This Review by Selma Carvalho first appeared on The Goan, 28 Jan, 2017.
To read a story from The Salt of the Earth click here.
The writer Jayanti Naik grew up in what she calls ‘the economically backward village named Amona in Quepem’. This geographical specificity informs and frames much of her narrative, the complexity of which is almost impossible to adequately examine in a review. Naik has a writing career spanning some three decades; she is the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award as well as the Yashadamini Puraskar state award for women. Her work has only now become accessible to a wider audience through a slim volume of short stories translated into English by Augusto Pinto, Associate Professor S. S. Dempo College, Goa.
‘The Salt of the Earth’ (Goa,1556) is a collection of eleven stories. Naik’s work is wide-ranging but at its core it addresses this fundamental question: Does the cultural topography of a human existence serve a purpose? Does it tether us to something greater than ourselves, and more importantly, how then do we treat the continuum of cultural change? With contempt or curiosity?
This is the question presented to the reader almost immediately in the story ‘The Fulfilment of a Desire’. The protagonist Shivanand becomes the prodigal when he decides to marry outside his community. Cast aside from the family fortunes and exiled to shelter with his in-laws, his wife, a non-Goan nonetheless adopts Konkan customs despite never having met her in-laws or visited Goa. Shivanand is quite reconciled to living the culturally-deprived life of an exile but his wife struck by terminal cancer forces him to make one final journey home where she will ‘fall at the feet of the family deity and worship in the family temple’.
What purpose could such a journey possibly serve? How is slavish devotion to religious rites relevant in the twenty-first century? Shivanand doesn’t know either; he doesn’t know whether to ‘feel sorry for his wife or praise her.’ Shivanand has made his peace with modernity but his wife is tethered psychologically to cultural rituals and possibly sustained by them. Surely, these are the quandaries facing rural Goa as the onslaught of rapid urbanisation challenges everything they hold dear. Rural Goa is the central character in Naik’s writing.
The reader is lead almost into a labyrinth of myth and reality. Hardly surprising as Naik is a scholar of folklore and weaves expertly a tapestry of mythological archetypes juxtaposed against the pathos of humanity. The story ‘The Victory’ for instance has the protagonist Kushta hailed as a saviour but then, like all good saviours throughout history, quickly persecuted when he fails to achieve the desired result for the village. Kushta wrecks revenge on the village by smashing the sacred statue to smithereens. How relevant is a God, who refuses to help? Can we truly acknowledge his divinity if he remains unmoved in the face of abject misery and injustice?
The other area in which Naik’s work shines is examining the multi-layered lives of her female protagonists. Perhaps the most complex story in the anthology is that of Ramaa a young female protagonist whose actions are at once ennobling and destructive. Her supreme sacrifice of her own sexual needs leads her to marry an impotent man but unable to resist her desires she embarks on an affair which eventually consumes her. The narrator of the story, a male cousin, is conflicted by his own demons. He is unable to unravel the tangled web of emotions Ramaa evokes in him. Is she like a mother, a sister or are his feelings sexual? Naik here, takes aim at our moral culpability in sustaining the sati savritre ideal of Indian womanhood. Ramaa is a woman who aspires to noble deeds but she is thwarted by human desire. Noble deeds are the first casualties on the bonfire of human frailty. The most substantive reformations in society are brought about by writers like Naik who challenge us to a greater understanding of the human condition particularly in societies where women are voiceless and unable to articulate for themselves.
The reader having been affirmed by Naik’s liberalism, and the juxtapositioning of the old against the new, the traditional against the modern, might arrive at An Account of her Life and feel a little let down. That, the only story which explores female homosexuality has the protagonist expressing disgust for the act (‘some things about her were unpleasant’). But we must allow Naik latitude in interpreting the story. Perhaps, Naik’s wider point is that, sexual violence is repulsive whether it is perpetrated by men or women onto other women. And even here, Naik mitigates the protagonist’s disgust by arguing that ‘she had a body and she had desires which had no way of expressing themselves’.
Pinto’s excellent afterword and biography of Naik deepens our understanding of the stories told, and is integral to the anthology. Taking us through Naik’s close relationship with Goa’s underclass, Pinto explains ‘As a translator, I realised that her writing would pose many challenges to me as the marginalised cultures of these people are a world apart from the modern life we have been accustomed to.’ Pinto’s fidelity to the source language in his translation, serves the purpose of retaining regional authenticity.
Naik’s work is that rare thing – revolutionary.