.”.
The Stepchild, the English version of the Gujarati novel Angaliyat, deals with the tale of two villages, Ratnapaar and Shilapaar, and the sly and ugly battles among the Vankars, weavers. In Gujarat they were ‘untouchables’, now widely called Dalits. Weavers are not ‘untouchables’ in all states in our country. The protagonists are the Vankars in Ratnapaar and the upper caste Patels and Thakores in Shilapaar. The condition of Vankars in the villages, the profligacy and illiteracy, their social mores, their poverty, and most importantly, their lack of unity are vividly brought out in this novel and for that reason is recognized as the first Dalit novel in Gujarati.
Valja and Teeha of Ratnapaar are close friends who weave cloth and sell it to make a living. Valja is married to Kanku and both live a life of happiness. Teeha is not married. The two go the Shilapaar to sell their ware and see a girl being insulted and injured. Teeha beats up the scoundrel, who happens to be an upper caste fellow. The young woman Methi, married as a mere child was not sent to the in-laws with aanu (a ritual offering gifts to the in-laws of the bride) since Chunthia is a drunkard, gambler and a good for nothing fellow. The upper-caste caste honor when attacked by a Dhed (untouchable) there rouses enmity. Teeha is upright and stands on protecting the girl’s honor. The upper castes grow furious and the two villages get embroiled in quarrels. The upper caste Ramchchod Dehlavala plays havoc by making the van driver play a trick when asked for help. Valji gets killed and Menthi could not reach her lover Teeha. Even Teeha was killed later by the upper-caste hooligans. Dehlavala becomes a minster and Menthi’s son (by Chunthia), Goka, makes a donation for a high school to be built in Ratnapaar. Valja’s wife Kanku gets married to Dana only to see that Teeha gets happiness in family life. But his marriage with Vali is a failure and he gets killed by his enemies. Righteousness did not win but winning is not always the most important thing for the protagonists in the novel.
It is not a matter of mere Dalit abuse that is the object of presentation in the novel. It is a successful effort at showing the strength of those who are as principled as the theoretically foremost upper castes. The introduction to the English version points our correctly “The real challenge before him (the novelist, Macwan) was to turn the periphery into the core, to transform the vanquished into the victor.” A little later the introduction says: “Macwan successfully challenges the age-old perception of higher castes which denigrate the practice of naatru or remarriage among ‘backward’ communities. Similarly by showing Teeha’s and Valji’s resistance and assertion at the cost of their lives, Macwan reasserts the Dalit quest for identity and dignity. In an interesting and paradoxical way, the assertion of a Dalit identity takes place through physical valor in the men and through ‘purity’ as far as the women are concerned. However an adoption of these upper-caste categories also unwittingly pushes the novel into a symbolic Brahminic Order.”
The four protagonists, two men and two women show the strength of character. The two men Valji and Teeha die without bending their heads. The two women Methi, the ever suffering strong woman and Kanku the noble-minded woman who agrees to marry Dano after her husband Valji’s death, if only to see Teeha happily married shows the high standard normally spoken of in forward castes. Remarriage is acceptable among the Vankars. There are evil persons like Vali whom Teeha married to ensure that Kanku is not reviled. Macwan showed how these could go into the center from the periphery. Virtue and integrity can take those in the peripheral to the center. Emancipation is to move towards the center and this is what is done by the principal characters in the novel.
