Books

Clashing By Night

By N KALYAN RAMAN | 1 February 2012
HARSHO MOHAN CHATORAJ FOR THE CARAVAN

EARLY ONE MORNING towards the end of November, I arrived in Kovilpatti, a small but bustling industrial town in southern Tamil Nadu with a population of about 100,000. Kovilpatti presents the ramshackle look typical of most mofussil towns in South India, lately dotted with markers of skewed economic prosperity and immoderate consumption: fancy lodges, automobile showrooms, tourist taxis lining the streets, private hospitals and well-stocked pharmacies. This industrial town, which has a long tradition of producing textiles, matchboxes and firecrackers, is located in the middle of a vast tract of black soil—known as karisal bhoomi—spread across Tirunelveli, Ramanathapuram and Thoothukudi districts. Its rainfed agriculture supports cultivation of millets rather than paddy, and is vulnerable to periodic droughts and, on occasion, famine. Apart from its proximity to Madurai (100 km), Tirunelveli (55 km) and the port city of Thoothukudi (60 km), Kovilpatti is close to all the other centres of historical significance in karisal bhoomi: Ettayapuram, Kazhugumalai, Sivakasi, Srivilliputhur and Sankarankovil.

I take an autorickshaw to the bus stand, barely a kilometre away, and check into a lodge nearby. After a simple breakfast at the restaurant downstairs, I study my notes as I wait. My visitor arrives precisely at 10 am, a frail-looking, bespectacled man in his mid-60s, wearing an open smile behind his moustache. This is Poomani (formal name: Pooliththurai Manickavasagam), eminent Tamil writer from Kovilpatti, whose masterly 1,200-page historical novel, Agnaadi, set in his karisal bhoomi and dealing with the caste conflicts the land has witnessed over the past two centuries, is to be published soon. I have spent most of the previous two months reading a prepublication electronic copy of the novel’s manuscript, as well as his other two landmark novels, Piragu (Later) and Vekkai (Heat). With a steady output of critically acclaimed work over the past 40 years—five previous novels and more than 50 short stories—Poomani has established himself as the leading chronicler of subaltern lives in contemporary Tamil literature. But it is the scope and ambition of his latest work, and its potential to illuminate the dark corners of our recent history, that has brought me to Kovilpatti. What went into the construction of Agnaadi: a history of the inhabitants of this region spanning a period of 200 years and more, recreated through a novelist’s imagination and rendered in the language of fiction?

MODERN INDIAN LITERATURE boasts of several important historical novels. Qurratulain Hyder’s Urdu novel, Aag ka Darya, published in English as River of Fire (1998), is one. It deals with all the signifiers of the history of the Indian subcontinent—Vedantic India, the arrival of the Muslims, colonialism and Partition. Sunil Gangopadhyay’s celebrated Bengali novel, Shei Shomoy, published in English as Those Days (1997), explored an important phase (1840-60) of the Bengal Renaissance and the contributions made by major historical characters of that period. It is said to have shattered many myths and traditional notions held as true by the people of contemporary Bengal.

Outstanding historical novels from South India include Masti Venkatesha Iyengar’s Chikkaveera Rajendra, published in English under the same title (1992), which describes the reign, commencing from 1820, of the last king of Kodagu (Coorg) and ends with his defeat by the British and consequent exile in 1834; and Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai’s Malayalam masterpiece, Kayar, published in English as Coir (1997), a historical saga that deals with the period 1885-1971, during which Kerala society underwent profound changes on the social, cultural and economic fronts.

The historical novel in Tamil has its roots in the discovery and publication of a trove of ancient literary texts in the early decades of the past century. During the period 1880-1930, many long-forgotten works of classical Tamil literature were unearthed from all over Tamil Nadu and published for the first time, an achievement largely credited to the untiring efforts of one scholar and researcher, Dr U Ve Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942). Among these works are the now internationally well-known classics of Sangam literature: Cilappatikaram, Manimekalai, Akananooru and Purananooru. The rediscovery of these literary texts, which mirrored the lives of Tamils in the ancient period, gave Tamils a proud sense of their heritage. This vivid and new-fangled impression of a glorious past with kings and queens found its way into popular fiction in the 1920s, with the advent of weekly magazines designed for mass circulation. The outcome was the historical-novel-as-entertainment genre, which involved no more than a fanciful reconstruction of a remote past, in prose that mimicked a now defunct classical tenor and peopled with characters who were unconstrained by the complex demands of realist narration. The works of ‘Kalki’ Ra Krishnamurthy during the 1930s and 1940s—Ponniyin Selvan, Sivagamiyin Sabadham and others—and later, the novels of Bhashyam ‘Sandilyan’ Iyengar—also serialised in weekly magazines, like Kalki’s—exemplify this genre.

