Manoj Rupda’s 2018 Hindi novella, Kaale Adhyay, translated into English by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar under the title I Named My Sister Silence, is in the JCB Prize long-list. The novella follows a loose, unconventional structure from the word go.
I Named My Sister Silence
We are introduced to the narrator, a young, unnamed Gond man telling the story of his childhood, which begins with a central, traumatising incident described in gory detail. The boy watches an elephant in the wild as it is devoured by a pack of wild dogs. The cries of the poor beast mid-struggle and then mid-surrender haunt the young boy and split his soul into two—or so the author suggests. From that point on, the boy develops a kind of dual personality, one part human and another part much more animalistic—mute, affectless, depending upon instinct rather than rationality.
“When I grew up, I came to know that there were two humans growing within me: one, who was fascinated by everything big; and the Other, who accepted every destruction as easily and without any thought as an animal. And that the Other had come with me from the forest.”
Rewards close reading
Broadly speaking, the first half of the book covers the unnamed protagonist’s recollections—his difficult childhood, especially his equation with his vile stepmother. His sister, Kako, is the only person who cares for him and nurtures him, her job picking tendu leaves paying for his education eventually. The second half of the book focusses on how Kako becomes involved in the Naxalite movement and how central India as a whole is being exploited by crony capitalism and a police-politician-goon nexus. Throughout, Rupda’s penetrating insights into the ground realities of Adivasi life shine through (much like the writings of the translator Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, especially his novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey).
At the beginning of the book’s timeline, we meet the young man as he works on a large ship called Jaldoot in the port of Alang, Gujarat. As he meets and works with people from different parts of the country, we realise just how unusual the boy’s childhood really has been. These sections balance the central India-set portions of the book very effectively. The reader sees first hand how the life of an Adivasi person differs at the basic experiential level. There are so many things that the average Indian city-slicker takes for granted, things that the Adivasi has to fight for periodically, with no end in sight.
Rupda’s novel rewards close reading, and the perfect demonstration of this fact is the way Kako has been characterised. If you are not paying enough attention, you could see her as bit of a flat character, one who serves only the protagonist’s emotional needs. But little by little, we see how this young woman—kind to her brother and quietly defiant of her tyrannical stepmother—not only has a mind of her own but also a distinctive, rebellious voice.
When the stepmother, bursting with mischief and malice, throws a pair of cockroaches into Kako’s cooking, Kako responds by walking up to her and eating a cockroach slowly and deliberately. While reading this scene, I could almost hear the crunch of cockroach carapace between her teeth and could almost see Kako’s stepmother gnashing her teeth in frustration; the entire sequence is highly cinematic and has dramatic tension by the bucketful.
The philosopher Raymond Williams, in his 1983 book, Socialism and Ecology, made important connections between ecological and labour movements. Kako personifies this convergence, eventually. Rupda underlines the point gently, in passages like this:
“Rupda’s novel rewards close reading and the perfect demonstration of this fact is the way Kako has been characterised.”
“Whatever money she earned from selling produce from the forest, she invested in my education. And she fought anyone who came between her and her objective, be it a wild animal or an officer from the forest department. I never understood why my sister left the village and retired to the depths of the forest after pushing me out into civilisation. She herself turned into a forest—mysterious and frightening. A deep, endless forest, where trees and bushes created a maze, and where, at every turn, lurked my sister’s fears and insecurities.” The trajectory of Kako’s life begins to assume allegorical proportions in the second half of the story, as her brother decides to seek her out and reconnect.
- Manoj Rupda’s 2018 Hindi novella, Kaale Adhyay, translated into English by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar under the title I Named My Sister Silence, is in the JCB Prize long-list.
- Here the reader sees first hand how the life of an Adivasi person differs at the basic experiential level.
- Rupda’s novel rewards close reading, with new nuances emerging with each read.
A sense of whimsicality
The novel is at its strongest, I felt, when it retained a sense of whimsicality even amidst the horrific things unfolding on the page. A good demonstration of this tonal juggling is the scene where the narrator finds out that an extrajudicial (and therefore unconstitutional) militia has been formed in his village. When this scene starts, we are almost chuckling along with the narrator—the young men who have signed up are not the brightest bulbs in the village. But the scene quickly takes a steep turn, as we discover the gallery of “martyr statues”: people gunned down by naxalites. The narrator’s father is among them.
He was a cruel man who failed to protect Kako from abuse. The narrator is not grieving, but the knowledge nevertheless shifts something inside him. He responds to the situation with bleak humour, but we are never quite sure whether this is sincere or a defence mechanism. After all, this young man was once a sensitive boy whose psyche was indelibly affected by the death of an elephant; the death of his father—even a cruel father—is bound to leave a messy, complex set of imprints. This scene juggles so much and does it with such style and wit that you are left marvelling at the author’s unique style.
I Named My Sister Silence richly deserves its spot on the JCB Prize long-list, and smart money says it has a shot at going all the way.
Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.