‘However an adoption of these upper-caste categories also unwittingly pushes the novel into a symbolic Brahminic Order.’ This sentence in the Introduction suggests that Dalit literature does not (possibly need not) adopt upper-caste categories. In spite of being the oppressed, there are both men and women there who reached great heights with their ideals and styles of living. These are not just qualities or attributes of the Brahminic order only. Again, this cannot be said to be unwitting. Wittingly going to levels of sublimity must have been the reason for the appreciation this novel got after being available to many in its English translation. Ideal human life is portrayed in these men and women though they are Vankars and for that reason and their helplessness they are ill-treated by the so called upper-castes. Nobility and purity are not the special attributes of the Brahminic order alone. Bhavaankaka recognized and revered as Bhagat speaks in a voice slightly raised to reach Kanku: “True renunciation means removing maya completely from one’s mind. But what does our caste know of detachment and renunciation? What do you have to renounce? Miseries, that’s all. I am smarting under the pain of Valji’s death. And yet I say I am not unhappy about his death. You people may think he died in pursuit of a higher truth, of true Paramarth. He did not privilege (sic) his life over his friend Teeha. He had a taken a mission upon himself and lost his life trying to carry it out. He had to give up his life, but he did not look back. How many of us are like that? Not one!...”
The male characters Teeha and Valji, showed their goodness, valor and high principles in living again and again in all their words and actions and so did the female characters Kanku and Methi which deserve understanding and appreciation. All these were weavers,Vankars, uneducated, downtrodden and poor. We see Teeha’s convictions right in the beginning the novel. He did not believe in funeral feasts and things like that. Though he fed the pall bearers when his father died, when his mother died, he turned his face away at the mention of the twelfth day. When fellow caste men attributed unholy motives for this and threatened ostracizing him he said: “You will eat and forget. How will it benefit my poor dead parents? I don’t see how your eating and drinking can reach my wretched parents! The good deeds they earned are gone with them, the rest is only display and I’m not for it. You people may do what you may like?” 
Teeha was unmarried. He was hard working and proud of being so. He showed his heroism in fighting with the upper caste men humiliating and trying to please themselves with the beauty of a young woman who could not fight back. It was Teeha’s act of showing his courage in protecting the woman that is the beginning of the troubles for him and those whom he liked and helped. Teeha was ready to take her, whatever the consequences. Teeha’s bravery and righteousness were shown in the way he punishes the upper-caste fellow who tried to molest a village girl, Methi. “Looking at the fellow trembling with fear, Teeha thought it was no fun hitting him anymore. Instead he removed the lout’s clothes, poked his bare buttocks with the sword and hissed menacingly: ‘Look, if you breathe a woman’s name next time, I’ll follow you to the depths of hell to end your life.’ Teeha struck his naked back four times with the flat of the sword and sent the fellow flying.” When Methi’s son (born of Chunthia) complains of his being teased calling him angaliyat Teeha bursts forth: “All right. If they say that tomorrow, tell Ramla to go and ask his mother the name of his real father. And tell Gabla as well to ask his mother, had my mother not been around, would you have been living today? They’ll stop uttering your name then! And if they still do, then I’ll come to your school.”
Vali was just a very affectionate follower, always with Teeha, and always helping him. His father Bijal made it known and established with rigor that Valji his son was not an angaliyat by doing everything necessary for it. He told the elder of the family and relatives: “…If you dare point a finger at my very own son, I will chop off those hands. I know who stands where, who is truly born of his father son. As if I am unaware of the character of your mothers!” He understood respected and obeyed Teeha. When Teeha beat up the fellow who behaved like a brute towards a young woman in the village, Valji narrated Teeha’s courage without any emphasis: “Now, I understand the truth of what master says. For these upper-castes the dignity of our women is like a straw in the wind, they can do what they want with them. They bed them when they like in the corners of the fields. Whereas, if one of their woman passes by, we are not even to lift our eyes, Arre, what kind of justice is this?” He died quite early in the narration, a heroic death trying to help his friend Teeha. But his wife Kanku lived up to his ideals.
It is neither caste, nor education, and not even money or upbringing that makes a person thoughtful, wise and self-effacing. It is living and the life of one’s own. The two women characters in the novel, Methi and Kanku illustrate this. A writer’s imagination soars as he exercises his mind in human actions and the circumstances they are exposed to. Macwan must have exercised his imagination with aplomb to bring out the truth of life in general and the living of characters that suffered and sacrificed.
