The Bahujan in Fiction


Once in a way, there comes along a work of art which holds a mirror to reality, and not the obvious reality that is on our minds and in the media, but the most ignored corners of our society and culture. The recently published The Salt of the Earth: Stories from Rustic Goa by Jayanti Naik appears to be one such. Intending to challenge the prevailing image of Goa, as declared by the author in her Foreword, this anthology released by Goa 1556 and Golden Heart Emporium contains short stories published originally in Nagri Konkani and translated into English for this collection by Augusto Pinto.

As many in Goa would know, Jayanti Naik is a folklorist, Konkani scholar (with a PhD on the language from Goa University), and prolific writer of short stories. In my experience, short stories are a challenging form of creative writing, requiring a tautness in the telling of a story, right from the introduction of a cast of characters and the plot, to its development and dénouement, all in the space of a few turnings of the page. It requires great control, greater than in novels, over the plot, the pace, the descriptions, the dialogue, everything. It’s not easy.

Naik uses the form quite well. Besides having a rooted feel, her stories are both easy to read and gripping. As the anthology’s title would imply, most of them are about people from Goa’s bahujan communities and set in Goan villages. They could be said to fall into two broad categories. One is about the ending of tradition, seen in the demise of rituals—like the shigmo tradition in Naman: The Invocations, and the Basvo tradition of leading a sacred bull from house to house in Basvo: The Nandi Bull— or that of a lifestyle, as with the tribal lifestyle in The Victory, and the brahmanical lifestyle in The Fulfillment of a Desire. Most of these stories are notably sympathetic to tradition, with many protagonists being elderly and respected leaders of traditional practices, and with almost no mention of the oppression that was often part of traditional life.

The other category is about women, and the often-painful compromises between tradition and rebellion made by, or forced upon, today’s women. Biyantul sees a woman forced by her family to give up the man she loves, because of his poverty. Uma and the Human Sacrifice sees another, despite being educated and a feminist, agreeing to an arranged marriage with a widower who is a suspected wife-murderer. The Curse of Vozryo sees an old husband whose much younger second wife has eloped with another man, remembering and regretting how he had ill-treated her. Ramaa is a strange story of a young woman rebelling against her family to marry an old (and impotent) and much-respected Konkani scholar just to support him in his life’s work in developing the language, but unable to give up her desire to be a mother; she has a child outside marriage but does not survive its birth. But if tradition is not seen as woman-friendly, the contemporary world is suspect as well. An Account of Her Life is a startling story of a much-respected professor and feminist, beloved of her bahujan students, being exposed after death as a serial sexual predator whose behaviour was condoned by her victims because of the numerous benefits they received from her mentorship.

The stories are realistic and moving, with more greys than black and white. And, given Naik’s folklorist background, it is not surprising that they are also peppered with fascinating details of bahujan traditions, ideas, and practices, including food, religious rituals, deities, and so on.

However, fiction can both challenge myths and prejudices as well as reinforce them, and unfortunately some of these stories do the latter. Although all are apparently pro-bahujan, the conservative approach to traditional culture, seeing it as both ancient and righteous, is in fact very brahmanical. In her Foreword, Naik not only reiterates this idea of tradition as primordial and full of brotherhood, she also sees pre-Portuguese Goa as ‘Indian in culture’. This is not just ahistorical, it supports the brahmanical and nationalist myth of a glorious pre-colonial India, in a time when neither India nor Goa existed. The fact that traditions are not always great should be obvious from our many casteist and anti-bahujan ones; nor are they unchanging or always old, as pointed out by Eric Hobsbawm long ago (The Invention of Tradition, 1983) and Parag Parobo (India’s First Democratic Revolution…, 2015) in the context of Goa. It is an approach that does not convince, for it does injustice to bahujan struggles to transform the world, whether in the past or today. In fact, Naik’s most searing stories are not those on tradition and folklore, but the few about academics and litterateurs, a brahmanical world increasingly challenged by bahujans, a world that she knows personally right down to its ugly underbelly.

On the whole, the collection is a treat. It does, as it promises to, challenge the image of Goa, especially in the eyes of Indians, as a westernised party paradise.

And the translation by Augusto Pinto is very smooth, retaining many Konkani words and also language structure, which gives a distinct and authentic flavour to the dialogues. Pinto has also written an interesting Afterward, The Bahujan Writes Back, in which he mentions that Naik is beginning to write in ‘non-standard’ Konkani for her recent stories, i.e. closer to actual bahujan speech. This is good news. Freedom from the Nagri Konkani of the upper castes, or the Baman Bhas as the bahujan writer Ramnath Naik has called it, will only result in a better representation of Goa’s bahujans.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 9 March, 2017)