Probably the first time a Chennai slum is featured in all its raw glory in modern English fiction and Kavery Nambisan manages to pull it off quite well.
Of all fiction writers in India today, Kavery Nambisan is probably one of a handful qualified to tell this story. Having worked as a rural surgeon in both southern and northern parts of the country, she has closely encountered the milieu and men she writes about (though “rural” may conceivably be better off than the cramped, insanitary conditions of the slum in her story).
It shows in the transition between Vaibhav Housing Society's middle-class residents and the literally down-to-earth inmates of the slum next door. The slum is named Sitara, also probably symbolising the stars in the eyes of many who live there. It's Simon Jesukumar who's living this story.
An old widower with patches of guilt on his conscience, he goes and loses the story his wife had painstakingly written, a manuscript he himself had tried hawking, going from publisher to publisher, during his Delhi visit. His daughter Sandhya advises him to destroy her mother's story because it's a story that mustn't be told, little knowing that the manuscript has already disappeared.
But there's Simon's own story, unfolding for the benefit of his son's mother-in-law (for whom he nurtures a soft spot): “Patience, Pari,” he tells Parminder. “Writing takes time. When I put pen to paper I can summon memory and turn it around so that I am face to face with it.”
Its beginning shows us where he's headed. As a boy, Simon argues in vain with his family, fighting for aid to the bereaved family of two young girls who drowned off the Thiruvanmiyur beach. He marries Harini, a steadfast woman with a voracious sexual appetite who controls and trims his life. He fights with residents of his housing complex who want to have the slum removed.
Parallelly, there's the story of the slum-dwellers: young Velu and Thatkan, Chellam and Ponnu who are brought here from the village and dream of stardom; Chellam's wife Valli and his daughter Sentha, Swami the school teacher who's also the butcher... the list goes on. The slum is described through many perspectives, and the palpable filth, stink, mosquitoes and unhealthy air remain defining characteristics in all of them.
It's probably the first instance of a Chennai slum being featured in all its raw glory in modern English fiction. Except for a few awkward instances, which have to do with colloquial conversations, names and usages, and a distancing from the ethos she depicts, Kavery settles well into both her worlds describing and sub-texting with quiet authority the squalor of Sitara the slum and the angst of her old protagonist.
Simon's story intrudes into that of the slum, and emerges stained. This is the coming of age story of old Simon; the test by fire the well-off must undergo if they're ever to understand the slum-dweller, the poor, the labourer. Reaching out a helping hand which is then withdrawn and washed clean is an almost rapacious act. It achieves little for either party. You have to dip in and be covered with slime, you have to breathe in the fumes and think the thoughts that keep the strugglers alive.
Into the slum
So the core of the novel is the trip Simon undertakes to Sitara along with Sandhya and her friend PK, a journalist. It is an educating experience for the reader as well. Kavery scrupulously records the workings and mechanics of various small industries, amazingly productive activity in the heart of a squalid maze. During the course of this excursion, they also get to see the barefaced exploitation of children and men, the desperation to earn. Having gone there with the intention of helping the school and slum, Simon gets a slap in the face.
The conducted tour ends on a grim note. They are confronted by Baqua. “I bet you went nowhere near the Chairworks business? Swamy Sir doesn't want you to see his precious little babies working with saws and drills. Or men who gamble by day and whore by night, and when they need money, sell a pint of their blood….He wants you to believe that they're all good people, dignified in poverty.”
To really understand how all this works, the visitors are given a taste of the life by being put to some serious work. When Simon protests and says he'd die, Baqua replies: “It is not so easy to die. The body learns to take a little more, a little more. A lot more.”
There's no romance in poverty. You cannot alleviate the lot of slum-dwellers through small, affordable instalments. Most of all, you have to change yourself before trying to change the lives of others. This is, finally, the absorbing story of an old man and a slum, and how one changes the other.
The Story that Must Not Be Told; Kavery Nambisan, Penguin/Viking; Rs.499.