ABOUT THE STORY From Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Six Acres and a Third to Rahi Masoom Raza’s Adha Gaon and Aravind Adiga’s Last Man In Tower, there runs a powerful current in Indian fiction that gives us a narrative universe through the depiction of conflict over land ownership. In this story by the Telugu writer Gogu Shyamala, we are presented with a marvellously specific and layered village world from the Tandur region of western Telangana. The protagonist, the combative and outspoken low-caste soothsayer Saayamma, is variously called Baindla Saayamma or Erpula Saayamma, the first prefix denoting her caste group, the second her social function. Shyamala’s story, about Saayamma’s battle to recover her ancestral land from a high-caste man, produces in a few pages a complex portrait of the power structures and religious imagination of the village as well as Saayamma’s own unforgettable mind, miseries and menace.
Even to Telugu readers, Shyamala’s language is unconventional, rooted in a dialect spoken by Dalits in Tandur. Shyamala’s translator chooses not to render her extraordinarily nuanced and particular vocabulary into a more generic and simplifying English, thereby preserving the specificity of the story’s social world, one that we are invited to understand on its own local terms. As the inventive and challenging wordplay (“dumbcowing”, “chuckmuckery”) of the first two books of Amitav Ghosh’s recent Ibis Trilogy show us, one of the ways in which Indian fiction is distinctive is in the massive diversity of its language universes and worldviews. Layers of these worlds must persist even in translation if we, Indian readers in English, are at all to be taken out of the comfort zone of our own concepts and worldview—one of the reasons why we go to fiction in the first place. With their wealth of concrete details, puckish humour and agility of narrative technique, Shyamala’s stories make a clean break with an older tradition of Dalit writing about caste oppression, and mark the arrival of a major new voice in Indian literature.
This story is taken from her book of stories, Father May Be an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, But..., published this month by Navayana.