Now ubiquitous in stone, the Kerala reformist found ways to bring about social change by subverting mindsets.
BY LATHEESH MOHAN
Letter to the Little Devil, 1921.
Guru was living in Shivagiri. One day two people came to meet him. Guru enquired about the purpose of their visit and they said: We came searching for help. Only you can help us.
Guru: Help from me? Please narrate.
My house has been haunted by a Little Devil for a long time now. We cannot sleep peacefully. We tried many things but nothing has changed. Please save us.
Guru: Who? Little Devil? That is nice. Did anyone see him?
Yes. We saw him standing in a corner of our property. He looked like black coal. He pelts stones at us incessantly. Please save us.
Guru: Okay, fine. How do you know the fellow is a devil? Would he listen if I tell him?
Yes, he will definitely obey if you tell him
Guru: I am not sure. I and the little devil are not friends.
(This made the visitors very sad. So Guru continued)
Guru: If I give a letter, will it be enough?
Guru (to one of his pupils): Please write down what I say (and he said):
“To the honorable little devil,
Don’t do any harm to the house of Mr. Perayra who has brought you this letter.
(Narayana Guru, Ed. P. K. Balakrishnan, 2000, p. 154)
Local legend says that in the early and middle decades of the 20th century, many people in central Kerala wanted this letter as they suffered the menace of the Little Devil (Kutichatan). Apparently the letter worked for Perayra and it became much in demand. But we do not have evidence to conclude whether Narayana Guru distributed more letters like this. His life as a public figure includes many acts of this sort—seemingly intended to induce laughter but only seemingly. He acted out many “tricks” that “saved” people with characteristic wit. Society in turn said: “Thank you for tricking us. We were so poor, paranoid and cast out. Thanks a lot”.
As a consequence Kerala now has more statues of Guru than anyone else. It can be argued that his people tricked him by turning him into a perfect empty statue and making him a God in the mould of the magician. But that is an altogether different matter.
Maybe we can’t simply proceed without saying a bit more about that business; why Guru and the Little Devil now? Guru is an almost redundant question; he is almost everywhere in popular culture nearly a hundred years after his death. Events continue to happen around his after-life image: from the organisation named after him—Sree Narayana Guru Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP Yogam)—joining hands with the BJP, to the CPI(M) running a campaign against caste using his slogans and even avant garde art going viral because it depicted a much worn portrait of him.
The communist movement in Kerala has always used Guru as one of their poster boys, though they have never given him the prominence reserved for their western idols from whom they take their ideals on class. But whenever they feel compelled to address caste in Kerala, they turn to Guru. It is also significant that the slogans they took from Guru were those that categorically dismissed caste as an individual marker of identity, the prominent slogan they took being Namukku Jaathiyilla (I don’t have caste).
This preoccupation can be seen partly as people taking Guru wherever they want, much as the RSS has tried to claim the persona of Bhagat Singh, who was communist by inspiration and atheist by inclination. In Kerala almost every group now tries to appropriate Guru or extend themselves through him. Many of these events also play out as mere trickery without any part of Guru’s spirit or intentions.
Taking his image to the NDA would have been the biggest trick anybody could have played with Guru’s image. But as he managed in the flesh, his after-death image also manages to escape the traps laid by people who follow him or pretend to follow him.
When the BJP succeeded in an alliance with the political party formed by SNDP Yogam, an organisation started with Guru as leader—it came as a shock to many in the state. The Bharat Dharma Jana Sena and the BJP contested last year’s state election together but achieved nothing. The alliance came to an end with the leader of SNDP—Vellappally Natesan—calling BJP a party of cheats. Many in the state see this as a personal victory for Narayana Guru over his “own” organisation, which he left before his death.
That explains “why Guru now”. But why the Little Devil?
Let’s examine the story that connects Little Devil and Guru a bit deeper. At the outset, it comes across as a historical satire played by five characters—Guru, two visitors, Little Devil and Guru’s student. Visitors represent the ignorant masses; Guru, the saviour. If we take it out of context and examine as a standalone act, it is a satire against superstition and ignorance. In that sense, the letter is a dig at ordinary people by a superior intellect. There is nothing extraordinary in this; any comic actor could pull off such a trick. But if we place it inside the context and examine it, the letter is something delivered to an actual person, not an ill-perceived apparition.
