Narratives of Erasure: Caste in R. K. Narayan's The English Teacher

Narratives of Erasure: Caste in R. K. Narayan's The English Teacher

Lucky Issar (Berlin Freie University, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9444-4.ch008
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This chapter examines R.K. Narayan's novel The English Teacher as a narrative of caste erasure. As he goes on to construct his “authentic,” “brahminical” India, he effectively erases caste-others by creating an exclusive, selective imaginary of Indian nation as upper-caste. This construction requires caste erasure and suppression of “queerness” that constantly poses a threat to caste-based ideological formulations of Indian society as brahminical, Hindu, and hetero-normative. Through the close reading of the text, the author shows that caste not only damages Dalits, but it makes a deleterious impact on the upper castes and by extension on the whole Indian society.
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Narratives Of Erasure; Caste In R. K. Narayan's The English Teacher

R.K. Narayan is considered by many to be an apolitical and authentic Indian writer. Writers such as Khushwant Singh, V. S. Naipaul, Vikram Seth, and Shashi Tharoor admired and critiqued Narayan on a range of themes; however, they have not looked at his work from caste perspective. Narayan prefers that his readers read his stories for pleasure, and should not look at his fiction as raw material for hidden meanings and socio-cultural analysis. “I'm not out to enlighten the world or improve it” (Narayan, 2001, p. 517). In the same vein, one of his Brahmin characters says about his servant “take him as he was; to improve or enlighten him would only exhaust the reformer and disrupt the nature's design” (Narayan, 1992, p. 258). This sensibility toward nature's design [Brahmanical-order] runs throughout his work. Just like Caste, Narayan resents being altered.

One cannot talk about India without talking about the Indian caste system – an ancient, supposedly divinely ordained system that stratifies Indian society on a hereditary basis into four hierarchical categories: priests, warriors, merchants, and servants. Those outside the caste are called Untouchables (Dalits) – the most exploited people in India. All present-day major issues can be linked to caste. However, most socio-political conversations avoid the question of caste. Issues concerning the violation of human rights – the oppression of Dalits and sexual (outcastes) minorities – are framed in ways that benefit the urban elite – primarily the upper-castes. In modern-day India social problems are being discussed exclusively in terms of recovery from colonialism, whereas internal Brahmanism is conveniently forgotten.

Indian writings in English deal primarily with the concerns of upper castes. However, unlike many other Indian writers, Narayan seems to endorse the caste system in the name of culture, tradition, and social order. For instance, the Dalits and lower castes, who runs into millions in India, seldom appear in his work. There have been a few exceptional writers who wrote Dalit characters. Mulk Raj Anand used a Dalit character in his novel Untouchable (1935). Interestingly, in every instance, when Dalit characters are depicted, they are upgraded and alienated from their respective backgrounds and given brahminical hue (Khair, 2001). Several decades later, Arundhati Roy portrayed a god-like Dalit figure in her novel The God of Small Things (1997). Although Roy's novel exposes the hypocrisy of the upper castes, her depiction of the central Dalit character is cosmetic. Dalits are largely ignored or represented selectively. This tendency to erase or ignore caste is seen in Indian English Novel. In addition to Indian fiction, the question of caste is neglected in the works of post-colonial theorists. For instance, Ranajit Guha, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakratabarty, Ashis Nandy have comprehensively written on the evils of colonialism on India, but they have not shown similar rigor in addressing the internal Brahmanical colonization of Dalits, and its various tropes that predate colonization. More recent theorists (Bhaba, Appadurai) are largely concerned with issues such as globalization, immigration, and hybridity that largely concern upwardly mobile upper-caste Indians, and have little bearing on the lives of Dalits. In addition to Indian English novel and post-colonial theory, even the queer theory that focusses on India has ignored the Dalits. Interestingly, the word caste has not been examined once in Vanita and Kidwai's seminal study on the history of same-sex love in India.

Not portraying Dalits in Indian writings in English occurs because conceptions such a equality, inclusion are incompatible with caste. Creating Dalit characters would mean to acknowledge the brutality of caste that marks millions of bodies as 'Untouchables.' It would also mean encountering one's own complicity in the oppression of Dalits. In the case of Narayan, when one looks at his brahminical, idyllic, serene, ordered Malgudi – a microcosm of India – one knows that this order is achieved – to put it mildly – by 'unseeing' the Dalits.

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