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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Finding Trouble

Dethroning easy assumptions of caste,class and gender

March 16, 2013 3:08:44 am

Book: Unclaimed Terrain

Author: Ajay Navaria

Translator: Laura Brueck

Publisher: Navayana

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Price: Rs 295

Pages: 200

This book is not for the fainthearted,not for those who protect themselves from the cruel ways of the world,not for those who dare not face the brutal truth. In every one of the seven short stories in this collection,horrific and sinister things come to pass,and,to ensure that the drama never faces a dull moment,Ajay Navaria spices his text with philosophical outpourings and a liberal dose of swear-words. His fiction stands out because he fills up an absence,he unsettles an established silence.

‘Sacrifice’,the first story in this collection opens to the gory sight of a little boy’s kid goat being butchered by his father,as if it were a rite of initiation into the family profession; it turns out to be a trauma from which he never recovers. ‘Scream’,the last story in Unclaimed Terrain,shows a Dalit from Dantewada,who becomes a gigolo in Mumbai,lives a happy,flashy life until he meets a damsel in distress,falls headlong in love and ends up being shot.

Navaria is not interested in the pedestrian chronicles of the everyday. He looks for trouble,he dabbles in the power plays of caste,class and gender,he crowns and dethrones at will. In ‘New Custom’,when a well-to-do Dalit man visits a village where he is asked to wash his own cup,the power of money allows him to side-step old humiliations and to indulge in the transgressive act of breaking the glass tumbler itself. ‘Tattoo’,about the indelible nature of the caste system that refuses to fade away in spite of external appearances,shows a gym-going bureaucrat trying hard to hide his worn-out shoes and his Dalit background. ‘Yes Sir’ is perhaps the only straightforward Maupassant-like story where a Brahmin peon Tiwari,working under a Dalit,sees the end of the world in this classic inversion of caste roles.

On the other hand,‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Subcontinent’ are highly layered and nuanced stories,and it would take a second reading to unravel them. It is hard to miss the intertexuality in ‘Hello Premchand’,a story that nods to at least half a dozen stories of the Hindi writer,imagining Premchand to be aware of Dr Ambedkar,of Dr Ambedkar having a conversation with Premchand,of both men putting in a guest appearance towards the end.

The central story in the collection,‘Subcontinent’ begins thus: “Savage wolves keep returning through the tunnel of history. 185 BCE,3 September 1939,30 January 1948…These are the marks of their poisonous teeth,” instantly reminding the reader of the propagation of Manusmriti in the reign of Pusyamitra Sunga,Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the assassination of Gandhi. As if it were a slow descent down a step-well,the narrative chronicles the efforts of a Dalit man who hopes the anonymity of the city and his middle-class purchasing power will guarantee him an escape from caste discrimination but the system of supremacy has trapped him,causing only estrangement and alienation.

In his preface,Navaria likens the process of creating literature to “building a house of love that does not have the walls and doors of caste,religion,color,race and nationality.” In building this house,he strikes a fine balance,writing with clinical precision,allowing all the untrammelled hatred to be tamed by humour,making the suffering more tolerable with the promise of love. He pays attention to the small details,showing for instance how surnames can give strength and shield identities,exposing the casteist hypocrisy of our society and the continuous acts of metamorphosis that Dalits have to perform in order to survive. His fiction celebrates the emergence of the empowered Dalit (male) at the center of the narrative,simultaneously challenging the weight of caste oppression and chronicling a pain that in Navaria’s words “ran deep — tied to a post from which it could neither break free nor keep still.”

Try to read Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain this year.

Meena Kandasamy is a poet,writer,activist and translator

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