‘Sweat-marks’ and ‘In that case, don’t want caste’: Two Malayalam stories in translation

Print edition : October 08, 2021

Sarah Joseph is a critically acclaimed contemporary writer of Malayalam literature. She is a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, and the Vayalar Award among others, and has to her credit five novels and eight collections of short stories. Her novel Othappu: The Scent of the Other Side (OUP, 2009) won the Vodafone Crossword Award for Indian Language Fiction Translation in 2010.

J. Devika is Associate Professor at Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvanthapuram, Kerala.

The story “Sweat-marks” features in “The Masculine of ‘Virgin’: Stories by Sarah Joseph” translated and introduced by J. Devika (OUP, 2012).

John K. Erumeli (b. 1942), is a full-time social and political activist. His major works include “Pouramrugangal” (“Animal Citizens”, 2010), along with several studies on Marxism, naxalism and globalisation, as well as biographies of Charu Mazumdar, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, among others.

Abhirami Girija Sriram is a Chennai-based editor interested in literature in translation from Tamil and Malayalam.

The story “In that Case, Don’t Want Caste” by John K. Erumeli translated by Abhirami Girija Sriram features in “Don’t Want Caste: Malayalam Stories by Dalit Writers”, edited by M.R. Renukumar, translated by Abhirami Girija Sriram and Ravi Shanker (Navayana, 2017).

Two stories about first-generation learners and the very hard class-caste ceiling.


These stairs are not mine. These verandahs, these roof-beams, they are not mine. This building, this courtyard, this path, this playground, this konna tree, books, teachers—they will not think that I am one of them. Chandrika chechi was right.

Hesitating on each step, regretting each step, I climb down the stairs. My slippers are dusty. My heels are cracked and painful. The distance between the one-lakh housing colony where I live and this college is great. I ran across that entire stretch to reach these steps. I cringed, no bigger than a worm, standing below this ancient, massive staircase. My father, mother or brothers have not seen this staircase before me. My wonder is theirs too.

A little while ago, I was standing before the admission committee, a complaint in hand. There are eleven members in that committee. They sit in a semicircle. Normally I have no complaints about anything. It was Chandrika chechi who told me that injustice has been done to me and that I should complain. Chandrika chechi is a newspaper agent.

I usually see her whizzing past with bundles of newspapers on her bicycle as I sweep the front yard early in the morning. She talks to me a little without getting off the bicycle, one foot on the ground. I, too, stop sweeping and straighten up, tapping the bottom of the broom on my left palm to even the fronds, and to offer her a few words. It was Chandrika chechi who found out in advance that I had won distinction marks in the SSLC exam. It was she who got me the admission forms for college, filled it, submitted it, and checked the rank list, all by herself. When she created a fuss saying that they had put me into the reservation list, I could only stay silent, dumbfounded. What is the merit list? What is the reservation list? All I wanted was an admission to college, whatever the list, so that I could drop this broom and go straight to the staircase in the college.

You donkey! Chandrika chechi was furious with me. People like you are never going to get ahead. She left angrily on her bicycle, ringing the bell shrilly, without a word. The rest she’d say when she came back. And so I finished sweeping the yard, washing the dishes, swabbing the floor, wiped my hands dry on my skirt, and waited for her.

You shouldn’t let this happen. Don’t you have self-respect? You must complain, she said. I was scared. Complain? Me? What if something bad happens? Chandrika chechi told me about the rules. The admission committee has violated the rules. Don’t you want justice? Who doesn’t want justice? But like everybody else, I was reluctant to complain. She became angry, quarrelled with me and walked off in a huff. This continued till I was convinced that the admission committee had done me grave injustice. When realisation dawned, I was deeply pained. Why did they leave me out of the group? The merit list is a group—a group of the best test takers. I should be there, and among the first.

Not just marks, there are other considerations before they admit you into the group, Chandrika chechi said. What else? Your family, colour, caste, faith, clothes, language, she rattled off a list. I felt that I should complain. Didn’t matter how scared I felt. I had come with this written complaint, trudging the long distance between my one-lakh housing colony and this college only because Chandrika chechi kept taunting me over and over that I had no self-respect. She didn’t help me to draft the complaint. “College students shouldn’t complain through newspaper agents,” she said.

“Sweat it out yourself, write it and go hand it in there,” she said.

That’s how I wrote up this complaint. After they read it, the committee members looked closely at me as if they were surprised that such a complaint could be raised at all. I remembered Chandrika chechi’s warning: people like you forget how to march when you see the sahibs! Quite right! I was forgetting how to march. One of the members said that I should have never written such a complaint. “How could you be so rash? Don’t you have to study here, after all this got over? Don’t you have to look at our faces? Who told you to do this?”

And then the committee members acted as if they were relieved—that I had bumbled somewhat. I sensed their uneasiness. “Child, isn’t it enough that you are admitted? What difference does it make—merit or reservation?”

No, it wasn’t enough. So I stood unmoving, silent. My posture was not what a student who had scored exceptionally well in the school final exam would assume when she faced the admission committee. How could it be? Colour, family, caste, faith, clothes, language. I am a small-built dark-skinned girl. My face is withered, like the impoverished coconut of the monsoon harvest; painfully thin legs and arms; shadowed faltering glance, no matter who I look at; the odour of stale oil. Uneven limp hair, ravaged by split ends. A book held close to the chest with both hands is always a part of my body. If my hands move off my chest, I tremble with fear. My lips and hands are always like iced water. Though the half-moon-shaped thrones in front of me are filled, I feel that I am all alone in this room as wide as the horizon. A feeling clutches my heart, filling me with fear.

