A K. Ramanujan,
better known as a poet, wrote a curious autobiographical story, “Annayya’s
Anthropology”, about a young man from Mysore going off to Chicago to study
anthropology. Annayya expects, like young men and women of several generations
over the last couple of centuries, western education to provide him with an
escape from the tyranny of social traditions. As he drowns himself in books of
western anthropology in a Chicago library, he chances upon a recent book on
Indian customs. This book contains a photograph of his tonsured mother as an
example of how Hindu widows conduct themselves. It is then that he learns of
the recent death of his father. This has been the generic plot of all attempted
escapes from tradition by Indians.
Another contemporary of Ramanujan, Kannada fiction writer Shantinath Desai, began his literary career with Mukti, a novel of release from tradition, hugely successful with the young generation; but his last novel Om Namo was an empathetic study of the Karnataka Jainism. U. R. Anantha Murthy wrote his celebrated Samskara while doing research in English literature at Birmingham. Samskara engages with the power and the ironies of traditions going back to the Manusmriti.
Sri Aurobindo, sent to England at seven so that he grows up without an iota of influence of Indian customs, returns to India after acquiring a Cambridge degree without knowing a word of any Indian language. Soon after, he studied Sanskrit and in an amazingly short time took to writing profound commentaries on Hindu scriptures and myths. One’s uneasy immersion in the caste hierarchy and precarious existence within dehumanising tradition have been themes in uncountable novels, stories, plays, films, scholarly works, reform movements and other discursive forms of expression.
This has happened to not only to upper-caste Indians. The “generic autobiography” of escape-and-return has been the lot of victims of the oppressive caste system as well. B. R. Ambedkar, easily the most educated among pre-Independence Indians, won a scholarship from the Raja of Baroda, went to Columbia University in the United States, London School of Economics, and Gray’s Inn to acquire a Ph. D., M. Sc., D. Sc. and Bar-at-Law. On his return, he experienced how he would not be allowed to forget his caste and had to leave Baroda in less than two weeks. As a victim and a crusader, he had to engage with tradition and caste for the rest of his life. Instances can be numerous, exceptions none.
The pattern of attempted-escape-and-return-to-the-mire can be temporally scaled up to include not just one or two centuries of the colonial times but a couple of millennia. Despite ceaseless toil to create an inclusive kingdom during the 17th century, Shivaji had to seek benediction from the Kanouj Brahmins. Jnandeva of the 13th century, the holiest among the Marathi poets and saints, faced ostracism for the deeds of his father who had returned from Sanyas to set up a family. It was not just Shankara (9th century) who faced the wrath of traditionalists. Even Gautama Buddha had to counter the upsurge of varna-based social fragmentation a millennium before Shankara.
If oppressive social traditions—the source and the spread of which lie in remote antiquity—have come to control and condition our lives without exception for over two millennia, there has to be a logic to their power and authority; there has to be a rationale that can be stated with clarity so that it can be refuted, modified, altered and rectified. The why, the where from, and the how of varna and jati in Indian civilisation needs to be opened again and again, like festering and mortal wounds that need to be healed or surgically removed.