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Writing Ordinary Lives

Using the "discourse of participation", and drawing from a narrative that speaks about ordinary lives, two dalit texts throw light on various practices that are the subject of interest of the social sciences. This is contrasted to mainstream epistemology that is constrained by mere objectivity, reducing, for example, the study of caste to variants rather than of the phenomenon itself.

way of knowing and interpreting is less

Writing Ordinary Lives

abstract, less integrative, less transcendent, less impartial, and less self-conscious than the interpretive mode of universal M S S Pandian subject. Inhabiting domesticating space,…

Using the “discourse of participation”, and drawing from a narrative that speaks about ordinary lives, two dalit texts throw light on various practices that are the subject of interest of the social sciences. This is contrasted to mainstream epistemology that is constrained by mere objectivity, reducing, for example, the study of caste to variants rather than of the phenomenon itself.

An initial version of the paper was presented at a conference on ‘Subaltern and Citizen’ organised at the University of Emory, Atlanta, in December 2007. I thank S Anandhi, Vijay Bhaskar, Rajan Krishna, Gyan Pandey, Simona Sawhney, Sudipto Sen, Ajay Skaria, Ravi Sriramachandran and Milind Wakankar for their comments which have helped me revise the paper.

M S S Pandian ( is visiting fellow, Sarai programme, Centre for Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

My acknowledgement of the other is not something that I can do once and then be done with. The suspicion of the ordinary seems to be rooted in the fact that relations require a repeated attention to the most ordinary of objects and events, but our theoretical impulse is often to think of agency in terms of escaping the ordinary rather than a descent into it.

– Veena Das [Das 2007: 6-7]. Life is essentially itself.

– Talal Asad [Asad 1993: 290].

n an impassioned essay, ‘How Egalitarian Are the Social Sciences in India?’, Gopal Guru, one of the leading dalit intellectuals, writes, “It is frustrating, if not tragic, for dalits to languish in raw empiricism” [Guru 2002]. According to him, “…Indian social science represents a pernicious divide between theoretical brahmins and empirical shudras” (ibid: 5003). Elaborating on this point, he continues,

Social science discourse in India is being closely disciplined by self-appointed juries who sit in the apex court and decide what is the correct practice according to the canons. These juries decide what is theory and what is trash. It is a different matter that these canons lack authenticity as they are borrowed from the west unreservedly. The apex court in social sciences with its full bench in Delhi keeps ruling out subaltern objections as absurd and idiosyncratic at worst and emotional, descriptive-empirical and polemical at best (ibid: 5004).

Based on these observations, Guru makes a plea that the dalit intellectuals should do theory that is morally and politically enabling and not motivated by i mmediate temporal gains such as instantaneous recognition in the academia.

While Guru’s specific concern is about the location of knowledge and of dalits in social science practices, it equally a pplies to other subaltern groups. Writing about how women’s way of knowing the world gets conceptualised in western “philosophical and religious discourses”, Sidonie Smith, for instance, notes, “Her she exhibits the less authoritative “feminine” mode of engagement with the world, one characterised as intuitive, irrational, parti cularistic, and practical [Smith 1993: 14].

The issues which Gopal Guru and other intellectuals inhabiting subaltern subject positions raise such as the question of the arrogating power of theory over empirical in social sciences and the consequent problem of hierarchies of knowledge within social science practices, are indeed i mportant and need to be engaged with. As Sankaran Krishna, drawing his insights from Michael Focault and Martin Heidegger, notes: “Abstraction is an inescapable analytical device that makes knowledge practices possible in the first place; without strategies of abstraction, the infinity of reality would overwhelm us. Yet abstraction is never innocent of power – the precise strategies and methods of abstraction in each instance decide what aspects of a limitless reality are brought into sharp focus and what is left literally out of the picture” [Krishna 2006: 90].

