Discourse on caste appears to be back on the centre-stage of Tamil literary domain! More than a decade after Dalit writing has lost its sheen though infusing new blood into the otherwise dull literary sphere with a stinging scrutiny of caste, acclaimed novelist Jeyamohan’s Vellai Yaanai (White Elephant) provides a riveting critique of caste and Brahmin orthodoxy raising uncomfortable questions about the dharma of the land.
Centered around the ‘strike’ by Dalits, employed for a meager wage at the Ice House, the precursor for future trade union strikes in the country, the plot is set in the backdrop of the devastating famine of the early nineteenth century during the colonial period. Further, it is about the socio-political context of Madarasapattinam as the city was known then.
The magnitude of the devastating famine and the colossal human tragedy has been narrated through the eyes of a British police officer of Irish origin, Aiden. Despite his initial revulsion at the abysmal conditions after witnessing people dying on the roads leading to the city, he could not resist the system any longer and eventually gets absorbed into it. While he is the protagonist, the novel has another central character, Kathavarayan, an educated Dalit who fights for the rights of his community and towards the end renounces Hindusim. It is none other than, Pandit Ayothee Das, the foremost modernist thinker of Tamil Nadu who had a close rapport with Henry Olcott, founder of Theosophical Society and the first ‘Pariah School’ in the city.
“My intention was to bring to light the first ever industrial protest, that too by the Dalits. This has been woven around the famine,” said Jeyamohan, speaking at the formal launch of the novel, published by ‘Ezhhuthu’ of Madurai, on Sunday. “The great tragedy should haunt the collective consciousness of society, particularly of the upper castes, rather than escape from guilt,” he added.
The Ice-House, present day Vivekananda memorial, was of an American firm, Tudor & Co, engaged in the sale of ice shipped from New England, US. Ice blocks stored there were so huge that they resembled elephants and hence the title for the novel. Bare-bodied Dalits were employed in cutting them into small ones. It involved huge risk and many had been crushed to death under the weight of the ice blocks, nay white elephants!
A couple employed there, on the advice of Kathavarayan, secure a letter from a Catholic priest and approach the management for medical assistance for the disease acquired at work place. For this, they were murdered and thrown into the sea. When, the issue was brought to his attention, Aiden orders that the bodies to be brought to Ice House for identification. By now, Aiden gets the boot, transfer on a promotion to Tenkasi. But, he wanted to secure justice for the Dalits before his departure.
Work at Ice House came to a grinding halt as the Dalits have gathered around the dead bodies and continued to wail and refused to move out. When Aiden approaches the manager to resolve it by hiking the wages, he learns that the company as well as the building has been purchased by a wealthy Brahmin, Murari Iyengar. Not only Iyengar refuses to hike wages, but rationalises it. His argument is that any increase in wages would unsettle the caste equilibrium and that the famine was god given to keep the Dalits under leash! Further, he takes offence at Kathavarayan intervening in the issue leading to an argument wherein the Dalit leader says, “I do think that god exists. Otherwise how could beef eating white men could be your masters and you could you send your women to them with folded hands.”
When an unsuspecting Aiden raises his hand in a gesture to ask protesting Dalits to disperse, the soldiers, all from dominant castes, pounce on them resulting in a bloodshed.
For a change, Jeyamohan, a self confessed right wing apologist, traverses in an altogether new terrain but succeeds in reviving the debate on Brahminical hegemony. The discussion between Aiden and Kathavarayan brings out how feudal and braminical forces have made compromises with the British to protect their interests. Through Aiden, Jeyamohan betrays his right wing sympathies, when he accuses the British of destroying the ‘soul of the nation’.
There are very few novels in Tamil which have dealt with the famine. Here, the author poses an ethical question to the collective conscience of the upper castes who have failed to respond to the famine and its onslaught on the Dalits while admitting that it was the creation of the colonial enterprise. Aiden, an Irish native, comes in handy for Jeyamohan to revile the British. The famine, which is popularly known as the ‘Thadhu Varuda Panjam,’ had claimed one third of the population, mostly Dalits and accentuated the process of urban migration directed towards Chennai. Aiden, a witness to the tragedy, was so much moved that he suggests that a day’s export of food grains from Nagapattinam was enough to save them and draws a blueprint for carrying out mega construction projects to save the hapless populace. Though British Raj managed to minimize the impact of the Bihar famine, they had miserably failed in Madras Presidency.
While Aiden gets absorbed into the system, two characters stand out. One is Mariza, the Anglo-Indian mistress of Aiden, who rejects his offer of marriage with contempt saying that his hand are soaked with the blood of the dalits and Kathavarayan, who believes, rightly so, that the advent of the British has provided an opportunity for change.