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Being A Madiga

Tulsi Badrinath

By Gogu Shyamala
Navayana, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 260, price not stated.


Gogu Shyamala paints a world in rural Andhra Pradesh where human lives are not separate from nature. They inhabit a vast space, feet planted in the ‘moist mud’ and faces touching in the sky. That these human lives are also segregated by society as ‘untouchable’ means that certain pleasures, such as ‘the scent of new rice’, the taste of jowar sap, the power to invoke the goddess, are theirs to enjoy; joys perhaps unknown to the upper castes.   In fact, such is the power of Shyamala’s writing, she makes the reader feel that they have missed out on something by not being a Madiga. It is this quality that is most striking in Shyamala’s stories. Shyamala evokes the dalit experience through humour, sharp observation, and gentle narrative; there is none of the stridency that sometimes accompanies anger, blame and activism.   In the title story, ‘Father may be an elephant…’, she takes us to the core conflict between poverty and maternal love with a single sentence—‘The satisfaction that she could feed us to our heart’s content that day was written all over her face.’ In ‘Trace It’, she makes evocative use of rhythm and dappu-beats to tell a story born of the moment. A bus breaks down—a common enough occurrence—but while it is being repaired, a few dalit passengers amuse themselves in an interesting way.   ‘Braveheart Badeyya’ is a touching story of filial love that underlines the irony of caste: the ones who toil to make chappals cannot wear them in the presence of the upper castes.   The tightly wrought fabric of caste interactions is portrayed in ‘But Why Shouldn’t The Baindla Woman Ask For Her Land’. If the deity is to be appeased then only soothsayer Saayamma can do it. She tries to leverage that little temporary bit of power she has to get her land recognized as hers. The gentleness with which her brothers and father treat her when she is bereaved, insulted, is in contrast to the brutality described in ‘Father May Be…’.   In several stories, one such is ‘Jambava’s Lineage’, we come across stark moments when dalit children encounter for the first time caste arrogance and hostility and are both hurt and puzzled by it. They register the contempt displayed by the upper castes to the deference offered by the lower castes. Elders like Ellamma initiate them into the ...

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