However, it is time to recognise that the domain of theory-making or the wider field of social sciences is constrained by its own ground rules which often come in the way of producing morally and politically enabling knowledge(s) about dalits and other subaltern groups. Instead, those narrative forms which Gopal Guru characterises as “raw empiricism” or what the gate-keepers of social science theory describe as “emotional, descriptive-empirical and polemical”, can in most instances e nable such knowledge. As I shall try to show, certain kinds of “radical empiricism” can transcend the divide between theory and fact and open up spaces for a lternative politics for subaltern groups.

Here I take my cue from Guru’s observation that “dalits try to compensate for theoretical deficiency by doing brilliant poetry” [Guru 2002: 5007]. It is my submission that brilliant poetry (and other representational forms such as fiction,


a utobiography and testimony) need not be a compensation for the theoretical deficiency of dalits but could very well be a compensation for the deficiencies of dominant modes of theory-making in s ocial sciences. Not bound by the evidentiary rules of social science, the privileged n otion of teleological time, and claims to objectivity and authorial neutrality, these narrative forms can produce enabling redescriptions of life-worlds and facilitate the re-imagination of the political. In the rest of the paper, I tentatively unpack this claim by engaging with two dalit texts published in Tamil – Karukku by Bama [Bama 1992] and Vadu by K A Gunasekharan [Gunasekharan 1995].

1 Dalit Texts

Bama’s Karukku was published in 1992. In Karukku, Bama describes her village, her childhood, her world of labour, education in different institutions, untouchability and caste discrimination encountered in them, her Christian upbringing, joining the Catholic order as a nun, and her subsequent disenchantment and parting of ways with the church. While such a synopsis of Bama’s text would impoverish it to resemble a regular autobiography, her’s is autobiographical in only one of its orientations. As mentioned in the foreword to the book by Mark, a Jesuit priest, “At the first sight it reads like a history of a village. From another angle, it reads like an autobiography. From yet another angle, it reads like a brilliant novel.” In other words, Karukku crosses over genre boundaries. It is neither history, nor autobiography, or fiction; yet it is all of them at the same time.

Gunasekharan’s Vadu published in 2005 is no different. While it strings together a number of events from his life such as his struggle for education, rich Muslims paying his school fees, caste-based humiliation in classrooms and elsewhere, life in the dalit hostel, his budding career as a professional singer and so on (which are selfconsciously designated as “experiences”), it violates the canons of autobiography by not being a heroic and progressive journey of self-realisation or personal achievement. After all, to be an untouchable (i e, to be treated as less than human) is to lack the agentive autonomy that is central to autobiography as a genre. In his foreword to Vadu, Ravikumar, a wellknown dalit intellectual from the Tamil region, writes “[Autobiography] is constructed by means of the language of heroism by centralising a single person. Contrarily, a work of art remains an extraordinary feat of language” (ibid: 19). Thus, he alludes to non-autobiographical orientation of Vadu and invites the readers to judge this claim for themselves.

Now let me turn to the salient features of Karukku and Vadu as texts of “nonexemplary” lives.

First and foremost, what is extraordinary about Karukku and Vadu is their ordinariness. For one thing, both the texts, contrary to the normal practice of publishing, do not employ the formal, grammatically-bound Tamil. Instead, they use the colloquial Tamil with its regional and caste inflections. While the upper caste readers could enter this language only with a degree of effort and with a sense of unfamiliarity, these texts distance themselves from the formal and establish the ordinary as their chosen domain.

In keeping with such a choice of l anguage, the events which populate these texts are ordinary and belong to the everyday. Bama’s description of her childhood and the world of dalit labour, which occupies a substantial part of Karukku, is a case in point. Bama’s childhood comes to life in a series of cameos – childhood games the children played and left behind at different stages of their lives, the festivals of the Christian calendar – Easter, Christmas and New Year – in which they partook year after year with much excitement, sharing of game meat brought to the village by men who habitually forayed into the adjacent hills accompanied by hunting dogs, and so on. In the same vein, Bama’s account of the world of dalit labour journeys through a impersonal but detailed description of arduous, underpaid and unpaid work that dalit men and women perform – ploughing, manuring, sowing, weeding, harvesting, digging wells, collecting firewood, baking bricks, etc. In this thick description, which interweaves righteous indignation at the downgrading of exacting physical labour and simultaneous pride in the skill involved in it, Bama’s own presence is merely anecdotal.

