In these ten stories, selected by translator Kavita Bhanot, Anjali Kajal examines the lives of women across two generations of, mainly, mothers and daughters, set in current-era Northern India. No one who has lived in the region will be surprised at the unfortunate incidents portrayed in these stories: harassment of females by men on the streets, in homes and in workplaces is “normal” and overlooked. Her stories, told in an unembellished style, and largely kept in the original cadence by the translator, are hard-hitting because they reflect daily real-life incidents and trends.
Kajal’s stories include a deeply-felt call to action. At the end of the first story, “Deluge”, the protagonist, mining her memories, understands something fundamental, and speaks about her mother, “If only she had taught me to fight …” Her friend looks at her own daughters and says, “We’ll make them strong.” In some cases, her younger-generation female characters are physically punching back with judo moves as in the title story Ma Is Scared. Ma is then scared of revenge against her bold daughter. And oh, how this mother’s fear feels entirely reasonable, as the news regularly echoes with the cutting down of any woman who dares to fight back.
It saddens me to think that this was the state of society in northern India thirty years ago, when I didn’t know of a single female of my acquaintance who had not suffered an unnerving incident. Fear was always a big part of being a girl or woman who was out and about. In Kajal’s stories, abuse can happen at home too, with no one to stand up for the victim. She is more explicit about depicting the casual street harassment that is taken for granted as something women just have to put up with, yet which causes real harm and psychological scarring and creates fury in women; a fury they can mostly do nothing with.
Despite India’s many achievements of which it is justifiably proud, it seems a shame that successive governments have not been able to provide safety on the streets for women; nor have they inculcated in society the right for women to feel safe in public places. Kajal nods to this contradictory modern/backward techno-India in her story “Pathways” where the ambition for young men is to study computer science in a well-regarded institution. In the same story the middle-class mother who prays and fasts for her wayward son to get a place at the right college is pleased at marrying off her degree-level-educated daughter with great fanfare while paying a hefty dowry!
In a second crucial thread running through the book, Kajal tackles the prejudices against scheduled castes (historically the lower castes), unpicking conscious and unconscious bias of those who follow the caste system and those who purport not to. Her talent lies in relaying conversations that are jarring but sound absolutely real and are part of everyday talk in offices, shops, homes. In “History”, she reveals the hurt of a teenage girl at having her “scheduled caste” status become her identity in a college. As ignorance and slander from the “rich kids” ensues, her soul shrivels. In “To Be Recognised”, an excellent teacher has not divulged her lower-caste status to her caste-conscious colleagues. On the arrival of a new scheduled-caste student, who writes a poem about the discrimination she endures, the teacher finally feels the impetus to announce that she’s from a scheduled caste during a regular staff room argument about how the lower castes were getting on in life through charity.
I wish many readers for Kajal’s stories, so they can hear what those conversations feel like for scheduled castes. Perhaps there is no affirmative action system that is unflawed or perfect, but she makes a strong case through her writing in favour of continued “reservation”, where a percentage of places in higher educational institutions are reserved for those who historically belong to scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other groups deemed to be (educationally) backward classes. This is a hot topic in India and debate is fierce, not just on whether there should be “reservation” or not, but for whom, and what other kinds of options there are for affirmative action. For example, private corporations, generally speaking, remain elitist.
In some parts of the country, certain timeworn and definitely outmoded customs are being newly endorsed, in a pick ‘n’ mix manner where political parties select traditions that suit their agenda. In that context, a lack of respect for oppressed communities and no respect for women go hand in hand. Kajal does not explicitly make this hypothesis, but her protagonists are all provoked by the indignities and unfairness in their situations to take a stand.
That is the hopeful element in her fiction, when people begin to understand and support one another across their boundaries of gender and caste. To do that, they have to reject the ingrained prejudices of their own families, friends or office tribes. Even more importantly, in the final story in this book, “Sanitiser”, set in the first Covid-19 wave, the youngest generation, school-goers, take time to think and stick up for each other across the divide. That is where the future lies.