An expertly crafted tragic tale from the Malabar in the 1950s.
A few days before the E.M.S. Namboodiripad-led communist government assumed office in Kerala in 1957, Manickyam, a woman in her 20s belonging to the Thiyya community, was found dead at Paleri, a village 37 km north of Kozhikode city. Five months later, Kozhikode Sessions Judge Mary Kuriakose acquitted all the accused in the sensational Paleri Manickyam rape and murder case. “It is unfortunate that the dastardly murder of an innocent young woman, hardly out of her honeymoon, should go unavenged,” stated the judge.
Fifty years later, writer Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, a crime investigator in New Delhi, opens his late father’s trunk, retrieved from a house at Coorg in Karnataka. In it, he finds a few British coins; an unused pudava, the traditional bridal cloth of Kerala’s Nair community; and copies of Malayalam newspapers that carried reports of the Paleri Manickyam murder case. He wonders why his father, a migrant labourer in a Coorg tea estate, had preserved the copies with unusual interest. Some migrant labourers in Coorg were said to have been fugitives with criminal background. “Was my father involved in the case? Am I the son of a criminal?” he asks himself. To unravel the mystery, the writer, with the help of a colleague, travels to Paleri, garners evidence and pieces together Manickyam’s story through official records, case diaries and interviews with several people. The pieces of the puzzle fall into place, and the result is Undying Echoes of Silence.
Methaleveettil Chirutha (Cheeru), a woman kept by Murikkumkunnath Ahamed Haji, a landlord, attributes the death of her son Pokkan’s wife Manickyam to epilepsy. Haji, notorious for his roving eye, comes under suspicion when police terms it a murder. Around the time when Manickyam death is reported, the body of a temple priest Darmadatan Namboodiri is found in Paleri. Undying Echoes of Silence is more than a murder mystery. It is a journey to the Malabar of the 1950s, a record of atavistic feudal instincts, complex communal relations between the Nairs, the Thiyyas and the Muslims, and the rise of Communism and Naxalism.
The novelist alleges that perpetrators had horse-traded with the Communist Party to escape the law. He quotes a letter reportedly written in April 1957 by then Chief Minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad to the Communist Party leadership of Paleri: “Manickyam’s is the first murder case that the party encountered since it has come to power...A new officer is being given charge of the investigation...Mr. Karthikeyan is not just a police officer. He is also a party follower, and belongs to a Communist family.” When the Malayalam version of the novel and a movie based on it were released, left-leaning intellectuals such as P. K. Pokker accused the novelist of distorting history. “The letter attributed to EMS, I am told, is a figment of Rajeevan’s imagination. Equally disputable is the writer’s claim that the party clinched a land deal as a trade-off for shielding the guilty,” stated Pokker.
Undying Echoes of Silence has too many characters, something justifiable in a novel with such a big canvas, and demands unwavering attention. A few badly constructed sentences have escaped the editors. For example: “Though chronically sick from an early age, her interest in reading and writing hadn’t waned”. The highlight is the novel’s brilliant structure, the pacy narration from different points of view, clever switches back and forth between key scenes, and a dramatic climax. The novelist ramps up the stakes by weaving a plausible autobiographical strand into the mystery.
Beneath the facade of the thriller, however, is a devastating indictment of the trauma and suffering of women in a conservative society.
Undying Echoes of Silence; Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, Amaryllis, Rs.450.