A Marathi Novel: Dhag

When Uddhav Shelke wrote his second novel, Dhag in 1960, creative writing in Marathi was hanging between a sense of escapism and a vociferous nationalism. It offered wish fulfillment to the post-independent generation that was living with Nehruvian dreams. There were two favourite scenes which occurred consistently across different forms of writing in Marathi around this period: a newly educated Maharashtrian speaking the puneri Marathi in ‘nasal aspirates’ and swallowing a staple oftoop-bhat (ghee-rice) and an uneducated farmer couple relaxing under a tranquil mango tree after sweating blood in the farm and, gulping kanda-bhakar (onion-roti). Such ‘picturesque’ scenes would be complemented with poetic narratives ornamented with the ample images of Nature to give an effect of a colourful ‘reality show’. Besides, writers, through the lenses of self-proclaimed morality of limited privileged groups, would look at medieval fantasies or at peshvai to nurture the ‘cultural’ habits of the newly emerging middle class Marathi readers. The self-interest of a few was not only distorting society’s history but also obscuring measures of social preferences of the time. Without being self-reflexive, various forms of creative writing entertained the reader as a spectator and not as stakeholder. Not surprising, the majority of readership was urban, rich, middle-class, educated or upper caste. Obviously, voices of dissent- of farmers, of women, of adivasis, and of the underprivileged across urban and rural environs were kept at bay.

Marathi literature at this time, however, wasn't just about these stereotypes. It was also an era of transformations and reformations. The newly emerging democratic nation was giving confidence to the never heard voices of the Shelkes. Oppressed classes, outcastes, women and voices of dissent were feeling empowered to participate in the mainstream due to new reforms of the time and socio-political movements led by Bhimrao Ambedkar. With this, a new sense of ownership of nation among disadvantaged was being established across public spheres, and a large class which was hitherto at the periphery was now making inroads towards the mainstream. As a result, someone like Uddhav Shelke, an impoverished tailor’s son, from a village of the Vidarbha region, particularly known for extreme poverty in Maharashtra, could complete his education at least till matriculation and later become a writer. Shelke’s father worked long hours but he was unsuccessful in his tailoring work. So, leaving his education, Shelke had to opt to help his father in running the house by doing different jobs of a compositor and a proof reader in printing presses.

It was also the time when the Pather Panchali kind of new realism with its thematic grandeur and simplicity had already appeared in the realm of the changed socio-economic and public spheres. Marathi Nav Sahitya was not far from this new realism in questioning the existing romantic, nostalgic and hypothetical real of the Phadke-Khandekar era. The Nav Sahitya of Bhau Padhye, Kamal Desai, Vijay Tendulkar, Narayan Surve, Bhalchandra Nemade, Arun Kolatkar dedicated itself to self-reflexivity and represented multiple forms of reality seen through layered relationships between the individual and the society. And with Dhag, Uddhav Shelke, first among the writers of the Nav Sahitya, inaugurated the new novel trend in Marathi surprising dogmatists who hitherto had a narrow, dichotomised view of work of fiction: either as ‘showing’ of social reality, or then as a world of ornamented words. Dhag represented a work wherein both these aspects of fiction merged seamlessly and without effort.

Dhag, a story of a village woman, Kautik narrates her struggle against all odds in her life. Set against the background of the innards of village life, Dhag unfolds the drama of frustrations of Kautik’s life giving strobe-light glimpses of her three children: Bhima, Nama and Yasoda and, her husband, Mahadev. The story had its germ in one of Shelke’s earlier stories with which he had cut his writing teeth, Maay (Mother), that he had written out of frustration after his mother’s accident. Living up to its title, Dhag or embers, Shelke represents a village woman’s sufferings through Kautik’s character where ashes are blown away by her tears to reveal a scorching hard reality. When you are insideDhag, you are inside pain; it hits you like a punch in the stomach. Dhag ends somewhere in the middle of a visibly devastated Kautik’s life, and is pervaded with an air of melancholia and an acute sense of loss.

One of the most complex characters in Marathi literature, austere Kautik embodies no fixed ‘feminine’ qualities. Unlike several other Marathi middle class fictional characters of the time, Shelke’s Kautik does not spend unusual time in cooking or gossiping with her husband, Mahadev. Mahadev, born in a family of a tailor, is a peculiar fellow, moody and an unreliable husband and a father. But, in spite of Mahadev’s recklessness toward his family, Kautik remains firm on her companionship with him and reveals it in her beautiful language that Bhalchandra Nemade regards as the Mahanubhav style referring to the thirteenth century narrative tradition.[1] She announces, “I’ll be where you are. If you cut grass why should I feel ashamed to tie sheaves?” At the same time, she forthrightly alerts him on his imprudence, “Listen! Are you worrying about work or are you simply…” and expresses her ‘disbelief, anger and pity’ over his slothful attitude.

