Government Brahmana

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Item Code: IHL542
Author: Aravind Malagatti
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: (Translated from Kannada)
Edition: 2017
ISBN: 8125032169
Pages: 148
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Book Description
Back of the Book

Government Brahmana is the English translation of the kannada autobiography of Aravind Malagatti. The autobiographical narrative is in the form of a series of episodes from the author’s childhood and youth. These episodes function as what G.N. Devy calls “epiphanic moments” in a caste society. The author reflects on specific instances from his childhood and student days that illustrate the normative cruelty practised by caste Hindu society on dalits.

We encounter all the tropes of (male) dalit life: isolation in school where even drinking water is an ordeal; life in the village where dalits perform the filthiest tasks but are denied access to common wells, lakes, where they cannot step into shops and therefore have their purchases thrown at the, where they have to cut their own hair because no barber would touch it; consuming dead-animal meat and innards; doomed love affairs with ‘upper’ caste women.

A painful, disturbing, thought- provoking memoir, this text is conversely full of vitality, even tenderness. In its structure and purpose – as a series of notes towards a dalit autobiography – Government Brahmana appears to be anticipated by Ambedkar’s own autobiographical sketches.

Translator’s Preface

I was privileged to be involved in the translation of this text into English. In this case, translating from Kannada to English and widening the readership required thinking about cultural differences, what needed to be explained, and what was understood. Footnotes were added. I appreciate the language and syntax of the original because it reflects the multiple worlds Dr. Aravind Malagatti lives in and its spoken languages.

In telling our stories, we create and recreate ourselves, seeing ourselves in the eyes of others, explaining ourselves. Each time the storyteller tells his/her story it is slightly different with his/ her audience shaping the emphasis. Written texts are different- the audience more an abstraction, the text fixed. When we write narratives, we are taking others in, sharing perceptions and interpretations of the world. We are breaking down the boundary between self and other, dissolving borders. Dr. Aravind Malagatti’s stories in Government Brahmana have spoken to the people of Karnataka and have now been translated for a larger community These stories invite the reader into both the pain and the integrity of his life; they involve us in his process of creating meaning from a world that can be both ugly and beautiful.

As a wider range of narratives fill our bookshelves, enter our discussions and classrooms, narrative theory attempts to raise questions and make generalisations about this form. In "Scattered voices: Some remarks on a narrative theory of postcolonial storytelling", Susanne Knaller raises questions as to whether the subtext of all narration is one of power. She quotes Hayden White, ‘The demand for closure is a demand for moral meaning, a demand that sequences of real events be assessed as to their significance as elements of a moral drama.’ One might assume that a Dalit’s story would be one such story; however, such an assumption would definitely limit appreciation of Dr. Malagatti’s narrative. This work, of course, reflects power issues, but the complexity of character and the questioning involved moves both the writer and reader into a way of reading that is beyond judgment and ideology.

Dr. Malagatti opens Government Brahmana with the idea that his life is ‘ordinary', surfacing questions that surround any piece of narrative writing: Why is the author telling us his story? Is this a Dalit story or is this an individual Dalit's story? What is the difference? The purpose comes through when the author writes, I would like to read my life on my own and I would also like to be the first reader of my life] How do we interpret our lives differently than others? How do we interpret our lives to others? Why might the author feel so strongly about being the interpreter of his own life? Dr. Malagatti and I talked about this book at length; he, in discussing Indian Dalit writers said, (We are choosing memories that create social change.) Creating a more just and sensitive world is the explicit purpose of the author here. This book, however, does not have a particularly didactic quality. The stories question the self as well as the questioning society. The whys of the world seem ever present. The author takes us into the intimacy of his life from the storytelling on his grandmother’s lap to the pain of lost love. He breaks down the boundaries of the individual, of caste and race, enabling the reader to feel another’s experience and share the search for answers.