That all the Indian writers mentioned above belong to the upper castes or higher echelons of society is not a coincidence. The upper castes were the chief beneficiaries of higher education during the British Raj and the early post-Independence period. Their works were eventually seen as being slanted by limited experience and narrow vision. This is similar to the way in which the elitist bias allegedly implicit in the works of white male writers has on occasion led to a revisionist view of their presentations, no matter how highly regarded these works have been as literature. The perspective on blacks in the American South advanced in the works of William Faulkner, Nobel Laureate and a writer revered as an American Master, was challenged bitterly by African Americans in the 1970s and 1980s. During the same period, portrayal by William Styron, in his The Confessions of Nat Turner, of the brutal conduct of rebellious black slaves was similarly censured as inaccurate and even defamatory by literary scholars of the black community. Closer home, the Kodava community was reportedly displeased with the negative portrayal of their last king, Chikka Virarajendra, in Masti’s classic novel.

Concurrent with the initiative towards subaltern histories in the late 1970s, when a group of South Asian scholars got together under the rubric of the Subaltern Studies Collective to formulate a new narrative of the history of India and South Asia, was the coming of age in Tamil Nadu of a generation of writers from the hitherto oppressed castes, nourished by the educational opportunities available to them following Independence and fired by the urge to tell their own stories for the first time. This was a watershed moment in the development of modern Tamil literature. Modernist writing in Tamil had begun in the 1930s with Pudumaipithan and the group of writers behind the literary magazine Manikodi. Thus commenced a significant period when the great themes of modernity—the collapse of traditional mores, loneliness and alienation of the individual, social transformation in the wake of industrialisation and urbanisation, moral conflicts in a rapidly changing society—were dealt with in prose fiction, a practice which flourished for the next 40 years. Inevitably, the inspiration for such fiction came from the western canon—from Thomas Hardy and Emile Zola to Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. In the 1940s, a variety of proletarian fiction, based on the principles of ‘socialist realism’, also came to be written and published, mostly in magazines with strong ties to trade unions and the communist movement. In the first two decades after Independence, both streams combined to establish a robust literary culture for Tamils of the modern age. However, the literature they produced was based more on ideas than on the wider social reality of the time. Further, in a land where several groups of people spoke their own dialects, the formalised languages of prose fiction, forged mainly by the educated upper castes, served to exclude vast sections of the people from participating in their own literature.

The new crop of Tamil writers from the rural and disadvantaged sections of society who emerged on the scene in the 1970s was well read, keenly observant and confident in its literary abilities. The (socialist) realism of their forbears gave way to naturalist writing of a very high order, presenting characters who had remained hidden till then and whose stories had never been told. These writers expanded the scope of contemporary Tamil literature in unprecedented ways, resulting in a steady output of novels and short stories about people at the bottom rungs of society. Poomani was a pioneer of this new trend. In the next three decades, he was followed by two generations of writers from the subaltern castes. His Piragu (Later), first published in 1979, is considered a landmark work, the first novel-length treatment of the life of a lower-caste man, a cobbler, as the living centre of his own life and family, locating him inextricably in the village community that he serves with lifelong dedication.

The next innovation was to tell the multi-generational saga of a community from the early years of the 20th century. The first such novel in Tamil was Neela Padmanabhan’s Thalaimuraigal, published in English as Generations (1972), which relies heavily on oral history and the author’s own experience to portray the lives of four generations of Chetti women in a village near Kanyakumari. The injustices suffered by women in a patriarchal society and the incipient struggle for redress form the main themes of the novel. The narrative is rendered in the regional dialect (vattara mozhi) spoken by the community.  The author has said in a recent interview, “I tried to recapture in it the shadowy presence of my great grandparents and others from the depths of my psyche. Family background, rituals, rhythm, myths, beliefs, rural games and songs of children while playing in the street, and other boyhood experiences, conversations and thinking style ie specific features of the colloquial expressions of the language (slang) of characters—all these I could recapture in it.”

Prapanchan’s Manudam Vellum (roughly, ‘Humanity Shall Triumph’) is recognised as the first historical novel in Tamil based on recorded history. Published in 1990, Prapanchan’s novel is a skilful recreation of a particular phase (1730-60) in the history of the French colony of Pondicherry, especially the shifting alliance of the French Governor Joseph François Dupleix with the Nawab of Carnatic, Chanda Sahib, and the conflict with the armies of the Maratha king of Thanjavur. Based largely on the diaries of Anandarangam Pillai (1709-61), a close aide of Governor Dupleix, the novel is told through the eyes of the common people of the time. Although several critics considered the novel’s structure to be unwieldy, with too many subplots—always a hazard in building a narrative out of a profusion of historical information—Prapanchan’s achievement is considered remarkable.