Likewise, Gunasekharan’s text too recounts the ordinary and everyday. This includes events such as confronting at the midnight the village fortune-teller who is believed to be accompanied by fearsome ghosts, his father taking him to watch plays staged during festivals, his free a ccess to the local cinema hall since his mother worked at the ticket counter, failing in mathematics at the high school examination, saving a child who had fallen into the local well, narrating film stories to the neighbourhood Muslim women who were prohibited from watching films, etc. As in the case of Karukku, Vadu also gives detailed descriptions of Gunasekharan’s struggle against hunger and material deprivation: collecting fish and snails from the local ponds, gathering grass from the village commons to be sold to Muslim cattle-keepers, carrying death messages of upper castes to neighbouring villages and getting paid for it, and hunting field rats and hares. In short, it is the unexceptional which animates these two texts.

Three Strategies

One finds at least three strategies in these texts that accentuate and underscore the self-conscious ordinariness of the lives narrated. First, these texts bring into focus those lives that will be treated, by the evidentiary practices of social sciences, as unworthy and trivial. They do not signify, so to speak, anything more than their

o rdinariness. Before I move on to offer i nstances from Karukku and Vadu to illustrate this textual strategy, it is important to remember that the act of naming and writing out things, events and lives as trivial is an act of power in the practice of social sciences. As Michel-Rolph Troullot rightly notes, “The triviality clause…forbids describing what happened from the point of view of some of the people who saw it happen or to whom it happened… with the exercise of that power, “facts” become clear, sanitised” [Trouillot 1995: 115-16].

In Karukku, we encounter Ponthan, the consummate village thief who could dodge even ayyankatchi padai (the marching battalion of demons, big and small, who will deliver sure death to anyone who encounters them), Kaaman, the village i diot whose skill in cooking gruel is as

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good as that of any woman in the dalit settlement, Oodan, a habitual wife-beater who could tease his flute into brilliant m usic, etc. Similarly, Gunasekharan recollects and brings to life a number of people whose lives are marked by nothing extraordinary: Joseph and Daniel, who ferry pigs to the village on their bicycles from the nearby towns to be slaughtered during festivals such as Deepavali and Christmas, Davamani, who enters an upper caste k onar house using the ruse of being possessed, and Farook who travels ticketless to Villupuram town in a Madrasbound train and returns with a stolen cash of 2,000 rupees. The “repeatability” and the “non-exemplary” modes of life lived by these characters slow down the historicity of time and recover time as though it is immutable. In other words, these texts capture the eternity of certain kinds of past as persisting in the present.

The second textual strategy which gives Karukku and Vadu a further depth of ordinariness is erasing specificities of places and events and masking them with a veil of anonymity. The village in Karukku goes unnamed; the upper caste Saliyars who attacked the dalits during Bama’s childhood are not specified; the dalit headman who hid himself in her house to escape the raiding policemen remains unnamed; the Catholic priest of the village, an upper caste partisan, goes unnamed; the schools and the college where Bama experienced caste discrimination remains unnamed; the nunnery and its residents, once again steadfast believers in caste, go unnamed. In Vadu, we do not know the name of the dalit hostel warden who cheats the students of their government-given ration, of the village headmen who extracts work from dalit students who seek his signature on the scholarship form, and of the man who temporarily loses his son during a temple festival. Such a shroud of anonymity frees events, persons, and places of their claim to distinctiveness and renders them commonplace. They can be anywhere and anytime. Once again, time gets marked here as if it is unchanging.

