BR Ambedkar had said that the text and context of democracy should be based on the engagement between different communities; an experience rooted by and in transmission and communication. This experiential understanding elevates the ideal of “substantive democracy”.

Speaking Sandals: Narratives from the Madigawadas of Ongole, the English translation by K Purushotham of Yendluri Sudhakar’s Telugu short stories is a timely intervention and a stark reminder that socio-economic justice in democracy is still a mirage. Sudhakar sets his connected narratives in the village called Raviguntapalli, in the Prakasam district of Coastal Andhra Pradesh. The stories are told in the first-person voice which makes them personal and empathetic. They are a rich repertoire of sociological realities that form the everyday lives and experiences of the untouchables, Madigas.

The author recalls his memories when he visits his village and the reader is offered a rich panorama of stories from the perspectives of his fellow brethren. This isn’t a life of typecasted dalits or their mere tokenist representation where they are reduced to sorrowful creatures needing a puranic saviour. There lies something beyond the grasp of ordinary imagination. To understand what it is, the reader has to enter Sudhakar’s world like a fakir eager to understand the lives of these “broken people”. It is a saga of a rich culture and varied experiences. Though bogged down by hierarchical and graded inequalities of brahmanical patriarchy, the characters find their majjamika even in those dire circumstances.

Oppression and liberation

In the first story, we get a glimpse of their unique culture with a Madiga song. We enter a world where we savour the taste of a rich feast of sankati, beef curry cooked with chillies, as the wedding is about to happen. Further, the author hears the narration of the genesis of his madiga caste. Here, we get to know a new version of the story of the holy cow, the Kamadhenu. One has to wonder why they aren’t familiar with this version of the story what makes certain versions the “popular”, “normative” and others the “alternative”? creates that popular version? Is it possible to link the figure of the Cow and the idea of food to gender-caste inequalities?

In another story titled, “Sharpen the Axes!”, we get to understand how the dogma of caste embodies the control of the sexuality of women. A land-owning savarna man tries to rape a dalit, madiga woman labourer. This shows how a dalit woman faces subjugation via multiple burdens of patriarchy as she is deemed to be available to fulfil any upper-caste man’s sexual fantasies. Her body has no agency or freedom and it has been chained by dogmatic texts like Manusmriti, Matsyapurana and innumerable social mores that justify their subjugation. She is without a choice. The continuity of systemic caste perpetration and its percolation is widely evident in the story titled, “Does Food Have a Caste?”, where the migrating nomadic tribes refuse to take food grains from madigas. The sentence below aptly captures the emotions of Madigas,

“You are right. In this country, human beings are cursed with caste, but dogs are spared from that!”

In another story, “Of Votes and Beef”, the author poignantly puts forth the dialectics of dalit votes and electoral politics. Political democracy is twisted to maintain social inequality. The root cause is education. Consider the statement, “Anna ! We madigas don’t use our brains. We are easy prey for predators…” This shows the dilemmas of Dalits who have been historically betrayed by majoritarian Indian democracy; an electoral autocracy in the name of religion-caste, using their innocence by their very own political parties as well as other parties.

This collection touches upon the injustice meted out in the name of caste while bringing together the communitarian ethos of madigas, their rich aesthetics, and folk cultures. The stories are similar to an ethnographic portrayal of the madigas which one finds difficult to forget long after they’re done reading the book. Economist Thomas Pikkety in his brilliant treatise, Capitalism and Ideology, said that inequality is not just economic but is an outcome of ideology and politics. Yendluri Sudhakar illustrates the economist’s observation through his incisive short stories.

Speaking Sandals: Narratives from the Madigawadas of Ongole, Yendluri Sudhakar, translated from the Telugu by K Purushotham, South Side Books.