Tag Archives: #dalit

Each of Us Killers: Vignettes of Immigrant and Indian Lives

Jenny Bhatt’s debut collection of stories, Each of Us Killers brings us a sampling of experiences of a writer who has lived and worked in India, the United Kingdom, Germany, and now resides in a suburb of Dallas. Bhatt has worked as a writer, literary critic, and translator. Her translation of the Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s fiction is forthcoming from Harper Collins in India.  She is also the host of the podcast Desi Books. Each of Us Killers is Bhatt’s debut collection of short stories but several of these stories have been published in reputed journals; two of the stories were nominated for the Pushcart award, and the title story “ Each of Us Killers” was nominated for the Best American Short Stories, 2018. These biographical facts help to contextualize the experience of reading Bhatt’s collection of stories. Even though it is a debut collection, it brings a range of lived experience, experimentation, and stylistic variety, which announces a seasoned practitioner rather than a newcomer to fiction. Another important fact to note is that Bhatt’s publisher, 7.13 Books is an independent publisher, one that is likely to promote authors whose subjects and aesthetics are different from the mainstream presses, increasingly dominated by five major corporations in the publishing industry.

Bhatt’s collection portrays the complexity of immigrants’ lives but is equally at ease in offering vignettes from life in Indian cities. Unlike many diasporic writers whose representations of India seem dated because they draw on memories of India left behind several decades ago, Bhatt’s stories seem to resonate deeply with contemporary realities in India, particularly its uptick in religious and caste-based violence. The last two stories in the collection “The Waiting” and “Each of Us Killers” depicts the continuing everyday oppression faced by Dalits in India.

“The Waiting” is narrated through the voice of the ghost of a dead Dalit wife witnessing the continuing sufferings of her distraught and mentally unhinged husband. By the end of the story, the voice changes to that of the ghost of her husband in limbo after his brutal murder by the henchmen of the village sarpanch. While this story adopts the conventions of vernacular folk ghost narratives, the title story “Each of Us Killers” takes the form of investigative journalism exploring the reasons for the death of a Dalit man by consuming a bottle of acid. The investigation uncovers the brutal burning alive of a Dalit girl which is the catalyst for the brother’s suicide and the traumatic memory that ravages the community. This story is particularly poignant in the wake of continuing Dalit violence in India today, the most recent example of which is the rape, murder, and hurried cremation of Manisha Valmiki in Haathras. 

The violence unleashed on vulnerable groups is a trope that emerges even in stories set in the United States. The first story of the collection “Return to India” also takes the form of interviews that a police officer conducts in the process of investigating the death of a South Asian American man. The quotidian details of his life emerge from the testimonies of his office acquaintances, his unfurnished bare apartment, his occasional drinking binges, the loneliness following his divorce leading to the final testimony by the guy who shot him in what appears to be a drunken altercation fueled by casual xenophobia and easy access to firearms. Bhatt is gesturing at the precarious nature of immigrant lives in the xenophobic climate of Trump’s America.

Not all the stories in the collection evoke the tragic sensibility of the first and last stories in the volume. Some like “Disappointment,” and “Life Spring” turn disappointment in love into paths for liberation and growth.  In others, like “Separation Notice.”  Bhatt playfully rewrites Hindu mythology by crafting a letter terminating the services of Lord Vishnu for his inability to serve as protector of mankind. Bhatt is attentive to the multi-religious diversity of Indian citizens and offers a glimpse into the life and troubles of an aging Muslim food vendor in “Time and Opportunity,” whose young employee from his own community is stealing his profits. In “Neeru’s New World,” Bhatt seems to be depicting the tragic fate of a young maid in a rich household about to be blackmailed or sexually exploited when the story reverses course and the young girl is able to secure an ally to help her break free from the power of her oppressor.

The collection is rich in its exploration of socio-economic issues.  It also effortlessly experiments with a variety of forms like the ghost story, investigative journalism, retelling of myths, among others. As is inevitable in a collection like this some stories are more powerful than others, but overall this is a thought-provoking collection that successfully evokes diverse milieux and prompts readers towards an empathetic understanding of topics beyond the immediate familiarity of urban bourgeois life.

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Each of Us Killers: Stories by Jenny Bhatt.  7.13 Books Brooklyn, September 2020.

Whatabout The Men In These Movies?

Jawaani Jaaneman is a 2020 release on Amazon Prime about a father who doesn’t want anything to do with his newly discovered offspring.

