Rahi Masoom Raza’s novels as seen through the prism of caste discourse

Rahi Masoom Raza’s brutal analysis of the perversities and unbridled haughtiness of the upper castes bares the horrors of casteist discrimination that informed Indian society at the time of Independence. That was the time when the arrogance of the uppermost castes knew no bounds and the lower castes were yet to acquire a desire and consciousness for change, writes Ambreen Aftab

While almost all people are alive to their environment, writers and artists are more sensitive than others and can hardly remain divorced from the developments around them. Their environment is the primary source of their sensitivities. In other words, they become inclined to create after drawing meaning from the material world. Dr Rahi Masoom Raza (1 September 1927 – 15 March 1992) – a leading post-Independence Hindi novelist – was no exception. His writings mirror his environment, with all its diversities, peculiarities and monstrosities. Whether it is the pre-Independence or post-Independence era, these are present in vivid detail in Rahi’s novels. His sharp and penetrating vision does not miss the political events and the catalysts of landmark sociopolitical developments of his times. Partition, rise of communalism as a political force in post-Independence India, the disenchantment that set in among the people, Emergency and the religion-power nexus – all find a prominent place in his works. A closer look would reveal that another issue that is omnipresent in his novels is caste.

Rahi was born into a well-heeled, aristocratic clan of landlords. Many of his novels, including Aadha Gaon (1966, Rajkamal Prakashan), Dil Ek Sada Kagaz (1973, Rajkamal Prakashan) and Neem Ka Ped[i], vividly describe the riches and the lavish life of landlord families. His description of their lifestyle, norms and mindset exemplify the keenness of his observation. He paints an accurate and a realistic picture of the elite by delineating the contradictions and the absurdities of the feudal culture that was deeply rooted in the rural hinterland.

For instance, in his novel Aadha Gaon, the arrogance of the male members of a well-off landlord family is palpable. It is the day of Muharram. “When the procession of Dakkin-Patti reached the turn, they were taken aback by the papery Tazia facing them. Can paupers compete with the kings? … Though drunk on power, the landlords of Dakkin-Patti could not have defiled the Tazia. But who could stop them from defiling Balli Sain? A wretched man trying to compete with them! Phannan Miyan could not stop himself. He slapped him hard and Balli Sain crashed to the ground and rolled for some distance before coming to a stop” (Aadha Gaon, p 76).

1) Dr Rahi Mazoom Raza (1 September 1927 – 15 March 1992)

All these feudal characters consider women of backward classes as objects meant to satisfy their lust. About these men, who were fed on false notions of casteist superiority, Rahi says, “Taking two wives or keeping a woman at home without marrying her was not considered wrong. There was hardly any Miyan family in which there were no ‘kalmi’ (illegitimate) boys and girls. Even those who could not arrange two square meals a day somehow managed to fulfil their desire for kalmi mangoes and kalmi families” (Aadha Gaon, p 17). The women of feudal families also share the same set of values. In Aadha Gaon, the women of Syed clan lash out at Bachania when she tells them the name of her daughter – a name that was reserved for the upper classes. “Just see her arrogance!” Saeda’s mother said in an acerbic tone, “Sageer, Fatima. Couldn’t you find any other name for her?” (Aadha Gaon, p 277) Similarly, MLA Parshuram’s wife Ramdeyi sitting on the cot at the home of the Syeds becomes an issue. Though Ramdeyi is decked up in costly attire and ornaments but coming, as she did, from a lowly caste, her temerity was intolerable for Hammad Miyan’s wife. “Kubra did not like her sitting on the cot and gave her an earful. She [Ramdeyi] returned the compliment. Why would she remain quiet? After all, she was MLA’s wife” (Aadha Gaon, p 335).

Ramdeyi, the wife of an influential leader of the area and the local MLA, was no less than the upper castes in terms of her get-up, land and wealth. But as she came from a low caste, she did not get the respect that the Savarnas got without asking.

Through his upper-caste characters, who consider backward castes their slaves, Rahi not only exposes the sickening mindset of those perched at the top of the caste pyramid but also portrays the misery and the helplessness of those at its bottom. In Neem Ka Ped, he describes the scene after the landlords have burnt down a Dalit settlement. “Some residents of Chamtoli were sitting at the door of Zamindar sahib, with centuries-old fear in their eyes. They were thankful that only their homes were burnt and that they could escape with their lives. In any case, they were always apprehensive that some or the other catastrophe would visit them” (Neem Ka Ped, p 14).

Thus, while baring the hideous face of the caste system, Rahi also gives expression to the age-old wounds of pain and misery that were part of the identity of the lower castes.

