Sahitya Akademi Award-winner Jayanti Naik (hereafter Jayanti) is one of the most prolific Goan authors of today, having on average published a book a year for the last 40 years.
Her oeuvre consists on the one hand of studies and collections of Goan folk song, literature and lore; and on the other, various genres of literature from poetry to short stories to drama. She is also a translator both into Konkani and from Konkani into other languages.
Her latest collection of short stories in Konkani is Aart which means ‘afflicted’ or ‘distressed’. This is Jayanti Naik’s third collection of short stories after Garjan (1989); and her 2004 Sahitya Award winning collection Athang. It contains 17 short stories written between 2005 and 2018. Incidentally some of these like ‘Uma’, ‘Naman’, ‘Itsapurti’, ‘Khyast’ and ‘Jait’ are available elsewhere to the reader in English translation in The Salt of the Earth (2017), Goa1556 publishers.
While Jayanti’s craft as a storyteller has quite a sure touch, with a penchant for the use of the flashback, this review will focus more on the themes she touches upon.
One thing that immediately hits the reader is the sadness, suffering and often tragedy that engulf her work. Story after story is marked by melancholy and one can say that they deal with great nuance on the problem of human suffering. In them Jayanti seems to be saying that it is when a human being suffers that her essence comes to the fore.
For instance in ‘Khyast’, one sees how a very old woman, a great-great-grandmother who is now blind, is left to rot in an outhouse whose roof is leaking in the rain, somewhat like how the Biblical Job was left in misery by God. Even as we observe this pathetic scene we realise that the story also indicates how Jayanti uses it to mark the slow demise of the traditional Indian joint family system.
Who are the characters who populate and suffer in Jayanti’s stories? Usually they are either from the Bahujan Samaj or they are women, and at times they are both.
The Bahujan Samaj is a fairly recent ameliorative word for the so-called lower castes and the poor in Goan society and can be traced back to the time after Goa’s Liberation in 1961 when Dayanand Bandodkar and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party used it to try to consolidate the votes of the lower castes in particular and the poor in general. They formed the majority of the vote-share (Bahujan literally means the mass of the people but one should bear in mind that its connotation in Goa is somewhat different from that of the Kanshi Ram/Mayawati Bahujan Samaj Party where it refers to those who are essentially Dalit).
The castes that formed the Bahujan Samaj were engaged in various occupations and formed the bulk of the labour force whether in agriculture, toddy-tapping, animal husbandry, fisheries, construction and so on. However with modernisation, mechanisation and a new economic order coming into play along with changes in social values, many of these people have begun to find that their lifestyles were changing radically for better or for worse.
Jayanti observes with empathy and understanding the changes that their lifestyles were and still are undergoing. She does this with the sense of an insider often writing using the language of the peoples she is describing, her training as a folklorist giving these stories their background depth.
In ‘Naman’ for instance she observes how the youth in a remote village are no longer interested in their traditional village Shigmo preferring instead to go to the city to perform in the parades there, much to the dismay of their elders. This includes the girls who were in the past excluded from participating directly in the Shigmo.
While Jayanti’s writing is about the Bahujan Samaj which are communities and castes that are almost by definition ones that are lower in the caste hierarchy, she does not usually focus on their sense of resentment against injustice against the upper castes due to inequality as has been the trend with Dalit literatures all over India.
However to be fair, this seems to be the case not only with Jayanti, but with most Bahujan Samaj writers in Goa, with a few exceptions here and there such as the late Vishnu Wagh.
One of the most persistent themes of Jayanti’s work is her concern for women. She shows how women across communities, castes and classes have been treated unfairly by a patriarchal order.
In her story ‘Uma’ for instance the narrator (who is clearly the author’s persona) expresses her shock when she meets a very talented classmate Uma years later only to find that all her talents have been wasted and she has become just another domesticated housewife weighed down by childbearing and housework. Evidently Jayanti is clear that she appreciates women who are strong, independent, educated and career-minded.
Another aspect of her outlook is her very open-minded attitude towards sex. In ‘Valakh’ (An Introduction) for instance her narrator, at first hesitantly, but later wholeheartedly looks favourably at a woman professor who has been a mentor to other women and a person who has worked for women welfare, but who happens to be a lesbian.
She is clearly one of the most feminist of the authors writing in Goa today although she has publicly shown an aversion for the word ‘feminism’ itself.
To conclude, Jayanti Naik is one of the most potent voices in the Konkani literary world and perhaps her work is overdue for more recognition and acclaim.