Gogu Shyamala’s new book brings stories from the margins to life, explores caste and exploitation

There is a scene near the end of the short story “The Lineage of Jambava” where a woman named Ellamma notices that something has happened and has upset a group of children standing nearby as she chews betel. The children are members of the Chindu caste, itinerant performers who act out the myths of the communities they visit. But during the performance that day, the villagers who showed respect to the actors were openly mocked: the Chindu are of low birth, the subtext was, and therefore did not deserve deference, whatever or the skill with which they played their roles. When the children recount what they saw, Ellamma, an actress herself, responds: “The best way for us is to engage them with our show, to make it so captivating that they will sit and watch for hours. This is the most appropriate response to those who try to bully us.

It’s tempting to read the line as a sort of thesis statement for the book in which it appears. The father may be an elephant and the mother is just a little basket, but… is the first collection of short stories by Gogu Shyamala, a lifelong activist in her home state of Telangana.

Describe speak India time as “one of the leading contemporary Dalit voices in the country exploring the tribulations and aspirations of her community”, Shyamala has previously edited black dawn, a volume of Dalit writings from Telangana, and is the author of a biography of the state’s first Dalit legislator, TN Sadalakshmi. These stories, which primarily focus on the Madiga sub-caste, are an extension of his wider political involvement.

Outside the margins

Shyamala’s book is part of a larger wave of Dalit feminist literature that has gained academic recognition and attention in recent years. Dalit script began to receive more attention in India in the 1990s with the translation of several influential works from Marathi, a language with some 73 million speakers, mostly in the state of Maharashtra. Yet India’s literary establishment has been dragging its feet when it comes to promoting the work of Dalit writers, to the point that many to find difficult to find a publisher.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the barriers to entry have been particularly high for Dalit women. In this context, researcher Susie Tharu has dubbed Shyamala an author less of ‘short stories’ than of ‘little stories’, a term that refers both to the Telugu tradition of ‘little magazines’ and to the position of the writer. as an underling whose work pushes against the general public.

Caste politics is ubiquitous in Shyamala’s collection, even when it is not central to a story’s main conflict. Scattered mentions of a brother in debt bondage and the meager gleanings left for the poor in a landlord’s paddy field redirect what might otherwise be carefree scenes of pastoral work or childhood play.

Given all this, the assertion in an accompanying essay by K. Lalita that Shyamala’s collection is “not overtly didactic” seems both misguided and unnecessary, reading it as an attempt at prophylaxis against “show, don’t tell” reviews. . Maybe sometimes, after all, there’s just nothing else to do but say it.

A kind of Marxism

Born into a Dalit family of farm workers, Shyamala was the only child in her family to receive a higher education (her older brother was forced into debt bondage by local landowners when her parents raised the possibility of send to continue his studies). As a student, she was asset with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) but ended up being disenchanted when she saw how the issues of caste inequality persisted among group members despite their stated beliefs.

In an interview with the news minute, she recalls protesters from privileged backgrounds speaking out to evade arrest while fellow Dalits who stood shoulder to shoulder with them were taken to jail. She also cites the 1991 Tsundur massacre – in which a mob lynched eight Dalit men in a village in Andhra Pradesh with the complicity of the police – as a turning point in her political development, particularly after seeing the widows victims shoulder the double burden of caring for their families alone and building the legal case against their husbands’ aggressors. This last episode recalls the feminist themes that Shyamala will draw on and develop in Father may be an elephant.

Gogu Shyamala. Photo: File

Despite his detour from the party, Shyamala’s work nevertheless retains a sort of Marxism, present in the perspective through which his characters see the world. In her stories, Shyamala pays close attention to the great chain of labor behind the production of seemingly simple goods, from the process of grinding castor beans as fuel for an oil lamp to the many steps involved in replacing a broken shoe. .

Members of privileged castes, on the other hand, are portrayed as alienated and ignorant of the world due to their estrangement from the production, a point explicitly made in “A Beauteous Light” (the final story of the collection and also the strongest). when a group of lower caste villagers discuss what to do about a boy who was abandoned by his Brahmin family as punishment for falling in love with a Madiga girl:

“If you [fellow Dalits] discuss work, they [the Brahmans] discuss eating; if you are worried about how to live, they talk about the next birth or heaven after death. . . you like the bison but he worships the cow. Why? You raise the calf to make an ox, break it in and domesticate it for agricultural work…. You raise oxen because you do agricultural work and turn the land into a productive asset. But there is no natural connection between the world in which they live and the work of the land.