2) Actor Pankaj Kapoor in a scene from the TV serial ‘Neem Ka Ped’, telecast by Doordarshan in 1991

His brutal analysis of the perversities and unbridled haughtiness that sprang from the deep-seated superiority complex of the upper castes bares the horrific face of casteist discrimination that informed Indian society at the time of Independence. That was the time when the arrogance of the uppermost castes knew no bounds and the lower castes were yet to acquire a desire and consciousness for change. The fate of Budhayee in Neem Ka Ped is a case in point. The following lines vividly paint his helplessness. “What could Budhayee have done? He was a bonded labourer. He was so indebted to Jamin Mian that he could not forget the testimony he had been asked to learn by heart. But now the kicks and blows of the minister sahib had reminded him that one should remember the testimony taught by those who slave one is” (Neem Ka Ped, p 31). Aadha Gaon’s Rahim, Gaya, Chhikuria, Jhinguria, Rahmat, Hulaha and others are characters whose self-respect had been crushed under the weight of the caste system for generations. Condemned to tolerating insults, humiliation and casteist biases, incidents from the lives of these characters underline the horrors and the grotesqueness of the contemporary society and the torture and agony the wretched and the lowly underwent. All Dalit and lower-class characters in his works bare the complex social structure that rests on the discriminatory caste system. Insults and humiliations do not evoke anger or resentment in them. They have no option but to silently suffer the atrocities and the exploitation they are subjected to. Their exploitation does sadden them but it does not infuriate them, it does not irritate them. They have reconciled to the circumstances and are totally helpless. They have no desire to change things.

Post-Independence, there arose a new political consciousness among the marginalized classes. They became aware of their identity, their self-respect and their rights and began claiming their share in political and social life. Aadha Gaon’s Parshuram and Sukhiram symbolize the change, awareness and the new consciousness in society after Independence. But the irony is that as they get power they turn into patrons of the feudal mindset. Hinting at the opportunism and political degeneration of Parshuram, Rahi writes, “He did not know why he had accepted Gandhiji as his leader. Maybe for the Gandhi cap! He probably did not love Gandhiji as much as the cap, which made government officers fear him and got him more respect and income. He did not do any work, yet he led a comfortable life (Aadha Gaon, p 269).

Throwing light on the greed of Sukhiya, Rahi writes, “Budhayee did not understand the ways of the world but it was not that he could not understand how his wife Dukhiya went about decked up in shining jewellery. Sukhiram was amassing huge wealth. This much he knew, too – that becoming an MP does not open doors to a treasure for you.” (Neem Ka Ped, p 43)

Rahi does detail how these characters contributed to bringing about social change but he does not miss the change in their personalities, thinking and attitude with the changing times.

Rahi’s writings also delineate the progressive demeanour of the younger generation imbued with modern values. It is not only sensitive to the discriminatory nature of the caste system and the inequalities it generates but is also vocal against it. There is this well-educated young man, Abbas, who, rejecting the caste distinctions and defying the wishes of his family, tries to meet his low-caste classmate. “He thought why he should not take advantage of the absence of the Miyans and go to meet Anwarul Hasan Raki’s son Farooq, his senior who was studying in Aligarh and the vice-chairman of Akhil Bharatiya Muslim Students’ Federation.” (Aadha Gaon, p 62). Then there is Mohammed Siddique who rejects the notions of casteist slavery accepted by his ancestors and asks his grandfather, “What do these Miyans have that you are on your feet the moment you see them?” (Aadha Gaon, p 219) In the same vein, Samin Mian is a strong character in Neem Ka Ped, who mocks caste injunctions and joins hands with low-caste Sukhiram to enter politics.

Rahi may have been successful in portraying how the world of the elite operates, with all its complexities, because he himself came from an aristocratic background. But when it comes to depicting caste inequalities, he effortlessly transcends the limitations imposed on him by his upbringing. The life he lived is present with all its opulence in his writings. At the same time, he analyzes the state of the marginalized castes, oppressed and exploited by the savarnas, in equal depth. Thus, his own environment could influence his creativity only to a limited extent.

Rahi’s entire corpus of writings accords centrality to the questions of religion and caste – which can cause considerable unease – and exposes the unholy nexus of caste, religion and politics. The desire to break free from the narrow confines of religion, region and caste is evident throughout his writings. As for his caste-related analysis, there should be no hesitation in accepting that his thinking about and attitude towards the marginalized communities show that he was trying hard to break free from the shackles of a feudal mindset and casteist biases. From his characters and the way he depicts them, he appears to succeed in this endeavour to a great extent. Although his social ambience and familial atmosphere seem to be deeply rooted in his subconscious, he does not reject the questions related to caste. While the political events of his times did play a key role in shaping his creations, the contemporary society, with all its oddities and hideousness does find a prominent place in his writings. Rahi’s realism is evident in his approach that is neutral, objective and marked by an absence of hostility. Yet his sympathies did not lie with the elite.

To sum up, Rahi’s works are informed by great sensitivity and fine insight, and they portray the reality of society and uphold humanism.

[i] Prof Kunwarpal Singh, referring to the novel Neem Ka Ped, writes, “In 1998, Rahi began working on a mega-novel titled Master Brijmohan Ki Karmabhoomi. The novel was to portray the life of three past generations, starting from the present. It was to also describe the social, cultural, economic and political changes that marked this period. Rahi had completed only 100 pages when, on 15 March 1992, he succumbed to cancer at the age of 65. TV serial Neem Ka Ped (1991) was the prologue to this novel. Rajkamal Prakashan published Neem Ka Ped as a novel in July 2003.” (Prof Kunwarpal Singh, Rahi Aur Unka Rachna Sansar, 2004, Shilpayan Prakashan, Delhi, p 29)

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)


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