“This is like a boil on your anus — you can neither show anyone, nor tell anyone about it,” say the villagers to the activist who seeks their support in drawing political attention to the shaming of their women in the story ‘Public Disgrace’, part of Urmila Pawar’s anthology Motherwit, translated from the Marathi original.
Pawar is a known figure in Maharashtra’s Dalit and feminist literary landscape. Unlike the characters in her story, she does not shy away from baring the lives and travails of her women protagonists, Dalit or otherwise. Their trials and tribulations, triumphs and failures, shame and sorrow seek a captive audience. Their lives are filled with irony — be it the working woman robbed of her independence in a joint family or the activist’s wife who must bear the brunt of her husband’s feminist activism. The women in Pawar’s tales belong to diverse social strata but have one thing in common — they suffer the universal plight of the Indian Everywoman.
Unashamed and bold, the stories are lucid in their message (some are plain didactic). Women exchange giggles and whispers about sex in the local train, a young widow finds herself pregnant and seeks justice, the young working mother chooses to walk out on her spineless husband and manipulative in-laws, the bigamist’s wife takes him to court despite the pleas of her own family, an artist desperately seeks a man outside the country to escape the regressive and unequal relationship of an Indian partner, a mango seller holds her own against lecherous customers, an older Dalit woman fights to stick to her beliefs and traditions by her husband’s deathbed.
Rural women often emerge as more courageous and as possessing greater motherwit, as it were, than the educated urban woman moored in her middle class trappings. Spelling the obvious at times, the author lends a voice to the ‘other woman’ as in the story ‘Woman as Caste’ where a surprising twist is brought to the tale by a second wife. Pawar’s characters refuse to accept the fate expected of their lot — the fate of those born as women ‘by caste’. At the same time, she resists glorification and frowns upon a show of intellectual superiority without mastery over the self as seen in the philosophical retelling of a Buddhist tale about an arrogant nun, ‘Freedom’, where she employs the metaphor of the ocean. Similarly, Pawar’s stories too maybe viewed as detached observations and a calm analysis of — rather than simply impassioned reactions to — caste and gender politics.
The title, Motherwit, is apt. Rooted in common sense and exuding a quiet practicality, the stories are replete with strong mother figures. Perhaps the finest example of motherwit lies in the concluding story “The Cycle of Dhamma’ in which the illiterate Dalit grandmother seeks to bury her husband as per their pre-conversion tradition for reasons that emerge in the end as practical and enlightened.
This collection of 14 short stories is relevant in that Pawar’s Dalit and feminist concerns intersect, making her at once sensitive to and critical of the community. The translation has its limitations; it retains the Marathi flavour with traditional elements such as the ‘Ovi’ and proverbs but fails to elicit in full measure the language, wit and vulgarity associated with Pawar’s writing. Moreover, while the foreword and detailed introduction are informative and pertinent, they reveal the twists and surprise endings to many a story, so it may be best to leave them for the end.
Gaurya suddenly saw his mother not as slippery, sloppy, cooked greens, but one who had a hard core inside her like the seed inside the mango — hard, strong and solid like a shell. In his mind that shell grew bigger and bigger like the big sky that hugged Seeta’s field to its side. ‘Armour’
Motherwit; Urmila Pawar, trs. Veena Deo, Zubaan, Rs.350.