The Little Devil is well known in Kerala. He is an imaginary enemy—also a friend at times—of the people, firmly installed in age-old lower caste myths. The phenomenon known as “Chataneru” (stone pelting by the Little Devil at someone’s house) was popularly known and felt at least till the later decades of the 20th century. Stories of Chatan and Chataneru are still around, albeit in limited instances. Though it was popularly believed that stone pelting was the handiwork of the mischievous Chatan, it was also common knowledge, as a possibility, that there might be a human standing behind the curtains of darkness inside the role of Chatan.
Hindsight and streetlights tell us there was always a neighbour behind every stone thrown by the Little Devil. Guru’s letter was addressed to that neighbour. He tells him not to have an antagonistic relationship with his neighbour. Perayra would have read out that letter to the imaginary devil, standing in an assumed heroic pose. And his neighbours would have had heard it. The letter would have made an impact because it was signed by a person who was true to his role(s).
The little devil is a curious role. It is played by people wearing the masks of both God and Devil. Some people worshipped him. As a stone-pelting menace he was an empty role. Many used him whenthey felt a need to intimidate a neighbour by pelting stones. But when the stone came to their own houses they almost always counted it as the action of a real Chatan. It’s not that people believed Chatan did not exist. They believed in him, truly and deeply. But they also understood him as a role that could be used to some immediate effect.
In the little devil act, Guru does not directly negate the fact of Chatan. In essence, he asserts the double nature of the role. The Guru who takes part in the Little Devil act is detached but also committed at the same time. He doesn’t participate in the psychodrama of people carnally but at the same time he is deeply engrossed in it. As a tool, he cuts deep because he is present and absent. He attains public solitude by simultaneously dealing with the presecnt and the absent other.
As a social actor, Guru knew his people as intimately as anyone could. He knew what would work and what wouldn’t. He was a poet, visual artist and philosopher par excellence but he stood out among the legion of poets and philosophers for his immaculate sense of social performance. It can be argued that the world for him also existed as performance. He understood human circumstances as acts intently and intensely posited by the people themselves. He knew people would listen to only those things they wanted to hear. So he moulded them with words they wanted to hear and acts they wanted to see. But everything he did, even those playful interventions, hide, in stark daylight, the paradox he preached and enacted throughout his life. His acts had a different affective strategy.
Guru’s story is the story of an individual; the adventures of an individual who has perfected himself by careful rehearsal and repetition. His story, in a didactic way, sketches the social totality in and against the backdrop of his adventures. Guru’s story, as myth, from the beginning traces the adventurous man. According to folklore and the monographs written on him, Nanu was an exceptionally courageous character from a young age, although, like most of the Shaivaite Gurus, little is known about his childhood (it is interesting that there is nothing much in popular memory about the childhood of Guru’s favourite God: Shiva).
As a young man he leaves a “peaceful” married life to go in search of truth. He wanders into dangerous mountains and crosses ferocious rivers. At an appropriate moment he returns to the world and creates a scandal with his political and spiritual performances. His acts change social reality forever. As a corollary, after death, he attains the form of a deity. His story, if stripped of its particular details, is a much repeated one in human history. One could easily find Buddha, Jesus or even Che Guevara retold here in the myth of Narayana Guru. But what separates him from the stories of other adventurous men is the curious double role he played. He had a double motive and in each he played a double role.
As a lower caste hero, Guru did not really oppose the ideology he was acting against. He lived his life against the tyranny of a society founded upon Brahminical values and rules. But in gesture, costume and rhetoric he never confronted the Brahmin. In fact, he imitated and propagated Brahmin logic against the Brahmins in a non-polemical way.
In his lifetime Guru did many things only Brahmins were supposed to do. He learned the language of Gods (Sanskrit) in detail, he installed numerous deities, he performed rigorous classical religious rituals like the enactment of life-long celibacy, he propagated Advaita (non-dualism), he addressed himself using the self-referential term (nom) only Brahmins were permitted to use. But at the same time these acts were against the Brahmin way of conducting oneself in the world.
By acting out the Brahmin in public and in private life Guru managed to destroy the belief that the Brahmin way of life could only be attained through birth. He proved that, like everyone else, Brahminical behaviour is also enacted and iterated. If you take into consideration the usual fate of Shudra saints in the subcontinent it is easy to comprehend what Guru, as someone even below the Shudras in caste hierarchy, did was an act of high valour. And if you are also ready to take into consideration the history of social mimesis in India then one might even persuade oneself to concede that Guru had an enormous sense of performativity.
