The original name for Harum-Scarum Saar, a collection of piquant short stories by the Tamil Dalit writer Bama, was "Kisumbukkaran", which roughly translates as "rebellious prankster". This appellation is explicitly used to describe a character in the title piece, a man renowned for his mischief-making, but it applies to many other people in the book as well; for a common thread in these stories is the refusal by some members of the lower-caste Dalit community to kowtow to their "masters", the upper-caste landlords.
Their rebellion isn't violent or overt in nature; the circumstances that they live in wouldn't permit anything so dramatic. Instead the societal order is overturned in subtle ways, through the use of irreverent speech and the accumulation of small acts of defiance. In one story, "Pongal", the son of a labourer simply refuses to accompany the rest of the family on an obligatory gift-bearing visit to the landlord. He counters tradition with hard logic: "If we visit him during Pongal, isn't it right that he also visit us with his family during Diwali or the New Year?" In "Chilli Powder" a lower-caste woman provokes the ire of a landlady by cutting grass from her fields. In another story a young Dalit coolly refuses to offer his seat to his father's employer in a bus and later addresses an upper-caste person as annachi, meaning big brother (perceived as an insult in this context, because it suggests a blood relationship between members of different castes).
Throughout, these rebellious pranksters use their words and actions to slowly erase the distinctions between themselves and their "betters", even as others in the community make noises about how different things were in the old days and how customs should be retained. (“Don’t say that, son!” says the father in the first story. “What will the landlord feel? They are people who have tasted good things, so they should continue to eat them. When have we ever tasted them? We should stick to the old ways...”)
The stories are all firmly in the slice-of-life vein. Most of them have no fixed structure, no definite beginning and end. The impression is of each tale flowing into the next, with an anonymous narrator relating little anecdotes, giving us glimpses into the lives of the Dalits. The writing is earthy and conversational (something the translation captures nicely), full of rhetorical questions ("I knew people were there in the well, otherwise would I have jumped?") and phraseology that isn’t grammatical in the strictest sense but which conveys the flavour of the setting.
Bama has a definite feel for the people she writes about (her own parents were labourers and she experienced this life firsthand as a child). She expertly captures the cadences of their speech without holding anything back – which means readers with delicate sensibilities must be warned that the language is strong, even cheerfully crass in places. But this, it can be argued, is imperative to a book where words themselves are repeatedly used as instruments of subversion, to shake up the established order. "When a donkey shits is there a difference between what it shits first and what it shits last?" asks one character, addressing the hypocrisies of the caste system. "Shit is shit. All men are just men." This is the book's central theme and Bama expresses it with humour and gentle realism. You'll feel like you're sitting amongst the Dalits, listening in on their stories, participating in their circumscribed rebellions.
[Did this for Tehelka. Despite my distaste for the ridiculously small word lengths given to book reviewing in most Indian publications, this was a rare instance where I enjoyed doing a consolidated 500-word review.]
[Long interview with Bama here.]