Bheda: The First Odia Dalit Novel
Translated by Raj Kumar
November 3, 2017
My childhood and youth were spent in a remote village in Odisha’s Kalahandi district. My father was a schoolteacher and my mother was an educated housewife. Ours was a lower- middle-class family, which did not have to struggle for food, clothes, books, or stationery. We ate and dressed well and lived in a good house, but the villagers did not treat us well. We were from the Dom community. So the place where we lived was called Dompada. And the place where the so-called upper-caste people lived was called Bhalpada (good pada). People of Bhalpada were called Bhallok (good people), and those of Dompada, Domlok. While the people of Bhalpada, the ‘good’ people, spoke Bhalkatha (good language), the people of Dompada spoke in Dom language. In one sense, the meaning of the term Dom was ‘bad’. But we were not at all ‘bad’ people. Why did people hate us, why didn’t they touch us, why were there restrictions for us to use the common wells and ponds—I simply could not under- stand these things till I went to university. I bore all kinds of grief and, as a victim of the caste system, was compelled to live an oppressed life. Only when I went to university did I read the writings of Jotiba Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, Bhima Bhoi, and other non-Brahmin leaders. Going through their writings I began to understand my subjugated self vis-à-vis the Indian caste-bound society.
The Title of the Novel
Akhila Naik’s Bheda is considered to be the first Odia Dalit novel which came out after a long silent spell. None of the previous novels by Dalits is currently available. It is a very short novel of eighty-eight pages, comprising seven chapters, each named after a character. In every chapter the novelist deftly addresses caste questions. Before we critically analyse the novel let us understand the etymological meaning of the title of the novel.
The word bheda has multiple meanings. The primary meaning is ‘a sense of difference’. If bheda is used with another word bhaba, it implies the differences that exist among people in terms of caste, class, or race. In the Indian context bhedabhaba basically denotes various kinds of caste discriminations that the upper castes practise against the lower castes, especially Dalits. Bheda also means ‘the target’.
In the novel Dalits are target of the upper castes because, after availing themselves of modern education, educated Dalits are now mobilizing resis tance to protest against the monopolies of the upper castes. ‘Bheda’ also has another meaning: to properly understand the ‘intricacies’ of an incident or a happening. Thus, all the different meanings of the word are in some way or the other connected to the idea of caste and its corollary meaning, which is, caste discrimination followed by atrocities. By giving this powerful title to his novel Naik wants to draw our attention to how complex the caste situation is in Indian society. He openly condemns the caste system, which perpetuates caste atrocities. Finally, by writing this novel, Naik is able to initiate a dialogue on the question of human rights and social justice in a backward state like Odisha, where such issues are rarely raised in the public domain.
An Extract from Bheda
‘There is a saying, if the Dom has only a mana of paddy, he is a mahajan!’ Wiping the dirt from his neck Baya said, ‘Whatever you say, Seth, if the Doms have some food at home, they show off so much that you can’t even imagine … and if they are able to read even two letters of the alphabet, they think that they know the Vedas and Upanishads by heart. They are not staying in the places assigned to them by caste rules. Because of their mobility, today, they do not respect even Indra or Chandra. Till yesterday we watched you removing the carcasses of cattle and eating carrion. During weddings and ceremonies you beat the dhol and nishan and ate rice seated on dunghills; after eating you tied the leftover in the corner of your towel and took some home for your family and children.
Today, because you have two paisas, or you can afford to have two meals, or you are able to read two letters, does it mean you have become Brahmins? Doesn’t Kavi Surya say, “By smearing mud from the Mandakini, can the village pig become a cow?” A pig is always a pig; a cow is always a cow. Forget about seven rebirths, if a pig meditates through a hundred rebirths can it become a cow? In the Tretaya Yuga, someone called Sambuka from your community was beheaded because he wanted to become a Brahmin by meditating. It was Lord Ramachandra himself who separated Sambuka’s head from his torso. Whatever you say, Seth, there was a kingdom called Ram Rajya where everyone lived guarding his self-respect.…’
Continuing, Semi Seth said, ‘Very true, Lawyer Sir. Look at that poor old man Gandhi. To drive the foreigners away he left his food and drink and wore only a loincloth. He wanted the foreigners to leave India and for Ram Rajya to return. Let everyone live guarding his self-respect. But did the clever Doms allow him to do this? They have no self-respect. So, for just using that term “self-respect”, they shot him dead.…’
Baya grew a little agitated at Seth’s lack of knowledge of history. After shaking his head for some time and smiling he said, ‘The Doms did not shoot Gandhi. He was shot by … leave it. No point of discussing it now. But whoever shot him … they shot him for good. Today it is a sin to even take Gandhi’s name. He was basically a servant of the Muslims, our enemies. Therefore, he was a real villain.
Yes, of course, there was another cheat at that time. He was not just a cheat but the leader of all cheats called Ambedkar. Have you heard his name? ‘Is he the same person who seems to have written our constitution? Are you talking about him, Lawyer Sir?’ Semi Seth replied hesitantly.
‘Oh, yes, that Ambedkar.’ There was mockery in Baya’s voice. ‘Is it a constitution or a big zero? Do you know his caste? Mahar. Mahars in Maharashtra are like Doms and the Ghasis of our area. So whoever is a Dom is also a Mahar, understood? The same community has a different name in different region.’ ‘Is it so?’ wondered Semi Seth. Disbelievingly he asked, ‘Are you saying that the country is run on the laws made by a Dom?’ ‘The country is governed by those laws; that’s why it has come to this state. Don’t you see that the Doms and the Ghasis have become the sons-in-law of the government? That’s why they are pissing on our heads. If they study, they get stipends; if they look for a job, they have quotas. But their days are num- bered, Seth. Let our party come to power. You will see we’ll throw that Mahar’s constitution out on the dunghill. We’ll bring such laws that your mill will never be locked up.
Akhila Naik is a Professor and the Head of Department of Odia in Government College (Autonomous), Bhawanipatna, Odisha.
Raj Kumar is a Professor in the Department of English in University of Delhi.
This extract from the novel Bheda by Akhila Naik has been re-published,New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017, with permission from the publisher.
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