Unlike other socio-religious movements in his time, Guru’s was not based purely on rationality or classical religion. His process was at one and the same time an attempt to get into Hindu religion and to get out of its classical forms. The community Guru represented, Ezhava, because they belonged to the lowest rung in the caste circle, had been kept out of the core of Hindu wealth and knowledge. There was no salvation for them because Hinduism did not allow for change. Because the way one behaved was determined by status at birth, the individual was powerless to change. One was born a Brahmin and also as an Ati Shudra. Because your fate is determined by your own actions in a previous birth, you have only yourself to blame. This theory kept the social roles strictly regulated and segregated for centuries. The roles were preordained so nothing new, especially in the lives of lower caste people, ever happened.
It is important to note that many of the major incidents of 19th century Kerala related to costume in general. Two of the biggest—the Jewellery ordinance (1818) and the Upper Cloth ordinance (1859)—were related to costume. These ordinances were intended to allow lower caste people the freedom to wear jewellery and upper cloths but the ruling families took pains to prevent them from imitating the costume of caste Hindus. Guru’s imitation or perfection of upper caste habits should be understood in light of the importance the caste system placed on the outward appearance of people.
This insistence on different costume for different groups in itself was an argument against the principle of caste. It was evident that people were equal by birth and what made them appear different was the costume and the gesture schema. Guru brought this fact into the open by performing the rituals imposed by the caste system to prove that lower caste people could do all the things Brahmins were doing.
It could be argued that Guru’s biggest fear during his lifetime was related to his self- imposed celibacy. The fear of the sensuous female body is a running theme in his poems. He wanted to die a Brahmachari (one who lives in the way of Brahma) even when the flesh tormented him throughout his life. He never insisted that anyone around him be celibate. He wasn’t against women or sensual pleasure in general. But when it came to his own case he was adamant about celibacy. He stayed true to it as if it was the biggest thing in his life. Many of his poems portray a man, tormented by the image of the naked female body, pleading with his deity to give him strength to resist the temptations of the flesh.
As a social role, being a Brahmachari is strenuous and pulled off only rarely: stories of illicit affairs of “Brahmacharis” are everywhere in folklore. People rarely believed one could ever pull off the role with integrity. Even those who believed it could be, before Guru, trusted only a Brahmin. Playing the role of a man who can control anything the flesh is prey to, even the torments of Kama Deva, was an attempt to prove that divinity is attainable with self-control. Nobody ever publicly questioned the integrity of Narayana Guru’s life as a celibate. According to local legend and the monographs written on him, he was true to the role. He is known as Ugravruthan and, arguably, one of the most famous poems ever written in Kerala acknowledges and glorifies this true-to-the-role celibate.
One definition of the villain in popular culture includes the idea of people who take their roles outside their station. Guru took almost all the roles he played from above his “station”. He not only tried to rise above the position he acquired through birth but also inspired a lot of people to go for things above their perceived limit. There was nothing inside him that prompted or would have helped him to play the roles he took. But he played them to perfection without really bothering about the paradox involved in his acting.
Narayana Guru is like B. R. Ambedkar in that both created counteract moments, though in different ways. In Guru’s case, his intention was a new turn inside the act through counteract. Ambedkar tried to move away from the act that he and his collective were involved in. Both had a similar agenda: to smash the caste system. They approached the task from different directions. While Guru tried to propagate counter-mimesis, Ambedkar tried a movement outwards using the same tool. Both managed to instigate upward mobility for their people through mimesis as a mechanism.
The act-of-acting-against is an impulse. In most cases, one makes partial use of the vocabulary of an earlier act and tries to show the negatives involved in it. Because the act-of-acting-against requires a series of appearances in order to leave something as essence or trace, it also carries in itself, inadvertently, the danger of extending or nourishing the act it is acting against.
Counteract on the other hand does not waste energy trying only to destroy an act. It tries to turn or move away from the act that necessitated counter-engagement. In effect, it tries to ignore or suspend the previous act. As a form of social action, it could well end up as only an intensified interaction or engagement with a previous act, which is perceived as imperfect or unfair. Counteract always manages to produce a new or different moment. Counteract tries to build itself up on a foundation of itself inside or outside the act.
This idea of intra-mimesis as a tool against Brahmin hegemony was, as far as 20th century Kerala was concerned, a new thought and new method of representation. If we consider his life as a series of events, Guru’s genius lies in his ability to stay true to this ideal throughout his life. He acted out what he preached. Even though he was impressed by some elements of Brahmin thought, he preached and acted out the idea of the Shudra saint, a concept alien to the Brahmin vocabulary.