Repeatedly wounded in her fight against all odds in life, Kautik leads her family that is constantly on the move, managing to barely eke out a semi-decent living through agricultural work. Kautik’s heroism lies in the fact that she retains care and scrupulous attention to each detail within the household and rules it with exception and contingency. Through the struggles, the worlds Kautik and her family inhabit are in states of transition, prone to all the awkwardness this entails. While managing the household, strong-jawed Kautik sometimes fails to offer emotional support to the family members. Children would ask for anarasa[2] and papdi[3] but Kautik would thrash them and Ganga, her neighbour and relative would go to help them. In another example, as Kautik can’t see her young child rolling in bed, she pulls the cloth off his face and shouts “Isn’t only a boy when he’s eating! He puts down two man-sized bhakris doesn’t he?” Also, at the end of the novel, intelligent and sensitive Nama aspires to continue with his education but Kautik lets down his dreams. The gripping narrative portrays how Bheema, alienating himself from the family hates his parents and flaunts confidence with brassy sensuality towards his mother. Mahadev reaches a point where he does not have any expectations from his wife or family asking “when were my wife and children dependent on me that they can’t do without me now?” Only sometimes, does he show ‘courage’ and warns that “I don’t like anybody talking to me like that. Not even my own father.” But, after all, like an avant-garde hero, he gets strangely detached from his own past and becomes acutely lonely. He moves away from his family with the frustration saying “I don’t know why, but my heart just won’t settle here…I will go anywhere. Whichever way god takes me.”

The narration in Dhag is in the urban form of standard Marathi while the dialogues are in varhadi, a dialect of the rural Vidarbha of north Maharashtra. In addition to the colourful language of ruralvarhadi that is distinctively Shelkean and a challenging read for today’s native Marathi reader, its moving style and the acuity of social observation leave the reader teary-eyed. What is highly attractive for me is Shelke’s beady-eyed ability to cut through the peculiarities of social relations; that has remained his specialty in his later novels as well, though that is not as nuanced and reflective as inDhag. The complexities of language also carry regional and caste references offering, in Shanta Ghokale’s words, ‘sociological nuances’.[4] Further, as Gokhale has rightly observed, the nuances “would make sense only to those who know the caste hierarchy.”

Though Kautik’s narrative is set against the tightly woven gregarious neighborhood, Shelke exposes crevices existing within the village system. Carrying no burden of belonging to the village network, Shelke presents his nuanced understanding of the innards of village life, especially the family system and caste hierarchies. When Namadev suggests seeking help from Kautik’s siblings, she ruggedly dismisses the suggestion saying that “Nobody cares for anybody. There’s nothing like blood brother and sister-in-law” because “they’re all good time kin.” At one point, in pursuit of bread and butter, tough and courageous Kautik challenges caste-hierarchies, “What’s the shame in it? Human beings have to be ashamed of only two things-thieving and slutting. What shame is there in working for the belly?”

The novel peels layers of people living in a village without making any moral judgments. Shelke narrates multiple facets of poverty as they exist and lets things reverberate with their own implications and pros and cons. While poignantly narrating the cruelties of adverse conditions, Shelke empathises with wretched human conditions, but he does not exhibit any blind sympathy towards them. On the Lakshmi Pooja day, after facing trauma at the weekly market of buying diwali clothes for Bhima and Nama, Mahadev manages to get marigold flowers and mango leaves. Nama and Bhima string them into garlands to hang up on the verandah and kitchen doors. But, Mahadev stops them from hanging one in front of the gods. Answering Bhima’s question of why they cannot if “Janya’s hung one before Sitakaki’s gods”, Mahadev clarifies because “their gods and ours are different”.

In this way, Shelke lays bare the vanity, selfishness, jealousy of either a rich or poor character. He depicts effectively the complex relations between balutedars[5] fraught with caste discrimination and conflict, even as they are bound inextricably in a web of co-dependence. Kisna Mali (Gardener) comes to ask Mahadev if Bhima would come for cattle-grazing. Upset over Kisna’s offer, Mahadev dismisses it saying that “Hell! You got to think before you speak. Think of our caste and all. Or you think because we’re poor we’ll do any work for the belly?” In another incident, Bhima has gone cattle grazing. Bakhadya’s home-kept son-in law has beaten him because Bhima’s animals trampled his embankment. Bhima complains to his mother, “I was telling the sisterfucker again and again; you want to hit me, use your hands, not your chappals. I’m getting polluted. I’m tailor by caste.”

