Father May Be an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… by Gogu Shyamala – review | Fiction in translation

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The name for India’s lowest caste, Dalit, comes from the Hindi word for “broken” or “oppressed”. Dalits are considered “untouchable”, their presence and touch thought by many of India’s other castes to be poisonous. Despite caste-based discrimination being illegal, Dalits are frequently victims of sexual violence, harassment and murder.

Gogu Shyamala was born in 1969 into a Dalit family of agricultural labourers. The stories in this collection look back to her childhood. Writing in Telugu – which has been translated into English by multiple translators – she recalls games, food, music, as well as discrimination. In one tale, children play a drumming game after attending a funeral; in another, teachers from a higher caste are impressed watching Dalit boys swim and ask the boys to teach them; in another, an upper-caste boy is considered polluted after his life is saved by a Dalit girl.

These are not narratives in which Dalit people are defined solely by their oppression. “Our slippers shield their feet from mud, stones, thorns… but my own feet are left bare,” says a woman in Braveheart Badeyya; her son doesn’t see the systemic inequality his mother laments, only the immediate problem, and makes slippers for her overnight; the story becomes about the tender relationship between mother and son (“his heart is in the leather, soaking in the barrel”).

Telugu is a language threatened with extinction. Here, translated, the prose is often transfigurative, magical; a leaking house “become[s] a sieve”, and Shyamala writes one story from the perspective of a water tank, the cavity containing the life-giving water for the village, “her womb”.

Rich, playful, alive, these astonishing tales are important for what they are not. A character in one says: “We are here to tell you our history… do not treat us with indifference. Do not look down upon us.” This could easily be Shyamala’s own voice; her stories do not reduce Dalits to their experiences of tragedy and injustice – they show us a world and a people in all their fullness.

Claire Kohda’s debut novel, Woman, Eating (Virago), is published on 24 March

Father May Be an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… by Gogu Shyamala (translated by multiple people) is published by Tilted Axis Press (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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