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Miosis of Caste and Culture

Rimi B. Chatterjee

Edited by Sankar Prasad Singha & Indranil Acharya
Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 179, Rs. 295.00


What does it mean to be a dalit in Bengal, that is, in a culture where Tantric, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi/Islamic thought have mingled and occasionally clashed for centuries? This collection of stories goes some way towards answering the question, though I have to record my disappointment that no women writers are represented among the sixteen authors translated in this volume. This is not the editors’ choice, since they are following an anthology published in 1996 of stories published in the influential Bangla dalit periodical Chaturtha Duniya, edited by Achintya Biswas, Manohar Mouli Biswas and Kapil Krishna Thakur. Nevertheless, the predicaments of women are often central to the plots of the stories, such as the fate of Maya, the girl who is possessed by the goddess Kalyaneshwari in Achintya Biswas’s ‘The Deceived’, or Runu in Kapil Krishna Thakur’s ‘The Other Jew’, who escapes torture at the hands of the man who killed her sister only to be ravaged by the members of a ‘youth club’ who want to extort money from her uncle. In a familiar trope, the women’s vulnerability is a metonymic representation of the overall lack of security felt by their communities. The treatment meted out to the women underlines the hypocrisy of ‘untouchability’: rape is the one touch that never pollutes the perpetrator, only the victim. Just as problematic is the central situation in Goutam Ali’s ‘Bazaar’ where a wife of the bhadralok class hires ‘young and buxom’ maids from the villages to be the sexual playthings of her husband and prevent him straying to the ‘bazaar’ of sex workers.   Ranged on the other side is the panoply of love: is love strong enough to break the chains of convention? In Susnata Jana’s ‘Mukunda and An Extraordinary Love Affair,’ the father overhears his daughter turning down a love proposal from a ‘princelike’ boy from a higher caste; as he stands in the gloom, he is assailed by mixed feelings of disappointment and relief. In Utthanpada Bijali’s ‘Fisherman’ the author says of the fifteen fishermen on the trawler, ‘On land they have different castes—Jele, Poundrakshatriya, Teli, Namashudra, Kaibarta and so on, or they could be Muslim. But here they form one group, one family’ (p. 171). The fishermen finally come to the realization that the castelessness they experience on the water ought to continue on land; they should not get ‘infected’ by ...

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