The White Sari
By Devyani Khobragade
Few winters ago, Devyani Khobragade grabbed international headlines over an alleged visa fraud in the US involving her housekeeper. Trying to break from this typecast of a controversial diplomat who created a storm between India-US relations, Khobragade has trendily turned to fiction with a short story for Juggernaut titled The White Sari.
A poignant love story plagued by caste barriers, The White Sari follows the life of its protagonist Ratna, who is the perfect embodiment of a Dalit woman caught in the mire of the complexities of a post-Ambedkarite age — where she flaunts her identity but is yet to come to terms with anti-Brahmanical tendencies among the upper castes. Her fair-complexioned, sharp-nosed, upper caste lover Akarsh, a Sociology graduate and highly fascinated by Ambedkar’s teachings, has professed unconditional companionship but Ratna’s insecurities are real. Being a witness to domestic violence and rape by upper-caste men during her years growing up, Ratna responds to Akarsh with these lines: “My mother warns me to keep away from all men, especially high-caste men. Not that our men are paragons of virtue. Here, we are the Dalits within the Dalits.” The story ends with the sudden news of Akarsh’s death in an anti-Naxal operation, and Ratna holding a beautiful white sari with golden border that he had left for her (also the symbol of his commitment).
At a time when upwardly-mobile Dalits, while eulogizing Dalit capitalism, have been seen shifting political positions and overlooking the necessity to represent concerns of the Dalit community, Khobragade’s first foray into the world of fiction is part of a culture that is seeing a resurgence of Dalit filmmakers, writers, activists willing to portray their lived experiences through the popular medium (take for instance the recent spate of films like Fandry and Sairat) and an audience willing to appreciate it. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Questions of caste and gender can be traced back to the autobiographical writings of Dalit feminist writers like Bama and have been the product of Jabbar Patel’s cinema too, but the reception is now much wider. There has now emerged a new market which is ready to consume, let’s say, The White Sari by simply downloading an app on their android or iOS phones. But these individual narratives in popular culture cannot be said to have the ability to form a collective. Dalit diasporic writers like Devyani Khobragade might be making Ambedkar more visible than ever among new millenials, but it is far from how the cultural renaissance of the ’70s parallel movement had impacted. Khobragade, along with others, are perhaps trying to create a new mainstream.
The White Sari by Devyani Khobragade is exclusively available on www.juggernaut.in