The first day of this year marked an important event for the Dalit community in India. Historically marginalized by the caste system, where a Brahmin is ascribed the status of priest and scholar of religious texts, and the Dalits (formerly called “Untouchable Hindus”) are declared “impure” owing to the economic functions they are to this date often forced to be confined to—the cleaning of human feces, euphemized as “manual scavenging”—members of this community gathered at the village of Koregaon Bhima in Maharashtra to celebrate the bicentenary of a British victory over Peshwa Baji Rao II’s forces. A victory pillar, erected by the British to commemorate its fallen soldiers stands at the site of the battle; inscribed on the pillar are the names of 22 soldiers belonging to the Mahar community, a group that bore the worst brunt of the orthodox Brahmin rule of the Peshwas. While the Mahars had been valued for their military skills for centuries, under the Peshwas they were consigned to the impure category, forced to hang pots around their necks and tie brooms around their waists, to prevent the “purer castes” from coming into contact with their spittle or footprints. In 1818, during the Battle of Koregaon, the Mahar community shifted their loyalty to the British, and what was a clash over territory for the Maratha and British Empires became for the Mahar community a significant victory over the oppressive rule of the Peshwas.
This victory—of 800 odd men under Capt. F.F. Staunton of the East India Company over the Peshwa’s 20,000 strong army—gained historical significance only after B.R. Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, and a Dalit leader belonging to Mahar community, visited the obelisk on January 1, 1927 and stirred into public consciousness the memory of Dalit victory against an oppressive upper-caste rule. Ever since, thousands of Dalits visit this site every New Year’s Day, in a display of assertiveness and a push for inclusiveness (for a detailed account of the battle’s significance, see Dhrubo Jyoti’s essay in Hindustan Times).
The bicentenary of the battle this year, however, also saw a string of unfortunate events on the day of celebrations. Desecration of a grave of a member of the Mahar community, followed by attacks on a Dalit rally in Pune from right-wing groups, led to a call for a citywide bandh to protest the atrocities that had occurred. The responses to the protests ranged from outright condemnation to a display of obliviousness over the fact that Dalits are still a marginalized community. It was evident that a large number of Indians, basking in their upper-caste privilege, are unaware of cruel disadvantages that follow birth in a low-caste community.
Casteism still thrives in India, and hatred of and crimes against the lower castes are widespread. One is often left wondering why and how this system of hierarchy, described as “graded inequality” by Ambedkar, still exists in a modern, democratic nation.
European writings on the British Raj in India saw it as a precursor to modernity, industrialization, and democratization. “Modern industry,” Karl Marx wrote in 1853, “will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress.” Colonialism, for Marx, was a force that had a double mission to fulfill—the annihilation of the old Asiatic order, upon which the foundations of Western society were to be laid. India, therefore, following the end of the British Raj, was to appropriate the industrial and institutional setup the English bourgeoisie had introduced, in order to emancipate itself and mend its social conditions.
While democratic politics have challenged the foundational logic of casteism, and have helped depressed castes mobilize in new forms, many practices associated with the caste system—the notions of purity and pollution, endogamy, segregation—still persist. Western notions of social change and progress, and the inevitability of modernization have proved insufficient models to understand the resilience the caste system has showed in India. The process of economic liberalization that started in 1990s contributed to some social mobility, but the presence of deeply entrenched, rigid notions of jati and traditional economic functions means that upliftment in terms of social status still remains a distant dream for a number of caste groups.
Liberalization, on the other hand has also helped a new ruling elite come to power. Composed of entrepreneurs and large businesses who found their economic base strengthening during the ’90s boom, the upper class of the urban population, and more recently sections of the media and religious fundamentalists, endlessly appropriates the workings of Indian democracy for its own purposes. Large scale migration from rural areas, an ongoing process, has added a burgeoning working class to the cities. Employed in construction, household, daily wage jobs, this working class lives in precarious conditions, with no guarantee of employment or housing, often sent off to distant slums where diseases fester and political mobilization is impossible. In this rampant exploitation of the working class, (composed mostly of “Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes”)—the Indian government, the private sector, and the middle class are equally complicit.
The aforementioned complicity of the country’s better off citizens underlies much of Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel, Leila, which is less removed from the present day than its dystopian packaging might indicate. In a city of the near-future, 60-foot walls divide communities on the basis of caste and religion, with each community maintaining its rigid rules of conduct—same as the policing of caste boundaries, with rules of endogamy and restrictions on inter-dining. Shalini, the protagonist, her husband, Riz, and their daughter, Leila, leave the constricting atmosphere of these sectors behind to move to the East End, where they can live free of the tribalism that has spread throughout the city. But as a visceral and dangerous idea of a lost golden age, where “purity and order’ were supreme, spreads, even the East End is not spared. Shalini and Riz, once complacent in their relative safety, soon find themselves under the attack of vigilante justice that has overrun the rest of the city. Guilty of having violated the norms that the rest had subscribed to, Shalini finds herself suddenly descend down a new social hierarchy. Sent off to the “The Towers” to redeem for the sins of her past life, she begins a long search for her missing daughter.