This is a textual strategy which we find more in Karukku than in Vadu. In comparison to Karukku, Vadu specifies places and persons more often. Yet it manages to produce the veil of anonymity. For instance, the villages which appear in Vadu such as Keeranur, Thoovur, Virathakandan, Chokkapadappu, Ananthur, Vadathirukai, etc, are so undifferentiated in the way they are represented that they carry very little marks of distinctiveness. In other words, one can substitute these names, yet come with, by and large, the same cameos of events and stories. There are, however, two exceptions in Vadu. They are the towns of Illayankudi, where Gunasekharan experienced the warmth of friendship with Muslims, and Madurai, where the intensity of untouchability was never as in villages.

The third of the textual strategies which animates Karukku and Vadu is related to the way time is yet again manipulated to invest events of the past with a “now and here” quality. For one thing, events narrated in them come with no explicit details of when they took place. Even when time is marked, it is indecipherably fuzzy. The allusion to time is made in such phrases as “When I was studying in school…” or “During Christmas celebrations…” More significantly, events do not, for most part, follow a linear time grid. They unfold as a montage of fragments going back and forth in time. In effect, this produces a


depletion of the past-ness of the events and glosses them with a significant degree of contemporariness – as if time repeats itself instead of progressively moving on. Thus past folds into the present and the time that matters is the ever-persistent now. In the passing, let me note here that the valourised teleological time of theory cannot achieve this all-pervasive present-ness.

Let me now turn to how the question of untouchability and caste-based discrimination figure in these texts.

2 Writing Untouchability

For both Bama and Gunasekharan, the s ocially assigned identity of an untouchable is a source of intense humiliation. Recalling her schooldays, Bama, for instance, notes, “time and again, my physical training teacher and class teacher would come to the classroom or the school assembly and ask the dalit children to stand up for some reason or other… They would record our names… It is humiliating to stand in front of about 2,000 children with bowed heads – as if we have committed some crime” [Bama 1992: 17]. Gunasekharan’s experience was similar too:

“How many parayans are there in this class? Lift your hands. How many are pallans? Stand up. I will count. As soon as the class gets over, come over to the office and pick up the scholarship forms. You should fill up the forms and return them to the office within a week”, the class teacher would announce. It is hard even today to imagine how small I felt in front of everybody in the class [Gunasekharan 1995: 29].

It is a language of affect – not reason – that can give these experiences their meaning. Despite such public humiliation, voicing the untouchable identity in the public is the moral and political option chosen by these two texts. What I am concerned with here are the specific modes of this voicing chosen by Bama and Gunasekharan.

If announcing one’s untouchable identity in the classroom and undergoing humiliation was a routine that repeats time and again, the practice of untouchability elsewhere too is, according to Karrukku and Vadu, an everyday routine and not an exceptional event. The montage of descriptions found in these texts are continually interspersed with stories of untouchability in its pervasiveness. Let me cite a few instances from Vadu: Gunasekharan gets slapped by an upper caste man for coming too close while walking on the narrow bund of a paddy field; when he buys unfermented palm juice in the village, it is served to him in disposable palm leaf cups and not in any metal vessel; and when he goes to nearby villages to announce upper caste deaths, he will be fed on a disposable palm leaf plate which he himself has to produce (ibid: 45, 55-56, 71). Alluding to untouchability’s everydayness, Gunasekharan writes, “Whichever village you enter, the first question that is asked is “what [caste] do you [belong to]?’’ (ibid: 45); and “In our country, village is caste, caste is village”. With a sense of irony, he adds, “Gandhi loved villages a lot” (ibid: 91).


Bama’s tone of narration is similar. The practice of untouchability plays itself out as a routine: an upper caste woman refuses to sit next to her in a bus; dalit children have to do all the physical work in the school such as watering plants and sweeping the compound; Bama being falsely a ccused of plucking coconuts from the school and being told that she has shown her “parayar mentality”; and the parayar community’s decision not to allow women to go for films since they get harassed by upper caste men [Bama 1992: 14-15, 47]. Both the texts talk extensively of how spatial practices in the village regulate and reproduce caste on a day-to-day basis. There are separate streets for different castes, separate bathing areas in the village pond for upper castes and dalits, and separate cemeteries and churches for u pper castes and dalits.

