In her works, the Hindi writer Anjali Kajal has consistently explored how women both resist as well as reaffirm patriarchy and casteism. Originally from Ludhiana, she is now based in Delhi. Ma is Scared is her first book to be translated into English. The stories, selected and translated by Kavita Bhanot, reflect a writing career spanning two and a half decades. While her prose is largely unadorned, it paints evocative, true-to-life portraits of womanhood and motherhood at the intersections of various identities in a modern India that is still holding on to outdated notions and ideas in the name of tradition.

The legacies of misogyny

Stories such as “Deluge” and “Ma is Scared” drive the everydayness of misogyny and sexism home in a chilling manner. Both are so ingrained in society that any female excursion into the public space is met with resounding waves of male entitlement, misbehaviour and, in the worst cases, outright abuse. In “Deluge”, Pammi is traumatised by men whom she sees as wolves “waiting to pounce”. Her father’s was “the only bearable touch Pammi remembered receiving from a man in her life”. In a bid to escape the trap of inevitable marriage, she runs away from home at the age of nineteen only to fall into a new one when she starts living with her much older tuition teacher who becomes increasingly controlling.

The titular story follows an apprehensive mother who waits for Jasbir, her daughter, to come back from college. Jasbir hates the suffocating environment in the community and the lechery of the city but, trained in martial arts, she is more than capable of fighting back. The legacy of misogyny is such that it gets passed down across generations, with women slowly accepting oppression by internalising patriarchal norms. There are some societal expectations from girls from “good families”. A woman is expected to balance both work and home after marriage if they are “allowed” to hold a job in the first place. It is not surprising then to see them being reduced to cogs in the machine. Yet, they remain defiant.

Marriage and motherhood

Whether the setting is urban or rural, women have limited choices. There is a strict (gender-normative) timeline they must adhere to where everything culminates in marriage and kids. In “Rain”, Kamya and Palash get married because none of their other relationships were “successful”: “The truth is, they had never really understood why it was so important to get married.” Later, when Kamya finds that she is uncomfortable with Palash getting back in touch with an old flame, she says: “Don’t you think that marriage is like a tight frame we spend all our lives trying to fit into? When two people come together, they should destroy all the frames that the world has made for them.”

“Taru, Zeenat and a World Full of Crap” follows the titular Taru, a visually impaired woman, in a love marriage who is unable to have kids and decides to adopt. At times, it feels like she does not even want a child, especially when faced with her mother-in-law’s constant acerbic remarks, but Zeenat quickly wins her heart. In “Suffocation”, Sushma’s life is empty without peace or comfort and her elder daughter diagnoses her with “empty nest syndrome”. With her husband posted elsewhere, she had to stay home to take care of his elderly parents. It is much later that the two finally begin living together. Resentment simmers on the surface though Sushma and her husband want to break the cycle.

Caste(ism) in everyday life

Discrimination based on caste hierarchies is a ubiquitous reality in India. Kajal depicts the experientiality of caste in a way that shows its nebulous nature. Reservation particularly is a thorny topic. Savarna characters see it as an “unfair advantage” or “reverse discrimination” that punishes their children for the “sins of their parents and grandparents” to “steal their seats”. In “History”, the woman narrator runs into an old college friend triggering flashbacks of a time when she used to be regularly bullied and denigrated by both classmates and teachers because of her caste. In “To Be Recognised”, Kiran, a teacher at a girl’s college who is Dalit takes a Dalit student under her wing and mentors her for a poetry recitation event where Geeta proves caste does not determine talent.

Even well-meaning sentiments can be coloured by casual casteism. In “Pathways”, the upper class-caste Mala Saxena offers to sponsor the education of her son’s Dalit classmate, Sanjay, whose father runs a vegetable shop but he refuses her help. Her internal monologue is revealing: “He’s arrogant. These people think too much of themselves… Back in the village, they used to manage just fine tilling our fields, eating whatever we gave them.” Later, when he starts working in his father’s shop, she states: “Well, it is for the best. What would Sanjay have done with himself as a software engineer?... The system in our society was created for a reason.” When his father distributes sweets as Sanjay has finally taken admission after years of saving money, Mala predictably refuses to even touch them.

Kavita Bhanot, in a short translator’s note at the end of the book, writes about how she thinks critically about translation. Her objective was “not domesticating Anjali’s text into a Western context, but rather keeping some of the flavour of the original language and context.” She is mostly successful, although some translation choices sit awkwardly in English. Kajal demonstrates a steady understanding of the quotidian lives of women and Dalit people as well as the obstacles they have to face to gain equitable representation and careers. Through it all, these characters display astounding strength of spirit.

Ma is Scared: And Other Stories, Anjali Kajal, translated from the Hindi by Kavita Bhanot, Penguin India.