Vasant Moon’s Growing up Untouchable in India:
A Voice for the Voiceless
Man and his place in society have always been a matter of concern to a writer. A true artist must have the capacity to have an insight into life and should be aware of his surroundings and environment. He cannot afford to live in an ivory tower when humanity is writhing in pain. Vasant Moon is a realist whose social vision was shaped by time, place and the circumstance of the contemporary period. He is writing with a mission to put an end to hypocrisy, cruelty, insensitivity and injustice prevailing in the society.
After the conquest of northern India by the Aryans, the aborigine population was either driven to the south or enslaved. This element of the Hindu Aryan society was the out-caste class or the subaltern. Its function was to do the menial job of removing human excrements. Aryan culture insisted upon enforcing racial exclusiveness, physically as well as spiritually. The term subaltern owes its origin to Antonio Gramsci’s writings and underlines a subordinate position in terms of class, gender, caste, race and culture. It was popularized by Gayatri Chakravorti spivak’s essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (1985). According to her, the subaltern cannot speak. For her subaltern is not just a classy word for the oppressed. In an interview, she clarifies: “Everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern – a space of difference. Now who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern” (45-46).
Thus the word subaltern signifies deep meaning. She argues that to work for subaltern is to bring them into speech. Vasant Moon was deeply influenced by Dr. Ambedkar, the champion of the poor. He rejected the domination of one class over the other on the basis of superiority in the hierarchial order. He stood against the subhuman status granted to the low class people by the people in the ‘centre’ who do not choose to acknowledge filth, squalor, cruelty, laziness and sensuality. Vasant Moon’s voice is for the voiceless, the subaltern.
The concept of untouchability is one of the most difficult for non-Indians to understand. That there are groups of people who are by birth permanently impure, not to be touched, given the work that is polluting, relegated to the margin of society and yet necessary for the maintenance of that society—this concept bears some relation to racial or ethnic divisions elsewhere, but is far more systematized in the culture of India (x).
An advocate of the downtrodden, and the underprivileged, Vasant Moon exhibits in the novel an acute concern for the subordinates in terms of class, gender, caste, office and in other ways. A character Maniram, a young Mahar, was fearless from childhood on. As an adult he came to the gymnasium, and the ranks of wrestlers started to form. A preplanned quarrel started between the mahars and cow herds.
“You bastard scavenger, don’t you have any respect? The mahars were caught by surprise” (16). Class distinction and the aristocratic system are repugnant to him because they check the natural and free current of fellow feelings which should flow uninhibited from one man to another.
His friends and classmates helped him a lot by giving him clothes and food. He felt no shame on accepting the help. But the pride in the Mahar boys made them reject the scholarship from government for the ‘Harijans’. They disliked to be called as Harijans.
Untouchabilily is centuries old, deeply rooted in the Hindu’s belief. According to superstition, a touchable person would be defiled, if he touches an untouchable. This injustice had been practised by the Hindu society for long. The touchable communities, until the present time, have not accepted the untouchables as fellow human beings. Though the Hindu spirituality depicted in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and smritees has emphasized on “Human Equality, Enlightment, Uplift, Love and Kindness” to all not only to human beings but also for every living creature, generally this spirituality has remained untouchable to the Hindu society. Mahatma Gandhi had painfully called this evil “a disgrace on Hinduism”. Gandhi’s idea to uplift the untouchable by changing Hindu’s hearts was never materialized. In the democratic India, even in the beginning of the 21st century, untouchability is still exiting in one form or another. The priest of every religion knows that the concept of untouchability is highly irreligious. As most of them are enveloped by a kind of spiritual emptiness, they lack the moral strength to fight against it. In fact some of them are even happy to fish in the troubled waters in which the untouchables are struggling to float. Vasant Moon says: “On every Thursday the mandai—a big market without a fair—was held in kamathi. An abundance of Muslim goons loitered there. They were fascinated by untouchable girls. If any beautiful girl came into the market, the Muslim goon tried to kidnap her” (49).
Swami Vivekananda wrote that the caste system is opposed to the religion of Vedanta. “Caste is a social custom and all our great preachers have tried to break it down. From Buddhism downwards, every sect has preached against caste and every time it has only riveted the chains” (31).
In Growing up Untouchable in India, Vasant Moon highlights the social wrongs to which we have subjected a large number of our brethren whom we have declared as untouchables. The status of an untouchable is insulted, considered incomplete and imperfect: “Once, several boys laughed at such impure pronunciation, but the teacher’s attention went specifically to me. He came over and gave me a powerful slap on my left cheek. I swallowed the insult and kept quiet” (84).
His soul was rigged with innumerable wounds inflicted on him by the casteism in the society. His whole body and soul writhed under the pressure of casteism and ached to establish its identity. After passing eighth standard, most of the Brahman boys would be put in the A class, which was English Medium. The Brahman were considered more intelligent and capable. As an untouchable, Vasant Moon was entitled to only the left-overs of the Brahmans:
“I felt like taking the science class. My thought was that if Brahman students took it, why shouldn’t I? However, when I asked the science teachers, they said, ‘This subject is very difficult, you will not be able to manage it’” (85).
Vasant Moon expresses a sympathetic and insightful view of women through his mother Purnabai. Through the image of his mother he conveys the message that the poor becoming the underdog is a matter of economic determinism, but it can be reformed by love, compassion, sympathy and a humane consideration of man as man. The sufferers are not victims of fate or God, but of society, which is man-made. It is universally accepted that human happiness is attained only by harmonizing the hardship of life which is mainly undertaken by the women. Dalit women are doubly marginalized—as Dalits and as women. Vasant Moon’s mother is atypical example: “After she left Pestonji’s bungalow she quickly got a job in a second Parsi home. This family paid three rupees a month. One day Vasant’s mother was given the son’s clothes to wash, “The colors faded, so one and a half rupees were cut from her pay” (77).
Vasant Moon candidly writes about the poor in his vasti (neighbourhood) with whom he was most familiar. He truly immersed himself in the sub-world of the injured. His intense feelings for the suffering masses of India colour his fiction at every step, and it becomes a major influence in making him a staunch believer in Dr. Ambedkar, the champion of the untouchables. Vasant Moon’s writings thus lend a powerful voice to the voiceless powerless Dalit community who have put up with centuries of suffering. Growing Up Untouchable in India is the testimony of their suffering and social ostracization. In his writing, Vasant Moon establishes that to be marginal is not to be powerless but to be powerful.
Vivekananda, Swami. Caste, culture and socialism (Swami Ananyananda), Calcutta: Ashytosh Leon graphic CO, 1983.
Leon De Knock, “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.” New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa. Vol .23 No. 3, 1992.
Moon, Vasant. Growing up Untouchable In India. Trans. Gail Omvedt. New Delhi: Vistaar, 2002.
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