There is a fecundity of fiction that espouses the cause of marginalised tribal populations who have lost their land and possessions and their culture and heritage. This novel is one of the best literary works that unravel the plight of the backward Paniya tribes of Wayanad.
The author has done extensive research and traversed the tribal settlements and colonies and has woven the fine fabric of the novel to bring to light a socially relevant issue.
The novel is a pointer that oppressing the tribals further by branding them as Maoists will have deleterious consequences.
It is a profile of the lives of the Paniyas and it depicts their myths, legends, history and folklore and their superstitions, and problems of bringing up children, many of whom are born as victims of rape and subjugation. The novel is the story of a Paniya woman, Ammini, who despite all her untold sufferings raises her feeble but strong voice against injustice.
Ammini herself was born as the victim of a rape. And even before Ammini was mature she also suffered sexual assault and gave birth to a child. However, she had the courage and foresight to send her son to a distant tribal school.
The tribal people were refused education because the landlords were afraid that if educated they would not come for work (P 218). They were always fed with tobacco and alcohol and forced to live in appalling conditions. Ammini’s tribulations are many. Although she tries to convince her fellow tribals to unite and fight for their rights, they ostracise her. They feared that they would lose their work and supply of tobacco and liquor.
Even her protests against pesticides fall on deaf ears and there is no one to bail her out when she is arrested. The author comments: “It is Indian court. The land implements democracy. It is enough if the crime is proven. No reason to prove the cause” (99).
An unsympathetic administration, manipulative missionaries, exploitative traders and oppressive landlords combine to keep down tribals in different ways. Under the garb of liberalisation, Timothy Appan, a politician, tries to grab their land.
When Ammini is released, she is received by two leaders from Aaralam tribal colony. But nostalgia and the fighting spirit for her own ilk take her back to Kottayikkunnu. By then her son had stopped his studies and was working among the Paniyas. Mother, son and companion continue to fight against injustice and for their rights. But the heavy hands of the establishment not only cripple them but also brutally kill. The media has also been roundly criticised for sensationalism and spreading false news.
It is rare to find a socially purposive novel so well crafted; its success is due to the fact that the novelist has done commendably empathetic research on the lives of tribal people. At times it deviates to mere narrative documentation, especially Ammini’s visits to other tribal areas. Linking the plot to the infamous Muthanga firing and to the killing of a Naxalite leader does not gel well with the narrative structure. But the exposition of the deplorable lives of the Paniyas is remarkable and should serve as an eye opener to the society at large. The central character also has similarities to the life of a legendary tribal leader of Wayanad; the novel might have been inspired by her life.
Karutha Pulikal Janikkunnathu: Jose Pazhukaran, DC Books, Rs. 150