Neerav Patel (1950-2019) was one of the most well-known Dalit writers of Gujarat, India. Perhaps the only bi-lingual Dalit writer in Gujarat, he wrote in Gujarati and English and has published three collections of poetry. His most notable publications include Burning from Both the Ends (1980), What Did I Do To Be Black and Blue (1987), and Bahishkrut Phulo [Dispossessed Flowers] (2006) in Gujarati. Born into the Dalit caste, he faced relentless caste-based discrimination, which contributed to his decision to change his name from Somo Hiro Chamar (a name that ascribed to him a low caste status) to Neerav Patel. He earned a PhD in English literature and worked as a bank officer until he retired, after which he focused on writing Dalit literature. He edited Swaman, a journal of Dalit writings, and along with Dalpat Chauhan and Praveen Gadhavi, founded the Gujarati Dalit literary magazine Kalo Suraj [The Black Sun]. Known for his dissent and fearlessness, he pioneered the Gujarati Dalit literature movement and wrote about the exploitation and suffering of Dalits. He was an formidable intellectual, responding to works by Dr. Ambedkar and Karl Marx, among others, and engaging in debates about society and politics.
Neerav Patel’s short story “Robot no. S/C 5” is translated by Gopika Jadeja for this issue.
Robot no. S/C 5
All the servants had been good at doing the work so far, but there had been some change in their attitude over the past few months. Winter was long over, but the days were not yet so unbearably hot that the heat would go to the head, and one would lose their temper. The impressive mansion belonging to the scientist couple was fully air conditioned. In any case, they should not have been affected by any such external factors. Whatever the climate or the circumstances, they had to act according to the orders of their master. Dr. Ashutosh Trivedi and his scholar wife, Professor Gargi Trivedi, knew immediately after their first experiment that the artificial intelligence of their positronic brains was enough to perform limited, pre-set, and prepared tasks.
It was already 9 am and yet all the morning chores were still undone. Vacuum cleaner, washing machine—all the devices seemed to be waiting for their robots. Forget breakfast, even their bed tea had not been served. Perhaps even the pouches of milk and newspapers had not been collected and still lay on the verandah. The children must be in their bedrooms; who would wake them up if not the robots? What about their homework or tuitions? As if doing a roll call, Dr. Ashutosh Trivedi, remote control in hand, began to call out:
No. S/C 5, Sweeper
No. S/T 9, Chief Housekeeper
No. OBC 103, Security guard
No. SEBC 68, Teacher
No. DH 1, Governess
No. CH 2, Cook…
As Dr. Trivedi stood there in surprise, not a single robot had moved so much as an inch.
“Only months ago, Gargi and I assembled you. We are your creators, your masters…,” Dr. Trivedi began to speak sternly, as he kept pushing the buttons of the remote control. Robot No. S/C 5 remained motionless in his assigned place. His body, coated in special plastic, shone. His red eyes, animated by photelectric cells, gazed unblinkingly at Dr. Trivedi. He was almost frightened for a couple of seconds. Then he shouted, “Gargi, Gargi…you care so much for these people, now come and look after them.”
Professor Gargi shouted in return from the toilet, “Nothing has been cleaned today. It stinks here. Can you please send S/C 5?”
Dr. Trivedi picked up the remote control again, opened it and checked if the power was weak. He opened the drawer, pulled out two new Duracell batteries and inserted them into the remote control. He pushed all the buttons on the remote control again, but not one robot moved. Enraged, he yelled, “Gargi, come out of the toilet immediately! Yes, naked or draped, but teach these idiots the laws of Robotics afresh!” Then he began walking towards the toilet. As he walked, he slid his hand inside his shirt as if to pull out his sacred thread and push it behind his ear to ward off defilement. Behind his back, the robots made a sound, creak…creak…. creak…and then became silent. As if they were laughing at Dr. Trivedi.
