The idea of Culture is definitely something quite challenging to define. Perhaps, one could just about safely state that culture constitutes the collective ideas that human beings live by, and these cultural values differ from community to community and place to place and are altered certainly from time to time. However, there are certain forces that shape and define human society in historical, political, social and ideological terms, and which serve to condition and manipulate human lives. The larger percentiles of humanity accept these and live by those silently and orderly but the sensitive minorities who are awakened to these fetters respond differently. Patriarchal and hierarchical values are two such “givens” that humanity for the most have taken for granted. The domination of nature, woman and the subaltern has for the most been the accepted normative of societies widely separated by colour, creed, geography, history, and even political and social systems. If such is the case how then can the marginalised voice their own selves? How then could one conceptualise these issues? Victims of marginalisation socially and politically ostracised and alienated from the mainstream culture had to seek for their own voice, their own identities, in order to make themselves be heard and taken note of. Such an attempt proffered them a repositioning of their own identities toward a rediscovery of their own selves.
The 26 essays brought together by the editors, Gulshan Das and G A Ghanshyam, attempt to interrogate the position of the marginalised, the Dalits, the situation of women and the subaltern in contemporary society as it is evidenced through various facets of the literary and the aesthetic. The British term subaltern, meaning a low-ranking position in the military was adopted by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to primarily refer to the Italian peasant class, but of late this term has been popularised to include the oppressed classes like the Dalits, socially and historically repressed tribals, and even the marginalised women under the yoke of patriarchy — a sort of umbrella term. This is the general background of the book under review: it invokes various issues pertaining to these and more while ranging through popular texts and literary contexts, film and media-generated images — Indian as well as western and cuts across a variety of literary and aesthetic genres like poetry, autobiography, fiction, non-fiction and films.
In all, the essays would represent a kaleidoscopic image which renders the traumas and travails of the down-trodden and the repressed. The most interesting aspect of these essays is the easy manner in which each author resorts to the material chosen for critical analysis: be it literature available originally in the English or through translations. The central focus that would link these varied pieces is the concern for the issues at hand, the role and identities of the downtrodden and the voiceless. The preface opens with a verse from the Rig Veda: In the beginning there was no centre/In the beginning there was no margin… then what existed before margin and centre? The final essay inquires into the self-contradictory role of a woman in the contemporary society, in terms of what the idea of a new woman would hold in the present times. This would reveal the scope and dimension of what the book sets out to achieve. Ideological issues, philosophical concerns, textual and theoretical inquiries, individual queries, aesthetic norms and their imbalances, the wide-split terrain of geographical and generation gaps, generally held social beliefs, sanctified roles and regulations, tensions, inequalities, the innumerable normatives and aberrations in our society and in the many new cultures in transition — these are some of the issues that this most intriguing collection of essays by diverse hands would offer the inquisitive reader.
The essay by Ali Ahmed Khan, on identity crisis in Maharashtrian Dalit short fictions, argues that Dalit literature is for the most deeply concerned with identity formation while it endeavours to assert the self-confidence and self-worth of the marginalised and the underprivileged sections of our times. Ghanshyam’s essay ‘Voices of Dalits from the Margin’, echoes Omprakash Valmiki’s position that the Dalit movement is an anti-caste movement and Dalit literature is certainly literature written by Dalits while the non-Dalit writer could never echo the true conditions of the underprivileged consciousness. The essay also goes on to situate the positions of women in a patriarchal society as being almost similar in scale and fate.
Voice of woman
There are essays that deal with the voice of the woman as explored by Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Suraiya, and the social traumas and psychological travails as depicted by Mahasweta Devi and Namita Gokhale. There are compact essays like the one by Oorja rajan Sinha exploring the peripheral nature of the Dalit psyche and by Prashant Mishra on local and regional literary identities evidenced through translations; there are also explorations rich on a comparative scale like Binod Mishra’s study of major works of Hindi and English stalwarts, and the one by Uma Ram on Attia Hosain and Bapsi Sidwa on partition as versions of the marginalised. Throughout the book one can perceive the diligence and commitment of the editors as they texture out the various strands. However, one wishes that they had taken a little more pain in the preparation of the manuscript by sectioning out the various essays either in terms of their content, genre or treatment. Nevertheless, what emerges through the different voices is the stringent voice of the hitherto voiceless: the subaltern, the Dalit, the woman, and the underprivileged — in a collective search for true identities. After all, when the marginalised navigate toward the centre, the periphery disappears and merges with the true centre.
Having said this much, I should also point out that the book suffers from a serious editorial shortcoming which could have been avoided: the various issues highlighted from the Indian situation, their regional counterparts, the literary representations of the women situation in western texts and narratives, different critical explorations of canonised texts and evocations of scribbles from the margin — all have been grafted together in one medley for the concerned reader, who in turn is called upon to discriminate the variety of strands and differences, of identities and dissimilarities that very often constitute the true dilemma of the modernised and modernising societies.
VOICE OF THE VOICELESS — Conceptualizing the Marginalized Psyche: Edited by Gulshan Das, G.A Ghanshyam; Authors Press, Q-2A, Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi-110016. Rs. 625