Fables without Borders

Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… is the first collection of stories by Gogu Shyamala (senior fellow at the Anveshi Research Centre for Women in Hyderabad) to be translated from Telugu into English.  Shyamala is  editor of  Nallappoddu: Dalitha Sthreela Sahithyam 1921–2002 (Black Dawn: Dalit Women’s Writings, 1921–2002),  Nallaregatisallu: Madiga Madiga Upakulala Aadolla Kathalu (Furrows in Black Soil: The Stories of Madiga and Madiga Subcaste Women, 2006) and author of a biography of one of Telangana’s leading dalit politicians, T. N. Sadalakshmi (Nene Balaanni, T. N. Sadalakshmi Bathuku Katha). This last title will soon be available from Navayana as The Last Place for a Dalit Woman: The Life of T.N. Sadalakshmi (this has been translated by Gita Ramaswamy). 

Susie Tharu is tempted to suggest that we think of Shyamala’s stories as prototypes of a compact new genre that might be called, not a short, but a little story. The ‘little’ here would of course recall the intrepid independence of the little magazines that have nourished the Telugu reading public since the 1960s; it would make reference to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “A little history of photography”, that cuts deep to track over a quick few pages the photographic element’s degeneration from the enchanted portraiture of its early years into a realist endorsement of middle class life; and it would point to the world of the little, subaltern traditions, as against that of the great traditions.

Gogu Shyamala’s stories (translated by Diia Rajan, Sashi Kumar, A. Suneetha, N. Manohar Reddy, R. Srivatsan, Gita Ramaswamy, Uma Bhrugubanda, P. Pavana, and Duggirala Vasanta)  dissolve borders as they work their magic on orthodox forms of realism, psychic allegory and political fable. Whether she is describing the setting sun or the way people are gathered at a village council like ‘thickly strewn grain on the threshing floor’, the varied rhythms of a dalit drum or a young woman astride her favorite buffalo, Shyamala walks us through a world that is at once particular and small, and simultaneously universal. 

Set in the madiga quarter of a Telangana village, the stories spotlight different settings, events and experiences, and offer new propositions on how to see, think and be touched by life in that world. There is a laugh lurking around every other corner as the narrative picks an adroit step past the grandiose authority of earlier versions of such places and their people—romantic, gandhian, administrative—and the idiom in which they spoke. These stories overturn the usual agendas of exit—from the village, from madiga culture, from these little communities—to hold this life up as one of promise for everyone.

With her intensely beautiful and sharply political writing, Shyamala makes a clean break with the tales of oppression and misery decreed the true subject of dalit writing.

In our Dalit Studies section, in hardcover, 263 pages. Rs 350. ISBN 9788189059514