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Marriage, Motherhood and Societal Duties: Ma is Scared by Anjali Kajal, Translated by Kavita Bhanot

By Victoria Bromley, Eleanor Bowskill, Lily Baldanza and Hannah McWinnie


Ma is Scared is the long-awaited debut collection in English from writer Anjali Kajal, translated by Kavita Bhanot, written and fine-tuned over two decades to represent the finest of her short fiction. Kajal navigates Indian culture through the female lens, from anxious tales of motherhood to young girls grappling with the caste system. Her stories explore the experiences of ordinary women from rural towns and urban cities across North India, who demonstrate relentless perseverance and determination. Ma is Scared strikes the perfect balance between vibrant and tender. Kajal writes about various nuanced themes, from love and desire to abuse and oppression, each negotiated across generations.


The author immerses the reader in a series of fully-realised worlds that capture the cravings, conflicts and aspirations of modern life in India from a feminist and anti-caste perspective. In her author’s note, Kajal states that Ma is Scared is for “the women who struggled for equality and fought discrimination.” This collection is a truly evocative read from start to finish and provides a mouthpiece for those women without a voice, left to rebel against a system which tries to limit them.


Translator Kavita Bhanot believes it was especially important to emphasise that the English text is a translation and “not a window to the original text.” Despite Bhanot’s refusal to “domesticate the translation to the western context” she still faced “limitations as a translator” and “limitations of translation itself.” This included remaining committed “to being true to Kajal’s stories” whilst also interrogating her own internalised perspectives, positionality and lived experience as a Savarna translator located in the west. The English language also remained “a filter to the original stories in Hindi” and because of this, Bhanot explained that these stories “should be read through a critical lens” as in her opinion, “all translations should.”


Bhanot embedded the original language into the translation of the text to stay “true to the original story.” However, this was not an attempt to make the stories “more authentic to a certain western reader,” but seeing the reader as emerging from “amongst the characters” in their world. Bhanot found it important not to portray the stories “authentically” per se, in which there is something “problematic” in centring the reader as more powerful in relation to the representation of the “other.” It was also paramount that there was no sense of “fetishising Indian words” or “slight ridicule,” which has often been the case in past translated works through “exuberance and performativity.” Rather, Bhanot did not want to draw attention to these words and seamlessly fused the English translation with the original. Another reason for making elements of the original language transparent is that not all words are easily translatable. These small decisions serve as subtle reminders that the reader is engaging with a translated text and that the stories were “not written originally in English.”


It became clear from the first lines of Deluge, which follows Pammi, a college student seeking to escape the boundaries of her abusive home and the societal duties that arise from her role within it, that marriage is an important social institution in Indian society. In Bhanot’s words, marriage is “not just a union between man and woman but a union of families, too.” There is no space left for “privacy and individuality” within this partnership. Bhanot explains that married couples “struggle for an independent private space” to make life decisions “without interference” from their relatives.


In response, the younger generation has started to migrate to other places for better employment opportunities. On the one hand, Kajal argues that distance provides couples with “more personal space.” However, the relationship between husband and wife is complicated as a result.” The increased financial independence of women in India has brought about huge social change and sparked an ongoing debate over the societal merits and drawbacks associated with separation or divorce. However, an “exit from a marriage is still difficult due to the pressure of social customs and traditions." In Kajal's view, the traditions attached to marriage, like dowry and lavish ceremonies, prevent couples from parting ways.


Later in Deluge, we are introduced to Pammi’s widowed mother as a “cog” in the home, compared to a silent part of a larger machine and ignored by her loved ones. This act of neglect no doubt weighed on Pammi as it would have the other female characters in the collection.Many of these women were made “invisible” in larger families, called “joint” families. Most of these women were “financially dependent” on others and those that were independent often “lacked the freedom” to separate from hapless marriages. In the case of widows, Kajal stated that “their identity is lost” after their husbands’ death. They lose their influence within the home and are not given the option of remarriage. She explains that “widows with children are expected to sacrifice their own happiness” for that of their offspring. They are not free but are instead judged more than other women. Kajal explained that her stories “revolve around women who were present in and around” her own life. Their “existence and pain” provoked her to write about them.


