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AISHWARYA  SUBRAMANIAN
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

In Bama’s world, every tiny bit of rebellion counts

ot much happens in the tales in Bama's Harum-Scarum Saar and Other Stories. Most of them act as small character studies, focusing on notable individuals. There's Kisambukkaran, the "harum-scarum saar" of the title, who fearlessly kills snakes, who allows sparrows to eat his father's crops and who delights in tricking an old man who is unnecessarily suspicious of his wife's fidelity. Ponnathayi, who leaves her husband to start her own business; Malandithatha, whose smiling exterior conceals a great deal of rage and Ammasi, whose great crime is to casually refer to a member of another caste as "annachi", or "brother".

The rebellions in Bama's stories are all small ones. A small boy urinates on the plant whose leaves his employer uses to do her cooking. A family choose to symbolically throw away the pongal received from their landlord in a most unequal exchange. A boy refuses to give up a hard-won seat in a bus simply because the man asking claims higher caste status. It becomes clear that the reason there isn't much narrative progress within these stories is that the larger plot is caste (and more, the whole system of social inequalities of which caste may be only part). Bama doesn't envision revolution; there's nothing in this collection to suggest that a single social upheaval could fix everything. But these tiny rebellions are a continuous process, a constant chip-chipping away at inequality.

The rebellions in question are celebrated. The characters in these stories display a gleeful contempt of those oppressing them; the narration is colloquial and casual and frequently wonderfully eloquent (N. Ravi Shanker's translation does a fine job of conveying the feel of the spoken language). Bama often chooses to end a story abruptly just as its hero has delivered a brilliant bit of repartee and so our last sight of them hasthem clearly in charge, with their opponents utterly taken aback. The reader (unless she is very naïve) knows that this isn't really enough for victory, that the system has means at its disposal for recovering from these attacks and restoring the status quo. But knowing that doesn't detract from the delight of seeing the underdog win, however temporarily, and for seeing Dalit characters as active, often playful, agents rather than simple victims.

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Bama doesn’t envision revolution; there’s nothing in this collection to suggest that a single social upheaval could fix everything. But these tiny rebellions are a continuous process, a constant chip-chipping away at inequality.

et we're not allowed to forget the magnitude of the odds these characters must face. Often it is dropped into the story casually (Malandithatha has already paid over a thousand rupees' interest on a two-hundred rupee loan), but occasionally it forms the focus of the story. For most of its duration Rich Girl is not about a rich girl at all, but about a family struggling to balance the parents' jobs, the daughter's education, supervision for the baby and earning enough to live on. The daughter is the "rich girl" of the title — on the last page of the story she explains excitedly that the landlord has given them a hundred rupees to compensate for the death of her father as he was trying to save the landlord's cow. And we're not allowed to forget that violence is gendered, as when Ponnuthayi's insistence on leaving an abusive spouse earns her the censure of most of her community.

If the stories in this collection deny us the possibility of a revolution, there is also a quiet background narrative of gradual change. In Pongal it's implied that it's his education that spurs Esakkimuthu to question his family's treatment by the landlord. In Chilli Powder, Gangamma may have the law and the police on her side, but she can't stand up to the other women when they work as a group. Those Days is another story about a positive change that seems to be taking place — once again by coming together as a group, Masanamthatha and his allies are able to demand a dignity that should already be theirs by right. "That's how it was, those days. Now we won't spare anyone, not even if he comes armed with two tusks. Ama!"

 
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