As a social actor, unlike Ambedkar, Guru dealt with the paradox of that position. Ambedkar’s life, seemingly, did not involve paradox. He did not play many roles. He was a politically committed individual throughout his life. In a sense, that was the only role he played: a social reformer with acute anthropological and juristic knowledge. He played that role to its logical conclusion. He used all the traditional tools involved in politics and adopted many strategies to attain his goal. Because his realm was mainstream politics, sticking to one method would have been fatal for his cause. He did not prompt his people to pick up habits from above. But he instigated them into mimesis to attain more mobility.
It could be argued that Ambdekar was the greatest philosopher of 20th century India. He studied his people and territory in detail and came up with proper ways and tools for the counteract impulse. Unlike Narayana Guru, Ambedkar did not take the double route that doesn’t hesitate at trickery if it serves the purpose. As the architect of the Constitution, Ambedkar represents all Indians, even Brahmins. Ambedkar did not want his people to stay true to their original identity like Narayana Guru did. He wanted them to get out so that they would be free of their earlier identity.
As a social actor, Ambedkar did not take the sensual route. He understood the stage and understood the actor. For him both carried equal importance. The faith Ambedkar had in the individual and her liberty, it could be argued, was exhibited by no one in the context of 20th century India. He had the measure of his role and his backdrop. He also managed to convert this measure into a universal measure that could be iterated.
Neither Guru nor Ambedkar posited their ideals as something to be realised in utopia. They urged a destruction of the ideals of the past.
For Ambedkar “Knowing proper ways and means is more important than knowing the ideal”. If any change is to happen in India, the Hindu system has to change as they form an overwhelming majority. It is not about improving the Hindu family or Dalit family—it’s about changing the social system. If you manage to change the wider social picture, that will change both families.
If you find the system is impossible to change then you should change yourself—the only way to change yourself, Ambedkar suggests, is to change your ideals. The problem lies in the ideals of a society, not in its everyday practices. There is no point in a thousand-year struggle to reform a stubborn system. What is important is the elimination of Dukkha; and one has to do it while still alive. The role of religion or its base units—man and morality—is to serve principles for this purpose. Not God, or ritual, but man should be the central of religious purpose. And changing him is all about changing his mind; changing the universal fictions to which he clings.
Ambedkar imagined man as a free actor having an inescapable relationship with the group and the state. He does not imagine him as an inconsequential base of larger groupings. He keeps the single person in the centre. This is not to say that he was an individualist who wanted to assert the primacy of free-roaming agents. He also points out the danger of the ultra-individual route as the human animal is prone to imitate without applying the logic of good and bad, but he was also aware that empowering the individual and allowing her to think freely outside all designated framework was the only way to attain unity. Hinduism was not acceptable to him because of its reluctance to recognise the individual. While doing all this, Ambedkar always preferred the direct route. He would explain what the individual represented in a scientific and philosophical manner rather than through metaphor or mythical anecdote—the route even the Buddha took.
Guru is more like the Buddha; even the yellow robe he wore points to his affinity for the Buddha and his teachings. Guru made use of metaphor and anecdote. He took the poetic route. In poetry what matters more is your ability to hide rather than unmask.
He was not always spontaneous in action, if we go by the everyday understanding of the word spontaneity: that is, spontaneous in reaction. But if we read spontaneity as freedom, Guru was spontaneous in his behaviour. He comes across as somebody who relied up on the “rehearsed quality” of acting rather than going with the spontaneous overflow of inner potency. But he always managed to hide more than he revealed. One could argue that a proper mystic has no other way.
That’s why he turns out to be a God, a fate Ambedkar diligently avoided. The Ezhava community in Kerala now sees Guru only as God. They use the devotional songs he wrote to venerate him. Many believe these songs are written about Guru by later day admirers. The thing with a God-figure is that it simply stays among the people. The affective capacity of the figure is fixed forever once it turns into God. Making someone a God is also a way to terminate the affective quality of that figure.
The Ezahava community, over the years, has successfully managed that trick on Guru. But does he really stay with them or any other group that tries to appropriate him? At this point the answer is no. He manages to trick everyone even now; he holds his ground. His secret is intact. It is his secret that makes him God figure and an anti-idol revolutionary at the same time; religious and anti-religious in one single guise.
The answer to the question why the Little Devil now has been answered somewhere in between or is apparent by now. Maybe partial, maybe incorrect, but still an answer: the Little Devil is a role, as empty as anything can get. Narayana Guru at this point, at least in popular culture, appears an empty role. Somebody is trying to fill that role every day; somebody fails almost every day.
Latheesh Mohan is a Malayalam poet who has published three books. His latest collection Valikkunna Kuthirakal (Horses that draw Ksha) was published by DC Books in 2016.
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