The author first raises a question about writing an autobiography at an early age: Do others think he should wait until he has ‘wrinkles on the face)? This question leads us again into what is the purpose or reason for writing one’s story? Government Brahmana involves the reader in a conversation that raises questions about how human beings treat one another, how they react to situations. Every aspect from subject matter to word choice create awareness in the writer and the reader. The interpretation of these experiences is not finished. It is filled with questions. It docs not have the answers either of an elder who has given up hope or an elder who has answers of faith.

Dr. Malagatti writes in the first chapter, ‘Relating one’s experiences means being betel nut to people’s mouth when one is still alive.° He writes of the controversy of his subject matter within his family and community and makes reference to the style; he comments on his desire to write his experiences directly, not with the purpose of creating an image. He says the 'Dalitism of a Dalit could simply be caught and held by directly narrating experience.’ The author has carefully chosen those experiences. When his uncle questions his choice of content, Dr. Malagatti, in a style that rambles along with his thinking, first pays respect to his uncle’s role in his life, then recognises that this content requires ‘a brave heart’, and then refers to incidents that have shaped his existence. These experiences are the essence of what he wants to say at this time about his life. Without explicitly criticising image, the idea of a (cultivated presence or image', he writes of the individuality of his path and the idea of a 'radiance of authentic life experience’. The experiences have a quality of directness, a vividness that is unencumbered by the writing. The author then ends these comments on content and style with a beautiful description of his grandmother’s storytelling, putting all in the context of the oral tradition of sharing experiences, of seeking meaning, of attempting to understand life’s strange twists. Each person’s experiences are his own, and each one makes the path of his life in the light of such experience.

The author in this book documents in an amazingly soft voice the outrageous treatment of the Dalit people, stories that reflect insult and injury. But, these stories also reflect incredible qualities of character—feisty pride and strong self-sufficiency, sensitivity and humility Dr. Malagatti’s grandmother becomes a true heroine, a strong woman who sets the foundation for a family that will move into new times and ways. The setting often has a gritty quality—with descriptions of different coloured flies, of games played while cleaning shit from the intestines of sheep, of the disturbing behaviour of a suffering roommate. The reality of the situations is so painful. He describes the joy of water and play and then gives the later realisation: (The source of water to the trench was a complete mystery then, but now when I think back, I feel repulsed. It was sewage water, collected from the houses in the village... Sometimes, while the clothes were being washed, even shit came floating. Are the same time, describing scenes at the washing place, Dr. Malagatti shows the feisty quality of the women of his community battling for their place to wash the clothes. (My avva, chikkamma and doddamma were not docile dolls! They too were fighters with self—respect.’ And then there is the grandmother always with a strategy to provide for the children. Later, in the story ((My Ex-Beloved”, the poignancy of love and caste bring out both character and humiliation.

The author writes, (I started feeling proud of her like never before. I felt that there was meaning to the term (sacrifice’ when both people were equally shattered., But, as the story continues he felt like his (great sacrifice had been set on fire’ and the author writes, (I felt disgusted with myself (It is this process of writing, of turning the event over and over in ones hand, that moves both writer and reader into the many ways we can see ourselves and our behaviour. Most of these stories reflect the difficulty and the pain of interaction between caste the hurt that ones label is referred to over a cup of tea. Or a time when the authors plate isn’t taken into the house and he questions this remembering his grandmothers words that (If a Dalit happened to touch an upper caste persons vessel, it had to be smeared with cow dung and burnt in the fire...How much more pleasant is the touch of cows urine than that of an untouchable human being!° Courage has put these stories forth, as Dr. Malagatti writes at the end of the book, (I believe one must be bold enough to narrate the embarrassing instances of life as honestly and clearly as those events that make one proud.'

The book is a dialogue between the author and the readers, and Dr. Malagatti is conscious of the reader. When I was talking about the book with Dr. Malagatti, he said, (I am not ready to let the reader go without thinking about these situations.’ Often he ends chapters with questions: ‘How can a society which does not let even the creations of Vishwamithra make love naturally give a chance to human lovers to meet?’ ‘I have you ever taken bath in such gutter water...I have you gargled with the same water and also cleaned your teeth? ‘We are so sensitive that we shy away from referring to such incidents in plain words...If such is our aversion, then imagine the plight of those who have actually been forced to eat shit?’ ‘You tell me now, when I have to face such situations, how can I accept invitations without any reservations? These questions are directed at the reader.

