Navayana’s authors may not set bestseller charts on fire, but they slowly and quietly are gaining a wide readership. While Gogu Shyamala’s collection of stories translated from the Telugu, Father May Be An Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But…, has just been published in German, Ajay Navaria’s work Unclaimed Terrain, published first in 2013, is being taught in universities in India and abroad. In 2014, his work was introduced as part of South Asian Studies in Harvard University. In 2015, Unclaimed Terrain was published by Giramando in Australia. Now, Northwestern University, Illinois, has curated a multimedia content package highlighting the culture of translation at the university. It features Navaria and the translator of his work Laura Brueck, who is also Chair, Asian Languages and Cultures Department. Brueck emphasizes the need for translation so that ‘in a day when our national borders are becoming ever more closed, the stories of human experience can travel across borders.’
Brueck echoes Navaria’s worldview, who writes in the endnote to his collection, ‘To me, the process of creating literature is like building a house of love that does not have walls and doors of caste, religion, colour, race and nationality. It’s an effort to forge a passport that will make borders and differences disappear.’ Originally in Hindi, his stories address the psychological effects of caste in-absentia on his characters in urban metropolitan space, giving his stories a universal setting. But it is Laura Brueck’s translation that has helped expand his readership—from mainly dalit readers of Hindi to British, Australian and American readers, among others. Navaria credits Brueck for bringing national and international recognition to his work. The travels across the world that ensued after the publication of Unclaimed Terrain have kindled Navaria’s imagination, and he says his latest story “Vikhandit” (Broken) is set in Athens and Stockholm, cities he visited while promoting his book.
This is the same Ajay who, as a twelve or thirteen year-old, refused to stand up when his teacher asked all the Dalit pupils to do so to take down their names for scholarships. Instead, he went to his teacher later to apply for the scholarship. ‘You feel so ashamed,’ Navaria recalled in an interview, ‘One friend said to me, ‘You don’t look like a dalit.’ I asked him, ‘What do you think a dalit looks like?’’
Navaria often seems to weave in such experiences into his stories. Consider the manner in which he describes the ‘lowborn’ Deputy Manager Narottam Saroj in his story, “Yes, Sir”:
‘dark, shining complexion, small nose, thick black hair, and large, soot-colored eyes. Fat eyebrows, a bushy mustache, a slender neck, strong shoulders, and a light blue suit.’
To this, the obsequious brahmin peon says, ‘You look just like Lord Ram, sir.’
As one traverses the landscapes Navaria summons, we notice that his protagonists love to wear a mask of anonymity—gumnaamiyat—as they fear being ‘outed’ in the big city where the caste mindset manifests itself insidiously—‘there are some laden snakes. The same whispers, the same poison-laden smiles’—as evidenced in the layered and nuanced “Subcontinent.” At the same time, they are terrified to go back to their village. B.R. Ambedkar called villages ‘a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism’, and for Navaria’s dalit characters, it’s a place of ‘indignity, abuse, helplessness, and weakness.’ They, in a way, do inhabit unclaimed terrain—neither fully accepted in the city, nor capable of nostalgia for the village they left.
The gigolo protagonist of the final story, “Scream,” literally on his deathbed, has this insight to offer: ‘Wearing a mask, everyone looks the same. Without a mask, everyone looks different, they are human. You can recognize them.’
Ajay Navaria unmasks his protagonists by taking the reader into their complex psyche. Yet, when you finish “Scream,” you realize that you’ve been in cahoots with an unnamed narrator who is masked all along. After reading these stories, would Navaria’s readers truly know what ‘a dalit looks like’? Navaria leaves his reader, too, stranded in a terrain of uncertainty. You never really know.
In “Tattoo,” the protagonist Subhash Kumar (Paswan) struggles to make new in a Lutyens’ Delhi gym what his old and ragged shoes signify—his identity. The story ends with him embracing his ‘dalitness’ (his tattoo ‘Namo Buddhaya, Jai Bhim’). He finally resolves:
‘Uff, these old and discolored shoes can always be changed, but this tattoo? It has seeped, drop by little drop, into my consciousness and has permeated my entire being.’
Likewise, this is Navaria standing up and claiming his terrain to make up for that one time in his classroom when he didn’t. And this time, he is making his presence felt in literary circles around the globe.
Buy your copy of Ajay Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain here.