Throughout the novel, there are instances of neighbors preying upon one another, close friends and blood relatives betraying their loved ones to the faceless Council that oversees the city for personal gains, and characters resorting to apathy for their own survival. Akbar stated in an interview that the novel is an examination of “the way we live—the ease with which we look away from suffering, the need for hierarchy, to feel superior to one another.” By deploying the conceit of an “ordered” society, one that is free of chaos only when rife with the forces of exclusion and othering, Akbar adeptly displays the hollowness of what passes for the norm in a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.
Read as political and social allegory, Leila is a powerful commentary on the inherently unstable foundations that India’s societal setup rests upon, where progress predicated on economic growth has led to widening economic inequality, and whose contradictions have helped chauvinists ossify their roots. Akbar’s city, with its towering walls, behind which the privileged live in security and comfort, will be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the realities of urban living in India. For the uninitiated, Rana Dasgupta describes the urban elite ensconced in private housing complexes in his book Capital: The Eruption of Delhi:
‘Gurgaon makes no pretence of being a ‘public’ space: the great numbers of the poor who clean and guard its houses and offices, for instance, cannot live there. To live in Gurgaon is to live in a housing complex protected from the outside by security cameras and armed guards, where residents pay corporations to service all their fundamental needs: garbage collection, water supply and even, in the frequent event that state-owned electricity fails, electricity generation. It therefore appeals to a group of people for whom the corporation has come to seem a far more fertile form of social organisation than the state, and who seek out enclaves of efficient, post-public living.’
This is a dystopia where the reader can hardly distance themselves from the human suffering, the grinding realities of the violent world we inhabit, and often contribute to. A current of indictment that spares neither the victim nor the oppressor runs throughout the novel. As much as Shalini (and many others) might have been wronged by the Council or the vigilantes, she too has been complicit in contributing to the structures that uphold the totalitarian system. Take, for instance her skeptical response when Leila’s nanny, Sapna, mentions the ongoing water crisis in her slum:
‘Three years? You haven’t had water for three years?’ I tried to keep skepticism from my voice. They kind of tend to magnify their woes, hoping for sympathy, some kind of payout.
In another scene, Shalini forbids Sapna from kissing Leila, after her friend fearfully mentions the need to maintain distance and “propriety:”
‘Who knows what’s been in her mouth…They have so many diseases. Stop all this. Promise me.’
It is this examination of changing human drives, and the ambiguity with which Akbar depicts what becomes of our inner lives in a world like this, that make Leila a compelling read. This is also why, despite not being far removed from the prevailing political atmosphere in India, the novel manages to avoid being too didactic—the totalitarian system in Leila is not a result of the operation of specific ideological forces. There is, on the surface, bigotry and delusion masquerading as reason, longing for a utopia of nostalgia that never was, but it is always enabled by those who often see themselves as a bulwark against these reactionary forces. If Akbar denies his readers any obvious explanations for how a totalitarian society takes roots, he also denies them the idea that the undoing of social cohesion and solidarity needs a sudden institutional shift, a ruinous undoing. The process for Akbar, instead, is always present in the quotidian conduct of human beings—in Leila, one never finds out how or when the Council took power. The narrative structure that moves through Shalini’s past and present never reveals how things gradually got worse. Even if Leila is the story of Shalini’s struggles against the Council, in one way or other, everyone is living under the brutality that shadows human life, of which the Council and the sector walls are the mere embodiment. When Shalini first arrives at the Towers, she is rebuked by the doctor who runs the reeducation camp:
‘…see these girls you came with, girls from the lower sectors, ask them. They won’t be surprised. They knew what they were doing when they chose to live this way, what risk they were taking…You will only stop shouting when you see it’s your fault. You didn’t understand the first thing about your own home, your own city. They accept. Only you fight.’
But at some level an absence of revelatory moments also leaves much to be desired. While the social violence that inhabits India often makes the relations between its citizenry and government tenuous, the process through which totalitarian forces co-opt democratic institutions and the civil society needs more than a surface level explanation. Leila’s narrative structure therefore works when explaining the fragility of social relations, but fails where the question of political institutions is involved.
Leila often feels too bleak and unforgiving in the manner it treats Shalini’s personal tragedy, but the reader can finish the novel admiring its lack of pretense in creating a dystopian future, a depiction of a nightmare that is all too real if we start confronting the complacency and privilege that enables us to turn away from the neglected parts of our world.