Monday 3 June 2024

Vikram Seth's Khattri bigotry

 Vikram Seth's 'Suitable Boy' came out over 30 years ago. It was a full throated cry of Khattri Supremacy. We were prepared to accept that there might be good Khattri business executives or college lecturer but could a Khattri businessman be a Secular Socialist 'Land Reformer'- that too in Bihar? The answer was- no, don't be silly. Why not a Khattri who is a good Pope while simultaneously being a beautiful and fecund Empress of Japan? 

 Vikram, like the rest of his people, resented actual Kshatriya Princes who patronized Temples and made land grants to great singers- like Begum Akhtar. However, it was Muslims they feared and hated for understandable historical reasons. That is why the Muslim characters in the novel may have good personal characteristics- one is handsome, another is good at math- but they are bisexual sister-fuckers who are likely to turn jihadi and run amok unless of course they are wholly useless. 

Still, there is nothing unusual in a Hindu Khattri depicting North Indian Muslims in a derogatory and stereotyped manner. What was puzzling about Seth's novel is its attempt to show a Khattri merchant who owns saree shops as well as some agricultural land trying to redistribute zamindari land as a Minister, loyal to Rafi Ahmed Kidwai (and thus Nehru), in the Congress Cabinet of Bihar Province.

Is Vikram being a little sly here? Is he tipping the wink to Indian 'intellectuals' (who knew Bihari 'Land Reform' was highly regressive) that his whole book is bogus NRI nostalgic shite? No. I think Vikram was genuinely stupid and ignorant. 

Consider the following passage from the book

The British had been happy to let the zamindars collect the revenue from land-rent (and were content in practice to allow them whatever they obtained in excess of the agreed British share),

This is foolish. The Brits had initially themselves been tax farmers. They had the 'Diwani' of the Province and farmed this out to those with capital or those with traditional authority in the countryside. Initially the 'Nizamat' or administration remained traditional and under aristocratic Muslim supervision.  However this administration was shit and so the Brits took it over.  This did not mean that the landlords did not exercise a judicial function. It just meant that they were on a more or less tight leash. 

but for the administration of the state they had trusted no one but civil servants of their own race, selected in, partially trained in, and imported from England – or later on, brown equivalents so close in education and ethos as made no appreciable difference.

The British recruited and trained a vast bureaucratic class which served below the District Collector. Most had received a traditional Indian education and had only a functional knowledge of English. It was this vast, relatively inexpensive and fairly efficient, administrative machinery which promoted the Rule of Law and security of life and property. In Bihar, the quality of administration tended to decline as 'Indianization' occurred. Peak efficiency is represented by the 1911 cadastral survey of Bihar. Once you had Dyarchy, and then Provincial Autonomy, things started to turn to shit.  By the mid Sixties, it was evident that Bihar would revert to 'Jungle Raj'. A revision of the British survey was attempted, around the time Vikram left India for England, but it was pretty shitty. Currently, it is hoped that a proper digitized land registry can be completed by the end of the decade. The problem is that the issue of ownership seems to have become intractable. 60 percent of dispute related killing involve land-title. It must be said, even more heinous crimes- sons bashing their elderly fathers or mothers to death - are committed in more affluent states. 

Vikram was writing a novel, not a dissertation, and it was pardonable for him to paint Zamindars as decayed aristocrats. The problem is that he was trying to depict some Khattri Uncle of his as Vladimir fucking Lenin. Still, it is good to know that even very posh Khattris are casteist shitheads who like droning on about their Mama and Kaka and Soo Soo and Tu Tu. 


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