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“Narrativising Caste: A Critical Exploration of the Visual Politics of A Gardener in The Wasteland”

Ms Ankita Sen

Postgraduate Student, Department of English, Presidency University, Kolkata, West Bengal, India

The graphic novel A Gardener in the Wasteland (2011) by Srividya Natarajan and Aparajita Ninan zooms in on the narrativized and discursive nature of casteism in India, through a de-historicizing lens. The text is an adaptation of Jyotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri (1873) (also known as Slavery) and it extends his critique of Hinduism to disclose caste as a process of narrative production.

This paper seeks to explore how this graphic novel employs techniques of metafiction to destabilize the institutionalized historicity of Caste narratives by subverting its rhetorical power. Exploiting basic elements of the graphic novel genre such as speech bubbles, frames, gutters, colour codes, borders, vignettes, space, font, and style in an innovative manner, Ninan has demystified the complex relationship between history, myth, and storytelling in this text. At one point in the text, she tells Natarajan “History like myth, changes depending on who writes it, who reads it” (Natarajan and Ninan 66). Holding on to this argument as the theoretical anchorage of the entire paper, I try to trace how the text de-mythologizes caste and exposes it as a contested site of negotiation. To investigate the role played by history in sustaining the power politics embedded in the Brahminization of caste narratives, I draw on the works of historian Keith Jenkins. Jenkins’s argument “that history always has a purpose. That history is always about power. That history is never innocent but always ideological” (Munslow 13), helps me unpack the graphic novel’s unique treatment of sacred Hindu texts to evidence the ‘ruptures’ within them and concomitantly anticipate their deconstruction.

The text traces how the virulent tenacity of the Hindutva ideology since Phule’s times till the present day, has served to perpetuate systematic invisibilization and anonymization of anti-caste narratives that threaten to usurp the hierarchical relationship between the upper castes and the lower castes. Caught between two conflicting “perspectives” of Phule and the Brahmins, the veracity of history’s claims on caste stands challenged in the text. Keeping that in mind, this paper seeks to investigate the role of the graphic novel as a genre in facilitating the emergence of counter historical retellings of the origin of caste system.

As is shown in the text, the brutal dichotomy imposed by a casteist regime perceives Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) not as individuals but as corrupt bodies innately predisposed to annihilation. This paper also studies Ninan and Natarajan’s use of metafictive and experimental narrative techniques to see how they reclaim that ‘body’ from the space of the “wasteland” over the course of the narrative, and restore them within the space of the “garden” by the end of the text.

Keywords: caste, history, graphic novel, Hindu, mythology, narrative

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