If untouchability and caste reproduce themselves by repetition, its violence could be disclosed, as evident from Karukku and Vadu, only by means of emphasising its everydayness. As Bama remarks, “Wherever you go, whatever you have studied, it seems caste will not leave us”; and “It is a caste [parayars] born to labour. However much you labour [you get] every day [only] the same gruel, the same gruel made of broken rice, and the same dried fish curry” (ibid: 18, 44-45). Even in situations where caste seems to disappear, it quickly resurfaces. A small but telling episode from Vadu illustrates this well. Gunasekharan’s cousin, Mayandi, the first medical graduate from his family, works as a doctor in Madurai town. Upper caste men from his village go to this hospital at times of illness which cannot be cured locally. A doctor in white coat followed by nurses, he gets addressed by these men as “doctor brother”. The kinship term “brother” is important here. It frees Mayandi from his untouchable identity momentarily and he gets notionally integrated into the upper caste family. Yet, when they leave for their villages after getting cured, they return to the old d erogatory mode of address when talking to him [Gunasekharan 1995: 91-92].

The everydayness and the repeatability of untouchability in these texts places it outside the time of history.1 That is, untouchability and caste emerge here as if they are immutable in time. As Bama notes, “Wherever you go, whatever have you studied, it seems this caste will not leave you that easily” [Bama 1992: 18]. Or as Gunasekharan’s grandfather informs us in Vadu, “As time changes, caste audacity increases. When are they [the upper castes] going to change?” [Gunasekharan 1995: 80]. These are indeed statements of incomprehension. In other words, caste and untouchability cannot be made sense of (as in theorisation) but has to be endured in its bewildering practices. While incomprehension affirms the irrationality of caste and untouchability, the act of e ndurance works here as an ethical and political move of waiting for the upper castes to understanding this irrationality.

These texts are indeed aware that the irrationality of untouchability can touch the upper castes too. Both Karukku and Vadu contain several instances of this politics of hope. For the sake of brevity, let me draw one instance from each of the texts. Despite the practice of caste discrimination in the school where Bama studied, she has other things too to write. She joyously notes, “I studied well and stood first in the class. Hence all children spoke to me nicely… My teachers and the [Catholic] sisters who taught me praised me. They treated me with affection. I was thrilled. I was asked to teach other children who are not good in their studies. Because of my teaching they scored good marks. I was

September 20, 2008

very happy” (ibid: 17). Gunasekharan narrat-of lacking agency and being in a passive ed a similar story. While he was studying state, but its work of agency often has a


in college, he participated in a singing competition. As his name was announced, upper caste boys shouted at and jeered him – for he belongs to an untouchable caste. Yet he began to sing. As the song proceeded, silence descended on the auditorium. As he finished, there were thunderous claps. As he turned the pages of his notebook after the event, he found a message written. It read, “Forgive me. I shouted to disrupt your singing. I realised later the melodiousness of your voice. I judged you wrongly on the basis of your caste and without realising your talent” (ibid: 96-97).

Both are statements where the upper castes experience astonishment and incomprehension about caste which they have been treating as natural. Possibility of such upper caste astonishment about their own practice of caste is the source of hope in these texts of the ordinary lives. In other words, these statements celebrate the “fugitive abundance of life over identity” [Connolly 1995: 232] as a source of freedom from caste; and they at once invite the upper castes to acknowledge this ethical and political possibility. What is more, these texts know that the coherence of the subject claimed by the upper castes is fiction. As Michelamma, a character in Karukku, reasons thus about the non-availability of beef for the dalits: “Now all caste fellows eat beef in secret. It is difficult for us to get meat. Everybody eats. Yet they call us, lower caste” [Bama 1992: 52]. Such incoherence of the subject can p recisely be the source of upper caste a stonishment about caste.

