The most haunting quality about Ajay Navaria’s short stories in Unclaimed Terrain is an ever lurking hypocrisy. His various characters have spent their lives and sold their souls trying to step out of the shadow of their castes but are handed cruel reminders ever so often that they’re still the same person they’re running away from.
More than any other, the narrator of ‘Sacrifice’ seems to have been most successful at shedding his caste identity. Avinash is well-read, married to a woman from a different caste, unreligious and, if not for his bad-mouthed extremely regressive father, may have been allowed to completely break away from the shackles of his caste. But soon you realise that perhaps he isn’t the protagonist in this story — perhaps it is his father who, Avinash is shocked to find, is hiding a hurtful past involving a Brahmin lover. Or perhaps it is Archana, the Brahmin girl who dared to fall in love with a low-caste boy, or Kalu, the rustic but sympathetic butcher from the village who can “make mincemeat in five minutes, the pieces still quivering” but still carries the childhood scars of a friend ruthlessly taken away from him…
If Avinash’s story symbolises the catharsis of the downtrodden, ‘Yes Sir’ does the opposite. A lowly peon in a government office, Ramnarayan Tiwari, a Brahmin, cannot get over the ignominy of having to work under a much-younger and a much lower caste manager. His boss’s condescending nature does not help. (“So tell me, Tiwari, what does R.O. mean?”) Tiwari’s life is filled with bitterness at the new order; the new generation of uplifted Dalits who would probably be “pushing a broom somewhere, if it weren’t for the quota.” Reading ‘Yes Sir’ is like a dull ache in your conscience that you don’t have to be casteist, or even caste-aware, to experience. The unpleasantness of submitting yourself to an authoritative figure you have no respect for is something many of us may have battled with.
A case of mistaken identity proves to be an unnecessarily humiliating experience for a Dalit college professor who has come to a village for a wedding. Unlike the more in-your-face approach writer in ‘Yes Sir’ and ‘Sacrifice’, the caste demons are more subtle but no less effective here in New Custom. The protagonist’s cultivated disdain for regressive village customs loses credibility when he finds himself reluctantly but unmistakably proud on being mistaken for a Thakur.
With‘Subcontinent’, Navaria’s stories get more complex, more non-linear and more restless. It’s as if he believes that by now the reader has earned his trust, and the right to get to know his characters a little better. As you witness a young city executive struggle with a bloody episode in his childhood, the dull ache you felt in ‘Yes Sir’ escalates to a mild nausea. Thankfully, the next story gives you some cold comfort.
Not that ‘Tattoo’ is particularly light-hearted, but there is an air of humour — however dark — in the desperate attempts of a Dalit bureaucrat to make his old gym shoes look new. Subhash Kumar is definitely rich enough to afford a new pair, but whether it is mere stinginess or something deeper behind his determination to continue with his old ones despite being undeniably ashamed of them is left for the reader to decide.
Navaria’s storytelling makes a transformation with ‘Hello Premchand’. The story of young Mangal, left orphaned by the death of his untouchable mother, is a simple one, but a series of dreamlike interludes add a surreal quality to it. Mangal is conflicted when he is expected to be grateful for the village Thakur’s “kindness” (he let Mangal enter his drawing room, as “a sign of his largesse”), ignoring the fact that the same Thakur had his aunt beaten up for using water from his well (the Thakur had to “maintain his valour”). The question of whether even the heights of success can give Mangal closure from the hurts of his past forms the rest of the story.
‘Scream’, the final story in the anthology, is a gripping narrative of the dark turns in the life of an earnest Dalit boy after he leaves for the city to start a new life. I found (to my relief) that this story seemed to require a little less self-reflection than the rest; the protagonist does most of the reflecting himself. “Is the goal of being sinless something we attain only after walking in sin?” he wonders while working as a gigolo in Mumbai while studying for his civil services exams. In Scream, Navaria gives us unprecedented access to the mind of his protagonist, and you’re jolted when you finally realise that this man you’ve come to know so intimately is never named.
Unclaimed Terrain , originally in Hindi and translated to English by Laura Brueck, is no easy read. It leaves you squirming in your seat, makes you doubt yourself, and doesn’t let you take refuge in the warmth of hatred for any of his characters because they’re all so complex. You don’t need to have read a lot of Dalit literature to get the essence of Ajay Navaria’s writing. Each story shakes you, and makes you uncomfortably aware of the convenient little bubble you have been living in.
Unclaimed Terrain;Ajay Navaria, Navayana, Rs.295.