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Published on: 10/8/23 7:39 AM

Book review: Feeling Kerala, anthology edited by J Devika

Kerala Stories

Contemporary really is the keyword here. The short stories in this anthology, translated by feminist historian and social researcher J Devika, deals with some of the issues that Kerala is grappling with today. In her foreword, Devika clarifies that neither were the writers for this collection picked from an exhaustive list nor does the line-up adequately run the gamut of the literary talent that exists in the state. Basically, the selection process had one criterion: to shine a light on today`s Kerala, warts and all. The result, all told, it is a satisfactory one.

So we get thirteen tales focussing on everyday life in Kerala, written  by authors who range from the very well- known like K.R. Meera and Unni R, to promising new writers like Prince Aymanam. The anthology trains focus on Kerala`s peculiar dichotomy. It is a state characterised by a high rate of literacy, exemplary universal healthcare, and an ostensibly egalitarian spirit. It also seems to have religious harmony for the most part; minorities aren`t othered too overtly as yet.

The flip side is rampant misogyny; being in the news for infamous sex crimes and horrifying dowry deaths; the sad reality that the high rate of literacy has not translated into women having significant agency; caste oppression,  especially where tribals are concerned; high levels of migration, the state  seeming to be a large old-age home with the young and able migrating for work and better opportunities, and finally, the discrimination of minorities and migrants slowly gathering steam across the sliver of land that is Kerala.

Peculiar dichotomy

The tone of the narratives in this anthology comprises sly satire, humour, drama and surrealism, the last evinced in the concluding tale.   Cleanly exposed are the insecurities, easily bruised egos and pettiness of the Malayali male, in the process revealing how this forms the patriarchal shackles within which women continue to be confined and undervalued. The educated but highly bigoted NRI who seeks to aggressively dominate the discourse, the discrimination  of minorities and castes like the Paraya and Pulaya, who despite having fought for their rights have not made any significant gains, how Dalits too are outliers in the supposedly  egalitarian society of  the state,  are other issues  outlined with sharp precision.

In one prescient piece, a husband slyly but  actively works behind his wife’s back to thwart her  ambitions, buttressed and emboldened by how women don’t help their own cause either,  resorting to dirty tricks when competing with each other. Elsewhere, a supercilious spouse learns to mend his ways. This particular story has the reader wondering afresh if the huge amounts of alcohol drunk by the Malayali male has another dimension; perhaps it acts as prop to their male ego, to deal with what they perceive as their waning authority over women. And in the powerful last contribution to this anthology, women who are abused, vilified and shamed come together in an unique show of strength,  neatly turning the tables on the menfolk.

One standout in this collection is a brilliant satire on the commodification of religion. Laced with biting wit and humour, it reveals  yet again how religion can be both weaponised in a deadly manner.

Each narrative in this collection is preceded by a short introduction from the translator, done to give the accounts context; these passages could have been briefer and crisper. Then, one wonders about some of the linguistic choices made. The usage of words like ‘lemme’ or ‘buddies’ comes across as awkward, as does a line translated as ‘don’t talk big.‘  Also, one can`t help but feel they could have come up with a better title for the book than the clunky ‘Feeling Kerala.’

These are minor quibbles, however, for an anthology consisting of such good stories. The takeaway is inescapable: all is not well in Kerala. If much has been achieved in this small sliver of a state, the gains need to be safeguarded and not squandered. And yes, there is still much to be done.

Feeling Kerala, an Anthology of Contemporary Malayalam Stories. Translated from the Malayalam by J Devika. Penguin/Viking Books. 286 pages. Rs 599.

This ran in the Sunday Express magazine of 8 October 2023.


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anthologybook reviewbookseveryday life in KeralaFeeling KeralaJ DevikaKerala storiesKerala`s peculiar dichotomyPenguin Viking Books

Sheila Kumar • October 8, 2023

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