Book review: Vegetarians Only by Skybaaba
By Mitali Chakravarty
Title: Vegetarians Only: Stories of Telugu Muslims
Author: Skybaaba (Editors: A. Suneetha and Uma Bhrugubandha
Publisher: Orient Black swan
Price: ₹ 325/-
Vegetarians Only is a collection of short stories by Skybaaba, the pen name of Shaik Yousuf Baba, translated by a team of translators, edited by A. Suneetha and Uma Maheshwari Bhrugubandha.
The narratives reflect the lives of Telugu Muslims, their joys, their sorrows, their poverty, lack of education and the dreams that they have dared to dream despite their bleak socio-economic circumstances.
What is striking about the stories is the love and compassion with which the characters and their concerns are portrayed. Perhaps, having grown up in the midst of these people, Skybaaba’s empathy paints the stories with a vividness that transports us into a world peopled by his creations.
In his foreword, the author states that his creations are drawn from real life.One wonders if his title story, Vegetarians Only, is part autobiographical as the author is also a socially conscious journalist like the character he creates. The story is about a young couple looking for rented accommodation in a city where they have just arrived. The protagonist is a journalist and his wife, a student. The issues and marginalization faced by the twosome in the story would be reality for any young couple starting out with limited funds anywhere in the world. However, in the course of the story, the protagonist views his circumstances from the perspective of a social reformer. His experiences make him conclude that ‘With the exception of the dalits, and the madigas in particular, all other castes are in fact untouchable.’ According to the book’s glossary, Madigas are listed as a ‘formerly untouchable caste’ in Telugu.
When in The Wedding Feast a guest shouts, ‘How dare you get a madiga to serve us food’, the obnoxious guest is critiqued and the person he labeled madiga is portrayed as a decent, soft-spoken young man. In simple strokes the writer evokes the reader’s sympathy for the downtrodden.
Skybaaba defines his stance in the foreword. ‘I have put together only those stories that narrate lives of downtrodden Muslims and have confidently called them Muslim stories. Through these stories I want to bring into focus the reality of their lives that remain adhure, incomplete or unfinished.’ Some of the stories, despite maintaining the suspense, await closure of events. The characters in Nowhere to Turn, Sheer Khorma, Homeland and The Dying Flame are all left pondering, waiting for life to take a turn in their favour. In Petition, the pathos generated by the wait of a mother for her son reaches a heart-wrenching climax. However, Jaani Begum, The Benefactor and Urs have positive outcomes with unusual and interesting storylines. Though Jaani Begum is a story about an adult woman, the story has an appeal similar to Bimal Kar’s short story, Balika Bodhu, where a young girl finds fruition by growing into her role as a wife.
The surprise is a story called Life in Death. It can be perhaps labelled as speculative fiction. Through the course of the story, a man realizes his own worth. It has the same flavour of the unusual as Roald Dahl’s stories. Romance 1424 Hijri is a lighter piece than the rest with a surprise, humorous ending.
Though Skybaaba wants his stories to cry out for the Telugu Muslim community, their suffering and emotions have universal appeal. The issues faced by the downtrodden communities worldwide are no different from the issues portrayed by him. The flavour might be regional, but the experiences are not unique. They belong to all mankind.
The greatness of these stories is in the voice they raise against injustice, anger, apathy, bias and hatred. These are borderless and timeless issues that man has battled to arrive at being called civilized.
The translation is excellent, with the Telugu Dakhani Muslim flavour retained not just by a smattering of words in Telugu and Dakhani but also by the descriptions of the events, which are unique to the community. Besides Uma Maheswari Bhrugbanda and A. Suneetha, four others have contributed to the translations; the flavours of what the translators call ‘Mofussil Muslim’ life have been well preserved, their practices and culture adding to the richness of texture.
This collection is a thought provoking read. I am just left wondering why no one has thought of televising these wonderful vignettes of real life…
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’(2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’(1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’(2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.wordpress.com