Books: Greek tragedies in Indian villages: Ziauddin Sardar looks at a series of writers from the subcontinent and their victims

Click to follow
Indigenous language fiction from the Indian subcontinent has been seriously neglected in the West. The new Asian Writers Series from Heinemann sets out to remedy the situation. We are reintroduced to the genius of Rabindranath Tagore and T Sivasankara Pillai and presented with a few new names who ought to be known outside their native lands.

The subcontinent exemplifies diversity. It is distinguished by scores of regional and tribal languages and is home to dozens of different and distinct cultures, all enveloped in colourful chaos and conservatism. The first six titles in the series give us a flavour of Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil societies. However, their collective emphasis is not on diversity but the monolithic oppression of murderous poverty. These novels are peopled with abandoned and starving women, malnourished peasants, emaciated untouchable toilet cleaners, epidemic-infested and filthy communities and yet more oppressed and famished women. It is a universe composed only of victims, who despite their unceasing efforts and heroic struggle, achieve nothing but despair and death.

In T Sivasankara Pillai's powerful but economic narrative, Scavenger's Son, we meet three generations of untouchables who clean the toilets in Kerala. As a boy of 10, Chadualamuttu sees his father die of starvation. He grows up with a burning ambition to ensure that his own son, Mohanon, does not follow him into his disgusting profession. He learns to make and save money and begins to act out a careful plan for Mohanon's future. When the scavenger's organise a union to fight the local council, Chadualamuttu, fearing that his plans could be ruined, betrays his fellow workers as well as the man who looked after him after his father's death, destroying his family and turning his children into beggars. He survives a smallpox epidemic, but even before Mohanan can finish his primary schooling, falls victim to cholera. Orphaned, Mohanon treads the footsteps of his father and becomes the leader of the scavenger's union. He is shot by the police when he leads a demonstration of scavengers through the city and dies uttering revolutionary slogans. With or without the revolution, the perpetually suffering poor are doomed.

But this doom is not only physical, it is also spiritual and metaphysical. The central characters of Rabindranath Tagore's semi-philosophical novella Quartet experience a religious transformation. Sribilash, the narrator, and his friend Sachish, fight poverty and degradation while they see themselves through the university. They are impressed by Jagmohan, Sachish's uncle, a self-claimed atheist and humanist who is tormented by his greedy relatives. Their crusade against religion and humanitarian efforts on behalf of Calcutta's poor are constantly thwarted by dogmatic and unscrupulous neighbours. When Jagnohan fails to save an innocent young girl, who has been seduced by his brother, his social conscience and physical constitution are crushed. After the death of Jagmohan, Sachish has a spiritual experience and becomes the disciple of guru Swami Lilananda. Sribilahs follows his friend. The two befriend Damini, a widow left as endowment for the guru by one of his disciples. Damini, who has known nothing but hardship, remains spiritually unnourished; her only solace is her total love for Sachish. Sachish, too preoccupied with an asceticism that provides justification for a lifetime of poverty, wants only to 'understand it all'. But spiritual gratification escapes him; even though his excessive self-denial means certain death. Eventually, Damini and Scriblahs marry each other in the hope of finding a modicum of happiness. But even this is denied to them - Damini dies of a mysterious illness soon after her wedding.

Suffering women also feature strongly in Shaukat Osman's Janani and Susham Bedi's The Fire Sacrifice. Dariabibi, the janani (mother) of the title, is the archetype mother India. From a comfortable background, she is thrown out by her inlaws when her first husband dies from a snake bite. Her second husband, a pathan called Azhar Khan, has a habit of abandoning her at key moments in the narrative. The couple live in the mythical village of Moheshdanga, where their neighbours and best friends are Hindu. Moheshdanga may be located in Bengal but it is ruled by principles of Greek tragedy. And Dariabibi is the chief, defenceless target and passive victim of these principles.

There is little joy to be had even when the oppressive principles of tradition are shattered. After becoming a widow, Guddo, who is obsessed with performing the Hindu rite of The Fire Sacrifice, leaves India, with her son Raju, to join her sisters in New York. Initially, she is appalled by the materialism of America and her sisters who have abandoned Indian principles and values. When her sister Pinki throws her out of house, she struggles to make ends meet and discovers true loneliness. Like all the mothers in these novels, her sole aims are to get her children educated and married. Slowly, she succumbs to materialism herself, uses the rich and influential doctor Juneja to secure her goals and is used by him in return. Her daughters join her in New York, become MDs and PhDs, and Guddo imports suitably qualified husbands for them from India. But both Guddo, who changes reluctantly while defying change, and her sisters, who adopt American ways with open arms, are doomed. Her daughters' marriages end in dismal failure. Her son Raju becomes a drug dealer. And her niece, Radhika, gets pregnant, is abandoned by her black lover and ends up being gang raped and brutally killed. Guddo's fate - like the fate of India itself - is all round perpetual suffering. Even the fire sacrifice brings little solace for Guddo.

In all these novels tradition gets a great deal of hammering. There is no awareness of the fact that apart from being suffocating, tradition can also be life-enhancing. Moreover, far from being static, genuine tradition is dynamic. Pillai, Tagore, Osman and Bedi are content with painting portraits of victims of tradition who have nowhere to go except towards an early grave. For both Pillai and Osman, tradition spells death. Characters in The Fire Sacrifice struggle to be purely Hindu or become totally whitewashed: there is no awareness of a balanced middle ground, no question of developing a new Indo-American identity. There is only victimisation and victims.

Gaythi, the strong-willed heroine of Altaf Fatima's The One Who Did Not Ask, loses her inner strength. The daughter of a rich Muslim family in pre-partition India, Gaythi is a natural fighter against tradition. She can more than hold her own against her domineering mother. But when she becomes a mother herself, her humanistic instincts evaporate and she colludes in a passive perpetuation of the cycle of oppression. The One Who Did Not Ask is the most complex and richly textured novel of this bunch. Its webbed narrative offers a meandering exploration of the interconnections of an extended family, the traumas of migration, the strong bonds as well as animosities that exist between Muslims and Hindus and the frightening loneliness of a monolithic culture. Not least among its qualities is the tender exposition of the relationship between Gaythi and the highly creative Chinese immigrant boy, Safdar Liu Chu. However, unlike the other novels, it is marred by a dry, awkward translation.

But there is little joy even in The One Who Did Not Ask. It is obvious that hackneyed ideological motives played a paramount part in the selection of these novels. Far from being a place of ecstasy, colour and diversity, the 'India' of these novels is a monolithic region of dejection, loneliness, poverty, starvation and death. There is much more to the subcontinent than that.