In the Western world, cats have been used to sell everything from art to yeast, so unless you have felinophobia, when you see the stylized black cat on this cover, you think nothing ill of it. You might even be tempted by the cat to buy the book of short stories, thinking that it will be a cuddly read. Dilip Kumar’s short-story collection “Cat in the Agraharam and Other Stories” (translated by Martha Selby) turns toward the unexpected.
Spoiler Alert 1: For the people of India, a black cat is a bigger sign of bad luck than it is here. Black is the color of Lord Shani, bringer of bad luck. In Hinduism, there are no cats in the pantheon of gods and goddesses. In their religious law code, all cats are considered bad luck, covetous and deceptive. The word “cat” is an ancient curse for outcasts. So don’t let the cat on the cover fool you. This is not a collection of sweet dreams, but a study of personal circumstances.
What does Agraharam mean? It is a street or group of apartments where orthodox Hindus live. The book has a glossary for Tamil words that warrant explanation.
Spoiler Alert 2: The stories are not about the India seen in places like PBS. Kumar’s world is populated by people living in deep-seated traditions, superstitions and caste segregation, not a place where the native population is seen through a prism of European culture, ancient glitter or romanticism. Kumar’s characters have spun cocoons for themselves out of colorism and religion to insulate themselves from the pain of life, making them more emotionally damaged. Kumar’s people hang tightly to the threads of their manufactured realities, so when they make a slip, they plunge into extreme acts.
Spoiler Alert 3: In recent literature, there has been controversy about authors who write for “the others,” defined as nationalities, ethnic groups or genders of which the author does not belong. Authors are chastised for pretending that the experiences of “the other” are their own. In the introduction, you will find that Dilip Kumar cannot be classified as that kind of writer because although not born a Tamil, a caste lower than his birthright, he was dislodged from his life as a merchant’s son at an early age by his father’s death. Due to this circumstance, he has lived with and learned the Tamil people and their language intimately. He has chosen to tell Tamil tales with great respect and detail.
With all these spoilers, this remains a book worthy of reading. It will give you a look into the lives of a segment of India that is often overlooked but should not be ignored.
“Cat in the Agraharam and Other Stories”
By Dilip Kumar
Northwestern University Press, 184 pages
L. D. Barnes writes mystery, historical fiction and poetry. She is working on the second novel in her Chicago Street Crime series while living on the far south side. Barnes is a member of FLOW (For Love of Writing), Longwood Writers Guild and Mystery Writers of America. She performs locally.