Review : Trial By Fire And Other Stories

The stories in the Trial By Fire collection, written in Tamil by Jayakanthan and translated to English by Andy Sundaresan, are not anything new. They rail against Tamil Nadu’s obtuse social customs that are blindly followed, its wealth inequality, and the asinine expectations individuals have for each other. Jayakanthan, however, was among the first to do it in Tamil Nadu in the 1950s to 1970s. He received heavy criticism for it but he continued to twist the heads of his fellow Tamils and force them to look at the shit they were willingly swimming through. His stories would say, “Look! You’re willingly swimming in shit! Do you really want this?” The criticism he got tells us that the response, for the most part, was “Yes! It is our shit! Our shit doesn’t smell or spread disease! Our shit is as pure and functional as cow manure! You should join us in swimming!”

One of his most controversial stories is “Agnipravesam” (“Trial By Fire”). In it, a young woman is raped by a man. She tells her mom when she gets home and her mom, instead of forcing her to marry her rapist or screaming so loud that the whole neighborhood knows what happened, bathes her daughter and deems her cleansed. She says the water poured over her daughter’s head could be considered purifying fire and instructs her daughter to proceed as though nothing happened. She must continue to live her life.

As a reader in 2023, I read this and grew upset. Not with Jayakanthan. But with every single person that read it and got mad. I disagree with the mother telling the victim to forget everything that happened (because trauma doesn’t work that way) but the mothers actions were correct! She didn’t deny her daughter her love after the rape. She didn’t inform everyone she knew, thus sealing her daughter’s fate to be ostracized and, at best, pitied. Her daughter’s chances of getting married would be functionally reduced to zero in that scenario. Marriage isn’t everything but that’s what a 21st American would say. To a woman of that time period and place? It would be the final nail in the coffin that society had thrown her in. While the rapist in question gets away with it. At most, if news of it got out, Tamil Nadu society would tell its daughters to not wear revealing clothes around him.

This is such a common reality that its victims cannot even claim individuality and uniqueness with their names. 

Reading his stories was an exercise in getting consistently upset with Tamil Nadu society – that has marginally improved if we’re being generous – and feeling pity for the victims in his stories. When I say victims, I am not referring only to victims of rape or assault. I am also including those affected by, for example, wealth inequality. Like in “The Lunch Boxes”.

In that story, a working class mother is trying to raise five rupees for her son’s exam fee. She delivers lunch boxes for a living and is forced into starving herself and reselling leftovers in an effort to raise the money in time. She manages to raise three rupees before dying. Her son is forced to drop out of school and join his father in working in a smithy. Another common reality where even the names don’t offer a change in pace. 

In “Many Angles, Many Views” we are met with a third common reality. A loyal man teeming with responsibility spends an inordinate chunk of his life improving the economic situation of his family. He arranges and funds the weddings of his two younger sisters. He buys his mother beautiful jewelry and sarees. He puts her in a mansion with servants and makes her a queen. Finally, in his mid-thirties, he considers himself and finds a woman that he would like to marry.

Unfortunately for him, the woman he chose has a plethora of rumors surrounding her. His sisters and brothers-in-law, worried for their utterly priceless reputation, throw a tantrum about it. The astrologer gives his extremely valuable opinion as well. The mother is rendered confused and tells her son her worries. The son, being who is, accepts and says they can call off the wedding but says he is not interested in marrying anyone else. This worries the mother even more. She meets with the woman he loved, learns of the actual truths dissembled by rumors, and pushes for the marriage but it’s too late. The man and the woman had a conversation before the mother visited and decided to put aside their love for the sake of his family.

Again a known reality. Again the names don’t matter. Again society hasn’t changed.

Many of Jayakanthan’s stories are for the nameless – faceless – to take comfort in knowing at least someone empathizes. They are for the sympathetic few that can read them honestly and get fueled to keep fighting for change that they already know is necessary. They are not for the people that see nothing wrong with where we are.If they can find fault with real rape victims while getting drinks with real rapists, walk by or live in real luxury highrises overlooking real slums, or continue to put themselves before a real brother that has given them everything… What good will a story do?

-R.S. Saha