Raja Salhesh and the Tableau of Equality

All this greenery just colour, god just bestselling fiction
All worship is pretence, rituals are the doing of done

For all of us who desire equality, the tiresome tableaus of the state parading its might on 26 January at the start of a sun-starved day portend despair, with the Tyrant telling us that “talking about rights, fighting for rights” is “wasting time”. By dusk, we take stock and think to the significance of this day—hence this letter sent a little late in the day, as it dies, and as we think to the dawn to come. The Constitution of India, with the imprimatur of Babasaheb Ambedkar, is in many ways The Book of Equality drawn up seventy-three years ago after long-drawn debates. It offers us a contract for an associated mode of life, as people, as a people, before we become citizens with dirty digital footprints. The Book of Equality offer us a moral and social code of coexistence. We are faced now with a brutal regime where a fascistic minority has wrested power and has been usurping people of all their hard-won rights and freedoms. It more swears at than swears by the Constitution.

At such a time, when even thinking equality lands you in prison as we have seen, we offer you our new book, The King of the Mountain, that tells us how the empire of equality and love was established by Raja Salhesh some fifteen hundred years ago, and why it must, and how it can, be reclaimed. To over eight million dalits—living across northern and eastern India (Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, West Bengal and Odisha) and Nepal, and the diaspora in Mauritius, Guyana and Suriname—The Saga of Salhesh has been what the Mahabharata and Ramayana and their allied lore are for most savarnas. Who is Salhesh? Born Prince Jaybhardan, he wills himself to be reborn as an “Untouchable”, so that he may one day become Salhesh and lead all humanity and all sentient life into a world where the binaries of high and low, of Brahmin and Chandala, of caste and outcaste will perish. In this incandescent telling by the French writer Martine Le Coz, Salhesh appears to us like the historical Buddha, the mythical Shiva, one time as Rama, sometimes as Arjuna or Krishna, another time as Ashoka and even as Babasaheb Ambedkar. All along, he champions equality. Jaybhardan, the crown prince, is not keen to be king. He wishes to be the Emperor of all Consciousness and liberate humanity from both its thrall and will to power. A triangle haloed within the subtle throb of awareness. He becomes Salhesh.

Now, who is Martine Le Coz? How and why did a writer and artist from Amboise, a small town in central France on the banks of the river Loire that Leonardo da Vinci called home, come to bestow on herself the charge of telling us this semi-historical semi-legendary tale, and how and why did Urmila Devi (and her family of artists), in Jitwarpur village in Madhubani, trust this stranger with her stories? How did a white woman and a Dalit woman come to think of themselves as sisters separated at birth? Salhesh is the name for the unity between beings who don’t often need language to express love. A triangle marked by a dot.

Suraj Yengde says of the book: “To embody the good of humanity, Sahlesh has to be reborn a Dalit, a Dusadh of the great Himalayan lineage… Martine Le Coz offers us this treasure of a tale by placing her ear to Urmila Devi’s heart. The King of the Mountain is Dalit.” Poets Karthika Naïr and Ranjit Hoskote, and the critic and translator Arshia Sattar join the chorus of praise. This Book of Equality—with Urmila Devi’s depiction of Salhesh as an aniconic icon, a triangle marked by a dot, adorning the cover—has infused new energy into Navayana. The pandemic slowed this book down—as it did all of us. But there’s no better day to announce the arrival of Raja Salhesh and the Tableau of Equality than at the twilight hour of our Republic Day.

Why is Salhesh the King of the Mountain? What is the Mountain? When we actually ascend a mountain, we reach a place where we forget the shape of the Mountain. We learn to disregard what it looks like, the representations and relations that grip it. And there it is. In the bottom of our heart. Everywhere. Salhesh reverses the triangle. He is the dot that Kabir sees as the spotless spot of equality.

Being in the endless in the moment, I shine in the spotless spot
Says Kabir, only some get it when I leave my spot for what is not

Come, climb the Mountain—sitting right where you are, with this book in hand. For all this lyricism, we can’t but sweat stating the prosaic matter that there’s even a discount: just Rs 299 for a handsomely produced hardback.

If you are looking to know some history surrounding the making of our Constitution, and the Historical Immortal who stamped his will on it despite so many educated savarna mortals aiming tasteless barbs at him, we insist you grab No Laughing Matter: The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932–1956. The book is now also available in Marathi and Tamil. If you have read it, get it for a friend, even better for a foe. And since there are way too many titles at Navayana around Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, we have the Bhim Box, and for those that need them all, buy The Navayana Library Box-Set which includes all of our titles that are in print.

Oh, we are just minding our business, a word whose radical mid-fourteenth century Middle English meaning of being “careful, anxious, busy, occupied, diligent” (busy + -ness), and the “state of being much occupied or engaged”, needs to be reclaimed.

Come, let us, we, the people, get busy with equality.