by Anup Beniwal
A formidable presence in contemporary Hindi literature, Bhagwandass Morwal has been hailed as the chronicler of Mewat, the land of his birth and nurture. Straddling Rajasthan, UP and Haryana, the region of Mewat, despite its unique cultural compositeness, lies on the socio-economic margins of India. The creative contours of Morwal’s much hailed Kala Pahad (1999) and Babal Tera Des Mein (2004) are shaped by the shifting sounds, sights and sensibility of Mewat that are as much rooted in the individual experiences of the author as in the collective memory of the region. However, the consumerist-communalist onslaught of the contemporary, in the guise of modernity, progress and vote-politics, has started asserting both due and undue pressure on the composite Mewati life style. Morwal makes this experiential reality, a poignant blend of memory and desire, emotion and thought, the takeoff point of his creative imagination to offer a fictional glimpse into the present day Mewat. As such his narratives are in the service of common people; they take sustenance from the existential aspirations and inspirations of the laity, pitchforks it within the social, economic and political contours of contemporary India to present a simultaneous critique – both of the local and the national, the subaltern and the mainstream.
Ret, Morwal’s latest novel marks a transition – both a departure and continuity – in his narrative-aesthetic oeuvre. Though he moves away from his conventional creative turf in Ret, yet he persists with his imaginative and ideological sympathies. Ret is a story of Kanjars, a tribal community of North India, and the shifting matrix of their lives and times at the cross-section of caste, class, gender and community. It provides an anthropological peep into the psyche of a community precariously positioned at the margins of a society as the nation trudges along on its way to democratic equality, social justice and empowerment; a peep that soon implicates both the writer and readers as involved interpreters of this trajectory.
At the centre of the story lie the inhabitants of Kamala Sadan, presided over by Kamala Bua, the grand matriarch of this Kanjar family. The narrative is woven around the economics of the body and the way this economics impinges on the culture and everyday relational and existential dynamics of Kanjars, especially the Kanjar women. In the very process of capturing – and interpreting – the complex and contradictory aspect of their everyday reality, the author weaves an engrossing tale that treads a thin line between fact and fiction, imagination and exotica, but, nevertheless, with a pulsating human sensitivity.
Ret, however, is not a maiden foray into tribal hinterland. A tradition of tribal writing already exists in Hindi and, in fact, constitutes a distinct sub-genre in Hindi literature. Kab Tak Pukarun by Rangaye Raghav, Shailoosh by Shivprasad Singh, Alma Kabootri by Maitree Pushpa, Picchhle Panne Ki Auratein by Sharad Singh are some of the important literary works that have helped forge this creative subgenre. But Ret is different from its predecessors in the sense that, in making Kanjars the centre of his narrative, Morwal brings a comparatively unknown but much misunderstood tribal face of India to the literary and hence discursive center-stage. In contrast his predecessors, except Sharad Singh, have mostly focused on Nats, a tribe traditionally closer to mainstream life and imagination. At the receiving end of mainstream social imagery as uncouth, immoral and literally untouchables, Kanjars have traditionally been ostracized by their surrounding communities and pushed into isolation, and socio-political wilderness. Moreover, Morwal has been able to capture his narrative subject without eroticizing, exoticizing or othering it. He opens up for his readers a realm of life with rare maturity and restrain that does not let it turn into a sensational stuff or slogan. Though realistic and even graphic in details, Morwal is never frivolous in intent.
Beginning on a rather dramatic note encapsulating the existential predicament of Kanjar women, the narrative evolves as a historio-cultural and communitarian topography of Gaajuki, a Kanjar inhabitation, tucked away from the National Highway, yet enticingly close to it. This proximity and distance, the socio-cultural and spatio-temporal hiatus, apart from acting as an organic and metaphoric backdrop to Gaajuki, also patterns the personal and professional lives of its inhabitants. Positioning himself into this narrative through the persona of Vaidji, an involved-outsider, Morwal offers a women-sensitive and centric peep into Kanjar life; he guides the readers through the intricacies of their culture specific customs such as Matha Dhakai, haggling over bride-price during matrimonial alliances, the feudal underpinnings of mehfils, the working of tribal panchayats and their arbitration-rituals like dharod , their religious and social beliefs and their various encounters with the state and outer society in the form of police, politicians, izzatdars, kajjas and sex customers. This community of Kanjars, virtually insulated, and even jealously guarding itself from the outside world, is, within itself, surprisingly uninhibited, despite its rigid social and moral codes. It is a world whose socio-economic and conceptual matrix is woven around the notion of khilawadies, buas and bhabhies. These cultural notions not only structure the lives of Kanjar women but, in constituting their life trajectories, imbue Ret with a rare narrative potential. Having grounded the readers into Kanjar consciousness and conscience, Morwal shifts focus to tell the story of Rukmini. By far the most engaging character of the novel, her tale etches out the contours of individual and collective resistance and empowerment of Kanjar/tribal woman. Wriggling her way through the social norms, economic and political potentials of the body, the bureaucratic and political matrix of the mainstream and even gender-competition from within and outside the community, she makes a palpable dent in power-politics of the day.