As much as these are statements of incomprehension, they are also of affect: “If you are born in a lower caste, you have to live struggling every moment. The moment they know one is of lower caste, they turn their face in disgust. One cannot describe how much it pains… With pain, a nger too will surface. What our anger can do to them! One has to swallow the anger and live in degradation” (ibid: 22). Thus, it is the language of affect – disgust, pain, anger and degradation – that captures the intense everyday violence of caste. Here the language of pain works as an act of persuasion and appeal. Enduring pain and suffering is not necessarily signs profound ethical dimension [Asad 2003: chapter 2].

In short, in Karukku and Vadu, the everyday, the ordinary, a temporality that is not teleological, and a language of affect and incomprehension invest caste with certain presentness and immediacy and opens up a space for moral and political appeal to the upper castes. The burden of caste is thus returned to the upper castes.

3 Theorising Caste

Let me leave behind Karukku and Vadu for the moment and return to the question of how caste is written in social science theory. As a way of illustrating how social science theory often fails to produce morally and politically enabling knowledges of and for dalits and other subaltern groups because of its own ground rules, let me take up the concept of Sanskritisation and westernisation developed to understand the dynamics of caste by M N Srinivas. My choice of M N Srinivas’ work is informed by two sets of reasons. First, his work continues to be treated as offering a disinterested theory of caste not driven by ideology. Arguably, the only other work which enjoys such a status is Louis Dumont’s Homo H ierarchicus [Dumont 1970]. Second, Srinivas’ concept of Sanskritisation has e ntered the Indian middle class vocabulary in such a way that it enjoys the s tatus of self-evident truth. In dealing with M N Srinivas’ theory of caste, my emphasis is on how acts of theorising in the domain of social sciences are inevitably acts of multiple distancing.

Stripped down to its basics, M N Srinivas’ theory of Sanskritisation and westernisation claims, within a comparative framework, that the lower castes sanskritise (i e, they adopt upper caste practices so as to move up in the social/caste hierarchy); and the upper castes, instead, westernise [Srinivas 1972]. Taking a cue from Johannes Fabian’s argument about how the west constructs its other by “the denial of coevalness”,2 we can immediately l ocate a teleological scheme at work in Srinivas’ comparative analysis. The teleology moves from lower caste practices to sanskritisation to westernisation. Setting caste as the other of the modern, it thus locates the

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time of caste in the past. In other words, it is a residue or a leftover that will disappear as time marches on. Let me add that this is not something unique to the question of caste. The teleological time of s ocial sciences cannot but mark the time of other subaltern groups such as peasants, indigenous people and the unlettered as that of the past.

Let me compare this temporal distancing of caste from the present found in M N Srinivas’ theoretical scheme with the manner in which Karukku and Vadu deal with time. By not engaging in teleological time but using montage as a way of evoking a feeling of “here and now”, Bama and Gunasekharan, as we have seen, reduce the pastness of caste and recover it as an ethical and political question of immediacy. In contrast, being a residue from the past in M N Srinivas’ scheme, the question of caste loses its political and ethical immediacy. Thus, the sense of immutability and the consequent angst and moral appeal cannot belong to the teleological time of social sciences but only to other forms of temporalities.

Here Dipesh Chakrabarty’s formulation on the institutionalised discourse of h istory as a discipline is the most helpful. He writes, “So long as one operates within the discourse of ‘history’ produced at the institutional site of university, it is not possible simply to walk out of the deep collusion between ‘history’ and the modernising narratives of citizenship, bourgeois public and private, and the nation state.”3 This collusion between modern state and social science practices is precisely what vetoes out the everyday and the ordinary as the candidates for theorisation [Guha 2002]. What Chakrabarthy writes of h istory as a discipline is applicable to other social sciences as well, at least in varying degrees. The exception can only be, as T zvetan Todorov argues, certain kinds of ethnology [Todorov 1995: chapter 1]. After all, all of them, in their self-description, are “modern” disciplines. In other words, being a professional sociologist, M N Srini vas cannot escape the seduction of teleological time and its consequences. While social sciences can theorise non-teleological forms of temporalities, its own time cannot be but secular and teleological.

