THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: To what extent can creative freedom venture? Even as bigger debates on freedom of expression gain momentum in the wake of the recent attack on Salman Rushdie, Kerala’s cultural milieu is caught up in another debate on casteist politics. It’s all over the cover page of Malayali Memorial, a work by short story writer Unni R, that depicts BR Ambedkar as an upper caste Hindu.
The debate has gained special significance as it comes at a time when Hindutva politics is making inroads into Kerala’s literary and cultural realms. The cover page of the book, brought out by DC Books, portrays Ambedkar wearing a Kasavu dhothi and shirt and seated in the backdrop of a feudal house.
The cover page kicked up a row on social media too, as a section feels that there is a deliberate attempt by upper caste Nairs to appropriate Ambedkar’s legacy. Some, however, term it as a marketing strategy to attract readers.
Dalit thinker and activist Sunny M Kapikad sensed a conspiracy to capture the market by creating a controversy. Kapikad went on to term it as a ‘Savarna invasion’ on Ambedkar’s identity.“Such a picture of Ambedkar wearing an upper caste attire, looking like a Nair, has never been part of the life of Ambedkar,” he said.
‘It amounts to insulting Ambedkar’
Kapikad said whatever Ambedkar had tried to resist during his lifetime, is now being forcibly imposed on him. “In effect, it amounts to insulting him,” he said. In a way, the cover seems to symbolise attempts to appropriate Ambedkar by certain vested groups. He warned the Dalits not to fall into the trap set by the book cover, that may egg them on to either burn the book or to protest in front of the publishers - options that do not actually mean a thing in the long run.
However, writer Unni said “the critics should first read the story, ‘Malayali Memorial’. Only then will they understand the relevance of the cover image. I heard someone has even called for a boycott of the book. Are they aware of what Ambedkar meant when he used the term solidarity?” Echoing Unni’s views, Zainul Abid, the cover designer, said such a representation could prove uncomfortable to someone who had not read the story.
Santhosh Nair, the protagonist, wants to retain his real name along with the caste surname, while he also wants to avoid being called by his nickname Ambedkar. “It was the innate sense of caste in him and his dislike for his nickname that made me think about such a cover. The contradiction between the ‘Ambedkar’ in his physicality vis-a-vis the deeply ingrained sense of the ‘upper caste’ tag in him is what inspired me to design such a cover,” Abid said.