Friday, 6 July 2012

CASTE AND COMPROMISE


Love triumphs all, is a theme that is not new to any of us. We have experienced this theme in movies, TV soaps and literature: the lovers go against all odds to assert their love for each other and to gain acceptance in a wider society of their (generally) clandestine affair. I have always felt that such narratives provide a utopian picture of the real world for us. Things are not always as black and white as they are made to appear…
               Pandharinath D. Lotlikar’s debut novel Toddzodd joins the long list of such narratives. He is no stranger to the readers of Konknni, having contributed to various magazines and having written both in Romi and nagri. Formerly with the All India Radio and Durdarshan, he decided to publish his first novel in the Roman script because he wanted his novel to reach a wider audience all the while acknowledging the important contribution of writers in this particular script to the corpus of Konknni literature.
               The story that Pandharinath Lotlikar sets out to tell is one which moves back-and-forth between many identities: Catholic-Hindu, rich-poor, upper-caste-lower-caste. The protagonist of the novel is Suzan who is Catholic, as the name suggests. Suzan is also a girl coming from a financially modest family and as suggested by the narrative of the novel, one can safely presume that she is of low-caste birth. She falls in love with the son of her boss and their amorous affair eventually leads Suzan to unwed pregnancy. Although the son, who is known as Babush, agrees to marry her, there is a lot of opposition from his family. Hence, Suzan has to abort the child and due to the stigma attached to unwed pregnancy, along with her mother leaves for the Gulf where her father is employed.
               Suzan has a very sympathetic and ‘modern-thinking’ uncle. He is of the opinion that narrow barriers such as caste and wealth should not come between the union of two people. To that effect, Suzan’s family visits the house of Babush to discuss the marriage arrangements. But they are driven out very unceremoniously and due to influential contacts of the father of Babush with the police, they even get arrested. Babush is cast as a playboy, who even after the fiasco with Suzan does not stop his philandering and hedonistic ways. After a few years Suzan returns back to Goa.
               Due to his immoral behaviour, Babush receives a lot of infamy and his chances of a happy married life are impaired because of his previous record. Babush starts to drown his sorrows in alcohol, which concerns his parents. His parents Mr. and Mrs. Khomvtte (Khaunte) are these elitist bigots who like to keep their distance from the ‘others’ and who never fail to insult those people who are low-castes, for instance Subhada’s friend Udai. The story takes a turn when their daughter Subhada elopes with a boy from Bihar. It is here they realize that Subhada’s friend Udai, who was from the barber’s community and who had just completed his studies in medicine could have been a suitable match for their daughter.
               The bigoted parents realize their faults and set out to make amends. Bubush now has to redeem himself in the eyes of Suzan because he realizes that he still has feelings for her. Since Babush helps Suzan’s family in a nasty property dispute involving an unscrupulous builder from Delhi, things start to change for the better. In the end they get married and even the estranged daughter and son-in-law of Mr. Khomvtte are reunited with the family. Happy ending!
               Although there is a happy ending to this novel, I believe that there are many issues that the author has raised and some that he has glossed over and such issues need to be critically examined. In order to break the narrow shackles of caste, Pandharinath Lotlikar suggests and in a way endorses least possible interference by adults when the question of their children’s marriage is concerned. But the rubric of adlem chintop (old thinking) is too broad or vague to discuss caste divisions or religious divisions. There are no clear-cut indications of whether the author is pointing towards caste or religion. The idea that inter-caste/religious marriages can lead to greater social justice and general happiness is not something that one can easily accept because the power and gender relations of caste and marriage are much more confounding than the simplistic view that we find in Toddzodd like, for instance, “Vornna vevostha” or Varna hierarchy is no longer existent in contemporary and technologically advanced times.
               Although Suzan is the protagonist of the novel, her role is that of the passive bystander. Most of the decisions pertaining to her life are either made by her uncle, Antao or she is shown as having no other option but to accept what fate has in store for her. When Suzan gets married she is shown to have converted to the religion of her husband and even gets her name changed to Suman – one who has a good/pure mind. The author here doesn’t dwell much on this aspect of the story; it is treated as something very natural in the course of events of the story. Suzan’s voice is not her own and it is in the treatment and construction of the character of Suzan that the contradictions, conflicts and dichotomies of such thinking, like that of Pandharinath Lotlikar, come to the fore. It also exposes the shaky arguments that are made by the author against caste/religion-based inequalities for on one hand a call is given to abandon the old (read as bad) and burst forth into the new, which is egalitarian and good; but on the other one can find such practices of not only asking a woman to convert but also fundamentally changing her identity by way of giving a new name. And because the author has not bothered to comment and clarify his stand on this glaring contradiction, I feel that it has been glossed over. Although the idea behind this novel is the compromises that parents should make when marriage of their children is concerned, Suzan the poor and presumably low-caste Catholic girl seems to be making the most compromises.
            Politics of representation and caste aside, Pandharinath has a beautiful way of writing Konknni. It is simple yet mellifluous. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments in the novel such as the prank that is played on Babush during the Carnival ball! If we beak the title Toddzodd into two equal halves we get two different words: todd (=to break) and zodd (=to join). I feel that one needs to break a lot of casteist mindsets before we start building a new society. Perhaps then toddzodd or compromise may not be required.

Toddzodd by Pandharinath D. Lotlikar (Panjim/Ponnji: Dalgado Konknni Akademi), 2011; pp. 155, Rs. 50/-; Phone: 91-0832-2221688 (Available at Dalgado Konknni Akademi, Panjim)

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 7, 2012) 

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