It is this narrative strand, the constitutive contours and direction of this empowerment trajectory that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of Morwal’s poetics and politics in Ret. An exclusive focus on this trajectory seems to belie the initial potential of the narrative in the sense that instead of culminating into a nuanced and inclusive tale of the community, the novel tends to become a predictable quest of an individual. No doubt, Rukmini by her virtue of unique location/subjectivity is no run of the mill character. As a matter of fact she is a representation of a complex cultural trope. But in making her exclusive focus of Ret’s latter narrative, Morwal compromises with numerous strands of his inherently ambitious narrative canvass. The stories of Santo and to an extant Pinky, which otherwise were pregnant with possibilities, for example, are left incomplete or unresolved. As a consequence the narrative that begins with a bang ends in many diffused whimpers. The overall impression that an expectant Morwal reader is left with is that of a narrative cobbled up in a hurry, using all the ploys of popular fiction, namely, suspense and mystery (the long and ill/unexplained absences of Rukmini from Gaajuki for instance); rivalry, intrigue and one-up-man-ship; a heady mix of Kanjar whisky and raw sexuality coupled with an intriguing blend of unarticulated romance and unrequited sensuousness simmering beneath the surface.
On the face of it even the journey of Rukmini’s political success, premised as it is on the ‘transactional sex and political cunning,’ appears more as a case of ambiguous and opportunistic rather than genuine empowerment of the subaltern/Kanjar woman; it doesn’t gel with the apparently progressive thrust of the narrative and even fails to address comprehensively the underlying structural inequalities that the novel seeks to unravel. However, a patient and sensitive reading – and Morwal’s narratives demand it – helps put this empowering trajectory in proper perspective. It is not the economic empowerment that Rukmini or other Kanjar women in the novel are seeking; they are surprisingly affluent and display this affluence to the hilt on occasions that demand it. It is the social and political power that they lack. Rukmini’s eventual political empowerment is only a culmination of the agential/self conscious exercise of the choices that her context offers her, when her circumstances and convictions virtually push her into a blind alley. In refusing to be an ‘available body,’ i.e., in asserting moral and professional right over her body within the normative closures of her trade/culture, she withstands the gaze of the appropriatory/alien/colonizing masculinity/power and in the process comes face to face with the emancipatory potentials of her body. This renewed awareness of the body or ‘deh-darshan,’ as the author succinctly describes it, has the necessary wherewithal of empowerment. It proves to be an identity endowing amalgam of agency, choice and power for Rukmini with its roots in Kanjar ethos and worldview. In short, the transformation in Rukmini’s life indicates a qualitative shift from body as tool of survival/commerce to body as a tool of power, and this shift in body praxis, and the way Rukmini exploits it pragmatically, is perhaps the only viable option available to her, given the realities that surround her. Both sinned against and sinning, Rukmini, nevertheless, brings out the hollowness of contemporary political system and also helps problematise extant feminist positions by turning discourses on sexuality and economic empowerment on their heads.
An active and affirmative interface between the folk, popular and the modern is a distinguishing feature of Morwal’s narrative style. Ret is no exception. Caught in a dramatic situation, one is not only strategically positioned in the midst of the fictional events, but also finds one’s self immersed, ever so tantalizingly, into Morwal’s enticing narrative/communicative texture. Culled from folk sensibility, his vocabulary not only authenticates the experience he depicts, but also makes it more nuanced and textured. Creativity for Morwal entails a simultaneous process of language augmentation; by co-opting culture specific idioms he not only reclaims them in Hindi but also turns them literary. Ret is replete with such linguistic sedimentation. And all through, Morwal is ever-present to guide the reader through the cultural milieu of his narratives in his own unique style. This narrative style is premised on a stimulating author-reader partnership, a unique kissagoi that is an amalgam of the folk and popular in expression, objective in analysis and democratic in spirit. It is an art of story telling where the artist picks up episodes which run into and out of each other. Morwal has often been criticized for the ‘rawness’ of his plots and style. But in Ret this rawness seems to be a deliberate ploy that imparts its deceptive simplicity and endows it with a structurally suited episodic and narrative spontaneity. In fact, this apparent puerility of form, being a function of the lived/empathized, emerges as a typical signature of Morwal’s fiction.
If the crux of creativity lies in becoming one with one’s imaginative territory and, in the process, resurrecting the human possibilities within its life problematic, Morwal’s Ret admirably qualifies this creative test. Herein the folk sensibility is organically enmeshed within its spatio-temporal dynamics, constitutes and is constituted by it. The folk confronts, collides and colludes with the contemporary. The dialectics of this interaction impinges on the existential dynamics of the folk in a complex way – it simultaneously hurts and invigorates, appropriates and gets appropriated, modifies and is modified, brings in existential and cultural crisis and also offers a blueprint for empowerment. This maneuverability and hardy commonsense enables the folk to affirmatively negotiate its temporality despite its internal contradictions or external exigencies. Morwal seems to have an undying faith in the intuitive yet ironic faculty of the folk that specially equips it with fortitude sans cynicism.