Poet and novelist, Anant Joshi’s contemporary novel, translated by Jayashree Naidu from Marathi into English, concerns the exploitation of subsistence workers by a coal mafia in the Jharkland state situated along the banks of the Damodar river. The narrative revolves around the practice by government workers of hiring impoverished people to ‘impersonate’ them and work in the mines at considerably lower rates than their salary. Some of the government workers meanwhile have other jobs during their duty hours or work on their own farms. The novel exposes the coal mafia and the ways they control illegal businesses selling off coal to other dependent businesses and delineates the elaborate systems of payments used to cover up the corruption.
Marathi is India’s third most spoken language after Hindi and Bengali and is centred around the Maharashtra and Goa states of western India. It is an Indo-Aryan language with three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. The primary word order of Marathi is subject-object-verb and there is a lot of Sanskrit derived words in the language. The Marathi word for impersonators, ‘Baniharees’, appears to have no official English translation. This may be because it is a dialect word or because the practice of sub-hiring workers to work in your place is not officially recognised.
Written quite formally without ostentation, the narrative is more splayed than linear, outlining a chronology which explores the extent of municipal corruption and exposes the workings of the social structure. The novel has two strong female characters, Renuka, the senior police officer, and Kirti, a welfare office, and a sub-story around whether it is acceptable for a woman to provide for a man. The novel is very good at depicting male aggression, sexual harassment and the social situation of both female protagonists. The translation has formalised dialogue, occasionally over-written, includes some Bengali and untranslated Marathi words. I would have liked more of a multilingual approach to further illustrate the way access to and knowledge of key words impact on the various social relations under review.
The double narrative of municipal corruption, of good versus evil, and the condition of women in a patriarchal society where incidence of reported rape has increased this century makes this a fascinating read. Indian novels are written and structured quite differently to the conventional English novel. I am pleased to have spent time with this one.
David Caddy 26th December 2020