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The IUP Journal of English Studies :
Caste and Outcast: Dalit Masculinity in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
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In India, primarily because of the caste system, there are multiple conceptions of masculinity, and they are based on the position a man occupies within the caste hierarchy. Dalit masculinity is one of them. But from the upper-caste point of view, an “untouchable” man is dispossessed of masculinity and rendered a social eunuch, and therefore he should not even attempt to demonstrate his masculinity by, for example, establishing sexual relations with an upper-caste woman. Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things features a dalit young man called Velutha who becomes the object of upper-caste men’s victimizing masculinist power and an upper-caste woman’s gaze. The woman in question is a Syrian Christian divorcee called Ammu. Taking advantage of the asymmetrical social order of India that privileges upper-caste men as well as women over lower-caste men, especially the dalits, Ammu too exploits and victimizes Velutha. He ultimately pays with his life for being a dalit, for being a man, and for being a dalit man who unwittingly challenges the hyper-masculinist upper-caste establishment.

 
 
 

In spite of the spectacular achievements in various fields which should have provided ample opportunities for the development of alternative, secular identities, for the Indians, even today, the primary identity marker is caste.1 For the upper castes, caste identity creates an “all gain and no pain” kind of situation, while for the lower castes, especially the dalits, it is a big liability. To further complicate matters, caste, class, and gender identities frequently get intermeshed and become indistinguishable.

The origin of the fourfold caste system is often traced to the Rig Veda, but the occupational castes2 and the sub-castes perhaps got institutionalized somewhere between the fifth century BC and the fifth century AD and have been playing since then a vital role in the social, economic, political, and religious life of the Indians, more specifically the Hindus. To begin with, the caste system perhaps served as a practical arrangement and ensured a steady and stable supply of goods and services ranging from those of a priest to a barber, as part of what the sociologists call the Jajmani System. In the course of time, however, a large number of people were excommunicated from the upper castes often for defying the caste injunctions and taboos enshrined in the ancient, 1250 BC, law book called the Manusmrti (Jha 1922) and some other dharmaúâstras. For example, the Svapakas, who are children of a Kshattri father and an Ugra mother (who themselves were born of inter-caste alliances), are ordered to live outside the village, eat from broken dishes, wear black iron ornaments, carry the corpses, execute the criminals, and do other such dirty and demeaning jobs (Jha 1922, 10:51-52). The Dhigvanas (born to a Brahmin father and an Ayogava mother) are asked to work in leather (Jha 1922, 10:49). The Antyavasayins (born to a Chandala father and a Nishada mother) are assigned employment in cremation grounds (Jha 1922, 10:39). Although the Manusmrti does not state the idea of untouchability, most of those designated later as “untouchables” were for sure the children of inter-caste unions.3

Considering the fact that the prescriptions and proscriptions contained in the Manusmrti were zealously enforced by various ruling dynasties—for example, the Sunga dynasty in the north and the Vishnukundins in the south—a large number of people might have indeed been rendered outcastes over a long period of time. And they took to doing “polluting” and demeaning jobs that others would not do; for instance, leather work, sweeping streets, cleaning latrines, and disposing of dead animals in order to eke out a livelihood since they were no longer permitted to pursue their hereditary professions. It suited the upper castes because they needed people to do these menial jobs anyway. Because of the unclean nature of their work, these unfortunate people were forced to live on the margins of the village society and were treated as untouchables. Their descendants were automatically designated as untouchables. The upper-caste people would have no social interaction with them and would in fact treat them as less than human. The Manusmrti and to an extent the Grhyasûtras4 still govern the lives of the Hindus and condition their minds to ill-treat the “untouchables” (now called the dalits), no matter how many laws have been enacted by the parliament of India and the various state legislatures to emancipate them.

India has been going through unprecedented progress on several fronts for the past couple of decades. But the caste system has shown no signs of weakening at all. Instead, it has demonstrated remarkable tenacity, flexibility, and amorphousness. It has percolated into the social and economic institutions in spite of their diversification, and caste-based discrimination, including the practice of untouchability, continues unabated. The dalits continue to be located at the bottom of the social ladder. State intervention and positive discrimination policies, such as reservation quotas, have paradoxically strengthened the caste identities rather than weakening them.5

Caste is a more urgent problem in India than all the other problems because it is at the root of almost all of them. A former Deputy Commissioner for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), Ram (2002, 96) thinks that caste “enables only a minute percentage of its [India’s] population to compete with the best of brains of the world, while keeping the masses in morass of poverty and ignorance.” Interestingly, people outside the caste system, foreigners for example, cannot easily perceive its pervasive presence or its devastating effects on its victims, especially the dalits. This is precisely why, unlike racism and sexism, caste-based discrimination has never been discussed on international forums.6 Arundhati Roy is perhaps the only activist-writer who has successfully internationalized the issue through her award-winning novel The God of Small Things and more recently through her bold Introduction to Ambedkar’s book Annihilation of Caste, apart from her speeches on innumerable platforms across the world. In her introduction to Annihilation of Caste, Roy (2014) comes down heavily on the caste system and caste-based discrimination:

 
 
 

Integrated Approach,The Caste System,Conceptions of Masculinity, Caste and the Dalit Subalterns, Caste, Christianity, and Communism, Upper-Caste Notions of Honor, Masculinity in India and Dalit Masculinity