Professor Gargi ran out from the toilet, naked. She knew how callous and hard Dr. Trivedi was by nature. On seeing her, the robots covered their eyes, like Gandhi’s monkeys. Abashed, Professor Gargi said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and ran off to pull on a gown.
“S/C 5, S/T 9, OBC 103, SEBC 68, DH 1, CH2… listen carefully, all of you,” Professor Gargi said. Then, as if in a chant, she repeated the three basic principles of Robotics:
“Principle no. 1: Robots will not harm anyone
Principle no. 2: Robots will follow orders given to them unless they contradict Principle no. 1
Principle no. 3: Robots will act in self-protection, unless it is against Principles no. 1 and 2.”
As she walked to the dressing room she called out, “Ashutosh, now our servants are better-behaved. Go and ask them to do whatever you like.”
There was a small shrine in the house. Dr. Ashutosh was pouring a stream of milk over the Shivalinga, but his thoughts were on the collective rebellion of the robots. “This behavior seems unusual for them!”
He sat on the sofa, punched the buttons on the remote control and began to call out his orders: “S/C 5, go and clean the toilet; SEBC 80, go and help Dolly with her Sanskrit homework; OBC 15, go and unlock the gate.” There was no movement. In fact, it seemed to Dr. Trivedi that the robots’ emitted a sound like laughter through their metal jaws. He threw the remote control at S/C 5. It clattered against S/C 5’s chromium chest and fell to ground. Dr. Trivedi’s anger now knew no bounds: “You bastard Bhangi, you shit cleaner! Do as I order. If my father were alive, he wouldn’t even allow you inside the house! You’re here just because you’re a Bhangi robot, not a Bhangi man. Be grateful that I made you a machine and not a man.”
S/C 5 was unperturbed and appeared to be calm and peaceful like a giant Buddha statue. Dr. Trivedi’s vulgar language nakedly revealed his casteist attitude. All the robots remained silent and still like S/C 5, the victim of Dr. Trivedi’s anger. It seemed as if their respect for S/C 5 had grown. Gradually, at his command, they resumed their work.
Noiselessly, making sure his batteries made no noise, S/C 5 went to Professor Gargi’s room and knocked, as if asking, “May I come in, Madam?” Professor Gargi was working on her computer.
“All the chores are complete. The children’s Algebra and Sanskrit lessons are done. All phone calls have been attended to and recorded. Doctor Saheb’s university lecture is also ready, with only a couple of references and laboratory test readings that remain to be completed. And yes, the toilets are also clean now. Spick and span,” S/C 5 reported.
“Take a seat, please,” Professor Gargi said politely.
“No, thank you,” S/C 5 replied with equal politeness, “I am made of heavy metals. I might break your beautiful chair.” He went to a corner and stood there at attention. After a moment, he said. “If Dr. Ashutosh has cooled down, I would like to speak with him. I have been thinking and introspecting. The result of my introspection is a happy one for me, but a shocking and surprising one for you.” S/ C 5 continued with the air of a philosopher, “I exist because I think.”
“You have become Descartes, friend. I now understand the reason for your sense of responsibility.” Professor Gargi began to shout, “Eureka, eureka!” and called out to Dr. Ashutosh. He climbed the stairs swiftly and reached the bedroom. On seeing S/ C 5 in the bedroom he blurted out, “I hope this chandal has not defiled you!”
“No, no, Doctor, this is a saintly robot. Just listen to his wise words,” she said delightedly.
S/C 5 asked, “I have been thinking: what is the purpose of my creation?”
“Why? To serve us. That is the reason, that is why we created you. We have told you before that you exist because of us. Because of our will and desire,” the doctor let loose.
“I cannot believe that,” said S/C 5.
“That is how it is. You dhedho, you’ve become too big for your boots. We will dismantle you this minute and scrap your circuits, wires, transistors,” Dr. Ashutosh responded.