“You’re ranked only second in the merit list. In the reservation list, you are on top. So which is better?”

They handed back my complaint with the kind of sly look that only an adult fooling a child can assume. Before I could respond, they began to talk to each other, pretending that I was included too. “If this student is shifted to the reservation list, then one of our students can get in through the merit list. If that student is removed and this student is taken, our student…”

They looked at me, smiling mildly, as if to say that everything was all right now. They moved my complaint to the edge of the desk. They are busy people. They forgot me and were now engrossed in their work. I was afraid to move from where I stood. If I moved, these people would see my footprints, marked with dust and sweat. I made sure none of them was paying attention to me when I stretched out my arm to pick up my complaint. All the while the memory of Chandrika chechi within me, frightening me. Get out of my sight! I don’t want to see your precious tears. Better say what you want to say to their faces. Otherwise, people like us can’t live here. Neither I nor my brother has the guts to do that. Nor do my father, mother, or their parents.

Professor Tevan’s eyes followed her carefully from above the staircase. The footprints of sweat and dust she left on each step were documents of History. The young woman turning back, face lowered, was the continuation of History. These were historical moments that recurred but were never marked. To intervene here and mark this in History was his duty as a teacher of History. Professor Tevan’s right hand began to tremble. That was as usual. This shiver gripped him at critical moments. Survival was impossible without at least these tremors—it was the manifestation of the tussle between mind and body. Professor Tevan longed to raise his trembling hand and call back the young woman descending the stairs. Her foot was about the touch the next step. Or better get down there and talk with her. Reassure her that he would see what could be done.

She was still descending, step by step.

Could ask the watchman Balan Nair who was coming up the stairs to call her.

At the foot of the staircase, she now walks from verandah to verandah and at the end of the last, is seen no more.

Only her damp footprints remain on the verandah. Now, unable to mark anything with his trembling right hand, his neck hangs limp and broken into the book of History open on the table. Inside layers of clothing, he was perspiring; slipping his feet out of his shoes; putting down his glasses and rubbing his eyes; thirsting for some boiled water. His daughter Namita’s words were drowning him. No escape, Daddy, just because of your fear, necessary and unnecessary. I, too, have inherited this accursed fear in my genes. Namita discovers how his fear turned him wordless, scared, introverted on the bus, in the shopping complex, at the wedding-party, in the office, hospital, temple. Namita considers him to be the reason for all her fears, major and minor—of the dark, of thieves, police, snakes, the devil, Mother, God. Who should one be scared of, and why, she constantly asked. He, too, thinks that he inherited his fear from the fathers who stood in history with backs crooked and mouths covered. He knows what these footprints of sweat demand of him. They insist that he march up and make a firm demand to appear before the admission committee. He pressed his face down upon the table and shivered.

After many anxious hours, Professor Tevan got up, washed his face, and put on his glasses. He went up to the letter box, walking past the admission committee. As he stood rummaging in the letter box of the History department, a question swirled in his mind. Why was that student’s name—she is my Namita to me—not in the merit list? What to ask—about its absence, or about its exclusion? He stood cowering near that letter box searching for a non-existent letter in the pigeon-hole of the History department. He is now overcome by precisely the same fatigue that enveloped him whenever he looked at his wedding photo. A wedding picture in which fair-skinned Renuka held his dark-skinned hand in the midst of his dark-skinned siblings and their dark-skinned children. That announced everything loud and clear. The fear that marked his ancestral lines filled their faltering gaze. Renuka, on the other hand, looked straight at the camera, glowing in the confidence that was hers by birth. Professor Tevan hid that picture to free himself from the fear that overwhelmed him. But in decisive, historical moments, that wedding picture came into clear view, erasing those dusk-lit hours from memory.

Therefore, he walked on, passing by the admission committee with a smile as if the matter was not serious at all. One may take relief in that the young girl who had stood here holding out a complaint a little while ago had created an occasion that should be remedied in history. But as he opened the half-door, the sight of her sweaty footprints scared him terribly. Surely, tomorrow, I will have some questions to ask. No wedding photo is going to stop me from asking them.

“Ready to go, Tevan sir?” The watchman Balan Nair’s question is sincere. But Renuka was still suspicious. Tevan sir! Tevan sir! It’s all deliberate! He calls even fellows recruited yesterday “professor”! How many times have I told you, change the spelling? It’s a matter of just a letter of the alphabet! Change the T for a D and the shame ends there?

Professor Tevan bathes in his own streaming sweat.

The scent of sweat will continue genetically. The muddy scent of fresh-ploughed fields continues in Namita. “Won’t give it up for all the perfumes of Paris,” says she.

In that case, don’t want caste

Rolled-up application in hand, he climbed up the steps of the big office. Pushed open the half-door, walked up to the officer, placed the paper on the desk and stood with folded palms.

“Got the report?” The officer’s grave query, without once looking up from the file.

“It’s all there in that paper.” His uneasy reply.

“Let the Lower Officer investigate once again. He’ll come next week.” The officer, after glancing through the report.

“For a week now, putting aside all else, I’ve been running around for this...”

“So what should I do? Sitting here, can I determine your caste?”

“My master, my village folk and the Lower Officer can vouch for my caste. Won’t that be enough?”

“Not enough. The Lower Officer’s report has carried out only the first round of investigation. What if you change your caste midway? These are days of imposters. Don’t waste time standing here. I have other work to do.”

“In that case, don’t want caste.”

He tore up the application form on the table to shreds and rapidly climbed down the steps.

Stories selected by Mini Krishnan

Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press (2012) and Navayana (2017).

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