Methi is a character with qualities of withstanding all kinds of suffering with tolerance and forbearance. She was star crossed. When she fell in love with him and wanted to live with him. Married in her childhood to a drunkard, gambler and villain, she was not sorry that her aanu was not done. She courageously told the Manchharam Maharaj “You want me to marry against my wishes. Would you do this if it was a child of your own? Why don’t you think of my future? How are you going to redeem yourself for having pushed me into this hell?” Boldly she planned to leave home. Tehoo was prepared to take her. The villainy of the Patel who scribbled a letter to the driver led to the death of Teeha’s best friend Valji. Though disappointed she tried to reform her husband and lived with him for some time, mothered a kid and was reconciled with life. When her husband almost killed she threw something at him and thought she killed him. Utterly disgusted she left Keradia with her son only prepared to jump into a well and commit suicide. Teeha saw her and took her to his village. Even after getting into Ratnapaar with her son Goka (by her husband Chunthia) she never had a happy day. The husband who she thought was killed by her was not killed but only to become a devil. It was her goodwill and love for all that made her a very competent midwife. She saved Teeha’s wife Vali during the latter’s difficult delivery. Later she died totally disillusioned by the cruelty of Vali. Her personality itself underwent a total change for she understood that she must reconcile to the reality and be forgiving. When Teeha asked her son Goka to ask the boys who he complained teased calling him an angaliyat she said to her son:
“Goka …a! You come here, beta. We don’t have to say anything to anyone. To each his own, beta! What difference does it make?” ‘To each one’s own’ becomes a dictum of her living. Even hers son tells Teeha: “See this, Kaka, this is the problem. All she says is to each their own. When I told her the first time, she started weeping. Now, she does not want me to tell you.”
Kanku is the other woman who strove for righteousness, honesty and good living. Wife of Valjo, the thickest friend of Teeha, she tried her very best to see that Teeha and Methi were brought together. When her own husband, Valjo died she bore the tragedy with equanimity. Remarriage was permitted in their caste. To see that there was no stain on her and no stain on Teeha, she consented to marry Dana another friend of Teeha. She it was who looked for a bride for Teeha and she it was who saw that the wedding took place. She tried her best to make Vali, Teeha’s wife, see reason but she could not. Kanku’s sagacity and her courage to bear tribulations made her great. The shrew Vali lost even her eye sight and though she had two sons they turned useless. When Methi was brought to Ratnapaar, it was Kanku’s motherly instinct that saved Methi and her child. We are told: “Kanku’s emotions waited for nothing. She took the child from Methi’s arms, kissed its forehead and handing it to Ratan standing behind her, took Methi in her arms.”
Though called the first Dalit novel in Gujarati, it is not merely that. It is a very successful effort at showing the strength in some among the Vankars, the underprivileged, who grew to the heights of principled living. Evil is ubiquitous, found almost everywhere and in the underprivileged it destroys the values of life. The writer has used anguliyat as a wonderful stepping stone to take the principal characters to great heights. There are characters in this novel who both know detachment and renunciation praised as Paramarth (bliss) by the Bhagat like Bhavaankaka in this novel.
1. Mangalam Harish, Jayadeep Sarangi’s interview of Harish Mangalam, Muse India,
E-journal Sept-Oct 2011 (museindia.com)
3. Gaijan M.B, Dalit Novel: A Thematic Study to Build Twenty-first Century India in Sarangi Jayadeep, Writing as Resistance - Literature for Emancipation, Gnosis, New Delhi, 2011
4. Macwan Joseph, The Stepchild , Oxford University Press , Delhi 2004, p.xxvii
5. Ibid, p.xxvviii
6. Ibd, p.97
7. Ibid, p.3
8. Ibid, p.28
9. Ibid, p.207
10. Ibid, p.68
11. Ibid, p.42
12. Ibid, p.80
13. Ibid, p.207
14. Ibid, p.207
15. Ibid. p. 176