Motherwit | Urmila Pawar
When we praise the writing of women like Ismat Chughtai or Toni Morrison, we know that the specifics of their identity infusing their characters’ narratives—whether it be Muslim or black—adds to the richness of their text, but is not the sum total of their literary talent. Similarly, this new collection of short stories translated from Marathi author Urmila Pawar’s body of work stands tall by virtue of its subtly-crafted text, which also (and not only) adds a strand to the rich intertwining veins of feminist, Dalit and Buddhist literature.
Pawar’s non-fiction has previously been translated as the book We Also Made History (co-written with Meenakshi Moon); an overview of Dalit women’s movements. Her fiction has featured in such stalwart literary forums as the “Diwali Ank” (issue) of Milun Saryajani, and was first anthologized in the 1988 Sahava Bot. It is unsurprising but disappointing that it took this long for her work to be available in English (and this book makes no mention of any extant regional language translations), and for the final product to be a sloppily-edited and mediocre translation that rudely excludes the Indian reader in favour of pandering to a foreign one. Nonetheless, the granite-firm strength of Pawar’s prose remains unassailable around the muddy trappings that present it to an Anglophone audience.
Pawar’s stories are deceptively matter of fact. They seem to be blunt and even simplistic tales of small domestic tragedies and quotidian familial relationships. Hidden beneath that camouflage, however, is a dry and sardonic wit that forces you to bring your own social awareness to the table to fill in the gaps between what the characters think of themselves and what the author is implying.
The well-off male lawyer in Justice (Nyay) has this to narrate of his tenant’s daughter-in-law: “Her facial features were sharp, her body well endowed and firm, flourishing like a young banana tree. Her curves were so attractive that even a man like me in his fifties would have been tempted to touch her in passing in a crowded place.” The biting irony of the title reveals itself in the resolution where justice is manifestly not served but patronizingly bestowed, and it is up to you to remember that the narrator who grants it has no moral qualms about sexual harassment (to give “eve-teasing” its proper terminology).
More evidence of Pawar’s craft comes from the subtle asides she slips in unnoticed alongside her overtly moralizing twists in the tales. In Armor (Kavach) a schoolboy learns how his mother deflects sexual harassment, but also observes, perhaps without being able to fully grasp the complexities, the risks that even educated middle-class women take challenging sexism at the workplace. In Circle (Vartool), the revelation that Indians in Mauritius are as casteist as the sourceland sits nestled within a tenderly realistic examination of how women can try to support each other in negotiated friendships.
Frankly, even in Pawar’s most preachy stories, the women sparkle with agency and complexity that is a delight to read. From gossiping about sex in local trains to fighting court cases to demanding a convicted robber as husband to just expressing their irritation at their friend’s voyeuristic gossiping, these characters wrestle with the micro aggressions a patriarchal, casteist society throws at them. But even more endearingly, they dance like spiders up and down and in between the web of human relationships woven between husband and wife, stepmother and stepbrother, colleague and friend and fellow fruit-seller. These are the women sitting next to you on the Churchgate-Virar fast local, or processing your forms in the Pune municipal offices, or checking into the maternity ward in Pimpri-Chinchwad.
Skip the condescending Foreword and ignore Veena Deo’s pontificating Introduction, but jump into these stories expecting to be moved and amused, not depressed and lectured at. You certainly can shelve Pawar alongside Gogu Shyamala and Bama Faustina as an important milestone in Dalit literature. Equally, slip her in alongside Mahasweta Devi and Ismat Chughtai and Jhumpa Lahiri and Anjum Hasan and every other writer with the skill to render the minutely personal as piercingly political.