A third major novel which tells the multi-generational story of a community and the world around it is Joe D’Cruz’s Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (2005), roughly, ‘Ocean-ringed Earth’. D’Cruz writes about a fishing community in a village north of Thoothukudi. Told from the perspective of ordinary fisherfolk and in their own language, the novel depicts all facets of life in the village, especially their daily encounters with death on the high seas. D’Cruz also brings to light a highly developed vocabulary of nautical terms which is still in use. As writer Jeyamohan has pointed out, this was the first time in the history of modern Tamil literature that land was described as it looked from the sea. Although major historical incidents mark the narrative, it is largely an imagined story, unconstrained by research into specific events.

A milestone in the writing of research-based historical novels was achieved with Su Venkatesan’s Kaval Kottam (2008, roughly ‘Watchtower’), a narrative that dealt with the ruling dynasties of Madurai and the community of Kallars, who were responsible for the security of the Madurai fort during the 17th and 18th centuries, and were eventually vilified and punished by the British administration after the destruction of the fort by the British resident. Although the novel, which earned its author a Sahitya Akademi award in 2011, was lauded for bringing into public view for the first time the violent history of the Kallars and the oppression suffered by them, Kaval Kottam was seen by some critics as flawed in its less than skilled handling of historical information. Based largely on secondary research, the narrative is crammed with anthropological and other recorded information which is often inadequately woven into an imagined narrative, a shortcoming that is perhaps understandable for a first-time novelist and a researcher who published eight works of nonfiction before attempting to write a 1,000-page historical novel.

Whether research-based or purely imagined, all these historical novels have one thing in common: the lives they describe are lived out within a rigid framework of caste, socially bound and culturally delimited. They are typically histories of a single caste group. Up until the middle of the 20th century, when metropolitan life came to the Tamil nation, caste determined everything in life—occupation, shelter, income, station, kinship, social privilege (or vulnerability) and collective survival. Caste is mostly absent, perhaps through conscious exclusion, from the secular modernist narratives of contemporary India. It may well be that a prominent feature of our social reality is elided from what we recognise as our story.

POST-INDEPENDENCE, the small town of Kovilpatti has spawned a host of important writers who have created and sustained a vibrant movement in modern Tamil literature: to write the story of a land—karisal boomi—and its people. It was the venerable Ki Rajanarayanan from Kovilpatti who blazed a new trail in the late 1960s with his Gopallapuram (1968), the story of a community of Telugu-speaking people who migrated south to escape Muslim rule and transformed a patch of barren land into a fertile, verdant village. The period depicted in the novel was the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when a Naicker dynasty ruled from Madurai. KiRa, as he is known, wove folklore, culture, traditional beliefs, sexual mores, landscape, and the region’s flora and fauna into a pathbreaking narrative of the community’s trials and tribulations, and rendered in dialects spoken by various groups in the region. It could be said that the movement towards a more representative, socially inclusive literature in Tamil began with KiRa and Gopallapuram.

Poomani was born in 1947 into a Pallar family of marginal farmers in Andipatti, a village near Kovilpatti. Enchanted by the stories he heard from his mother and the literary fiction he read during his childhood and teenage years, Poomani, the young adult, decided to take up the writer’s vocation, determined to tell the stories of the people he saw around him. In his struggle to find a way to tell those stories, he saw in KiRa’s work a possible model. According to Poomani, the senior writer combined in his writing “the scent of the soil with the natural flow of life’s energies to enable the writing to develop its own traits, instead of borrowing from other models”. He understood that KiRa used a well-crafted narrative language that brought real life closer to literary fiction. Poomani learnt from KiRa that the language of a creative work must be created alongside.

Another novel that influenced Poomani was P Kesava Dev’s Malayalam novel, Ayalkar, published in English as The Neighbours (1979). Kesava Dev’s chronicle of the evolution of the three major communities in Kerala—Nairs, Christians and Ezhavas—over a period of 50 years—from the times of feudalism to the rise of the new era—is considered his masterpiece. Poomani found in Ayalkar a worthy model: “It is a strong story, told with an aesthetic narrative style and keen imagination. The imagination adds lustre to the nature of the story, instead of dominating it. Changes and values arise anew on their own. The narration brings many things alive for the reader, carries him to the terrain of the story and stands him there. It makes him walk alongside, cry and laugh. When everything is wrapped up at the end, it makes him think.”

