Reading a Caste Angle in an Agnostic Work is Limiting for Literary Freedom

In response to a reviewer reading a caste angle in a book that is largely unspecific about caste, Dr Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya defends her literary freedom.

By Dr Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya

I recently read a book review of an anthology of short stories, Everything Changed After That: 25 Women, 25 Stories (Embassy Books), edited by Aekta Kapoor, in which I had contributed the story ‘A Father’s Daughter’. 

The title of the book review in Money Control, ‘An anthology of short stories by women, about (mostly upper-caste Hindu) women’ provoked me to write this response.

The book is a collection of prize-winning stories that resulted from eShe magazine’s nationwide short story contest for women writers. In that sense, it is not a curated collection but rather the winning 25 pieces from 216 entries that were judged by three unbiased judges through two rounds, one of blind judging (without the names of writers mentioned).

The reviewer has concisely summed up the pattern of storytelling including the decisive click of a resolution in most stories. I wholeheartedly agree with his criticism that the focus of the stories is relatability, and it is mainstream work rather than imaginative literature.

However, mainstream work focusing on relatability does have a place in the literature, and not all work is imaginative.

The term ‘mostly upper-caste Hindu’ in the title has generated some controversy in the WhatsApp group of the 25 women writers and amongst their friends. I decided to read the stories a second time. The first time I had read it for fun; I was curious what my co-writers, who have now become friends, wrote. The second time I read the book scouring for elements of upper-caste Hinduism. Except my own writing, I found no evidence of Hinduism in general.

The virtual book launch of Everything Changed After That: 25 Women, 25 Stories

I also couldn’t find any evidence of upper-class women. In fact, I felt that the issues faced by upper-class people have not been well-documented. They too struggle, but their priorities and contexts are different.

Most of the protagonists in this book are middle-class or underprivileged, a few are upper-middle-class. Not one of the protagonists comes from an affluent background. ‘Dream’, written by Sangeeta Das, focuses on a poor village boy. ‘Akhila’ by Preetha Vasan centres on a family with financial challenges. ‘Moondust’ by Anushree Bose also has a lower-class protagonist. The others lie somewhere the middle.

If we look at our history and political context, the term upper-caste Hindu brings up some unsavoury images. Used in connection with this book, it is quite incongruent. Most of the stories appear agnostic. Maybe the names and the context suggest that they are Hindus, but that’s about it.

My story, ‘A Father’s Daughter’, is the lone exception. I have focused on rituals after death that are distinctly Hindu in flavour. The story has many shades, and this happens to be one of them. It definitely is not the main focus; I didn’t have an agenda of promoting or denouncing Hinduism, leave alone upper-caste Hinduism.

Dr Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya

I cannot write a story in a vacuum, the context definitely has Hindu undertones. I could have written the story carefully removing the Hindu rituals. But then, the story would have lost its natural flow.

It is sad that the less important Hindu ritual has been focused on by the reviewer, while the other shades in the story have been ignored. It depicts the relationship between different members of the family, the relationship between a brother and a sister in the backdrop of the current social setup, the fear of cancer, how different people handle the threat of cancer differently, the doctor-patient relationship and how the doctor-patient relationship is threatened by the greed of individuals.

Although it is the story of a Hindu woman, it is equally applicable to any Indian woman of any faith. The story would not have lost its essence had I made the protagonist Muslim or any other religion.

While I agree popular literature must be more inclusive and make space for all communities, this cannot be forced for it runs the risk of inauthentic storytelling or patronising narratives. A writer must feel free to write without fear of being labelled one way or another. If each work is to be judged by what is NOT written, it amounts to limiting literary freedom. Inclusivity works both ways.

Lastly, I felt that I must add a link to this comical video. It demonstrates how you can be insensitive to a person’s needs when you label him in categories without listening to his story (which incidentally is relatable).

Dr Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya is an award-winning psychiatrist based in Kolkata. She is the author of the short story ‘A Father’s Daughter’ in the anthology Everything Changed After That: 25 Women, 25 Stories (Embassy Books). Buy it on Amazon.

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