The Subaltern Sings

9735.books-dalitShruti Ravindran in Open the Magazine:

The average reader might imagine Dalit writing to be anthemic, and engulfed in incandescent rage. For writing with a quieter, infinitely varied sort of power, the average reader would do well to get a copy of Gogu Shyamala’s book of short stories, Father May be an Elephant, and Mother only a Small Basket, But…, just published by Navayana.

Shyamala is a former activist of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)—members of which were branded ‘Naxalites’ in Andhra Pradesh—and a Dalit, feminist and Telangana activist. She grew up in the Madiga quarter of Peddamul village in the Tandur region of western Telangana. Her father, a bonded agricultural labourer, got both her brothers to work in the fields as he was determined to send Shyamala to school, so that she’d be able to decipher complicated land deeds and ensure the family didn’t get cheated out of their small land holdings.

In her stories, Shyamala writes about the lives of agricultural labourers, drummers and performers of the untouchable Madiga community, in the half-forgotten Telugu of the Telangana region, which is substantially different from the flavourless Sanskritised tongue of coastal Andhra. From the banned yet persistent practice of jogini—the upper caste-enforced ‘tradition’ of making a Dalit girl available to all the men of the village—and landlords cheating unlettered Dalits out of their land, to Dalits being called disrespectful ‘half-names’ and verbally abused, Shyamala’s stories are underpinned by the everyday brutality that Dalit communities face. In them, hardworking Dalits who walk with ‘swift, long strides’ to match the canter of calves are juxtaposed against lazy landowners who dawdle in bed, and ‘lentil-eating, milk-drinking’ Brahmins, who grow as soft as dung-worms.

But Shyamala’s stories do more than make the margin the centre; they make the margin a place of vivid enchantments, rendered with idiomatic vitality. In these tales, set in the villages, forests and fields of western Telangana, shiny buffaloes luxuriate like queens in tanks, calves spring about with swirling and swishing tails, children flit along the bunds like dragonflies, and winter suns set like diving birds.