Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

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(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
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Vishwas Patil, A Dirge for the Damned (Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2014). UK £ 9.99 (paperback), 9.99 €, 471 pages, ISBN 978-93-50009-590-4--Paul Giffard-Foret, Monash University, Australia.

It took exactly twenty years for Vishwas Patil's A Dirge for the Damned to be translated from Marathi (one of India's regional languages) into the English language. At the time of its initial publication in 1992 in India, the novel had won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award, yet the issues that the author raises are still with us today. Primitive accumulation (plunder) and capture (theft) of India's most precious resource (water) sheds light on the rapacious nature of the modern Indian State. With the acceleration in the growth of social inequalities, privatisation of the "commons" in the form of land grab and speculation, and exhaustion of the planet's riches, it is to be expected that the wars of the Twenty-First century will be fought mainly over energy supply and ownership of natural resources. In Patil's hands, the David vs. Goliath fight over the construction of a Big Dam as part of India's so-called "Green Revolution" takes on quasi-mystical dimensions, thanks to which the author is able to partially transform and transcend the reality of an apartheid-like, segregated society ossified by its class/caste system.


In the repetition of the displacement of Jambhli villagers across family generations, everyday, local acts of resistance gesture us beyond the overarching air of fatalism that otherwise characterises our times. In this light, I felt I must reread Arundathi Roy's essay "the Greater Common Good" (1999) on the Narmada Valley anti-dam movement to fully grasp the arithmetic of those multitudinous lives lost in the name of Progress and Development. Indeed, we find in the novel many of the problems listed by Roy and having to do with rehabilitation, the justice (or lack of it) system, or the curse that being a refugee in one's own country represents. These lay bare the violence unleashed upon the "subaltern" in a neoliberal age for those Frantz Fanon had enigmatically called les damnés de la terre (the wretched of the earth) for lack of a proper name. Vishwas Patil also refuses to label the abominable (because ab-nominal, beyond nominalisation) protagonists of this drama: "Dalits", "Adivasis", "Maoists" in effect constitute the socio-political backdrop of Patil's novel but remain by and large shadowy absences.


Instead, Patil deals with full-fledged individuals whose singularity cannot be easily reduced to labels and categories, explanatory footnotes and glossaries. Keerti Ramachandra 's choice to leave many Marathi words untranslated is not the reflection of exotic ornamentation, but corresponds rather to Patil's own refusal to romanticise the consequences of dislocation, loss of traditional habitat and the tearing down of an entire social fabric in the wake of the Jambhli Dam Project. I am here reminded of the double significance of the term dislocation in French, in contrast to its candid usage as the expression of those marginalised positionings celebrated in certain intellectual circles of a postmodernist bent. To dislocate (from Latin dislocare, i.e. move from another position) translates into disloquer (dismember), but it also brings to mind the economic phraseology of délocalisation (outsourcing, literally "de-localisation"). Everything, indeed, has to do with cultural translation, yet it often comes with a transactional cost added to it that ought to sober us up. Let us now hear from one Jambhli villager: 


I hear that in distant lands white men whip their black slaves. In a way that is good. At least they know who whips whom. [...] Our system is like a ghost, you cannot see it, but it rides on your neck and pushes you deeper and deeper into the quicksand till you die [127].


It has often been noted that ours is a Gothic age (see for instance Roy's Capitalism: A Ghost Story), seething with ghostly metaphors and nightmarish visions of a postcolonial creature modelled after the British, at once so absurdly surreal and implacably logical, whose utter stupidity is only matched by sheer meanness and undisguised cruelty. As S. D. Shanghvi puts it on the back cover of the book, "this novel pivots on rage and disbelief, and you understand slowly how India works: It works like a ruthless monster." I can think of at least three such Gothic visions in Patil's novel: the sight of a terrorised villager hanging on a tree branch as the rising waters of the dam reservoir surround him on all sides and threaten to engulf him; the transportation of a rotting, decomposing corpse across jungle to a neighbouring town as the government failed on its promise to provide the resettlement colony with a cremation ground to bury their dead; or the epic fight of a father with a wild tiger whose smuggled skin may have helped cover the costs of his daughter's dowry, since no one otherwise wants to marry her, plagued as she is for being an "oustee", a displaced person.


The pain of exposure to the fangs and pangs of Indian nationalism finds atonement, if not justification, in the idea that sacrifice is for the "greater common good" of the nation. As quoted by Roy in the epigraph of her essay, India's first Prime Minister would have declared to villagers about to be displaced by the Hirakud Dam in 1948, "if you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country." Patil's novel is not Nehru's India, nor is it Gandhi's, although both these bourgeois nationalist figures had shunned in their own ways, and for different reasons, "Untouchables" and indigenous "tribes" (see Roy's recently published controversial introduction to B. R. Ambedkar's book Annihilation of Caste on the hidden legacy of Gandhism). As with the colonial administration of the Belgian Congo in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, what redeems today's Indian government from both rhetorical and moral collapse is the crude Idea that rural people are simple, backward people who fail to recognise the benefits of science and modernity. It is the racist Idea, cloaked in technocratic jargon, that those people are not really human and thus not worthy of any consideration.


Yet over and over again, and throughout the four-hundred and seventy pages of this trans-generational saga, Patil's (and his translator's) gift is to have presented the English-speaking reader with oppressed yet deeply humane characters, despite their being immersed, if not often submerged, within an incredibly dehumanised environment: alternately hoping, dissenting, lamenting, struggling, but most importantly learning to carry on living and loving in the process, against all odds. At the end of the novel, the reader will not fail to wonder how the God-like, all-mighty force and impunity of a corporatised India turned into a h(e)aven for well-off businessmen and tourists may possibly be brought down, or at least held accountable. When both legal and extra-judicial means such as civil disobedience are exhausted, when Nature has triumphed over Man, one may be comforted with the belief that even Rulers are bound to be impacted by the havoc they have wreaked. As spiritual leader of Jambhli, Guruji, who spent his life relentlessly explaining to a deaf ear that sustainable development in India is possible alongside a respect for communal ways of life, wisely observes in a tone of (re)conciliation: "We're all Dalits, slaves of technology, victims of progress" [115]. Some, it should nonetheless be conceded, more literally so than others.


© 2014 Paul Giffard-Foret & GRAAT












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