The lives of the underprivileged and the altered perceptions of the educated youngsters among them are constant refrains in Bama's works.
Harum Scarum Saar and Other Stories; Bama, Translated by N. Ravi Shankar, Published by Women Unlimited (an associate of Kali for Women), Rs. 150. THE identity, that of `Dalit literature', helps bring writings on atrocities committed against a particular section of society, to the attention of litterateurs and readers worldwide. Bama, a noted Dalit writer, is certainly a vibrant recorder of the perpetrators and victims of this unique curse of Indian society, the caste system. Her works, published over the years, have won acclaim among the reading public of Tamil Nadu and through a couple of translations, from readers elsewhere.
Her translation of Karukku won the Crossword Prize in 2001. Two other novels in Tamil, Sangati and Vanamam, have also helped to establish her voice as one to be taken serious note of. This collection of ten short stories, Harum-Scarum Saar and Other Stories, translated into English by N. Ravi Shanker, is the latest in the growing number of English translations of Tamil fiction.Bama's stories vividly bring to mind nostalgic experiences of rural Tamil Nadu, even while they speak of harsh realities. The lives of underprivileged people, the indignities they suffer, and the altered perceptions of the educated younger generations among these victimised groups — these are the refrains that echo through Bama's works. In "Pongal", for instance, the father, a hardened worker rooted in `tradition', is upset when his son refuses to accompany the family to greet the "master" on Pongal day. He returns with nothing but Pongal after the visit and realises what a person with some self-respect ought to do in such a situation. He throws the Pongal given to him by the master's wife into the feeding trough of the cattle. Bama's wry comment: "the cattle, finding something strange in it (the Pongal), ignored the stuff and drank only water", illustrates clearly the indifference of the landlord and the disillusionment of the farmhand. We have Annachi, in the story of the same name, and Puthiamuthu of "Harum-Scarum Saar", who are bold enough to challenge the conventional deference of the `upper' castes. Ammasi is needled into addressing his father's mudalali as Annachi (elder brother) and is tried by the village court for the offence. "You ask me why I called a Naicker, annachi, ... all men are just men," he says. Puthiyamuthu of "Harum-Scarum Saar" is another character who, when pushed to the limits of his endurance, astounds his master with a sharp retort. After Puthiyamuthu, gritting his teeth silently, finishes an endless series of chores, the landlord asks him, "What shall we do now?" Puthiyamuthu "... spat out, ...bring your wife here, we will take turns bedding her. Ramasami looked absolutely stricken, as if he had just seen a ghost." Though this passage extracts a chuckle from the reader, it does not fail to register the protagonist's unexploded anger. Bama indicates with sensitivity that small acts of defiance, whether using the same chair as the master at the barber's shop or sitting on the bench with the upper castes, might just be the harbingers of social changes yet to come. The stories of Masanam Thatha's effort to seek justice by bringing to book an upper-caste sex-offender, or Arayi Patti and Subramani's decision to put an end to their misery by freeing themselves from the shackles of oppressive masters and mistresses, spell hope for society.
The stories, "Chilli Powder" and "Ponnuthayi", proclaim what real woman power is and what it can achieve. Ponnuthayi is a new-age woman who can shake off the tyranny of a husband and sell her thali to buy goods for the new shop she plans to set up. The stories, even when they speak of sorrow and misery, are full of what the blurb aptly calls a `rustic humour' that softens the harshness of the real word/ world. To translate native humour and bawdy words into a language that might be so very alien to the cultural context of the original text is, indeed, very difficult. More so, when the author's language is a specific dialect. N. Ravi Shanker, the translator, has done a good job. Very often, though, his translations of idioms and metaphors are rigidly literal, and this might make them baffling to a non-Tamil reader.