In the case of widows, Bhanot stated that “their identity is lost” after their husbands’ death. They lose their influence within the home and are not given the option of remarriage. She explains that “widows with children are expected to sacrifice their own happiness” for that of their offspring. They are not free but are instead judged more than other women.


Marriage remains a prevalent theme throughout the collection. When asked about Rain, a short story encased around the idea of self and relationships, Kajal explained, “the challenges are the same in every marriage. It becomes like a frame in which you are trying to fit yourself all the time, but at the same time, you wish inside that you could free yourself from this frame.” She went on, “if you feel that you are not the person that you have to be while remaining in a marriage, separation is the way.” Kajal pointed out that in Indian society “girls are raised to be good wives, good mothers and women who sacrifice for the dreams of her family, husband and home. They do not have a dream of a relationship or marriage. Their husband’s dream of a home becomes their dream.” Women are not raised to be strong or to be prepared for an “unforeseen situation” in their lives. Rain, in contrast, provides a powerful and inspiring alternative to this helpless narrative.


When considering the role of women in raising children, this dynamic is best witnessed in Taru, Zeenat and a World Full of Crap. The narrative explores the widespread idea that there is honour in having children, alongside the disapproval levelled by family members or peers at those women who are either unable to give birth or undesiring of it. As Kajal understands it, motherhood is an expectation for all women and a role in which she is expected to take on the full burden or face “rage and abuse” for her decision. Although there has been a change in roles and the husband and father have become more prevalent figures in the home, this development is “restricted to only a small part of the urban population.”


Whilst the stories seem to challenge a Western audience’s perception of womanhood in present-day India, Bhanot reminded us that the stories “were written in Hindi for a Hindi reading readership” and thus have no intention “to challenge or shatter stereotypes regarding how South Asian or Indian women are seen in the West.” Bhanot explained that Western and subcontinental representations that seek to address stereotypes of South Asian women “in the name of feminism” will use “exaggerated ‘contradictions’ which seem to shatter stereotypes” but “also confirm them.” Tropes such as ‘traditional’ women drinking or going clubbing, or wearing western clothes or being sexually ‘liberated” might be seen in films or stories like these to form “binaries of east vs west.” However, the stories within Ma is Scared are much less superficial than these exaggerations.


Instead, Bhanot sees the stories “as entrenched in lived lives, as being about messy, everyday resistance within real lives and circumstances” that do not portray resistance as “abstract or fixed or fetishised.” She explains that “Kajal’s perspective is not top-down” and that there is no “fixed frame” in this collection of what it is to resist. Set in a certain North Indian context, Bhanot believes Kajal’s female characters “are full of complexity” and do not consciously act against particular stereotypes. Instead, they become empowered by their perseverance in negotiating and resisting patriarchy and caste oppression.


These women are “mothers who feel scared but still try to raise their daughters to be independent and empowered.” They are “girls and women who seek to be educated and financially independent, women who seek love within and outside marriage, and women who want to be alone to heal.” These women do not need to align or contend with a certain character image to display their resistance against a patriarchal, caste-driven society. The messy, vulnerable and transparent portrayal of their lives empowers them.


To conclude our discussion, we considered the representation of the caste system within the collection, in particular the discrimination towards the lower-caste in the “caste hierarchy” of Hindus. The scheduled castes “are still struggling to get education,” despite the Government’s attempts at providing education, yet this is not sufficient for them to “face the competition” from the wealthy, privileged upper-caste. Kajal found it “heartbreaking” that the upper-caste view this support as “charity,” where they are most likely “conditioned” from their families that the scheduled caste is beneath them and that they “have no right to be equal to them” by attending the same schools. In stories To be recognised and History, this institutional discrimination towards the scheduled caste was not limited to their peers, but derived from “upper caste teachers also.” While the constitution strives to “protect against caste discrimination,” more social awareness is vital in combating discriminatory ideologies in India today.

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