It stars Saif Ali Khan who plays ‘Jazz,’ or Jasvinder Singh, a muscled, tattooed, Sikh immigrant in the UK. At 40, this committed bachelor inhabits a universe which is the equivalent of a permanent adolescence – a haze of nightclubs and one-night stands. He’s also a broker about to embark on an important deal, selling his building to a developer who planning an ultra-modern commercial complex.

Khan plays a convincing Jazz – a middle-aged, macho Jat, who believes he’s a ‘Babe-Magnet Casanova’ (though it’s mystifying that he grew up in England but retained a “Paaji” accent!) Jazz loves his shallow life of no commitments or responsibilities. He lives for his evenings at the night club, bumping and grinding like the 20-year olds around him, guzzling shots, and tossing one-liners like ‘oye phuljariyaan, Happy Diwali’ to a crowd of British women in a London hair salon.

His vapid life turns inside out one day when he invites a young woman, Tia (Alaya Furniturewala) home. She tells Jazz that he has a  ‘33.33 percent chance of being her father.’  Jazz recalls a 20 year-old tryst with a girlfriend Ananya (Tabu), and like whiplash, the middle-aged playboy in him reacts with a vigorous denial, “Nahin ho sakta—main batting hamesha guard kay saath karta hoon!”

Saif Ali Khan, Alaya Furniturewala & Tabu

Jazz takes a DNA test to prove his innocence, but the results take him straight from nightclub schmoozer to dad of a 21-year-old. Tia declares that she’s dreamt about meeting her dad since she was 15 – and then drops a bigger bombshell  – she’s pregnant with her boyfriend’s child and wants to stay with her newly minted Papa to have the baby.

Jawaani Jaaneman (directed by Nitin Kakkar) drips with cliches and transparent plot devices, but Saif and Alaya (the daughter of Pooja Bedi and the granddaughter of Kabir Bedi) have an onscreen chemistry that’s very engaging. This movie is a lighthearted, air-headed concoction you save for a rainy-day and a bucket of popcorn.

The flip side to the frivolous Jawaani Jaaneman is the intense Serious Men – another male-centric movie dealing with masculine identity.

In an era where the debate on social justice is increasing in public discourse, a movie like Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men brings an interesting, satirical take to the equation between those who lack opportunity and the people born into the kind of privilege that assures their place in our social hierarchy.

Serious men are men like Arvind Acharya (Nasser), who runs an agency like The National Institute for Scientific Research (NISR), and lobbies for government funding of obscure scientific projects – in this instance, hunting for alien microbes in space.  Acharya is a seriously privileged man from the right caste and educational background which has given him his social success and his obnoxious hubris. His privilege lets him manage awkward questions about the value of his eccentric research by talking about irrelevant metaphors that no one understands; he views their lack of comprehension as proof of his superior intellect.

In the film, Ayyan Manni (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Tamilian Dalit living in a Mumbai chawl works as a Personal Assistant to Arvind Acharya. By any measure, it’s a good, secure job for a Dalit but Ayyan has been bullied and humiliated all his life by his boss (calling Ayyan an idiot knucklehead with a primitive mind is all in a day’s work for Acharya).

However Ayyan is no meek pushover: He coins the half-mocking epithet ‘Serious Man’ for his boss. He’s also figured out that Acharya fobs off legitimate queries about his work by spouting incomprehensible, obscure concepts that no one understands. So, Ayyan bears his humiliation with a cringing smile, while plotting to make his son Adi (Aakshath Das) a ‘Serious Man’ like his abusive boss.

Nawazzuddin Siddiqui and Aakshath Das in Serious Men

Unlike other films on India’s complex caste issues, Serious Men uses an unfiltered lens on both sides – the aspirational Dalit and the arrogant upper caste boss have serious flaws. Films like Aarakshan and Samar showcased the righteous rage of oppressed Dalits, but Serious Men looks at caste through a wily, conniving human lens.

Ayyan believes the system is stacked against him, so he feels justified in gaming the system. He’s a born huckster, ambitious and canny, and able to talk his way out of any scrape. He coaches and presents his son as a precocious ‘genius in a dishonest endeavor to gain an educational and social advantage, with the misplaced conviction that he’s doing everything to secure his family’s future.

The soul of the movie is encapsulated in a scene before his son’s birth. Ayyan cons his way to a hotel poolside telling staff that he’s a hotel guest. His dream, he tells his pregnant wife Oja (Indira Tiwari), is for his soon-to-be-born son to afford to stay like a regular guest at a hotel like this.

You see,” says Ayyan, “our parents were 1G, slogging in the fields. I got an education but didn’t know how important that was to get ahead. So, I am 2G. Our son will be 4G. He will be able to lounge poolside like this and do nothing if he wants to. It takes four generations to be able to do nothing.”

