The truth about fiction: Looking at Caste, gender and dissent in Urmila Pawar’s short stories

urmila
Urmila Pawar

By Vaishnavi Mahurkar*

I have always thought that fiction plays an important role in taking that which we take as familiar and making their underlying social structures apparent. Even the concept of intersectionality, I think, is better understood not through just academic papers but stories of people who are located at these different axes of power. As a reader, this book allowed me to attempt an understanding of the Dalit feminist standpoint through Urmila Pawar’s short stories.

Urmila Pawar’s Mother Wit (2013) is a collection of selected short stories translated by Veena Deo, who in her introduction to the book claims: ‘Pawar’s feminism is evident. Think of the presence in almost every story of strong and clever women’ (pp.x)

To locate Pawar’s work in its social and historical context, it becomes important to understand the Dalit literary movement and the Dalit feminist movement. These movements have inevitably shaped Pawar’s work. Her fiction explores the axes of power of caste, class and gender and in doing so brings forth vivid everyday lived realities of women in the Dalit community.

Dalit literature in Maharashtra is characterized by angry, self-assertive voices. It narrates the historical injustices and looks at the way social structure has marginalized populations on basis of caste. It is about seeking what has been denied to them, historically. Above all it is a movement about self-assertion, heavily influenced by Ambedkar’s work.

But as a reader, I felt Pawar’s fiction writing was not necessarily marked with the upfront protest and anger which is otherwise peculiar to Marathi Dalit literature movement. Dalit literature is a literature of self-assertion. Within Dalit writing, women’s writing finds even more layers of dissent and protest because of the exclusion of women in the post-Independence Dalit rights movement. (The initial phase of the movement, started by the likes of Phule and Ambedkar in pre-Independence era used to be more inclusive towards women.) The women’s literary movement in Maharashtra, therefore, is a result of double oppression that they face from the men in their community and from the upper castes and classes.

Of mothers, daughters and women’s wit

Urmila Pawar’s Mother Wit; a compendium of short stories, is an attempt to unravel these extraordinary stories of ordinary women. The title ‘Mother Wit’, alludes to the wit, agency, strength these women possess and exercise when faced with difficult situations.

As we begin this quest of unfolding the stories it is important to keep in mind what is at stake for Pawar when she writes these stories. These are not mere fictions – each story has a trace in the living experiences Pawar has lived, struggled, and questioned. Mother Wit stories are written by a woman who writes with the glimpses of the past she has lived through and the stories of people around her that struggle against their harsh realities. The act of writing here is the very will to speak of those or for those who cannot and to let them be heard. The short stories that Pawar writes are a window into the lives Dalit women live on the ground. For Pawar it is the fundamental will to be heard that drives these stories.

Pawar weaves together Dalit women’s narratives and systematically undoes each of the ties – caste, gender and class – to portray historical subordination of her protagonists. Women in her stories do not write slogans and march in movements but they fight everyday discrimination within the circumstances that they find themselves in.

Pawar’s protagonists sometimes completely overthrow patriarchal structures and at other times mend and bend it in ways that work for them. Women portrayed as stoic voice dissent in the light of their own agency – they have a heightened sense of their situation and are constantly trying to mitigate the inescapable subordination.

dalit womanIn ‘Odd One’ (originally Vegli), Nalini (the protagonist) is seen to be acutely aware of her situation. She is, as the title depicts, always the ‘Other’ – in office, amongst her in laws, in her neighbourhood. She changes her life by shifting from chawl to the new house, and in doing so aspires to move away from historical markers of identity and create a new one for her family.

She works in a government office where she has to hear about how ‘Dalits…have it good…the government pampers them’ (pp.57). Nalini, after getting housing at government quarters, is determined to move out. Her husband assures her he will persuade his parents. Eventually, her husband gives in to his mother’s persuasion in spite of wanting to move away himself. But the climax of the story is astonishing when we see Nalini pick up her baby and leave without waiting to persuade anyone or seek approval. She just leaves. This act of walking away without waiting for her husband’s answer, knowing that he has already given in to his mother’s pressure, is both a stoic acceptance of reality but the stubbornness to overcome it and act.

Urmila Pawar’s stories are not just about recording the historical injustice but also about the gendered relations of every day. In the story ‘Kavach’ (Armour), Gaurya, Indira’s son, tries hard to protect his mother from casteist abuse. He feels ashamed of the way she dresses when she goes to the market to sell mangoes and at how she lets the customers misbehave with her without answering back like his teacher does to the male teachers in school. The story beautifully brings out the implicit sexual undertones of the language itself. When the men in the market say ‘Where are your mangoes from? Choli (blouse in English, also the name of Gaurya’s village) mangoes?…let me try with my own hands.’ (pp.85). Gaurya is ecstatic when he hears his mother talk back to these men, bravely standing her ground when he is himself is frightened and feels helpless in their presence. He ponders over how ‘words had a way of changing meaning quickly’ (pp.86.) The boy’s way of looking at his mother shifts from being weak and sticky (like a mango) to strong and hard like the mango seed. Here the lost-in-translation problem persists even after the lucid translations of Veena Deo, making an important metaphor in Marathi language sound plain once translated to English.

I don’t believe this story is necessarily drawn out of her own life experiences but comes from a general observation of her milieu. On the other hand, the stoic, silent and persistent mother in ‘Aaye (Mother)’ I am convinced, is a character modelled after her own mother, the one we are introduced to in her autobiography. The short story is a classic example of what death of the patriarch does to a family in a patriarchal system and how the widow is not deemed fit to make decisions for her family. The mother continues to work on the basket weaving to sustain her family. The only thing on her mind is to educate all her children – the promise her husband takes from her on his deathbed. The mother (her name never mentioned) fights her in-laws and chooses to stay where is so that she can continue to send her children to school even though the village relatives are insistent on taking the family back to village house.

A very interesting story in this collection was ‘Cheed’ (Anger). It is a story of female friendships – a topic hardly dealt with in fiction. It tells the story of two female friends and how a husband changes the dynamics of this relationship. It also questions the social structure which makes a vertical hierarchy out of our personal relations and always situates the husband at the apex. This story also questions the norms where women end up accepting their husbands’ opinions as the right one and don’t assert their own thoughts.

Pawar’s fiction is a place where she imagines different, better and more gender-sensitive outcomes to events that she has come across in her real life. Dalit literature is also characterised by language which is layered with implicit caste-gender connotations. Dalit writing is a way of fighting the structural injustice: first by writing about the historical and then tracing its continuity to see how discrimination manifests in the present times.

Pawar’s short stories are a space of bringing to light and questioning the atrocious social positions of caste, class and gender, and its cumulative effects on lives of the women; their intersections but also the isolation that comes along with these axes of difference. I found myself sometimes completely alienated from the experiences of women in the stories, which allowed me to recognise my privilege. But at the same time, I felt like I could relate to the way they questioned their circumstances.

The complexity of lives lived with the burdens of caste, class and gender: how do these women dissent? Are they protesting? What is the form of their protest? Pawar’s fiction is an important revelation or beginning of enquiry on the some of these lines.

Urmila Pawar makes impossibly rebellious acts imaginable through her short stories. Her characters escape the pages of her book and the realm of fiction – they become living, breathing human beings who we come across every day.

*This article was first published here: https://feminisminindia.com/2017/02/10/urmila-pawar-mother-wit/. Republished with the permission of Feminism in India

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