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Interrogating Caste: The Story of a Brahmin Household

Padmini Swaminathan

By Vaidehi
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. xxxii 149, Rs. 495.00


We begin with the translator’s note on the change in title from Asprushyaru in Kannada to Vasudeva’s Family in English —itself an interesting conceptual and methodological exercise. As indicated by Punitha, a literal translation of Asprushyaru into English would be ‘Untouchable’—a word strongly associated with the depressed classes, the outcastes. To highlight the fact that Vaidehi’s novel has a different take on the theme of untouchability (one that transcends inter-caste politics to question intra-caste hierarchies based on touch and untouch), the translator ‘transcreated’ the title Vasudeva’s Family based on what she considers as the ‘intention of the text’, wherein, among other things, the protogonist, who is also the head of the household, steps out of his brah-minical confines to fulfil his basic human urge to be compassionate—an aspect that Punitha considers part of the novel’s positive energy that needed to be foregrounded and highlighted.   The book also provides us with a brief historical glimpse of Kannada literary tradition, which, however rich its heritage, was nevertheless one where the ‘marginalized vocies... have been those of women’. Both, the biographical note on the author, namely, Vaidehi, right at the beginning, and the translated version of the autobiographical note at the end, not only help place the novel in context but, more important, readers cannot miss the similarities between several of the characters sketched in the novel and those mentioned by Vaidehi in her autobiographical note.   The novel itself explores the notion of untouchability, Hindu caste patriarchy and brahminical ideology at multiple levels. ‘One (understanding of untouchability) is at the level of social hierarchy in the patterns of dominance and subordination visible in the relationships between Brahmins and Koragas. The other level refers to certain discriminatory practices among the Brahmins... where the Brahmin women are held to be unclean and impure at the time of menstruation, childbirth, etc., and therefore treated as untouchables...’ Vaidehi perceives the debilitating codes of conduct that discipline upper caste women and at the same time she also takes cognizance of their condescension towards women of the lower castes’ (pp. xxvii-xxviii). Further, like Tarabai Shinde, Vaidehi depicts how Hindu caste patriarchy not only disempowers the lower caste women but also the upper caste widows: ‘austere widowhood becomes a powerful symbol of upper caste patriarchy’ (p. xxix).   The critique of brahminical ideology comes, among other things, through illustrating how a complex structure of ...

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