Bama, Harum-Scarum Saar and Other Stories

I’m being good this year and trying to read some of the backlog of enticing short story collections I’ve accumulated over the last few years. This one came from the book tent at the Jaipur Literary Festival a couple of years ago.

From this weekend’s column:

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Not 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. Malandi thatha, whose smiling exterior conceals a great deal of rage. 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 has them 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.

Yet we’re not allowed to forget the magnitude of the odds these characters must face. Often it is dropped into the story casually (Malandi thatha 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 Masanam thatha 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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I’ve linked to it elsewhere, but Manoj Nair’s interview with Bama here makes for excellent reading.

Also, I really wish the publishers of translated works would include an introduction or an afterword. I can think of at least a couple of recent examples of translated anthologies that omit these, and I have really felt the lack.  In many cases the intention is to try and introduce a new audience to a writer’s work, and providing it entirely free of any context (including, for example, what else the author has written) isn’t always the best way to do this–in the case of this particular book Bama’s relatively well known, but it would still be nice. And as a reader I’m always interested in introductions that get into what sort of translation this is, how it works, what strategies it employs. More of that sort of thing, please.

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