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Review: A Gardener In The Wasteland

books Updated: Feb 10, 2012 18:05 IST
Indrajit Hazra, Hindustan Times
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A Gardener In The Wasteland

Story: Srividya Natarajan

Art: Aparajita Ninan


Rs. 220 pp 128

One hundred and thirty-three years before Richard Dawkins launched his frontal attack against the idea of god in his 2006 book The God Delusion, Jotirao Govindrao Phule declared war against a religious system that sanctified one class of people trampling over others deemed to be inferior. Phule’s weapon of choice was his 1873 publication, Gulamgiri (Slavery), a scathing attack on brahminism and Hindiusm, in which he not only attacked the codified exploitation of the ‘sudras’ and ‘atisudras’, but also called for the uplift of India’s ‘lower castes’ through education and by aligning their cause with the British.

What makes this graphic book such a stand-out among scores of publications on India’s political and social histories is that it resusciates Phule’s iconic — and iconoclastic — work while constantly reminding the reader how it remains such a cogent, palpable, living text even in ‘sovereign socialist secular democratic republic’ 21st century India. The artwork by Aparijita Ninan, with its bold black and white, thick outlined drawings reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis books, riffs perfectly with Srividya Natarajan’s intelligent and moving narration.

A Gardener in the Wasteland slips in and out of the ‘here and now’ where we constantly find Natarajan and Ninan in 2010 Delhi exploring, understanding, commenting on and ultimately sharing the world and ideas of Jotiba Phule and his wife and ‘business partner’ Savitribai. So even as many of us tend to see ‘caste’ through the peephole of various isolated cardboxes — as an almost abstract phenomenon that provides dissertations to scholars; or as an easy electoral tool used and misused by heartland politicians; or as anthropological set of parameters to study various aspects of Indian society down the ages; or as a benign marker used by families to perpetuate happy kinship norms through marriage — Natarajan and Ninan make us stare at the very real viciousness, injustice, violence and not-subtle-at-all tyranny that caste wields over millions in India to this day. In a powerful doublespread, we are told on one side of Phule’s reiteration of what is literally depicted in the Manusmriti with regard to sudras and the Vedas (see picture below). On the other side, the author-artist duo makes a compelling comparison of caste brutality with Abel Meeropol’s poem ‘Strange fruit’ made immortal by Billie Holiday in her song about American racism and lynchings of Blacks. The image in the middle of a portly brahman priest sharing the strange fruit of prasada with a hooded Ku Klux Klansman drives the point home more effectively than any other argument made about casteism and racism being kissing cousins. Turn the page and we see a news report on ‘nine dalit children among 15 rescued from bondage in Tamil Nadu’. This is not Phule’s 19th century Pune. It is April 2010, India.

Savitribai’s ‘direct action’ of being a ‘lower caste’ woman teaching ‘sudra’ and ‘atisudra’ girls in the face of hysterical protests of ‘high caste’ Hindus comes early in the book — in fact three pages before we first encounter Jotiba — underlines how important her immense courage and belief in education being the gateway to equality was to her husband’s thinking.

This book is also a forceful confirmation of Phule’s radical humanism and his revolutionary spirit as a rationalist raging against the obscurantism of organised religion. We are given  Phule’s counter-arguments against the Vedic depictions of early Indian history through ‘Aryan-centric’ mythologies. Phule cuts through each of the ten avatars of Vishnu one by one, pointing out how these were glorified depictions of early invaders who were given ‘divine’ attributions for political reasons, the prime one being to keep India’s original inhabitants (depicted as asuras) under the thumb of the brahman-usurpers (depicted as devas). One speech bubble quotes Phule in Gulamgiri: “Since Brahma had vaginas in four places — mouth, groin, arms and legs (since the four varnas were born out of these four parts) each of them must have menstruated for at least four days each, and he, must have sat on seclusion, as an unclean person, for sixteen days each month. Then who did the chores?” If this counter-argument sounds hilarious (or blasphemous), it’s because Phule is countering arguments by using the same ludicrous logic used by the brahman.

A Gardener In The Wasteland is a powerfully passionate book that brings smack into the foreground something  unequivocally evil that keeps simmering in the background — or worse, is kept distressingly invisible.