by Namit Arora
A review of Unclaimed Terrain, a book of short stories translated from Hindi, and a conversation with its author, Ajay Navaria.
“Indian writing” is often equated in the West with its small subset: the work of a tiny class of Indians that thinks and writes in English. Salman Rushdie fueled this folly in his introduction to Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-97, declaring the work of such Indians a ‘more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the “16 official languages” of India’. He co-edited this anthology and of the 32 works of fiction and non-fiction that appear in it, 31 were written in English and one in Urdu, i.e., only one translation made the cut. Some of this lopsidedness can be explained by the paucity of translations into English, but is Rushdie’s judgment defensible in a country where, even today, less than one percent of Indians consider English their first language, less than ten percent their second, and 80 percent of all books are put out by hundreds of vernacular language publishers, including from authors with far greater Indian readership than most who write in English? Rushdie doesn’t even speak most of these languages. Isn’t his claim, then, an instance of linguistic prejudice? Aren’t the dynamics of class in India, and the power of English language publishing in the West, speaking through him?
Ajay Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain—a collection of seven short stories translated from Hindi to English by Laura Brueck—shows from its first page how different its world is from those imagined by the Indians in Rushdie’s anthology. Navaria, a faculty member in the Hindi department in Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, may well be the first Dalit to teach Hindu religious scriptures at a major university. He is also the author of a novel and two books of short stories. In Unclaimed Terrain the protagonists of most stories are Dalit men who have clawed their way into the urban middle-class through their wits and education, sometimes with the help of reservations. Many harbor episodic memories of social life in ancestral villages, memories in which bigotry and abuse overwhelm kindness and beauty. They love the anonymity of the big city, even as they live in fear of being “found out” and reminded—in the artful ways of the metropolis—of their “proper place”.
In the story Subcontinent, for instance, the protagonist, as a boy, has seen village men abuse and assault his groveling father and grandma—returning after a stint in the city—for breaking caste taboos. As a boy, he has seen a Dalit wedding party attacked by thugs because the groom has dared to ride a horse in the village, and later that day, a woman of the party being raped: ‘I saw, beneath the white dhoti-clad bottom of a pale pandit-god, the darkened soles of someone’s feet flailing and kicking’. Rather than file a complaint, the village policeman mocks them, ‘They say she was really tasty. Lucky bitch, now she’s become pure!’ In his middle-age, the protagonist, Siddhartha Nirmal, Marketing Manager in a government enterprise in the big city, exults at the distance he has traveled in the world: 3BR flat; car; eating out at Pizza Hut and Haldiram’s, where the counter-boys call him Sir. He can hire the services of a Brahmin doctor, keep a Garhwali Brahmin driver who bows at him, and employ a Bengali music teacher he found on the Internet for his daughter, who goes to an expensive convent school. But such welcome anonymity that the city affords him disappears in familiar spaces, such as his office, which has ‘the same snakes. The same whispers, the same poison-laden smiles. Our “quota is fixed”. I got promoted only because of the quota … that’s it. Otherwise … otherwise, maybe I’m still dirty. Still lowborn. Like Kishan, the office janitor. Like Kardam, the clerk. Because I am their caste.’
Yes Sir, the most delightful story in this collection, presents a historic role reversal in a government office. Narottam, a Dalit, has risen to become Deputy General Manager and has inherited as his peon an older Brahmin man, Tiwari. Narottam has picked up all the haughtiness of the office babu class towards subordinates. He is patronizing and sometimes rude to Tiwari, who burns with resentment and inwardly swears at him—even organizes Satyanarayan puja to get rid of him and considers polluting Narottam’s coffee with his spit—but his need for a job and Narottam’s place in the office hierarchy keep him in check, leading to a brilliantly comical end. In New Custom, an urban middle-class Dalit arrives in a village to attend a wedding. At the bus stand, a chai-seller, impressed by his demeanor and attire, takes him to be a Thakur, i.e., high-caste, and treats him with deference. When the truth is indirectly revealed, the deference turns into rudeness. The chai-seller asks him to rinse his glass before returning it. In a powerful scene, the visitor buys the glass and smashes it on a stone platform.