Poomani tells me the fascinating story of how he came to write Agnaadi. As a child, he noticed that an old man sitting under a tree in his village was missing a thumb and he was impelled by curiosity to ask him about it. The old man explained that he had lost his thumb during the Sivakasi riot of 1899 when a very large crowd of people had raided the nearby town of Sivakasi and looted the homes of Nadars. The Nadars had mounted a fierce counterattack to defend their town. Before the old man could launch his spear, a stone hurled from the Nadars’ side hit his right hand, crushing his thumb. This personal encounter with an event from 70 years earlier kindled Poomani’s thirst to know more about the Sivakasi riot.

As he grew up, Poomani discovered that the Sivakasi riot was still a presence in the lives of people around him—as a distant memory, a dateline to mark long-ago events, and a story told over and over again about death, loss and inhuman cruelty. Once he started reading about the riot, Poomani realised that this premeditated attack on the town by a loose coalition of people from all other castes was but a moment in the struggle of the Nadar community from the beginning of the 19th century for dignity and social equality. There were preludes and aftermaths to the riot. The attack on Sivakasi, motivated by envy at the Nadars’ newfound prosperity and as a response to the latter’s attempts, through protests and legal recourse, to gain entry into the Siva temple in the city, was preceded by a violent clash in 1895 between Christian Nadars and caste Hindus in Kazhugumalai, precipitated by the long-standing ban on Hindu Nadars entering the Kazhugumalai Murugan temple and the growth of a large community of Christians among the Nadars with the arrival of British missionaries in the area. The two riots along with the ancillary clashes that took place before and after the Sivakasi riots in surrounding towns and villages led to many deaths and the destruction of property. The British administration took measures to forestall further incidents of violence, but the tortuous legal proceedings against the perpetrators did not always result in the delivery of justice. The vexed issue of the right of all castes to enter temples was also fought in the courts, but the judiciary, manned invariably by colonials and upper castes, failed to uphold the principle of universal equality.

Poomani began to study the history of the region and the chain of events going back more than a century in which the 1899 riots were but one link. This history includes: control of the area by a group of chieftains on behalf of  the Naicker kings of Madurai during the 17th and 18th centuries; wars fought by the British to wrest control of the region from the chieftains; oppression of Nadars in Kanyakumari region and their migration to Tirunelveli and nearby regions; continuing struggle of the Nadars for temple entry, palanquin procession and other rights; growing prosperity of Nadars with cultivation of cash crops and trade; the famine of 1877-78 which devastated much of the population of the region but saw the Nadars emerging ever stronger than before; the advent of Christianity, conversion of the Nadars and other communities and the spread of education; and the growing hostility of other communities towards the Nadars and the reluctance of the British administration to protect the latter’s rights.

Aware that caste oppression was always sought to be sanctified by religion, Poomani also studied the role of religion in fomenting communal violence in the region. Patronised by royalty, the advent and spread of Buddhism and Jainism in Tamil Nadu triggered a backlash from Hindu religionists in Tamil Nadu from the 8th century onwards. The ‘Bhakti Movement’ was the pretext for the massacre of Buddhist monks and the sacking of Buddha Viharas. Thousands of Jain monks were impaled on spears and Jain monasteries burnt down. The abandoned Jain cave shrines in Kazhugumalai were later converted to a Murugan temple by the ruler of Madurai.

Poomani depended on classics of the late Sangam period for the reconstruction of the conflict with Buddhism and Jainism during the Bhakti period (for which no historical records exist). Information about events and developments during the colonial period and after were meticulously sourced from a variety of archives in and near the region: Shenbaganur Jesuit Archives in Kodaikanal, records of the Ettayapuram estate, Tamil Nadu Archives, archives of the Madras High Court and Tirunelveli Sessions Court, District Gazettes of Madurai and Tirunelveli. In addition, the author also collected source materials from National Archives and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, National Library in Kolkata, and the India Office Library in London.

The preparatory effort towards the writing of Agnaadi involved a colossal amount of travel, research and study. Resources for such an undertaking are not normally available to a creative writer working in an Indian language. The effort was made possible through a 28-month study and research grant from Indian Foundation of the Arts in Bengaluru.

