“I am holding the novel as a mirror before my people. Let them identify themselves and their history and reflect upon it’’

Korkai, an epic novel in Tamil by Joe D’Cruz that captures the transformation in the life and society of fishermen in the Gulf of Mannar region between 1900s and 2000, has won him the Sahitya Akademi award for 2013.

“I never expected it. But I am happy because the award will turn my people’s attention towards the novel, while it will also bring about a change in the opinion of people about fishermen,” said D’ Cruz, who started observing the life of fishermen as an altar boy in his native village of Uvari in Tirunelveli district.

The novel, the author’s second, takes its title from Korkai, the ancient port of Pandiya kings in southern Tamil Nadu, which achieved prosperity through pearl fishing.

The story begins with the death of the king of the Paradavas, Don Michel D’Cruz. Paradavas are one of the ancient communities of the Tamil land and there are plenty of references to them in ancient Sangam literature. The king of the Paradavas was known as Pandiyapathy.

They converted to Catholicism in the 16th century as a token of gratitude to the Portugese, who helped them defeat attempts made by the Moors settled in Kayalpattinam to control pearl fishing. “They supplied guns and gun powder and the fishermen defended themselves with modern weapons,” said D'Cruz.

However, according to him, in course of time, everything turned upside down, as the church and the British rulers gained control of their destiny.

Recalling an incident that propelled him to write the novel, D'Cruz said he was shattered to notice the ancient palace of Pandiyapathy in Thoothukudi, once the native land of the Paradavas, in a state of ruin.

There are too many characters to be remembered in the novel that runs to over 1,000 pages. The author portrays changes in society through the eyes of Philip Dhandal, a character that bears resemblance to the author. D'Cruz, born in a fishing hamlet, struggled his way to Loyola College in Chennai to do his postgraduation and M.Phil in Economics.

Like his first novel Aazhi Sool Ulagu, Korkai also is written in the local lingo. In the process, it contributes to the vocabulary hitherto unrecorded words pertaining to the Neithal land (Sea and the land abutting it.)

“I am holding the novel as a mirror before my people. Let them identify themselves and their history and reflect upon it. I will be happy if the novel gives them an opportunity for introspection,” he said.

Asked about his critical approach towards Catholic religion, D'Cruz said Gandhi could be a Mahatma to one person but to another, he could be a leader responsible for a country’s partition.

“Why should you just see it as criticism made by the novelist alone? The novel reflects the lives and the changes witnessed by the fishermen community. The society I portray supplies adequate material to support my criticism,” said D'Cruz, who has released a compact disc titled Akkini Kunju, asking fishermen involved in freshwater and marine fishing to come together.