Book: Unclaimed Terrain
Author: Ajay Navaria
When it comes to writing about the harsh realities of life, the Hindi fiction landscape outmatches its English counterpart handily. This is primarily because the small section of urban ‘intellectuals’ to whom it caters to lack a first-hand experience of several social ills and are unaccustomed to handling unadulterated truths. Take, for instance, caste and its treatment. English writing in India rarely goes beyond an occasional recounting of horror stories publicised in the media (and a detached enquiry into the lives and situations of victims) but the subject has been a staple for several Hindi fiction writers since it clings to their lives — or the lives of people around them — like a disease.
Unclaimed Terrain by Hindi author Ajay Navaria (and translated by Laura Brueck) takes us deep into an India where caste does not get brushed under the carpet by its self-styled modern, progressive and suave people. It is, in fact, a bitter pill they are made to swallow on a daily basis.
Navaria does not just highlight a social evil but through his seven stories, presents an honest account of how the slowly changing situation. As in real life, most of his characters in the seven stories are seen trying to break the shackles of caste in the hope of leading better lives. There is Avinash, the narrator of his first story ‘Sacrifice’, that raises the question of victimhood on several levels. While Avinash and his father differ on the relevance of caste in the present time, the best butcher in the village Kalu is struggling to come to terms with the slaughtering of his beloved lamb in front of his eyes years ago. Here, caste becomes a baggage for everyone, with some trying to get rid of it while others hold on to it to cover up their tragic past.
The two stories that hit the nail on the head are ‘Tattoo’ and ‘Scream’. In the first, a bureaucrat in his 40s joins a gym in a posh Delhi locality. His biggest concern is to keep his old and tattered shoes and a tattoo of ‘Namo Budhhaya, Jai Bhim’ hidden from others so that no one questions his social and economic standing or link the two. In ‘Scream’, the unnamed lead character, like millions of lower caste youngsters, migrate to Mumbai from Dantewada for studies (and move away from prejudices and a horrid childhood incident) but ends up becoming a gigolo, discovering that “labor had many meanings in the city.” The realisation of such incidents occurr on a daily basis is what makes you realise the gravity of the problem.
What really saves Navaria’s collection from becoming another run-of-the-mill book about casteism is Brueck’s translation. She deftly retains the directness and ‘rawness’ typical of Hindi writing. Above all, this volume is definitely going to succeed in making the English fiction-reading junta come face to face with an issue that has largely been absent from ‘their’ literary world.