Rachhpal Sahota’s Chasing Dignity is self avowedly a novel but also a detailed social document on one of the most obdurate pan-Indian practices, that of caste. Here, the context is that of Punjab which makes the circumstances somewhat peculiar. The fact that Punjab has been home to the influence of the egalitarian Sikh faith since the 15th century has altered but certainly not vanquished caste, as this book bears out quite unequivocally.
The novel is a bildungsroman, a novel of growth of the Dalit protagonist Jaggi, growing up in the Punjab of 1980s and 1990s. His struggles start early, when in primary school his teacher is unable to recognise the precocious child, his numerical and linguistic abilities concealed behind an unseemly stutter and more importantly, the label of Keera. This term is a variant the author coins, to replace the repulsive and now outlawed use of a pejorative term for Dalits. The child’s feisty mother, Banto, the seamstress, is bent upon ensuring her child a decent education and his way out of the humiliating restrictive Dalit quarters of the village.
Like it is in Indian villages, the architectural spatial construct of the Dalit habitation serves to underline the marginality, squalor and degradation inherent in the despicable, inhuman practice of caste. While the author’s sympathy for the Dalit protagonist is evident in drawing him as a brilliant, handsome, towering, resourceful young boy, this inadvertently makes him an atypical character who seems to have a lot going from him. He hardly exhibits any character flaws and the source of his misery is social discrimination and fate. He understands early on that he needs to be brave to have the life he wants.
While reading Sahota, I inadvertently compared the caste question in the book to the exploration in Gurdial Singh’s now considered classic, Marhi da Deeva (1964), and Jaggi, to his timeless Dalit protagonist Jagseer (the first Dalit protagonist in Punjabi Literature). Jagseer and Jaggi operate in very different time frames: Jagseer dithers and dies a slow painful death in the dim light of the diva, Jagseer here operates in full blown tubelights. While the opportunities have widened since then, the brutal caste violence continues – Jaggi’s future wife Rani escapes her family’s murky honour killing plot because, being Jatt-Sikh, she marries him out of caste. The one constant point of frustration vis-a-vis Jagseer was his near total immobility in terms of social and economic progress. But then, Gurdial Singh was writing of an era when village was the circumscribed space you lived and died in. Possibilities, if at all existed, were out of reach. His total lack of agency, his near slavery to his benefactors, a complete absence of free will, a frustrating inertia and a slow agonising wait, all collectively constituted the inexorableness of being born Dalit then.
Jaggi, on the other hand, is a product of the post-militancy, post-liberalisation era: he takes initiative, seeks out mentors, creates an impression, takes opportunities, kneads the dough of his fate with diligence, strategy and perseverance. He falls in love with more than one woman and makes a sacrifice to save his wife’s life which should have been enough to endear him in the eyes of his high caste father-in-law. However, the dragon returns multiple times and the shame of marrying outside caste never really goes away.
The gurdwara is a sanctuary of sorts in the village but not enough as an institution to create a casteless society. Jaggi stumbles from obstacle to obstacle, faces stark discrimination at every level, finds ways to overcome his circumstances and ends up with a university degree. However, his way out of this inter-generational stigma of caste is the pragmatic decision to settle in the US. One grand star-studded American Dream expected to sweep away the ancient cobwebs of caste.
The solution offered is no different from the one fuelling the current migration crisis in Punjab and somewhere belies the expectation of a more creative response. It is a fine wrapping up for Jaggi’s aspirational life but nowhere near a more grounded novel response in dealing with the scourge at a community level.
A lot of sentiment has gone into the making of this book. That is evident. Sahota, being a scientist, has brought in excruciating detailing, akin to an anthropological study. His intimate knowledge of village life is evident and he does not cut corners anywhere. The book moves you with its sheer honesty of purpose and creates an empathetic connection. However, the fervour and soft didactic undercurrent, makes for a credible social document but not so much a literary text. There is an ongoing commentary and over-explanation which probably stems from due diligence and also having a western audience in mind needing a manual of sorts to the Punjabi cultural nuances.
But this writing is certainly useful for anyone wanting to understand caste in contemporary Punjab without the obfuscation of a literary text.
Sakoon Singh is a novelist and academic based in Chandigarh.