Author: Srividya Natarajan
Illustrator: Aparajita Ninan
Published: 2011 by Navayana
No. of Pages: 128
Genre: History, Socio-politics
Subthemes: Casteism in India
Timeline: The story travels through two timelines in India, 2010- where the story is set and 1840’s to 1870’s- which explores the story of Jotiba and Savitribai Phule.
Replete with fiery caricatures and commentary on the Brahminic hegemony, A Gardener in the Wasteland, is both a tribute to the life of Jotiba and Savitribai Phule and a comment on casteism still prevalent in India. Scathing in its narration like Jotiba’s Gulamgiri (slavery), the book travels through two very different timelines in India, 1840’s and 2010. The plot is explored through the conversation between the two protagonists of the novel, Appu and Vidya, who have also co-authored the book. Using wasteland as a metaphor for caste in India, the very first page introduces you to a disturbing image of flies hovering over a putrid garbage dump. The plot unfolds from the very first panel where Appu and Vidya witness an elderly man using casteist slur to insult children playing around his house. Commenting on the elderly man’s behaviour, Vidya reflects on the need of superheroes in the world. Next panel opens in a scene where a silhouette of Batman is shown holding the elderly man by the collar which is an allusion to Jotiba and Savitrabai being superheroes. The plot then begins its journey back in time by exploring the discrimination faced by Jotiba and Savitribai themselves and how it culminated into the couple being ousted from their own village. The panels that follow not only talk about how Jotiba saw the problem but effectively display Jotiba’s inspiration from the French Revolution and Thomas Paine’s Rights Of Man.
The plot is majorly driven by conversations between Appu and Vidya and between Jotiba and his friend Dhondiba. Intricately woven between two timelines, the plot explains the reason behind the caste system in India and how it was legitimised by the Hindu scriptures which were manipulated by the Brahmins. The scripture writing Brahman is shown as a stout figure, who intentionally and casually manipulates the scriptures to free itself from the burden of physical work and dissuades the other castes into believing this structure of the society.
The story explores the metaphor of wasteland by showing Jotiba and Savitribai as gardeners in this wasteland and how they weeded out the myths in the wasteland of casteism by exposing the draconian interpretations of casteism by Brahmins. The chapters are split according to the same metaphor and talk about how the Phule couple planted seeds of education in this wasteland to battle caste-based oppression in India.
The metaphor of Wasteland has been used for casteism in India, which is shown in the cover panel of the first chapter. The story develops on this metaphor by first showing how casteism was converted into a wasteland through manipulations by the Brahmins and then shows the Phule couple as gardeners who weed out myths spread by the Brahmins. The final chapter, The Seeds of Education, signifies planting of seeds of education by the Phule couple to battle caste-based oppression in India.
Another symbolism that has been used throughout can be seen in how Brahmins are depicted in the novel. The Brahmin caricatures are shown to be rather draconian and much larger than the other castes in the novel, which signifies greater power and manipulation by the Brahmins.