I am reading Dhag in the post-Dhag phase when the villages featured in Dhag have now left behind those “common crossovers, vests, knot-blouses”. Ten years ago, it would take hours to reach to our village from the district headquarter. But now, adjoining superhighway takes us to the district headquarter in less than an hour. Villages have televisions and cellphones, though not water and electricity. Farmers do not own oxen, buffalo and bullock-cart as the cost of maintaining them has gone up. They are selling buffaloes and oxen to mechanise the farming. Also, Uddhav Shelke’sbalutedars as portrayed in Dhag no longer have any stakes in the village system. Decamping from villages, many of them have become service providers at a factory set at the nearby industrial zone as this work offers much more than what they could have earned by providing services at their village. Therefore they prefer going for gate-keeping or packaging or sweeping at a factory to ploughing, sowing, tailoring or pottery work. Several are selling their lands to pay their increasing agricultural loans as the government and private companies are offering whopping prices for their lands. They sell and migrate to a dinghy apartment on rent at the outskirts of a nearby small town or a city and top up with newer hierarchies.

Not only Udhav Shelke’s Dhag narrative but also the narratives of change of the post-Dhag phase have now become familiar from the grueling writings of several Marathi novelists of the well-received Marathi genre of grameen (rural) or pradeshik (regional) sahitya. In fact, Dhag is considered as a major ‘regional’ Marathi novel. But by ‘regional’ I don’t mean the habit of assuming that human beings who speak in specific regional register or a dialect which can be classified like insects and that entire populations can confidently be labelled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The pradeshik does not depend only on a geographical location. Rather, it is about local social system, village network, and way of life, sensibilities and socio-linguistic identity. However, many novels written in the tradition of grameensahitya are parochial and they overwhelm the reader by giving the hefty details of village life, nostalgic images of childhood lakes and rivers and glorifying so called innocence of a villager.

Dhag: Critically acclaimed but lesser known outside Marathi context.

Shelke’s Dhag, on the contrary, while writing within the iconic Marathi realistic tradition of representing human life, allows an entry into the social structure and architecture of human habitations, nuances of vertically and horizontally arranged people’s lives within caste and class system. It breaks away from established forms of Marathi realism by not assuming any co-relation with ideological dogmas, romantic sentimentalism or lamenting soporifically over reality. Taking us beyond depiction of ‘beauty’ of Nature or eroticizing rusticity, Dhag embodies all essence of [human] life: greed, politics, power, goodness, and suffering. Without laying down any adjudged programme for fiction, it fascinates with its skills in creating fiction. After Dhag, Uddhav Shelke wrote nearly 100 titles that include novels, plays, essays and literature for children before he died in 1992. But, Dhag stands apart, in flesh and blood, with its haunting beauty even after fifty years of its publication. As a narrative of suffering, there is something lasting in Dhag that outlives the tastes and changes of any time.

(*The English translations of quotes from Dhag used in this essay are taken from Shanta Gokhale’s wonderful English translation of the novel, Embers. Translated from the Marathi original and published by Macmillan India Limited in 2002, Embers is unfortunately, not available in the market. But, Shanta Gokhale gave me her own copy of the translation. I am thankful for her help.)

(I am grateful to Madhura Lohokare and Malavika Menon for carefully reading the article and giving me suggestions.)

[1] Nemade, Bhalachandra. ‘Marathi Kadambari: Prerana va Swaroop’, Teekaswayamvara, Saket Prakashan, 1990 (2002).
[2] A crisp, round sweet made of rice flour and jiggery with topping of poppy seeds.
[3] A crisp, fried savoury snack made of gram flour.
[4] ix, Gokhale, Shanta. In ‘Translator’s Note’, Embers, Shelke, Uddhav J., Macmillan India Limited, 2002.
[5] Balutedars are people of artisan castes who render certain necessary services to villagers in their village. Baluta is a fixed share of cereals, grains or other agriculture produce of a village or a little land that balutedars are entitled to receive for their services.

(This essay is written for an anthology of essays on '50 best Indian books' to be published by HarperCollins later in this year.)