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Review: A Gardener in the Wasteland, Jotiba’s Fight for Liberty

By Sayalee Karkare
April 3rd 2012

A Gardener in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty, the second graphic novel published by the Delhi-based Navayana is extremely exciting for at least three reasons: Firstly, despite a rich history of drawn art and pictorial story-telling, the English language graphic novel continues to be a fairly new bird in the Indian literary scene. It is only in the last decade that the form has com into its own with periodic sightings in the markets. Secondly, the graphic novel, depicting the life and times of anti-caste crusader Jotiba Phule, is fearlessly political and minces no meat about its political stance. If the Indian graphic novel is a rare bird, a non-academic book that tackles caste head-on is even more of a novelty. To add to its seditious allure, Navayana, the publishing house under whose auspices the book took shape, is, according to its own website “India’s first and only publishing house to exclusively focus on the issue of caste from an anticaste perspective.” As if an anti-caste English language graphic novel were not reason enough, there is a third cause for excitement – the book in question has been written and illustrated by a two woman team with Srividya Natarajan as the author and Aparajita Ninan as the graphic artist. The world of comic books and graphic novels has long been the domain of geeky males and any attempt by women to jump into the fray is nothing short of commendable. The feminine perspective allows for interesting asides such as how women in the children’s comics Amar Chitra Katha are “impossibly curvy” or how it is not just the lower castes but also women who bear the brunt of Brahmanic oppression.

The book itself is a graphic representation of the life of social reformer Jotiba Phule, who together with his wife, Savitribai fought against the oppressive caste structures of that time. It is based largely on Jotiba’s polemic text Slavery (Gulamgiri) with inputs from his other writings. First published in 1873, the wordy title of Phule’s Gulamgiri deserves a full mention, if only for its sheer tongue-in-cheek cleverness: Slavery (In this civilised British Government under the cloak of Brahmanism). Narrated in a self-reflexive style, the graphic novel is cleverly structured in a similar fashion: the very first panel depicts the artist and the writer walking on the streets of Delhi, discussing the script and the roughs for the book while an old man in the background screams caste-based expletives at children playing ball in his backyard. This method of a commentary within a commentary sets the tone for the remainder of the novel. The technique allows Natarajan and Ninan a certain distance from their own work, enabling them to place caste and oppression in the context of struggles for equality everywhere, such as the French Revolution and the American Civil Rights Movement. Newspaper clippings about caste-based crimes in present day India are interspersed with scenes from the primordial beginnings of the Universe, as described in the Manusmriti. Characters literally step out from the pages of history to hold forth with Phule, as Savitribai helpfully signposts their discussions for the uncomprehending reader.

The novel imparts very much a feel of a story within a story as all the main characters in the novel, from Phule to his friend Dhondiba, including Natarajan and Ninan discuss various myths, histories and contemporary events that shape present understanding of caste in India. While the attempt to contextualise the caste struggle across time and space is admirable, it comes at the cost of a tighter narrative that could have worked better had it focussed in greater detail on Phule’s story and its immediate backdrop. For instance, a deeper analysis could have dealt more effectively with Phule’s literal critique of the origin myths of the Aryans described in the Manusmriti, whereas in the present form, his arguments seem specious and lacking point.

More gravely perhaps, Ninan and Natarajan create a caricature of the “the other” – a fat, hoary priest complete with the caste thread, tilak and tuft of hair epitomizing the corrupt, morally-devoid Brahmin, is seen marching across the pages of the novel, casually committing atrocities in passing and leaving a path of destruction in his wake. Dehumanising the other might seem like poetic justice after centuries of dispossession of land, history and culture endured by the lower-castes but it rarely serves a purpose. The book polarizes and ends up preaching to the converted and in that, misses a great opportunity to engage with the undecided reader who otherwise might have been lured by the prospect of Indian-themed graphic art.

As Natarajan explains towards the end, the book is not an academic treatise, indeed it is the opposite of one with an at-times overtly emotional tone and graphic images of caste violence. Nevertheless, the issue is one which could undoubtedly do with more light-shedding, and it is instructive to be periodically reminded that history is but a story told by the powerful. All things considered, the book is a remarkable achievement in reclaiming the narrative and it is no small wonder that it has escaped the notice of the authorities. Those who delight in owning potentially seditious material, would do well to get their copies before it is too late.

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