Agnaadi’s primary narrative, spanning a period of more than 170 years from the beginning of the 19th century, revolves mainly around the lives and fortunes of several families dispersed over villages in the region: Kalingal, Kazhugumalai, Chatrapatti, Veppankadu, Chinnaiahpuram and Sivakasi. These families are drawn from a range of castes (Pallars, Vannaars, Panaiyeri Nadars, Naickers and Thevars) and occupations (farmers, washermen, toddy-tappers, landed squires and warriors). The first 100 years of this period, which were marked by endemic social conflict and recurring incidents of horrific violence, often based on caste animosities, are covered in the novel’s main story.

In Tamil Nadu, different communities use different terms for ‘mother’. Agna is used by Pallars from Kalingal village whose story forms the core of the novel. Agnaadi, an expression that signifies the many emotions that punctuate their lives—relief, wonder, fatigue, resignation, and much more—is the aptly-chosen title of the novel.

The final sections deal with continuity and change in the lives of the people in the period leading up to Independence and beyond. It was only several decades into the new century that temples were thrown open to all castes, and not without fervid opposition from the upper castes. We take in the carnage of Partition, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the political dynamics of the new republic. Prosperity brought waste and decadence to the lives of some Naickers and Nadars. Under the new dispensation in which all men are equal, “transgressions” occur, violating both caste and the institution of marriage. A wealthy Nadar merchant abandons his first wife to raise a family with another woman and finds his new family devastated by privilege and excess within the space of two generations. The widowed daughter of a Naicker landlord takes up with her father’s employee at the farm, risking her life repeatedly with crudely induced abortions. A Naicker farmhand is suspected of impregnating the childless wife of a Pallar colleague. All three episodes end in tragedy.

Through the rise and ebb of generations, the bewilderment of a society that has yet to arrive at a new vision of itself, still clinging to the old caste barriers and unable to prevent the exploitation of the weak under the framework of secular democracy, shows through. It is a society where violence lurks not very far from the surface and “social tragedy” remains a fact of life. When the story is brought up to date with an account of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in October 1984 by a Sikh guard in retaliation for Operation Blue Star, and the horrendous orgy of killing and arson that followed, we realise that Agnaadi represents an unbroken continuum of violence and that the story is likely to unfold on the same lines unless we undertake the work necessary to prevent it.

POOMANI FACED SEVERAL CHALLENGES in the writing of Agnaadi.

The secondary sources used in the writing of the novel, mostly research-based studies authored by Western scholars and upper-caste Indians, invariably reflected a partisan attitude that was out of alignment with the common people. The truth could be established only via primary sources—records generated during the events described. However, these records—orders, judgments and reports—represented the interests and slant of the respective agencies and not necessarily the truth of what happened. For example, judgements are based solely on evidence presented before the court, which may be subject to falsification. Ramasamy Thevar, accused of murder in the Sivakasi riot case, was not present in Sivakasi at all; he was appearing in a case before the Virudhupatti Sub-Magistrate Srinivasa Iyengar. During the investigations, however, the sub-magistrate reversed his testimony, ensuring a death sentence for Ramasamy Thevar. In disgust, Ramasamy Thevar converted to Christianity along with his wife and children and went to the gallows declaring that no Brahmin should ever be trusted. Reliance on official documents alone cannot help unearth such complex histories. In order to support his fictional reconstruction, Poomani visited each riot-hit location, spoke to the local people and collected local histories as lodged in the collective memory of different groups in order to forge a mental balance in his narrative.

To lend accuracy to his imagined rendering of specific sequences of events, including the riots and skirmishes, Poomani visited each place of occurrence several times, developing a topographical sketch of each in his mind. He made frequent visits to Kazhugumalai and attended Panguni Uthiram festival, during which the riot of 1895 had taken place.

Portraying religious conflicts without a partisan attitude or hurting feelings was an even bigger challenge for Poomani, an atheist. In order to imagine and write about religious feelings with conviction, Poomani held his atheist bent of mind in abeyance, and immersed himself in religious activities, which included visits to famous churches and Hindu temples, discussion with priests, studying the holy books of all three religions and becoming conversant with traditional rites, festivals and practices.

The strategies for the writing of Agnaadi are the same as the ones that Poomani adopted early in his career: employing the vantage of the common people at all times; writing from emotion rather than abstract thought; describing the activities and predicaments of all communities; hinting at inner feelings through words and actions rather than interior monologues; and weaving social structure, cultural values, lifestyles and traditions into the story. In Agnaadi, Poomani has indeed painted a large and detailed mural of a social organism moving through a century and more of social conflict and strife. This mural is skilfully drawn, bringing together many disparate elements into a seamless and interrelated whole—fictional narrative woven around archived history; mythological episodes; folklore and folk ballads sung by different communities; songs sung by farm labourers, washermen, palm-climbers and Christian missionaries; ghost tales; devotional songs; and scenes constructed from sequences in classical literary texts. It is a narrative in which cultural legacies, of every kind and across every community, are a living and animating presence.

