Inhabiting an unclaimed terrain

Ajay-Hiralal pic

Ajay Navaria with his bust sculpted by his friend Hiralal Rajasthani. Photo by Hiralal Rajasthani

Ajay Navaria’s fiction has a way of travelling, like James Baldwin’s. Some of the stories from Unclaimed Terrain, translated from Hindi by Laura Brueck, and published by Navayana, have found their way into a Harvard University course: “South Asian Studies 199: Modern India Through Narrative Forms”, thanks to the instructor, Shankar Ramaswami. On 25 November 2014, Ramaswami’s students interacted with Ajay Navaria and publisher S. Anand over Skype. It was morning in Harvard, night in Delhi.

Iris Yellum, South Asian Studies Ph.D. student at Harvard, offers us this narrative about Navaria’s narratives.

On an autumn morning at Harvard University’s South Asian Studies Department, Professor Shankar Ramaswami’s seminar on “Modern India Through Narrative Forms” met with writer and Professor Ajay Navaria and publisher S. Anand in Delhi via Skype to discuss some of Navaria’s short stories from his recent book Unclaimed Terrain. In a conversation in Hindi and English that ranged from contemporary Dalit identity politics to the possible metaphorical readings of his images of Hindu divinity, Navaria provided context for the students to understand his short stories.

Also a professor in the Department of Hindi at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, Navaria teaches Hindu scriptures and ethics. Navaria explained the connection or more accurately in his estimation, disconnection, between his writing and teaching. His knowledge of Hinduism is apparent in his use of religious metaphors, as is his influence from the writings of B.R. Ambedkar. However, Navaria’s stories have a contemporary setting and deal with the inequalities of caste in the modern world. He is often asked seriously how he can teach Hindu ethics as a Dalit.

Of the stories from Unclaimed Terrain, Navaria said “Scream” was the most controversial. It addresses subjects usually avoided in Hindi literature such as sex, homosexuality, suicide, rape, and sex work. Readers have asked whether Navaria identifies himself as the main character in this story; the question itself misses the point. Navaria inhabits the mind and internal world of his character, succeeding in creating another world. Perhaps it is so realistic that some readers choose not to see his exposure of many social issues and experiences. The character in this story remains nameless, which is not immediately noticeable. He exists through the names given to him: “Kristaan” (Christian), “you,” “Tyson”, “son”. These names only index relationships, or social positions. None of these give him his identity. The city allows him to be anonymous, which he relishes mostly because no one asks about caste. To him, being unclaimed terrain is more powerful than claiming a definitive status. Is freedom from oppression in being unmarked and unlabeled? Categories only define, confine, and delimit, rather than expanding one’s relationship to others and the world. Marking oneself is always an act of othering in someone’s eyes.

In modern Hindi literature, the city stands for a certain freedom from caste identity. Navaria points out that passing for Dalits is possible in urban contexts, because one’s identity is no longer self-evident; anonymity allows a certain amount of freedom. The idea of passing applies to many identities and contexts.

Unclaimed TerrainNavaria may be accused of not focusing on women’s stories, but I am not certain that this is a valid criticism if one should write what one knows. Navaria writes of what he can connect to, and he inhabits the internal struggles of his male characters. He is concerned with alienation from one’s own community, and as Anand pointed out, women themselves are a problem for these characters, at least in “Scream.” Navaria has written a story from a female perspective in a piece from 2009 called “Izzat” about the psychological aftermath of rape for a married woman.

We discussed readings of Navaria’s metaphors, such as Raktabija in the story “Tattoo.” For Navaria, Raktabija is a symbol of resistance against the system, rather than a demon to be feared. By contrast, Anand mentioned the past practice of Dalits becoming Brahmo, as a way of escaping given caste identity. Ramaswami spoke of agency of Dalits and non-Dalits, and the notion of social transformation suggested by Navaria’s work. By focusing on the nature of social injustice, Navaria gives voice to common struggles. On caste, Anand said, “You can militate against it and try to aspire for equality.”

Navaria sees caste as still inevitable, but wonders how it can be remedied for now. How is equality possible and how do individuals go about making that happen? Navaria said Ambedkar spoke of a casteless society, but this has not come to pass: “The society we will make… It won’t be casteless, it will be with caste” (translation by author). His work continually refers to the tradition of struggle. Since for now it seems that caste is still ever present, Ramaswami asked, “Is there anything one can affirm about caste in these traditions?” Can caste actually provide some community? Does the demolition of caste mean the destruction of community, too? How is a new community not based on caste identity created? According to Navaria and Anand, new ideals, principles, and beliefs can create a community. Through this conversation and his stories, what Navaria makes clear is that caste is still omnipresent today. However, many contexts of the modern world allow for a negotiation with our identities, whether the labels we inhabit are ones we wish to claim fully or not.

The stories of Unclaimed Terrain expose new stories and suggest possibilities for occupying new social spaces as they begin to unfold. Navaria is unafraid of writing on the range of human experience, and examining the shortcomings of modern society.

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