Human Condition On A Vivid Canvas
Gita Ramaswamy
ECHOES OF THE VEENA: SHORT STORIES by R. Chudamani Ratna Books, New Delhi, 2018, 236 pp., 349
December 2018, volume 42, No 12

I must confess to never having read Chudamani earlier. Coming to political maturity in an age when Tamil Brahminness was considered dangerous, there seemed to be no need to read her, someone I had thought was the quintessential Brahmin writer. This is why this small book bowled me over. Delicious irony, a humanist non-judgemental gaze, pithy writing—if I could read and enjoy Jane Austen whom colonialism surely empowered to write, why could I not enjoy Chudamani? Why should not Chudamani write of the community she knew best? The question then to ask would be—is her gaze self-reflexive? Has she observed and does she write of the caste-based cruelty of the Brahmins? Does she observe the intersection of caste and gender? Does she absolve the Brahmins of their sins?

It seems to me that given the times in which she lived and wrote, Chudamani’s gaze is fair. Nowhere does she mention the terms caste or Brahmin, yet conveys a volume of feeling about the issue. Three stories specifically deal with the issue of Brahminhood—‘A Cleansing, Threads of Emptiness’ and ‘The Blue Lotus Drooped’. The first follows a priest as he acknowledges his caste disgust of the panchama boy his daughter has adopted. (It is striking that in yet another story, it is again the Brahmin woman who falls in love with the washerwoman’s five year old daughter. In both stories, Chudamani describes the Brahmin women attempting to transcend caste.) The second story has the priest losing faith in god when his daughter is tortured for dowry. The third story alone has the Brahmin clearly identified. The conductor in the bus in a Tamil town humiliates the Brahmin couple. Poetic aesthetics is mistaken for religious devotion.

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