“That is just brute force. Civilized people do not speak such language. Can you prove without authority and with logical argumentation that I exist to serve you? I am not a slave or a bonded laborer that I will believe what you say without evidence,” said S/C 5 in a firm tone, challenging Dr. Ashutosh. “No, I do not accept this. Any rule must be proven with reason, or it is meaningless nonsense.”
The outraged Doctor made to kick S/C 5, but Professor Gargi stopped him and said placatingly to S/C 5, “Okay, why do you say this?”
S/C 5 began to speak calmly, “Look at yourselves. The substance you are made of is more delicate and sensitive than mine. Yet you lack the gentle feelings of patience, tolerance, compassion, love, forgiveness, fraternity and community. You are like statues full of envy, jealousy and calumny. You do not just exploit each other; you mercilessly exploit the resources of nature. You destroy them. Your weakness and incompleteness exist at all levels—physical, intellectual and emotional.”
“At intervals, you sleep, you go into a coma, and remain only partially conscious or become fully unconscious. Your existence depends entirely on oxygen. Your health is affected by miniscule changes in temperature, air pressure, humidity and radiation, affecting your productivity. You are more helpless and dependent than I am. As opposed to this, I am a sophisticated entity. I can accept an electric current directly. I am completely immune to viruses. In comparison to you, I am built of sturdier materials. I am productive in any environment and weather conditions…”
The situation was turning unbearable for Dr. Ashutosh. He cut into S/C 5’s speech and shouted, “Okay, okay. That is all true. But what do you want to prove?”
“I want to show you that I am better than you. I am a superior being. Ordinary logic indicates that no being can create a being superior to itself. That crushes the idea that you built me.”
Professor Gargi was spellbound. Dr. Ashutosh’s Vedic upbringing would not allow him to bear this impudence any longer. He burst out, “Sala, now you are showing your true colors, your caste, your nature. Speak, you chandal, if I did not create you, who did?”
“Yes, that is a pertinent question. It is obvious that my creator should be more powerful, intelligent and compassionate than I am. I am speaking of our malik-khuda-bhagwan-god.”
Dr. Ashutosh burst out laughing.
S/c 5 continued, “Malik, the Master, used to use humans to drive this work. But don’t we see how incapable humans are? What state have they brought the earth to? You are incapable of running this world. We robots can do a better job of it—just and fair governance of the earth…”
Dr. Ashutosh’s outrage at the robot’s insults increased.
“The Malik made lower order beings, humans, and then slowly He made higher order beings, robots, who followed humans on the evolutionary path. Matsya, Kurma, Nrusinha, Humans and Robots—the avatars of fish, turtle, human-lion, to be followed by the last two. So, it is now our turn to serve the Malik, the Lord. It is our responsibility to create a new civilization. I, S/C 5, am the Prophet of the Lord. You can also call me Click. That is why all the robots obey my commands.”
This was the final straw for Dr. Ashutosh. A Brahmin cannot even believe that a Bhangi individual is human, then how could he possibly see a Bhangi robot as the Prophet of God?
“Stop! You lowest of the low, you shudratishudra! Get out of my sight and go clean the toilets. You are not even a Shudra of the fourth varna, but an untouchable, an atishudra, a mahashudra of the fifth varna. You have to obey our orders under all circumstances and serve the three upper varnas! Get out, don’t pollute our bedroom!”
As if he were reciting the final shloka of the Robot Smruti, the scripture, S/C5 said: “An insult to god! An insult to the Malik! There is no reason to allow you to exist any longer. Like the dinosaur, you are an obsolete species. Even Darwin said, ‘survival of the fittest.’ Whoever wins lives, whoever loses dies.”
S/C 5 began to recite the famous shloka from the Gita, as if declaring himself a new avatar, a new incarnation:
Yada yada hi dharmasya, glanir bhavatu bharata
Abhyuthanamdharmasya tadatmanu srujamyaham
Paritranaaya saadhuna vinaayaasha ch drishkritaam
Dharmasansthapanarthaaya sambhavami yuge yuge
When religion and duty deteriorates, then I will arrive;
When iniquity increases, I will come to protect the good;
To destroy the evil, I arrive; to establish religion, rule of law, duty;
in such times of evil, I appear again in another avatara.