In addition to the “temporal distancing” of caste from the present, there are other forms of “distancing” that one finds in Srinivas’ formulation which have significant implications for dalit and subaltern politics. I mark here two such distancings

– the first, relating to the language of affect and the second, to authorial neutrality and objectivity that is demanded by social sciences. It was thanks to Edmund Leach that M N Srinivas, who spoke all the time about caste in general but never about his own, spoke of his caste identity. In a review of Srinivas’ Caste in Modern India, Leach called his sanskritisation model “brahminocentric” and taunted him whether his interpretation would have been different if he were a sudra [Srinivas 1992: 148]. The incitement of Edmund Leach prompted Srinivas to concede his own caste identity. He wrote,

…my stressing of the importance of the Backward Classes Movement, and of the role of caste in politics and administration, are very probably the result of my being a South Indian, and a Brahmin at that. The principle of caste quotas for appointments to posts in the administration, and for admissions to scientific and technological courses, produced much bitterness among Mysore Brahmins. Some of these were my friends and relatives, and I could not help being sensitive to their distress (ibid: 152).

Significantly, his caste identity and a language of affect find articulation here. While references to “bitterness among Mysore brahmins”, some of them being his “friends and relatives”, and his “being sensitive to their distress” makes his statement one of profound honesty and affect, he also talks of his caste and regional identity openly. In certain ways this is a statement which shares the language of texts like Karukku and Vadu. Yet being a social scientist, he cannot stay with such a statement for one too long as it comes in the way of authorial neutrality and objectivity. He has to distance himself from such l anguage to claim detachment from what he theorises.

As soon as M N Srinivas confesses his caste identity (with the caveat of “very probably”) and participates in a language of affect, he hastens to enfeeble them. In the place of his sensitivity to the distress of the Mysore brahmins, now he presents a range of things that has nothing to do with caste as such. His real concern was not motivated by his caste identity or the distress of his fellow-caste persons but b ecause of his concern about

the steady deterioration in efficiency and the fouling of interpersonal relations in academic circles and the administration – both r esults of a policy of caste quotas. As one with a strong attachment to Mysore, I could not but be affected by the manner in which conflicts between castes prevented concentration on the all-important task of developing the economic resources of the state for the benefit of all sections of its population (ibid: 152-53).

This quick abandonment of his caste identity and the language of affect signals two modes of distancing. The first one is related to the question of what can be the appropriate language for social science discourse. Can one talk of one’s distress and the bitterness of others as the source of one’s theory? One cannot since it violates the criteria of neutrality and objectivity. This is precisely why M N Srinivas had to abandon the language of affect and foreground a language of “common good” in terms of efficiency and development. As Trouillot rightly notes, “A fetishism of the facts still dominates history and the other social sciences. It reinforces the view that any conscious positioning should be r ejected as ideological. Thus, historian’s position is officially unmarked: it is that of a nonhistorical observer” [Trouillot 1995: 151]. In contrast, being unconstrained by such claims to objectivity, Karukku and Vadu could partake in a language of affect and produce morally and politically i nformed appeal to upper castes.

The second mode of distancing which is evident here is a result of the social science practice of discerning the so-called real from appearances. That is, what is being studied needs to be made sense of and explained. There is no space for incomprehension or astonishment in social science practices. This is perhaps why in M N Srinivas’ theorisation, caste has to be dealt with not on its own terms but reduced to other variants such as efficiency and development.4 Significantly, this is precisely the moment in his theorisation wherein the everyday and ordinary are shown the door. Karukku and Vadu stand in sharp contrast to these modes of distancing. In both the texts, the authors are both actors as well as narrators. Thus there is no space for detachment. The

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truth of caste becomes experiencing it. What is more, standing outside the language of reason, they could simply express astonishment at caste and invite others to join them. In other words, making sense of caste in this context work as making it, while astonishment becomes a tool of unmaking.

