Sunday, June 18, 2023

Not quite a review: Ma is Scared and Other Stories

What is a Dalit perspective in literature? How does it differ from the phrase 'Dalit literature'? These were some of the questions I have been musing upon since reading Anjali Kajal's Ma is Scared, and other stories, translated by Kavita Bhanot. 

This book is unusual for three reasons. Firstly, it is not just a translation but also an original compilation. Kajal has been writing and publishing in various Hindi literary journals for several years, but her stories have not been collected into a book in Hindi. The translated book is therefore also the only book, and it has been published in the U.K. rather than in India. It is also unusual in that it does not offer readers any formal or thematic stereotypes that might inform their reading of these stories. Thirdly, it is unusual in its quiet exploration of feminine experience, foregrounding their thoughts and their relationships with each other rather than the drama of what has gone, or could go, wrong. 

Kajal's stories often highlight the intersectionality of exploitative processes such as caste and patriarchy. They are told mainly from a female character's perspective and serve as sensitive portraits of reflections on caste, disability, love and careers. In 'To Be Recognised,' a teacher is forced to 'sign for the full salary' even though she gets paid only a fraction of the salary due to her. In 'Pathways', a bright student refuses to take help from a sympathetic upper caste woman, who nevertheless can't help saying: "What would Sanjay have done with himself as a software engineer?... The system in our society was created for a reason." As Bhanot points out in her translator's note, a lot of Savarna hostility is directed towards 'reservations' or affirmative action in education or jobs. Kajal weaves this enduring hostility into many of her stories, including one set in the lockdown/pandemic when many students from marginalized backgrounds were forced out of learning altogether because of lack of equipment and wi-fi networks. 

Resentment and exploitation play out in a very different way in 'Suffocation', where an older woman has to learn how to live with her husband after a lifetime spent apart because of his job. Women's social isolation and their unstated fears feed into 'The Newspaper' where a mother begins to develop a phobia of the world outside after reading negative reports everyday. These are stories that do not leave you easy, but they also tend to surprise you with their refusal to go too far down the dark road. 

The book is not published in India yet but I do hope that it will be, and soon. 

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