A standard definition of caste, found on Wikipedia, is “a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, hereditary transmission of a style of life which often includes an occupation, ritual status in a hierarchy, and customary social interaction and exclusion based on cultural notions of purity and pollution.” An archetypal example of this phenomenon is the segregation of Hindu society in India into rigid social groups, harking back to ancient times and still persisting in the present. While the term is Spanish and Portuguese in origin, it has come to replace the native classification systems of Varna (birth-based four-fold division) and Jati (endogamous social grouping) by collapsing them both into one single system.
The term “Dalit” (meaning: broken, scattered) is Sanskritic in origin and is used for individuals belonging to castes in India who have been historically subjected to the practice of untouchability. They were excluded from the four-fold varna system and were heavily discriminated against in all fields of life. Their mere presence was considered contamination for the upper castes, their touch required extensive cleansing rites. While untouchability was abolished by the Indian Constitution after independence, making caste-based discrimination illegal, such practices continue to thrive in both rural and urban settings. Atrocities such as rape, harassment, murder, arson, and social persecution are horribly commonplace.
Gogu Shyamala was born in 1969 in a small village which is now a part of the South Indian state of Telangana. Her parents, who are agricultural workers, were told by the upper caste men who ran the village, “If you get your children educated, who will slog for free in our fields?” Belonging to the “untouchable” madiga community (a group of castes made up of agricultural labourers, leather workers, artists), they had no choice but to bow down under such immense pressure. As a result, Shyamala’s elder brother was forced into agricultural labour and died in a freak accident one day when he was struck by lightning. Her younger brother was compelled to take his place. But when it came to her, her parents decided to rebel.
In her own words: “Slogging their backs off, staving off hunger, with no support to lean on, my mother Ananthamma and father Balappa ensured that I got a higher education.” She also talks about her paternal grandmother, Sangamma, “who laboured all day for the right to scour leftover broken grains from sand and ensure some food in our bellies.” Shyamala is the only one among her siblings to attain an education, and she is a first-generation learner in her family. Although she had to take a break after school due to financial difficulties, she did eventually get a degree in Sociology. She had always been involved in politics from a young age and later on became an activist, yet she always prioritized education.
Her stories, written in Telugu which is a prominent Indian regional language and translated into English by various individuals, are cut from the fabric of her own life. In an insightful interview with The News Minute, she says: “My book is entirely based on my experiences - things that I have seen, heard or felt. I do add a few elements here and there to brighten up the book, but the writing is largely from experience.” Perhaps this is why education plays such a central role in a lot of her writing. The most harrowing story in the collection, “Red Wound” (translated by R Srivatsan), is also the most autobiographical. It directly uses Shyamala’s struggle for education as its plot, adding a few fictional embellishes.
“Obstacle Race” (translated by Uma Bhrugabanda), tells the story of a young boy named Adivaiah, Adivi for short, who is always hunting for adventure, climbing mango trees and diving into field wells. In school he constantly pushes himself to do better, coming at the top of his class. His inquisitive nature leads him to constantly question the discrimination he is faced with from his peers and teachers, exposing its irrationality. In “The Bottom of the Well” (translated by Duggirala Vasanta), a group of visiting teachers comment upon the resourcefulness of village boys, calling it “a smartness that grows out of their rich experience.” They can intuitively guess that these are Dalit children, wondering what would happen “if such talent and worldly knowledge were to be supplemented with education.” Both highlight the importance of education and the essential role it plays in upward social mobility.
The best way to describe the stories in this collection would be slice-of-life vignettes, where the reader is accorded the privilege to have a small glimpse into the lives of a vibrant cast of characters, a window into village life. Shyamala extends an invitation to a previously unknown world where the personal is deftly mapped onto the public. In the abovementioned interview, she states: “There are two types of Dalit narratives that you will read and hear about. Either the person is a hero who fought all odds, or a victim. With my writing, I try to present them as normal people like everyone else, to try and battle the mainstream stereotype.” True to her words, Shyamala’s stories carefreely resist being typecast into such a binary. Her characters are fully-realized on the page, they are just as humanly complex as anyone else.
The overabundance of Dalit tragedy as trope tends to reduce people to their trauma. They are defined by their pain. Even in popular conception, one is most likely to encounter Dalit life through noted atrocities in newspaper headlines. Oppression becomes the box in which they are shoved. But Shyamala is wise enough to counter such notions. Her stories brim with joy. Her characters share a bright camaraderie with each other which is instantly infectious. Whether it is the children playing in the village in the titular story or a group of adults using music and games to while away the time after their bus breaks down in “Trace It!” (both translated by Dila Rajan). This is not to say that the everpresent (caste) violence in Dalit lives, both explicit and implicit, is glossed over; it is just not the central aspect.
The arrangement of stories is akin to a flower slowly opening up. The first story takes place entirely in a domestic setting, the second expands and involves the entire community, by the third we get the first glimpse of the first upper-caste character, by the fourth caste oppression is brought fully out in the open through a land dispute. As it slowly moves from the idyllic to the realist, Shyamala is always foregrounding the inter-caste and intra-caste relations through conversations and interactions with her characters. Time and again, she highlights the importance of stories, of oral traditions, and how they are tools for community building and solidarity. It is these myths and legends that connect her characters to a shared past, creating an alluring ethnographic lineage that reinforces their inherent humanity.
Another interesting aspect of Shyamla’s writing is her young characters and child protagonists. She constructs them just as intricately as her adult characters, complex and well-rounded. From Adivaiah in “Obstacle Race” to Sangayya in “The Bottom of the Well”, from Balamani in “Tataki Wins Again” (translated by R Srivastan) to Badeyya in “Braveheart Badeyya” (translated by A Suneetha), from Syamamma in “Raw Wound” to Cina Ellamma in “Jambava’s Lineage” (translated by N Manohar Reddy), the children shine. They are brave and inquisitive, curious and precocious, always asking hard questions and always questioning societal norms. They are not coddled by adults or treated as inferior. In fact, there is a constant dialogue which privileges children and considers them deserving of respect and attention.
Even though each story has a different translator, overall it’s a translation that mimics and retains the unique flavours of Shyamala’s Telugu, quite distinct from the more standardized version. The translators are not occupied with finding English equivalents to their Telugu counterparts, they in fact do not even go to the trouble of italicising words directly pulled from the original. Needless to say, it was refreshing to read and added depth to the quietly intense stories. The volume is also supplemented by an exhaustive glossary titled “Gogu Shyamala’s World” which details the socio-cultural lives of madiga (and other Dalit) communities, providing information about ecology, myths and legends, castes and subcastes, and games. It adds to the reader’s knowledge without exoticising actual lived realities.
There is also a brief note on translation that expounds upon Shyamala’s Telugu followed by a short yet wonderful critical essay by K Lalita which assert the lack of an explicit political purpose in Shyamala’s stories. Instead, they “weave lives and small pleasures together with everyday work, food, relationships, play, music, and culture. The individual has an organic connection with her family and community.” These stories deal with serious themes and yet are never pedagogic. The prose is simple but sensuous, especially in its lush descriptions of nature. Published by an indie press that prides itself on its anti-caste focus, this collection of stories creates marvels out of the mundane, distils the essence of life, and leaves a bit of itself inside the reader.
Father May be an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, But...
By Gogu Shyamala
Translated from the Telugu by Various
263 pages. 2012.
Released this year in paperback.