In short, unlike social science texts, certain forms of “radical empiricism” as evident in texts such as Karukku and Vadu, can bring together experience, affect, and politics as inseparable.

4 Conclusions

Thus theory as an act of multiple distancing and the dalit texts as that of the world of everyday, affect and incomprehension, differ in their intentions and methods drastically. They produce different forms of truth and knowledge. One way of capturing this difference is to take recourse Stanley Tambiah’s distinction between the “discourse of causality” and the “discourse of participation”. As he notes,

While much of the discourse of causality and positive science is framed in terms of distancing, neutrality, experimentation, and the language of analytic reason, much of the disourse of participation can be framed in terms of sympathetic immediacy, performative speech acts, and ritual action. If participation emphasises sensory and affective communication and the language of e motion, causality stresses the rationality of the instrumental action and the language of cognition.5

While social science practices and t heory-making belongs to the “discourse of causality”, the dalit texts belong to the “discourse of participation”.

This distinction is important. Being a discourse of causality, theory works with its own ground rules of “distancing, neutrality, experimentation, and the language of analytic reason”. Given this, it needs to discard sympathetic immediacy, performative speech, affective communication, language of emotion, etc. This is why theories of caste have to partake in secular teleological time and abandon the language of affect and valorise the language of reason. Yet lives as they are lived

– subaltern or otherwise – is suffused with what theory has to discard to be theory – multiple temporalities, affect of different kinds, astonishment and incomprehension.

The discourse of participation, by its very definition, has the space to accommodate and account for these. Thus, Karukku and Vadu could bring to life the prosaic and the everyday, play around with temporality without being constrained by secular teleology, indulge in the language of affect, employ astonishment and bewilderment instead of reason and explanation, and concede the non-sovereignty of the self. Through all these, these texts make an appeal to the upper castes to understand what it is to be a dalit. But for the “raw empiricism” of describing the ordinary and everyday, this morally and politically charged appeal may not be possible. I nstead, theory, as evident from M N Srinivas’ instance, constrained by its protocols of neutrality and objectivity could often depoliticise.

It is indeed true that theory, as Gopal Guru rightly claims, should not remain the monopoly of any group. Yet if the “apex court in social sciences with its full bench in Delhi keeps ruling out subaltern objections as absurd and idiosyncratic at worst and emotional, descriptive-empirical and polemical at best”, it is the apex court’s own self-limiting protocols which cannot accommodate the idiosyncratic, emotional and polemical. Writing about “[e]pistemology, the social sciences, the science of texts”, Bruno Latour notes,

In the eyes of our critics the ozone hole above our heads, the moral law in our hearts, the autonomous text, may each be of interes, but only separately. That a delicate shuttle should have woven together the heavens, industry, texts, soul and moral law – this remains uncanny, unthinkable, unseemly [Latour 1993: 5].

What remains uncanny, unthinkable and unseemly for theory and social sciences is precisely what is possible for texts like Karukku and Vadu. They can weave together “heavens, industry, texts, soul and moral law” and produce an ethical and political appeal which theory, as it is practised, is perhaps constrained not to.


1 My claim is not that subaltern texts do not partake in teleological time. They do. But the point is, they unlike in social science practices, can choose different forms of temporalities – mythical, cyclical, teleological, etc.

2 Johannes (1983), Walter Mignolo characterises the “denial of coevalness” as “the replacement of the ‘other’ in space by the ‘other’ in time... and the articulation of cultural differences in chronological hierarchies” [Mignolo 1995: xi].

3 See Chakrabarti (2000: 41). See also Guha (1997).

4 This act of transcoding caste into something else such as eugenics, division of labour, and hygiene has a long tradition [Pandian 2007: 37-40]; see also Menon (1999).

5 Quoted in Clark (1998: 147).


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