The strong characterisation of the culture of the Deccan, the rendering of a community, and deft storytelling makes The Legend of Ramulamma an excellent read.
The Legend of Ramulamma
Rs 350 PP272
At first, the word ‘legend’ in the title of this book seemed pretentious. If Ramulamma is a real woman in the contemporary world, how could anecdotes from her life be legends? But as I read, I felt enveloped by a complex reality. The situations in which Vithal Rajan has depicted Ramulamma are generic to the region around what the book’s blurb calls a ‘typical village somewhere in the Deccan’. Each one is rich with detail and symbolism. If Ramulamma is more icon than character, ‘legend’ is a good description.
In this book, NGOs work with street children, and arrange parties with cakes, balloons and paper hats. Landlords are sometimes gracious, high-minded and isolated from grim realities; they are also crude and evil-intentioned. Modernity jostles against tradition; great wealth and education against abject poverty. It’s a multicultural society, syncretic at many levels, but terrible caste oppression pervades. A tiny slit of light illuminates that very special power held by a Dalit in a position of authority. A host may be a strict vegetarian, but as a classic liberal, makes arrangements for Hyderabadi biriyani and patthar-ka-gosht for his guests. And when the drums beat for Yellama, the feast comprises chicken biriyani, served with potato and tomato curry. But isn’t that pot of rice, brought from the temple, a Brahmin rather than a Dalit tradition?
Serious mistakes can be made when English numerals are confused with Telugu ones! An aptitude for intellectual concepts transforms to struggles in distant lands, and happily resolves into flood tides of wealth and power. The countryside is strewn with little white-washed stone mounds dedicated to long-forgotten pirs. And, like a defining note in a raga, the Naxalite presence manifests in different ways.
In the malls of the city, shop assistants would sneer at Ramulamma (if she managed to get past the darwan standing guard at the entrance).
Ludicrous statues collapse into lakes. The police are loutish and terribly corrupt. Doctors can be careless and arrogant. Ramulamma’s professional skills as a dai (midwife) have given her a little stature, and her intrinsic goodness earns her the trust not just of powerful people but of animals too. However, as a Dalit woman with no family, she must live by her wits. And when things go wrong, Ramulamma unobtrusively sidles in. In myriad creative ways, she ensures that justice is done.
Beyond the strong characterisation of a region and its culture, this book is exceptional for two things. One is its artistic, appealing cover. The other is its literary quality. Using a casual and contemporary idiom, Vithal Rajan sketches tangible characters with a few carefully-chosen words, sometimes just a short phrase or line of dialogue.
Though each of the twelve stories is independent, the story-teller’s skill is evident in the way in which the events of our heroine’s own event-filled life are carefully disclosed as the book unfolds. And, Hitchcock-like, the author makes a cameo appearance at the end, giving perspective to much of what came before.
There are books that you wearily tick off must-read lists without enjoying; there are books that are lauded and hyped and yet too tedious to read to the end. But there are also books no one is talking about, and yet they mesmerise you. This book is one of those.
Saaz Aggarwal is a Pune-based writer and corporate biographer.