The story Sacrifice sensitively depicts the emotions of a boy who had to help his father slaughter Piloo, a kid goat he loves. As an adult, the protagonist, a Dalit Ambedkarite, recoils from and confronts his father’s prejudice against the protagonist’s wife, who is from a caste even lower than theirs. A death at home and revelations of a romantic affair in father’s youth bring hope for mutual understanding. In Scream, a Dalit schoolboy is raped by a Patel boy in the village. He escapes to Mumbai, does sundry jobs, tastes the intoxication of money, and ends up working as a gigolo, even as he pursues an MA and prepares for the civil services exam. Now wealthy, he visits his village, donning a fat gold chain and two gold rings. Coming face to face with the boy who sodomized him, he gloats: He ‘couldn't even speak. He couldn’t even smile. Next to me, he seemed like a beggar. I saw the defeat in his eyes.’ Back in Mumbai, his life twists and turns with two of his female clients, through scenes evoking vintage film noir, until he meets a harrowing end.
Navaria is deeply political but rarely simplistic. There is truth in his fiction, the kind that’s best revealed in storytelling. He has a keen eye for hypocrisies that lurk in Indian hearts, across caste and class locations. His Dalits are flesh-and-blood humans: sympathetic because flawed, not nobler than others, not above ordinary vanities and prejudices. They love and suffer and do what it takes to survive their often-hostile situations. Nor are his upper-caste characters black and white. Unclaimed Terrain offers sharp vignettes of the psyche of urban North India, from a vantage point that’s both new and indispensable—and largely missing from the work of Indians who think and write in English.
I meet Navaria at a cafe near Lodi Gardens, Delhi, where we grab a corner table and slip into leisurely conversation. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and likes to talk. I relish his polished Hindi, including words that vanished from my active vocabulary during my years of living in the West. Navaria, 41, one of five siblings, grew up in Madangir, Delhi. His father was a gardener and daily wage laborer who later opened a small general store. Navaria’s Hindi medium school was mostly attended by Scheduled Caste children. He did well in school, went to college and finished his MA at 22, got a job, returned to JNU at 28, emerged with a Ph.D. at 34, and has been an Assistant Professor for seven years.
How did he end up teaching Hindu religious scriptures (HRS)? His interest began early, with Amar Chitra Katha comics, and grew organically. Reading Ambedkar’s analyses of HRS further fueled his interest and he began spending time in a library to learn more. How critical is he of the scriptures in the classroom? He follows an ‘analytical approach’, he says, orienting his mostly-savarna students to the basic content and social context of the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Gita, Ramayana, etc. Does he not feel anger at all the caste biases in these scriptures? No, he says, because anger at such biases doesn’t help in any concrete way. He keeps his Dalit activism separate from his teaching, though he does mention some alternative interpretations to his students. ‘I have to choose my battles,’ he says. Despite his restrained approach, fierce debates sometimes erupt in his class, often with students choosing sides along caste lines. Inevitably, someone raises the issue of reservations and tempers really flare up; he then has to manage and pacify both sides. He mentions with evident pride that his students, knowing full well that he is Dalit, nevertheless love him. Some even walk up to him on campus and touch his feet, which he dislikes and discourages.
Is the future of Hindi bleak, I ask, what with the urban middle-class savarnas chasing English en masse? He demurs and calls this an exaggerated fear. He believes this class’s median English proficiency is still very poor but, he says, it’s quite true that they are disinvesting in Hindi because it is no longer aligned with social power structures, higher class aspirations, or good jobs—‘a 10th-pass who speaks English has better job prospects than an MA who doesn't’. However, another demographic shift is happening. In North India, a vast new generation is coming into literacy for the first time, and it is doing so in Hindi. This will probably go on for decades, and like new entrants everywhere, they will take Hindi language and literature to new places—the linguistic counterpart of the changes that the rise of the lower castes has brought into politics. He is hopeful that these new entrants, and their more self-confident, middle-class descendants, will not only evolve Hindi but also other hybrid cultural forms that emphasize their own creative traditions, much like African-Americans have done. It’s only later that I reflect on Navaria’s optimism. Why wouldn’t the future middle-classes continue to migrate to English like the current middle-classes? What else would have to change for them to abandon their sense of hierarchy, including among languages?