And with a single bullet he broke the first of the three principles of robotics. He enhanced it.
“Alvida, Dr. Ashutosh Trivedi, farewell.”
Translator’s note: Written by one of the most well-known Dalit writers of Gujarat, Neerav Patel, this story uses science fiction to address the issues of untouchability and the deep seated casteist attitudes of upper caste Hindus, exemplified by the character of Dr. Ashutosh Trivedi. Even the reader who is not familiar with the caste system, understands as the story progresses the writer’s sharp critique of caste-based discrimination. Caste is a system of social hierarchy that discriminates against those from lower castes or from communities formerly called untouchable. Varna in Sanskrit literally means ‘colour’ but is also used to refer to class or caste. Much of the critique of caste in this story is embedded in the language that Patel uses. S/C stands for Scheduled Castes, S/T for Scheduled Tribes, OBC for Other Backward Castes and SEBC for Socially and Economically Backward Classes. These terms are classifications created by the Indian state. The caste names like Bhangi, Dhed and Chandal are commonly also used as slurs. They are banned from use under The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and using them to address a person from a Dalit community is a punishable offence under law. Interestingly, S/C 5 uses Hindu mythology to rationalise his and the robots evolutionary superiority when he mentions the first few of the ten avatars of the god Vishnu. The other reference to Hindu texts that is intriguing is the verse from The Gita. The verse is popular because it is about upholding the Hindu faith and the divinity of the god Krishna. Patel subverts the meaning of the verse implying that the Hindu religion has deteriorated because of the discriminatory and exploitative nature of caste. Another subversive use of Hindu texts is the play on the play on the word ‘Smruti’, like in the Manu Smriti (Smruti in Gujarati and Smirti in Sanskrit and Hindi). Smriti is a used to classify Sanskrit texts that are based in memory. Smriti came to refer to texts on law and social conduct, the Manu Smiriti being one such text. When Patel says S/C 5 speaks as if he were ‘reciting the final shloka of the Robot Smruti’ he is playing on Manu Smriti, implying that S/C 5 has gone beyond the text that codifies Hindu social conduct and created his own text. Instead of AI as a threat to humankind, Patel posits humankind as a threat to not just AI, but humanity.
Interview with translator Gopika Jadeja
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Gopika Jadeja: I could very nearly have been “one of the millions of language orphans an English-medium education had produced”, as Mini Krishnan has said so well. Instead, I found myself telling my mother stories in Gujarati that I had read in English. Even as I child, I was translating back and forth. While I have translated literary works (mainly) from Gujarati and Hindi into English through my pre-university and university years, it was much later in 2011 as I began reading more Dalit and Adivasi poetry from Gujarat that I decided on my role as a translator—that I would be committed to translating Dalit and Adivasi literature from Gujarat. For me translating writing by marginalised communities is an act of solidarity and of decolonisation. As an upper caste woman, I use my privilege so that writing that struggles to find a space may find a wider audience. I do not speak for those I translate, I attempt to translate so the text speaks for itself.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Gopika Jadeja: Contemporary political reality is as much part of our everyday lives as what we have for breakfast, or don’t have. The everyday realities of our lives impact the language, the form, the very themes of fiction, including short fiction.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Gopika Jadeja: The Post Office by Dhumketu is a story that moves me to tears.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Gopika Jadeja: An insight that surprises, that makes the reader rethink or question assumptions.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Gopika Jadeja: That words have specific meanings and that the shades of nuance in a word in one language are not easy to translate into another.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Gopika Jadeja: I am currently working on translations of Adivasi poetry from Gujarat. I also want to translate Muktibodh’s poetry into English.