But Shyamala resists the temptation to romanticize a life of manual labor. In a scene from the collection’s eponymous story, a woman’s long-awaited reunion with her husband, back in the village after a year working in town, is cut short as she has to rush to the mill and trade seeds. of jowar against flour to be prepared. their meal. What might seem like a diversion, an odd choice to step away from the action to the point of an emotional crescendo, is actually quite telling. Shyamala’s stories are very sensitive to how, especially for women, the heavy responsibilities of running a household distract and distract from what should be the common thread in their lives.

The community – and the obligations it engenders – is a major focus of Father may be an elephant. The beloved women of the community are referred to as “the village girl” and the characters discuss “the good of the village” and “the fortunes of the village”. This sense of unity and community transcends the boundaries of the human world: animals are given carefully considered names, personalities and physical descriptions, while a story told by the communal water tank takes on a magnified perspective that encompasses not only the varied activities of daily life but also the arc of modern Indian history. (In the book’s glossary, Shyamala explains that conflicts over water management were a major factor in Telangana’s secession from Andhra Pradesh.)

In this context, absences – tears in the fabric of the community caused by exploitation – register acutely, as when the exile of a father from the village after being accused of theft is embodied in the constant rotting of the thatch of their roof, with no one left to repair it.

This sense of collectivity is also something that Shyamala’s upper caste characters attempt to exploit for their own ends. In “Raw Wound”, when a landlord declares that a young Dalit girl should be given to the temple as jogini (a temple servant who is sexually available to local men), her father tries to send her away to continue her education; in return, he is beaten half to death. It is a just punishment, according to the owner, for having disobeyed what he calls “the voice of the village”: by depriving the community of its joginiaccording to the owner, this father placed his own selfish wishes above the needs of the many.

Father may be an elephant is often most interesting when its stories highlight how precariousness is constructed, maintained and reinforced by those in power. Shyamala also observes closely how his characters find ways to undermine and even mock the restrictions of the system – such as when a young Dalit boy, realizing his caste and what it means to his classmates, invents a game where he “stumbles” and falls against them, much to their disgust and personal amusement.

Originally written in Telugu, Shyamala’s original text is evidently a clean and deliberate departure from the standard version of the language in its use of vocabulary and expressions, unique not only to the Tandur region, but especially to the Dalits who reside there. In effect, Father may be an elephant was published in English by Navayana, a publishing house influenced by radical anti-caste legal theorist and economist BR Ambedkar, even before it found a Telugu publisher. This fact further highlights the difficulty encountered by contemporary Indian writers working in non-hegemonic languages ​​or dialectical variants, especially when writing in forms considered less commercially viable, such as short fiction and poetry.

The translation, undertaken by several hands, generally sticks to fairly formal English, avoiding abbreviations and sometimes slipping into outdated usages (as when the characters designate the young boys of the village as “companions”). This formal style was chosen, according to the translators’ note, to accord “the Tandur variant [of Telugu] the status and dignity of a language in its own right. I found myself pausing on this remark: if the purpose of the collection is to celebrate everyday language and its speakers, why despise everyday English as an imperfect or insufficient literary vessel? In any event, when it comes to dialogue rendered in this manner, the effect is to take the reader out of the realism of the stories, a feeling which is reinforced by the tendency of Shyamala’s characters to speak in paragraphs.

The stories in the collection sometimes feel incomplete, like we’ve just finished reading the introductory action of a more expansive tale. In a sense, this fits into Shyamala’s larger examination of the ruptures and disjunctions produced by poverty. Just as she eschews typical literary language in favor of local dialect, her stories often focus less on a conflict and its resolution than on the relationship between a series of daily events in the river of time, hence drama can or not emerge. At times, his endings may seem abrupt, at other times, and it is this last result that is most at odds with his project. Her characters, after all, deserve endings commensurate with the vitality she has endowed the rest of their stories with.

Erica X Eisen is a writer and editor at hypocritical reader. She currently lives in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Note: This article was first published on Jacobin. Read the original piece here.

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