In Agnaadi, Poomani had to deal with language styles not only of several castes but also of several periods, faiths and regions. From the story of the massacre of Jain monks in the 8th century to the preaching of Christian missionaries among the Nadars to the peremptory arrogance of the upper castes, Poomani uses language that is authentic and appropriate for the emotional pitch of each context. Further, the antecedent of every name—of town, river, creek, temple deity or caste—and every belief is explained in detail with the help of local histories, without disrupting the narrative flow.

Here is British missionary Rockland’s encounter with a group of faceless subalterns of Tirunelveli province (in my translation):

One day a lot of people collected, filling Rockland’s tent. They plied him with questions.

“It will become a burden to us. When we pray to our god, we only bring our palms together and raise them before us. That’ll do. If we come to vedam, we can’t kneel for a long time, and say our prayers. Our knees would hurt, won’t they?”

“Our ancestors prayed to an idol. Is it wrong if we do that?”

“Who has seen god? Why did god create stone? Could be for making idols, isn’t it?”

“Where is god? How can I worship something I can’t see?”

“What is Yesunathar’s vahanam [vehicle]?”

“How far is heaven from here?”

“If Yesu couldn’t save himself, how can he protect others?”

He responded to all their questions patiently.

Like their questions, he also got used to the food. The belly’s demands did not matter at all. Roasted groundnuts for a quarter anna. Flat rice for another quarter. The palate demanded nothing more. If he asked for water at a hut, they gave him. Occasionally, he even got salted water from the cooking pot in a coconut shell. It was tasty.

The mindsets and plans of those who rioted against the Nadars are described in a matter-of-fact tone, without mitigating the horror of their intentions and actions.

Those who were disappointed in the raid on Sivakasi were driven by frenzy. They had to do something to quench their rage. They gathered in Sivagiri to the west and discussed the situation.

“If we let things be, it will bring us ignominy. Nadan will pee on our heads.”

“We have to go wherever he is and settle this fight.”

“Sevakasi Nadan and Thenkasi Nadan are partners in business. Fat cats they are. Let’s go raid them.”

A mob set out for the western province, towards Thenkasi. Although Sivagiri zamin’s manager, Velayudham Pillai, knew of this move he did not inform the authorities. He must have been complicit in the riots or side-stepped his responsibility, not wanting to get into trouble.

The rioters took off in different directions. The smell of corpses burning pervaded the night air. Rioting spread to all corners of Tirunelveli province like a forest fire.

The actions and strategies of those who hold power are portrayed convincingly and accurately. The reader is struck particularly by the moral ambivalence that informs the perceptions and actions of the authorities—police personnel, bureaucrats, estate managers, lawyers and judges—in dealing with violent crimes and by the caste affinities they harbour despite the prospect of certain calamity. And when we read about the punishment meted out to the officials, we cannot avoid reflecting on the present-day situation when the administration is seldom held to account for its failure and biases.

For his failure to find out about the situation that prevailed prior to the Sivakasi riot and arrest the important leaders who had engaged in rioting, Srivilliputhur Inspector Suryanarayana Aiyar was sent home. Sathur Inspector Madar Hussain, who was present in Sivakasi during the riot, was transferred to another district. Virudhupatti Inspector Parthasarathi Iyengar was demoted.

That village officials like the munsif and accountant, and workers like thalayari [watchman] and vettiyan [undertaker], were complicit with the rioters in every which way was an open secret. Knowing that rioting and looting were going to take place in their village or in the neighbouring village and not alerting superior officers in advance; after the incidence of the riots, covering it up or providing incomplete and inaccurate information; taking leave on the day of the raid or hiding somewhere; not assisting the police in apprehending the rioters; providing safe havens for the rioters and protecting them—they did all this and more. Some who had participated directly in rioting and robbery were still at large, eluding capture.

Nearly a hundred persons who had indulged in such activities were ferreted out by Srivilliputhur deputy magistrate Raghavaiah and strong penal action was taken against them. Collector Bedford informed the government of these actions. As a result, fear among the public gradually began to subside.

 

Equally, the emotions and destinies of those who are powerless, who are hunted down and preyed upon, who face nature’s fury and human treachery with stoic grace, are also depicted with great imaginative force.

