The writer’s experience of working with Dalits brings authority to his tales.
She’s Dalit, woman, rustic; definitely the underdog, probably three times over. But she’s also a dai, a midwife who has access into households and their intimacies. She’s a caregiver, knowledgeable, and has an uncanny ability to think things out. And that’s the edge she brings as the protagonist of these stories.
If, in the spectrum of fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are macho beings with the power to act and a bloated sense of achievement, Ramulamma can’t help but remain behind the scenes because she’s a social back-bencher. She’s abused and physically ill-treated by the police and upper-caste men. She’s not, therefore, officially a solver of crimes, but an easeful bringer of resolution. When she breaks a case or brings succour to her suffering friends, it’s done subtly, discreetly, and often at personal risk; in fact so discreetly that even the perpetrator may sigh in relief and laud her for her foresight.
There are 12 stories in the collection; not cases or incidents, but stories with their own characters, backdrop and development. Vithal Rajan brings the authority of experience; he has not only worked in villages among Dalits but also with NGOs for their welfare. Rather than romanticise their condition, he presents them in their real world as much as genre, structure and plot will allow, a world where everything is similar to the reader’s and yet nothing is.
Now how does he reconcile this identification with Dalit villagers with a palpable fascination for Holmes and the crime mystery? His protagonist Ramulamma sees all; she not only knows the crime scene, but also circumstances and people. Her premises are basic, but she has a keen understanding of psychology and individual peculiarities. Old wives’ tales are born of wisdom.
But she’s no old wife. She’s the widow of a martyred revolutionary and she’s only 40. That’s why when she’s addressed as “old woman” so many times you forget her age and picture her as exactly that. Despite the beautiful sketch by tribal artist Laxman Aelay on the cover. The crimes are varied: a brutal rape and murder, the mysterious circle-within-circle death of a young joint collector, a stolen wallet in the aftermath of a glorious wedding, a hit-and-run and an insidious plot to fleece a rich young widow.
But that’s not all. Ramulamma knows how to edge out an unwelcome guest, get her own back, treat a patient beyond medical advice, see the chaff among the celebrated, and also curry favour with higher-ups before striking back. And you have biting social comment: a hilarious, Narayanish tale of ludicrously postured drowning statues, two social workers who turn out to be anything but, and, finally, Hitchcock-like, the author comes on the scene himself with a telling remark on his craft: “He knew he was a writer; he needed no stupid commercial merchandiser of printed matter to recognize his worth.
Much of the writing is from a previous century. The humour, the carefully-wrought sentences and slow revelations are throwbacks to the grand novel. In two stories, ‘The Visitor’ and ‘The Grandest Wedding in Town’, this tends to slow down things but, otherwise, the writing keeps us rapt. Some readers may see “misplaced” stories in what is essentially a detective genre, but the focus is on a character whose facets are progressively revealed, and a social structure that needs to be recognised and remedied. And if they find Ramulamma omnipresent and omnipotent, well, the writer did say “legend” in the first place.