But, he is not answering his own questions, he is truly asking for the reader’s response. He said to me once, (When you purchase a pen, you wonder if it will work. You test it. When you are reading this book, you should ask yourself am I living the right life? The reader has to test himself the book should help you do that.'

The writing provokes the readers to test their selves. But, the book as a process also tests the author. In talking about the book, Dr. Malagatti said, “This writing is not to hurt anyone, first I want to test myself’ What does he mean by wanting to test himself? The meaning of this word ‘test’ raises questions around the understanding of this text. Is it just the rightness or wrongness of actions, judgments, or is the writing, the sharing of human experience, a process of working with reality? Do people really do this? How can people treat others so? Don’t we all question at times what we experience, is it real or have we imagined it, distorted it somehow? Where is the truth in experience? \Where is the validation of pain and joy? This personal reflection contains a complexity that is too easily lost in ideology; such reflection creates a collaboration that brings together, unifies rather than fragments. A book like this is not paper and ink but a piece of life that is to be felt, to be shared in a variety of contexts. These stories provide pictures of a social reality to scholars and a validation of personal experience to other Dalits. The personal story becomes bigger than the individual. Professor Rahamat Tarikere of Hampi University said, ‘It is not a personal biography. It is a social history’ Both Brahmins and Dalits respond to the message. A Dalit newspaper editor says to Dr. Malagatti, It is the Dalit community’s history These experiences are the experiences of my sisters and brothers. On the other hand, a Brahmin writes that the book asks him to criticise myself and come to the ground of reality...when Brahmins come to my house, they ask why I have this book. He is asked to defend having the book on his shelf He answers the question with the same speed and vigour, (I have books like Bhagavad-Gita, Ramayana, Krishnavatara and so I have Government Brahmana.° Two editions of the book in Kannada have sold out, as well as the Tamil edition. Parts have been translated into Bengali and Marathi. The letters at the end of the second Kannada edition reflect the dialogue created the open honest communication of emotion. One reader has written, “This book has given me more courage to continue my work for social change Dr. Malagatti said about its purpose, (The work gives will power to exploited people of all classes, it will be a source of inspiration} However, I believe this book moves to a deeper level in its honesty asking for personal honesty as well as social honesty.

Dr. Malagatti in referring to the story about his ex-beloved said, (Most writers don’t want to talk about or show their weaknesses. I show society’s weakness and mine. One should write about those instances that make one vulnerable, weak.’ In his story ‘The plantain leaf that keeps pestering me’, he questions the painful effect of prejudice and awareness. How does one know the difference between the coincidental and the intentional? Dr. Malagatti refers to the way his life — his untouchability — has been permeated with prejudice so that he cannot get outside of it. He writes, (Probably this lack of a touch without a tinge of untouchability will piercingly haunt me like a ghost till the end to my life.’


Acknowledgements vii
Translator’s Preface ix
1. With you reader…before you read 1
2. Coins on the corpse and the wedding feast 7
3. Tomorrow’s turn for sweeping: Mala Katti 12
4. The she-buffalo on heat and the he-buffalo after her 17
5. The black cat did not turn white 26
6. Dead sheep and meat heaps 32
7. The story of the stolen cotton 38
8. An Eastman colour movie called Okuli 42
9. Glory of janivaara and shivadaara 46
10. When Handya’s hose was slashed 51
11. My colony, my study 54
12. The government Brahman’s devotion to lord Raghaendra 60
13.The incident of being a fake brahmin 64
14. My ex-beloved 69
15. Some girls who flirt with the future 85
16. My debut at the boozer’s table, and revolt, brahminism, etc. 92
17. Coffee over a cup of tea 97
18. Marxism and the plate after the meal 99
19. The plaintain leaf that keeps pestering me 103
20. And so I became an expert barber 106
21 My father’s teaching job and the fifteenth of August 110
22. Before the end… 115
Afterword by Tharakeshwar V.B.119
Glossary 130

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