The intellectual and creative effort that has produced this historical novel is without precedent in modern Tamil literature. In a country where so many stories are left untold, or told only from positions of privilege, or told not always honesty, or told only in languages of privilege, Agnaadi and Poomani have blazed a new trail. I hope that in Tamil Nadu, where one community alone appears to be held accountable for all the horrors of casteism, the stories brought to light by Agnaadi will have a cleansing effect. As a landmark work, Agnaadi, which appeared from Cre-A publishers in the first week of January, must be translated into other Indian languages. One eagerly anticipates more accounts, in literatures across India, written by those who know and speak for the subaltern, that will make visible new and sophisticated histories and bring us the sobering—and perhaps even liberating—awareness that “it is not even past yet”.

N Kalyan Raman is a Chennai-based writer and translator. His translation of CS Chellappa’s novel Vaadivaasal (Arena) has just been published by Oxford University Press.

EARLY ONE MORNING towards the end of November, I arrived in Kovilpatti, a small but bustling industrial town in southern Tamil Nadu with a population of about 100,000. Kovilpatti presents the ramshackle look typical of most mofussil towns in South India, lately dotted with markers of skewed economic prosperity and immoderate consumption: fancy lodges, automobile showrooms, tourist taxis lining the streets, private hospitals and well-stocked pharmacies. This industrial town, which has a long tradition of producing textiles, matchboxes and firecrackers, is located in the middle of a vast tract of black soil—known as karisal bhoomi—spread across Tirunelveli, Ramanathapuram and Thoothukudi districts. Its rainfed agriculture supports cultivation of millets rather than paddy, and is vulnerable to periodic droughts and, on occasion, famine. Apart from its proximity to Madurai (100 km), Tirunelveli (55 km) and the port city of Thoothukudi (60 km), Kovilpatti is close to all the other centres of historical significance in karisal bhoomi: Ettayapuram, Kazhugumalai, Sivakasi, Srivilliputhur and Sankarankovil.

I take an autorickshaw to the bus stand, barely a kilometre away, and check into a lodge nearby. After a simple breakfast at the restaurant downstairs, I study my notes as I wait. My visitor arrives precisely at 10 am, a frail-looking, bespectacled man in his mid-60s, wearing an open smile behind his moustache. This is Poomani (formal name: Pooliththurai Manickavasagam), eminent Tamil writer from Kovilpatti, whose masterly 1,200-page historical novel, Agnaadi, set in his karisal bhoomi and dealing with the caste conflicts the land has witnessed over the past two centuries, is to be published soon. I have spent most of the previous two months reading a prepublication electronic copy of the novel’s manuscript, as well as his other two landmark novels, Piragu (Later) and Vekkai (Heat). With a steady output of critically acclaimed work over the past 40 years—five previous novels and more than 50 short stories—Poomani has established himself as the leading chronicler of subaltern lives in contemporary Tamil literature. But it is the scope and ambition of his latest work, and its potential to illuminate the dark corners of our recent history, that has brought me to Kovilpatti. What went into the construction of Agnaadi: a history of the inhabitants of this region spanning a period of 200 years and more, recreated through a novelist’s imagination and rendered in the language of fiction?

MODERN INDIAN LITERATURE boasts of several important historical novels. Qurratulain Hyder’s Urdu novel, Aag ka Darya, published in English as River of Fire (1998), is one. It deals with all the signifiers of the history of the Indian subcontinent—Vedantic India, the arrival of the Muslims, colonialism and Partition. Sunil Gangopadhyay’s celebrated Bengali novel, Shei Shomoy, published in English as Those Days (1997), explored an important phase (1840-60) of the Bengal Renaissance and the contributions made by major historical characters of that period. It is said to have shattered many myths and traditional notions held as true by the people of contemporary Bengal.

Outstanding historical novels from South India include Masti Venkatesha Iyengar’s Chikkaveera Rajendra, published in English under the same title (1992), which describes the reign, commencing from 1820, of the last king of Kodagu (Coorg) and ends with his defeat by the British and consequent exile in 1834; and Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai’s Malayalam masterpiece, Kayar, published in English as Coir (1997), a historical saga that deals with the period 1885-1971, during which Kerala society underwent profound changes on the social, cultural and economic fronts.

