by Namit Arora
A review of Unclaimed Terrain, a book of short stories translated from Hindi, and a conversation with its author, Ajay Navaria.
“Indian writing” is often equated in the West with its small subset: the work of a tiny class of Indians that thinks and writes in English. Salman Rushdie fueled this folly in his introduction to Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-97, declaring the work of such Indians a ‘more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the “16 official languages” of India’. He co-edited this anthology and of the 32 works of fiction and non-fiction that appear in it, 31 were written in English and one in Urdu, i.e., only one translation made the cut. Some of this lopsidedness can be explained by the paucity of translations into English, but is Rushdie’s judgment defensible in a country where, even today, less than one percent of Indians consider English their first language, less than ten percent their second, and 80 percent of all books are put out by hundreds of vernacular language publishers, including from authors with far greater Indian readership than most who write in English? Rushdie doesn’t even speak most of these languages. Isn’t his claim, then, an instance of linguistic prejudice? Aren’t the dynamics of class in India, and the power of English language publishing in the West, speaking through him?
Ajay Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain—a collection of seven short stories translated from Hindi to English by Laura Brueck—shows from its first page how different its world is from those imagined by the Indians in Rushdie’s anthology. Navaria, a faculty member in the Hindi department in Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, may well be the first Dalit to teach Hindu religious scriptures at a major university. He is also the author of a novel and two books of short stories. In Unclaimed Terrain the protagonists of most stories are Dalit men who have clawed their way into the urban middle-class through their wits and education, sometimes with the help of reservations. Many harbor episodic memories of social life in ancestral villages, memories in which bigotry and abuse overwhelm kindness and beauty. They love the anonymity of the big city, even as they live in fear of being “found out” and reminded—in the artful ways of the metropolis—of their “proper place”.
In the story Subcontinent, for instance, the protagonist, as a boy, has seen village men abuse and assault his groveling father and grandma—returning after a stint in the city—for breaking caste taboos. As a boy, he has seen a Dalit wedding party attacked by thugs because the groom has dared to ride a horse in the village, and later that day, a woman of the party being raped: ‘I saw, beneath the white dhoti-clad bottom of a pale pandit-god, the darkened soles of someone’s feet flailing and kicking’. Rather than file a complaint, the village policeman mocks them, ‘They say she was really tasty. Lucky bitch, now she’s become pure!’ In his middle-age, the protagonist, Siddhartha Nirmal, Marketing Manager in a government enterprise in the big city, exults at the distance he has traveled in the world: 3BR flat; car; eating out at Pizza Hut and Haldiram’s, where the counter-boys call him Sir. He can hire the services of a Brahmin doctor, keep a Garhwali Brahmin driver who bows at him, and employ a Bengali music teacher he found on the Internet for his daughter, who goes to an expensive convent school. But such welcome anonymity that the city affords him disappears in familiar spaces, such as his office, which has ‘the same snakes. The same whispers, the same poison-laden smiles. Our “quota is fixed”. I got promoted only because of the quota … that’s it. Otherwise … otherwise, maybe I’m still dirty. Still lowborn. Like Kishan, the office janitor. Like Kardam, the clerk. Because I am their caste.’
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