Celebrating women of substance

One might be ill advised to judge a book by its cover, but Urmila Pawar’s collection of short stories could not have come with a more descriptive title. Mother Wit is entirely what the title promises; Pawar emerges, even in translation, as a writer of pithy, down-to-earth prose with a keen ear and eye for showcasing the kind of practical wisdom that one associates with women of substance. This is “womanist” writing that celebrates the inner strength of the disenfranchised woman. Whether its specifics are embedded in black, Muslim, or dalit and Buddhist experience, what this literature has in common is the assertion of a sisterhood, which manifests itself in stoicism in the face of oppression and a rejection of the status quo.
Mother Wit is a collection of stories spanning over two decades with protagonists that are deeply rooted in their milieu. Pawar draws on the experiences of generations of Indian women keeping the scope trained on the rural and urban landscapes of her native state Maharashtra. What all of them have in common is the manner in which they are at the receiving end of some kind of injustice, whether at the hands of strangers or within their own families. Where they differ is how far they allow their dignity to be assailed, and where and how they draw battle lines.
Pawar’s brisk and restrained style of writing creates scenarios and memorable characters with just a few brushstrokes. It is hard to predict which way a situation will unfold since her characters are unpredictable and capable of surprising awareness even when presented with destitution. She keeps the reader conscious of the most downtrodden woman’s sentience and her right to revolt against atrocities. The village woman in “Mother” is watched by her young child whose observations are of a broken-down woman prone to sudden and excessive wailing on the loss of her husband. One of her children appears to be dangerously ill when her brother-in-law swoops down to offer solace, a false cure, and shelter. All the while he attempts to cheat her of the little she has. Eventually, the mother roars her grief and refusal out in the form of an “ovi” or a poem with instructional messages, publicly shaming her brother-in-law and making him slink away.
The women in these stories have varying degrees of independence or power. Not all of them are in the vanguard of progressives who fight battles against caste or gender. The nearly destitute mentally ill Kamali in “My People” has succumbed to familial abuse and is reliant on the kindness of strangers. Whereas the quietly determined Nalini in “The Odd One” is a real working-class heroine who will not fall for familial manipulation even if it means walking out on her husband when the chips are down.
Put through unconscionable tests not all can resist the pressure imposed by a dominant patriarchy. Some, like the beleaguered mother of five daughters in “Pain”, may crumble under the pressure and give in to the demands for a son no matter what the price she has to pay. Others like the schoolteacher’s wife in “Public Disgrace” seem like a vehicle of irony, as the narrator says, in one of the characteristic asides that puts the wit in Mother Wit, “What kind of activist ever pays attention to his wife?” She must support her idealistic husband who may pour all his efforts and finances into a caste battle, watch her children starve and remain under the threat of a good beating if she resists. Pawar uses this story as she does many other to show how women are always second citizens even among the repressed classes.
Veena Deo discusses in her introductory note the difficulties of transplanting into another language the wry, often coarse humour and familiar tone that is characteristic of Marathi speech. In addition, Pawar’s use of language is not limited to one type of speaking voice. “…she moves effortlessly between rural and urban dialects and standard Marathi. She uses a variety of dialects (the Konkani of her native Ratnagiri, her husband’s Malvani and standard Marathi) based on different contexts of her stories, she captures local speech patterns effectively”.
Since English is largely homogenous, Deo meets the challenge by imitating as well as she can the nuances of Pawar’s writing and keeping to an earthy, conversational style. She italicises but keeps phonetically translated words like “vedi”, or relationship titles like “tai” or “dada”, or vocative particles like “arrey” or “aho” so that the translation is not robbed entirely of the original flavour. There is a glossary at the end of the book, which explains meanings. This makes it possible for every reader to enjoy a story like “Armour”, where the action turns on
the play on words itself, without having too much explanation or interruption in the story world.
In “Armour”, a young boy Gaurya struggles to come to terms with the vulgarity he has just come to associate with his mother’s profession of selling mangoes in the marketplace. His mother, a humble mango seller, is subject to numerous taunts. Except she is well able to defend herself against two drunken louts by boomeranging the shame they attempt to throw at her. “Indira spoke up firmly, ‘Yes, yes. These are mangoes from a choli, but your mother’s choli. If you are so interested in checking them out, go and find your mother’s choli. Go.’” One can only imagine the terseness of the original version, but Deo keeps something of the spirit alive in translation. The reluctant son who wished his mother were more dignified like his more upper-class schoolteacher learns a lesson in true grit. “He realises his mother … had a hard core inside her like the seed inside the mango — hard, strong and solid like a shell.”
Regional writing does not easily make its way into English translations, and writing that illustrates the disempowerment of marginalised societies has an even more uphill journey. Mother Wit is a step in the right direction when it comes to making regional literature more accessible. It is bound to attract academics with its strong emphasis on caste, class and gender politics, but it has enough to offer the casual reader as well, since a story that has the capacity to surprise is what the short story has always been about.

Karishma Attari is a book critic and writer living in Mumbai. She is working on her coming-of-age novel, I See You.

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