The historical novel in Tamil has its roots in the discovery and publication of a trove of ancient literary texts in the early decades of the past century. During the period 1880-1930, many long-forgotten works of classical Tamil literature were unearthed from all over Tamil Nadu and published for the first time, an achievement largely credited to the untiring efforts of one scholar and researcher, Dr U Ve Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942). Among these works are the now internationally well-known classics of Sangam literature: Cilappatikaram, Manimekalai, Akananooru and Purananooru. The rediscovery of these literary texts, which mirrored the lives of Tamils in the ancient period, gave Tamils a proud sense of their heritage. This vivid and new-fangled impression of a glorious past with kings and queens found its way into popular fiction in the 1920s, with the advent of weekly magazines designed for mass circulation. The outcome was the historical-novel-as-entertainment genre, which involved no more than a fanciful reconstruction of a remote past, in prose that mimicked a now defunct classical tenor and peopled with characters who were unconstrained by the complex demands of realist narration. The works of ‘Kalki’ Ra Krishnamurthy during the 1930s and 1940s—Ponniyin Selvan, Sivagamiyin Sabadham and others—and later, the novels of Bhashyam ‘Sandilyan’ Iyengar—also serialised in weekly magazines, like Kalki’s—exemplify this genre.

That all the Indian writers mentioned above belong to the upper castes or higher echelons of society is not a coincidence. The upper castes were the chief beneficiaries of higher education during the British Raj and the early post-Independence period. Their works were eventually seen as being slanted by limited experience and narrow vision. This is similar to the way in which the elitist bias allegedly implicit in the works of white male writers has on occasion led to a revisionist view of their presentations, no matter how highly regarded these works have been as literature. The perspective on blacks in the American South advanced in the works of William Faulkner, Nobel Laureate and a writer revered as an American Master, was challenged bitterly by African Americans in the 1970s and 1980s. During the same period, portrayal by William Styron, in his The Confessions of Nat Turner, of the brutal conduct of rebellious black slaves was similarly censured as inaccurate and even defamatory by literary scholars of the black community. Closer home, the Kodava community was reportedly displeased with the negative portrayal of their last king, Chikka Virarajendra, in Masti’s classic novel.

Concurrent with the initiative towards subaltern histories in the late 1970s, when a group of South Asian scholars got together under the rubric of the Subaltern Studies Collective to formulate a new narrative of the history of India and South Asia, was the coming of age in Tamil Nadu of a generation of writers from the hitherto oppressed castes, nourished by the educational opportunities available to them following Independence and fired by the urge to tell their own stories for the first time. This was a watershed moment in the development of modern Tamil literature. Modernist writing in Tamil had begun in the 1930s with Pudumaipithan and the group of writers behind the literary magazine Manikodi. Thus commenced a significant period when the great themes of modernity—the collapse of traditional mores, loneliness and alienation of the individual, social transformation in the wake of industrialisation and urbanisation, moral conflicts in a rapidly changing society—were dealt with in prose fiction, a practice which flourished for the next 40 years. Inevitably, the inspiration for such fiction came from the western canon—from Thomas Hardy and Emile Zola to Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. In the 1940s, a variety of proletarian fiction, based on the principles of ‘socialist realism’, also came to be written and published, mostly in magazines with strong ties to trade unions and the communist movement. In the first two decades after Independence, both streams combined to establish a robust literary culture for Tamils of the modern age. However, the literature they produced was based more on ideas than on the wider social reality of the time. Further, in a land where several groups of people spoke their own dialects, the formalised languages of prose fiction, forged mainly by the educated upper castes, served to exclude vast sections of the people from participating in their own literature.

The new crop of Tamil writers from the rural and disadvantaged sections of society who emerged on the scene in the 1970s was well read, keenly observant and confident in its literary abilities. The (socialist) realism of their forbears gave way to naturalist writing of a very high order, presenting characters who had remained hidden till then and whose stories had never been told. These writers expanded the scope of contemporary Tamil literature in unprecedented ways, resulting in a steady output of novels and short stories about people at the bottom rungs of society. Poomani was a pioneer of this new trend. In the next three decades, he was followed by two generations of writers from the subaltern castes. His Piragu (Later), first published in 1979, is considered a landmark work, the first novel-length treatment of the life of a lower-caste man, a cobbler, as the living centre of his own life and family, locating him inextricably in the village community that he serves with lifelong dedication.

READER'S COMMENTS [4]

Very good noval,but he is breathing only Tamil,tamil,tamil.He is living more than hundred years.I pray all Temple.given to more power in kaarisal poomi.

This article is fine. I want to get the book, read and know in depth the history as well as the narrative ability of the author POOMANI.

This monumental work by Poomani deserves a Gnanapet award since the materials for the narration are not merely imaginative but based on documentary proofs covering near about 200 years.

As the article claims,If POOMANI's writtings even remotely compare with what "Kalki" and "Sandilyan"Iyengar did in the Fourties,I want to read everything he has to say of the Kaarisel poomi.

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