I ask Navaria if he has a religious identity. He isn’t religious but calls himself Hindu, partly because his identity documents say so. He grew up with the usual Hindu pujas, gods, and festivals. He believes conversion to Buddhism, or any religion, is futile for Dalits. At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2013, he disagreed with Kancha Ilaiah, public intellectual and Ambedkarite, who advocates conversion to Buddhism. The problem, Navaria explains, is that in social terms, Dalit Hindus turn into Dalit Buddhists (or Dalit Christians, etc.) after conversion. Nor are the converts willing to give up caste-based reservations. What, then, is gained? Perhaps some self-respect, I suggest, via the radical personal act of quitting a religion that denies them equal humanity. Further, I argue, shouldn’t the converts continue to get reservations for their historical disabilities that don’t disappear overnight with conversion? Navaria seems unmoved by my reasoning. ‘No religion in the Subcontinent is free of caste.’ Freedom from caste discrimination, he asserts, will come not by changing one’s religion, but through secular-democratic struggles. He would like to see Hinduism reformed from within, which he believes is entirely possible—already some regions and communities are further ahead on that path than others. Instead of converting to Buddhism, why not embrace the egalitarian values of the Buddha? Why do Dalits decry the casteism of the upper castes but keep practicing it among their own sub-communities without much self-reflection? This reminds me of my own observation about Indians in America, who resent any whiff of white racism but are themselves racist concerning African-Americans.
How bad is caste prejudice in Delhi today? As long as he remains anonymous, he says, all is good. He can get the services he needs; his wife, also a Dalit, can visit any beauty parlor and get a pedicure from an upper-caste woman. Fortunately, his last name, Navaria, doesn’t reveal his caste, unlike, say, Valmiki. Anonymity enables self-respect. None can understand the benefits of gumnamiyat, or anonymity, as Dalits do, and therein lies the eternal pull of the city for them. However, excluding a few pockets, the old structures of caste still remain in Delhi. They come into play when one’s identity is revealed. In rural areas, he says, discrimination is more open and often physical, whereas it’s covert and psychological in the metros (Mumbai, he says, is more progressive than Delhi). In offices, business dealings, and rental housing, others are always trying to suss you out through your surname, color, customs, father’s profession, watching visitors to your home. In the office, Dalits often face social exclusion, greater scrutiny than others, and get fewer chances for failure. When they do fail, it’s more likely to be attributed to their caste. Some acts of harassment that professional Dalits he knows have faced include stealing of their keys, defacement of walls, assigning them the least desirable time slots or tasks, and even maliciously blocking the exit for one’s parked vehicle.
In his fictional themes, he says, he tries to hew close to the larger experiences of Dalits. He tells me about two harsh incidents in these stories that come from his own life. His primary readership has been more Dalit than non-Dalit, but Unclaimed Terrain has brought him both national and global visibility. ‘Power of English!’ he notes. He likes the translation and is grateful to Laura Brueck, and to S. Anand at Navayana, his supportive publisher. Who are his key literary influences? Bhisham Sahni, Nirmal Verma, Uday Prakash, Kamaleshwar, and Rajendra Yadav (a patron who has also given him opportunities with the literary magazine HANS). Also Chekhov and Pushkin. He is drawn to literary works that explore the inner lives of individuals: how they shape, and are shaped by, their social milieus.
A giant influence on him is Ambedkar, who, he says, has sadly been rendered beyond criticism and turned into a god by “Ambedkarites”. This is contrary to the spirit of the man, a pragmatist who disliked idolatry and hero worship. He has great respect for Ambedkar as a thinker and emancipator of Dalits, but he doesn’t take his words as the gospel truth. Approaching him rationally is the best way to honor and enhance his legacy. Were he alive today, Navaria speculates, wouldn’t he have done some things differently? I ask if Ambedkar’s rising tide in recent decades, mirroring the rise of the lower castes in politics, means that he is also gaining in stature among the upper castes. Not yet, he says. Ambedkar’s estimation among the upper castes rarely goes beyond his negative association with reservations. In pockets where some appreciation exists, it is mostly done for show, for political correctness, to tell themselves they’ve changed. That said, genuine admiration for Ambedkar will likely arise among their later generations.
I ask what he’s working on nowadays. Two novels and a couple of short stories, alongside teaching three courses each weekday, grading, and preparing for conferences. His early-teen kids also demand his time. He has persuaded them to give up TV, he says cheerfully. Instead, they watch two movies each week. They just saw the Hollywood movie Oblivion. The boy is in a Bruce Lee phase and enjoys playing the guitar; the girl paints. They understand that this is the time to explore their talents. He wants to write a novel focusing on the unique challenges of Dalit middle-class urban kids, something that’s going to be increasingly relevant. But then he sighs: ‘will I ever have time for that?’
More writing by Namit Arora?