The first half of the movie cleverly holds our attention. We wonder what will become of Adi as he is thrust into the limelight as a ‘geniusmascot for the local Dalits by manipulative politicians. Adi begins to feel the pressure of performing like a trained monkey in his new role and Ayyan, in a delightful parody of Acharya, coaches Adi to answer questions that fluster him by shouting, “I can’t deal with primitive minds like yours!”

The second half becomes predictable and the plot convoluted. Ayyan gets his revenge on the abusive Acharya but things don’t turn out as planned. The multiple storylines – Ayyan’s ambitions for his son, his obnoxious boss, and the politicians using his son as caste currency – merge in typical Bollywood style. Despite the melodrama, there is a stark frankness to the dialogue when it touches upon the generational impact of caste on an individual’s life. Serious Men has some terrific, thought-provoking discussions and scenes which highlight India’s caste-based hypocrisies, and great acting by Nawazzuddin Siddiqui and Aakshath Das.

Caste is like a baton handed down by ancestors in a lifelong relay race whose outcome has been fixed before birth, and Serious Men attempts to drive this point home. However, the movie ends without a sense of satisfying closure to the higher ideals it’s aspiring to.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents



She Amid COVID

Violence against women is not a spatially or temporally bounded. It persists all around the Globe. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. This Declaration defines, violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’. 

According to the World Health Organization, violence against women is a major public health problem that has seized the woman’s basic human rights internationally. Particularly vulnerable are the women in forced social subordinate status and less education because they are more prone to experience intimate partner violence.

In the year 2017, it was estimated that 137 women across the world were killed by a member of their own family every day. More than a third were killed by their current or former intimate partner.

These ‘Covidnary Times’ are extremely challenging and Neo Normal. The COVID era has made the existing ‘vulnerable’ section more prone to abuse, both physical, sexual, or mental. It remains a poisonous truth of our society, that women, even in the 21st century, still do not get the same status as men. The degraded state of women is visible, not only in our society as a whole but is also prevalent in a more severe form within the households and this makes women highly vulnerable in the Covid-19 Tsunami

Women continue to exist as a neglected bunch and their plight is often swept under the rugs.

Any Pandemic like Covid-19 is bound to have a draconian impact on the lives of women particularly those belonging to marginalized communities.

This is primarily due to two major reason: firstly, the women in India within a given household remain neglected which means even if they become symptomatic of the deadly Coronavirus disease there is a high probability of them being ignored especially in orthodox families that possess pre-existing patriarchy overdose; Secondly, because of the widespread educational deficiency which persists more in women than men, globally. 

Note that only 45.9 percent of women in India use their mobile phones themselves 

If one goes about analyzing the state of women in contemporary India, it becomes clear that women in India have been and still continue to be marginalized. And it is not only the women as a homogeneous group which is being discriminated over centuries but the women in many sub-groups of women which exists as the ‘marginals among the marginalized’ –  Dalits, tribal, HIV infected, sex workers, LGBTQ, and women belonging to a minority group.

Going by the official data, the National Family Health Survey in 2016 revealed some deplorable Statistics which we cannot afford to ignore. It stated that 28.8 percent of women faced violence domestically by their respective spouses, 3.3 percent of women faced violence even during pregnancy. 

The story however is no different for the women in America. In the United States, a man beats a woman every twelve seconds and women with lower income tend to face six times more violence compared to women with higher income. A woman belonging to Indian-American & African-American subgroup is more threatened with domestic violence. A major cause of female injury-related death during pregnancy in the United States is due to intimate partner violence. And a woman with any type of disability is 40 percent more at the risk of severe intimate partner violence.

Again one should keep in mind that these figures could be misrepresentative due under-reporting or no reporting at all. Women in India remain reluctant to report any kind of violence, primarily due to the terror they face within their given households.

Domestic torture of women is also confirmed by the National Commission Of Women, asserting a steep surge in domestic violence complaints during the COVID-19 lockdown phase. Physical abuse and exploitation of women have severe repercussions on mental health. Various studies suggest that the prevalence of depression is more among women than men in India.

In such times, it is highly unlikely that the required attention and care is being provided to women.

The discrimination, exploitation, and the disadvantages faced by a woman starts even before she takes birth and is being exacerbated by COVID. We must start thinking about our women.

If you or someone you know needs help, reach out to: Narika, Maitri, Kiran Inc, Sakhi, Guria India, ActionAid India.

Sujeet Singh is Political Science Assistant Professor, Delhi University (India). 

Priyanka Singh is an Economics Assistant Professor, Delhi University (India).