Meeta Chatterjee-Padmanabhan reviews Unclaimed Terrain by Ajay Navaria
by Ajay Navaria
Translated by Laura Brueck
Reviewed by MEETA CHATTERJEE-PADMANABHAN
Unclaimed Terrain by Ajay Navaria translated by Laura Brueck, and published in Australia by Giramondo cannot be described complacently as a ‘good read’. That is not what it set out to be. The stories are provocative and unsettling. There is serious heart- rending sadness in some and dark humour in others. Angry, lyrical, passionate, and political, the seven short stories published in the almost pocket-sized book demand a different kind of reading. This is indicated in the dedication in the book which reads, ‘To the characters in my stories, who fight for their dreams of justice, and to the tradition that teaches us to struggle for dignity, equality, and freedom.’ Solidarity with the Dalit (meaning the downtrodden) is established right in the beginning. This review begins by providing an overview of Dalit literature and then looks at one short story in some depth followed by a survey of some of the stories in the collection.
Since the 1960s, the work of Dalit writers began appearing in regional languages of India such as Marathi, Hindi, Tamil (earlier works have been recorded in Tamil), Telugu and others. In most Dalit writing the personal is political. The narrative of pain and misery, when told from the perspectives of characters in Dalit literature challenge upper caste values, the discourses of all religions and particularly, forces a reassessment of Hinduism as a peaceful religion. The national discourses of democracy and progress are also unsettled in the stories. The vulnerability of Dalit bodies, the difficult fight against untouchability, the struggle for education and access to even the most basic standards of living is painfully written into their stories. The accumulation of disturbing autobiographical details and a generous use of profanities disrupt the conventional reader’s expectations. These attributes define Ajay Navaria’s work.
Anand’s introduction brilliantly contextualises the collection and points to elements that are vital to the understanding of the stories. ‘Suffice it to say, every name emits a radioactive signal called caste. Every name is a parade of imagined history; the announcement of privilege or the lack of it’ (xii). The stories, indeed, parade the history of an oppressed people.
My favourite story in this collection is ‘Subcontinent’. It dazzlingly juxtaposes the past in the village that the protagonist and his family leave behind because of atrocities suffered, and the present with the trappings of middle class living made possible by a quota-enabled government job and a lecturer’s position in a city. There are a number of dimensions to the story, too intricate to deconstruct here. However, there is a glorious description of a dawn that captures with economy the trajectory of the story:
My eyes opened, and I saw a broken piece of the sky, quivering in the square of the window, trapped. An immense black cloud had seized the feeble sun and wrung it, breaking its legs. It seemed as if night were near, but suddenly a lone ray pierced the cloud like a horse and arced across the room. The whole room was a-shimmer in the din of hooves as if lit by the wavering flame of an oil lamp, unsteady but continuing to burn. Perhaps this horse did belong to the sun –the lone, seventh horse of the Sun God’s chariot.
The ‘seventh horse’ evokes memories of the famous Indian film director, Shyam Benegal, who captured the realities of the lives of victims of high caste violence. His film ‘The Sun God’s seventh horse’ gestures towards the need to take action and the necessity of retelling stories from different perspectives. In this short story, the protagonist sets out to do just this.
The story uses flashback and techniques of stream-of-consciousness to tell the story of Nankya, the Dalit bridegroom who transgresses caste rules by riding a horse to his wedding. A harsh punishment follows: assault, rape, extortion and a deep emotional scar that remains unhealed long after the incidents are over. The village panchayat members, the panditji (priest) and the police are the perpetrators or are complicit in the atrocious acts. Years later when the protagonist, a victim of the assault, Siddharth Nirmal, becomes a Marketing Manager and reflects on the incident, he is still unable to control his rage. He rejects his ‘lowly Hindu roots’ and embraces the slogan, ‘Jai Bhim’ to celebrate Ambedkar as his hero. The story ends with Siddharth plotting ways of seeking revenge.
Navaria uses intertexuality, as a literary technique that recalls other texts from different perspectives. In ‘Hello Premchand’, Navaria rewrites the story of Mangal an orphan, a character out of Premchand’s story. Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) was an acclaimed Hindi writer considered to be progressive for the era he lived in. In Premchand’s story low caste characters such as Ghisu and Madhav, who are sweepers, are delineated as incorrigible villains. In ‘Hello Premchand’, Ghisu and Madhav are given dignity. The pre-determined fate that, ‘a bhangi will always be bhangi’ is dismantled in ‘Hello Premchand’. There is a twist in the tale. By refusing to be a night soil carrier and a sweeper, by gaining education and migrating to a city, Mangal lays claim to equality with the upper caste members in his village. The story signals a re-envisioning of possibilities for Dalits in modern India.
The message in ‘Hello Premchand’ is destabilized in ‘Scream’. The nameless protagonist seeks to educate himself, but the day before his secondary school exams is sodomised by thugs belonging to a higher caste in his village. Despite this traumatic incident, he finishes his education with the help of Christian priests, but is compelled to migrate to Mumbai, to prepare for his civil service exams. Instead, he becomes a gigolo, but falls in love with a woman whose husband kills him out of jealousy. It is the ghost of the protagonist who narrates the story. For me, the story is a bit contrived and misses some of the narrative possibilities that it creates. However, there are other stories that tell interesting tales with great economy and irony.
‘Yes Sir’ views the Dalit plight with sardonic humour. The Brahmin peon Tiwari waits on his lower caste boss, Narottam Saroj, Deputy General Manager, with uttermost resentment. A kind act on the part of Narottam, brings about a change in Tiwari, so that the grateful Brahmin peon, gushes about repairing the low caste Narottam’s toilet. A tongue-in-cheek role reversal is enacted in the story.
‘Sacrifice’ is a heart rending story of a little boy having to surrender his pet goat. Not only does he have to give up his pet, he is also forced to hold onto its legs as the animal is slaughtered. There is a parallel tale of a Dalit man having to give up his love to her heartless high caste relatives. The story weaves together notions of betrayal, guilt and reflections on common sense of humanity.
‘New Custom’ is a well-crafted story that examines the prejudice that a Dalit academic suffers as an ‘untouchable’. Despite being an educated man and having achieved success, in his village, he is is not allowed to forget that he is ‘untouchable’. ‘Tattoo’ beautifully captures the anxieties of a Dalit man who joins a gym. He is mortified that the smart looking customer service officer would find out that he belongs to a low caste from the tattoo on his forearm. He is equally embarrassed about his gym shoes which he polishes endlessly but refuses to get new ones. There is an unexpected turn of events. The light hearted ending is a welcome change.
Overall, Ajay Navaria’s fascinating and disturbing collection of short stories adds to the growing body of the rich Dalit writing that exists. Dalit literature is becoming part of the curriculum in Indian universities and there is a growing interest in Dalit literature abroad. Laura Brueck’s translation captures the nuances and subtleties of Hindi very competently in English. Giramondo makes a remarkable contribution to Dalit writing by publishing this outstanding collection and a laudable service to Australian readers by bringing the collection of stories to Australian shores.
MEETA CHATTERJEE-PADMANABHAN is a lecturer in the academic language and literacy at the University of Wollongong, NSW.