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The world of English language Indian fiction is, rather understandably, populated heavily by the kind of characters who do its reading — whether they be the Hinglish-speaking
21st century urban Indian or the desi cultured magpie comfortable with his or her self-description as a ‘person of taste’. Matters like caste don’t fit well into this narrative, and when they briefly make their way in, they tend to be cloying, maudlin and seem part of a manifesto rather than a stand-alone piece of writing that can be admired for its own sake.
Hindi writer Ajay Navaria turns the light on a set of people who don’t usually figure in our English language inquiries outside newspapers and scholarly works. The actual flesh-and-blood divisions between individuals that caste identities bring is what Navaria digs into in Unclaimed Terrain.
Most of the stories deal with a character’s attempts to break out of a traditional power structure. They also remind us why so many Dalits and members of other un-empowered backward castes flee the feudal choke of villages and small towns to move to cities.
In ‘Scream’, the protagonist leaves his village in Dantewada for the big city lights of Mumbai to pursue his studies. He becomes a masseur and then a gigolo. “For the first time I understood that labour had many meanings in the city. The very thing that made me want to die back in the village was considered ‘work’ here. And one got paid for it. Here, labour had value.” The story ends in tragedy, and yet the reader is convinced that this tragedy is preferable to the horrors the character had left behind.
In the opening story, ‘Sacrifice’, Navaria, through a masterful narrative technique, showcases the choice of breaking out of a claustrophobic social space and staying on within caste confines. It seems a simple enough choice. But in the story, we realise how common sense and self-preservation can feed (and feed off) a sadomasochistic social system where even the ‘victim’ — in the story, a butcher as well as his older friend, the narrator’s father — can be in denial about his ‘victimhood’. Stories such as ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Hello Premchand’ and ‘Subcontinent’ depict lives negotiating a noxious apartheid on a daily basis. This is a world that most readers will be uncomfortable dealing with. And yet it exists, Navaria driving its existence home by locating his stories firmly in the here and now of 21st century urban India and not in some Munshi Premchand timescape.
From Laura Bruek’s English translation, the reader can gather the matter-of-fact tone of the original. Navaria’s language is straightforward. There are times when this can lead to a tiring flatness. But this plainness is preferable to descriptions that crop up, such as “...her eyes filled with the astonishment of orgasm”. Some of the stories also seem to be overwhelmed by the message of caste cruelty, which comes in the way of what could have been a gripping read, thereby diluting the intrinsic purpose of the stories.
But there are two stories that do drive home ‘the message’. In ‘Tattoo’, Navaria’s hero is a 40-plus bureaucrat who joins a gym near Delhi’s posh Khan Market. He is obsessing about his old pair of shoes hoping that no one will notice them, while also trying to keep the words ‘Namo Budhhaya, Jai Bhim’ tatooed on his forearm out of everybody’s sight. Unlike in most of the other stories, the wit here is possible because the protagonist is not someone recalling the terrors of facing 21st century caste repression, but is an urban, successful under-caste gent shown in attempting his own notions of gentrification. ‘Tattoo’ works on both aesthetic and political levels perfectly.
The story that stands out in Unclaimed Terrain — the title referring to a no-man’s land where people are welcomed neither by their own caste for having ‘moved on’ nor by the upper castes for reasons of ‘tradition’ — is ‘Yes Sir’. Here, Navaria has an upper caste peon working under a lower caste boss.
The protoganist, who constantly grumbles about his boss’ caste status and about how he got to his level because of ‘reservation’, sees everything through the caste filter. The end of the story drives home how comic caste identities can be — if it wasn’t so utterly tragic. If this translation of Unclaimed Terrain has a virtue that needs to be applauded, it is that it brings into contemporary fiction stories of deeply entrenched casteism, a subject that many continue to consider to be politically and aesthetically untouchable for English language Indian fiction.
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