In this post I want to describe a novel by Ashok Hegde who writes stories and novels in Kannada. He is an important contemporary writer in Kannada. His story Darkness, translated here, is a very significant reflection over the IT urban culture. More about that in the next blog. Here goes Ashwamedha.
Ashwamedha means the ‘Horse Ritual’ refering to an ancient custom of emperors. But in this novel there is a revival of this, not by a King but by a Head Priest of a Brahmin monastery. This transformation is symbolic. Again, it is being undertaken not to assert the secular power as in the ancient custom, but the power of brahmins and caste system. Stories of this kind sometime become blind to the abilities of the oppressed. But this novel presents the caste politics in an enabling optics. Below is a description.
Ashwamedha is a novel about transformation. A transformation willed by people tired of being the bearers of the burden of the society all their life. A transformation that is violent in its desire for change and the mechanism adopted for effecting that change. A transformation that is accompanied by violent resistance as well. The novel describes the conscious will of the people about this social transformation and the mobilization undertaken to bring it about. The focus of the novel is the everyday life of a village society united in its cohabitation of the same ecological sphere but stratified hierarchically into a caste-economy. In tracing the gradual emergence of an emancipatory energy in the feudal village, Valligadde, Ashwamedha, through the practice of dense description, builds up a culturally resonant narrative.
The social world of Ashwamedha, has roughly three layers reflecting the differentiated socio-economic life of the land-owning Brahmins, semi-independent Idigas, and the dependent ‘Harijans’. In order to reveal the friction within this village society, the novel employs two challengers to its orthodox life. The first is the arrival to land-ownership of a total outsider, Rajiv Gaitonde, whose ‘foreignness’ becomes the catalyst for the initial rumblings of change. The second challenge is from within and is gendered. Nirmala, the daughter of one of the Brahmin families of the village elopes with Krishna, a ‘Harijan’ labourer. Further, when Krishna fails to marry her, she returns only to live with his mother Devi, as a caste-transformed woman carrying the mark of caste-disruption through out.
These two challenges – external and internal – grow into serious subversion of the feudal caste-economy of the village primarily because of the Idiga community. This community, in this novel, indicates the fruits of the processes of democratization in the post-independent India as it reveals how far social energisation has taken place due to such state initiatives as land re-distribution. The Idiga community leader Rama Naik becomes the centre of the social transformation with active assistance from Rajiv Gaitonde. While the latter’s participation in the affairs of the village begins with a personal conflict, it acquires programmatic dimension with the coming together of Rajiv Gaitonde and Rama Naik.
The conflict among the caste communities of the village is represented through the conflict between individuals such as Subraya Hegde, Rajiv Gaitonde and Rama Naik. But that these conflicts are symptomatic of the larger malaise, that there are systemic structure engendering such conflicts, becomes clear with the involvement of the Brahmin ‘Math’ (monastery). From this point onwards the novel begins to focus on the manner in which caste, feudal economy and the religious orders are united in the perpetuation of a brutal and exploitative caste patriarchy.
Rama Naik mobilizes his own people and with assistance from the state-level political class is able to set up a school. The idea for establishing a school comes from Rajiv Gaitonde as an alternative way of channelising social effort and money than celebrating the religious fair. The fair becomes a symbol in the novel for the tradition of exploitation of the lower caste communities. In rejecting to contribute to the fair, Rama Naik’s community stages the first successful subversion of the socio-cultural power of the Brahmins. The new school is not only an opportunity for the children to go to school, it also opens up a new mode of economic exchange in the village as cash becomes the mode of paying for labour rather than grains. Further, there is a symbolic suggestion of the new path charted out by the school as it is an English medium school. Thus, English becomes the counter to Sanskrit as the language of socio-cultural power.
The rest of the narrative focus in the telling of the story of transformation relates to a ritual. The novel risks imagining an unrealistic ritual in order to force a symbolic confrontation between the exploitative social structure sanctioned by religion and a democratic one. The ritual is puranic Ashwamedha, i.e. the procession of a horse demanding acquiescence. Aptly, this is undertaken by the religious ‘math’ in order to assert the continuing power of Brahmins in the society. But contrary to expectations, the horse is stopped by the Idiga community.
At the backdrop of this story of challenge and counter-challenge through the ritual of horse-procession, inhuman acts of retribution are planned by the religious head. The village, by the end of the novel is pulsating with violent energy. The novel stops at the eruption of the confrontation between the orthodoxy and the new social order.
Ashwamedha narrates in an uncomplicated manner a story of social developments under individual, communal and state initiatives. Through rich symbolism and detailed description of the everyday life, the novel builds up a story that is at once readable and is a serious social commentary. The social documentation that the novel offers is valuable as the historical juncture of 1980’s is narrativised here. The germination, growth and the explosion of social change in a small village is presented in the novel with utmost concentration to the temporal and spatial particularities.