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The Dalit gaze: Review of ‘In Defiance: Our Stories’

The stories of Dalit people and the writing of Dalit storytellers have always been underrepresented. In 2014, however, P. Sivakami compiled  Dalit Sirukathai Thoguppu, an anthology of Dalit short fiction in Tamil. Now a large part of that anthology — powerful, moving, pricking, and perhaps even prescient satirical tales — translated into English, features in  In Defiance: Our Stories Short Fiction by Dalit Writers.

Translated by Malini Seshadri and V. Ramakrishnan, the anthology features 14 writers, including Bama, Imayam, Cho Dharuman, D. Ravikumar, P. Sivakami and Gowthama Sannah, among others. These are writers who have shaped the Tamil language and discourse on Tamil literature. Their stories have brought forward the ‘last man’ of the Tamil world and foregrounded the daily microaggressions and oppressions of living in a casteist society.

“‘In Defiance: Our Stories’ is a great collection of powerful, important stories that will, I hope, be read widely, and used in classrooms and lectures.”

For instance, in Bama’s ‘Annaachi’, an entire village accepts and even welcomes the feudal treatment the landlords mete out to them. Most see it as benevolence. Everyone except Ammaasi, the protagonist. Ammaasi is the classic bad penny, always getting into trouble, always up to some mischief, the bane of his parent’s existence.

Ammaasi’s crimes? Seeing fellow humans as that. He addresses the son of the landlord as Annaachi (elder brother). He also addresses Irulappan — a man from a lower caste — as Annaachi. For an entire village that has internalised caste hierarchy, this is an unspeakable crime.

Prescient stories

In Abimani’s ‘Oorchoru’ (‘For a Handful of Rice’), Mookammal, an agricultural labourer who is married with an infant, barely ekes out a living weeding the fields of a rich landlord. The family lives in a small thatched-roof hut. But Mookammal has her pride. She’d much rather let her child die of hunger than let it eat Maasaanam’s  oorchoru: for Maasaanam is lower down the caste order, and washes the clothes of the village in return for a handful of rice they all give him.

Other stories in the anthology are prescient. Ravikumar’s ‘Zha’   (‘The Unique Letter’ was written in 2014, but could have been written this morning. It speaks of a powerful big brother state whose leaders are clad in saffron robes, and whose language is Sanskrit. The state wants to weed out all dissent. 

These stories, then, reverse the mainstream gaze. What is however stopping this anthology from being truly powerful is unsure translation. Dialogues that hit viciously in Tamil, pull less weight in English. Take for example this exchange between the people of Palla street and the town councilman Udayar, from Vizhi Pa. Idhayavendhan’s ‘Palla Theru’ (‘Palla Street’). The inhabitants of the street, seen as bottom-of-the-rung people, have come to confront the town’s councillor Udayar about his son’s drunken brawling and ill-treatment of women.

The dialogue goes:

‘But does that justify such behaviour from your son?’

‘De, what can you fellows do?’ (This from the councillor)

‘Don’t talk to us like that.’

‘Police…courts…I can take care of everything’ (the councillor, again)

Rendered in English, it feels weak. ‘De, what can you fellows do?’ sounds less like a powerful man’s threat and more a plaintive cry.

I believe that when you translate from a language as rich as Tamil into an equally rich English, you respect the way those two languages sound and try to do justice to their unique conventions. This apart, In Defiance: Our Stories is a great collection of powerful, important stories that will, I hope, be read widely, and used in classrooms and lectures.

In Defiance: Our Stories —Short Fiction by Dalit Writers; Translated from Tamil by Malini Seshadri & V. Ramakrishnan, Vitasta Publishing & Tamil Nadu Text Book Corporation, ₹450

The reviewer is a writer and researcher, with interests in history and archaeology, gender, Internet, and technology. @nadjanadika

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Printable version | Jun 29, 2022 10:01:13 pm |