Forget traditional stories. Author Gogu Shyamala writes with newness, wit and sharp subversion, says Urvashi Butalia
IN THE madiga wada, where the untouchables live, Ellamma leaps into the air and throws herself on the ground. In her village, Sayamma, the Baindla woman bangs her fist on the table and demands her land. The dora's eyes pop out and his mouth falls open in shock. On the way back from a burial ground, a group of village drummers pass the time by playing a game in the thick forest, the beat of the drum — jadabuk-tak, jadabuk-tak — guiding the blindfolded man towards the object he has to find; a young girl counts the colours in the rainbow as she waits for her mother to return from the fields, a son stays up all night to make a new pair of slippers for his mother… Gogu Shyamala's luminous, moving and funny prose is almost deceptive in its lightness of touch, and deftness of language. These are not the 'traditional' Dalit narratives of violence and oppression. They don't even fit the traditional description of what a story is — there's no conventional beginning, middle or end — nor are they only — as one might (wrongly) expect from the work of a Dalit writer — about uppercaste violence.
Instead, they're about life as it is lived, they're stories about drummers and theatre troupes, about joginis and women who refuse to be joginis, about music and food, about children and their games. They're tempered with affection and humour, and provide a rare glimpse into rituals and customs and ways of living Dalit lives. Despite their brevity — or perhaps because of it — the characters come beautifully, sometimes poignantly alive in their confrontations, negotiations and discussions with each other and with their upper-caste landowners and neighbours. There's no soapbox oratory, but the political edge is sharp and ever present, the humour working as a weapon that belittles the arrogance of upper-caste bosses as their mouths fall open and eyes pop out. There is humour too, in the way a brother
throws his sister over his shoulder and hauls her away because she won't stop shouting at the upper-caste dora. This book is subversive in the extreme, in its
content, in its form, in the way the author pokes fun at her own and at others.
And there is a concession to the reader (read upper-
caste/class liberal reader) who doesn't know much — a description of the author's world, an explanation of the terms she uses, an elaboration of the worldview that informs the stories. Much better than a glossary, much more than a dictionary. This is a book that takes Shyamala back to her roots, and brings those roots back to her readers. Perhaps the best explanation of what it is lies in its title, more specifically its second half: Father may be an Elephant and Mother only a Small Basket but…
Butalia is a writer and director, Zubaan
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