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Updated: April 5, 2014 18:51 IST
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Silent voices

PAUL ZACHARIA
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Requiem for the Living; Johny Miranda, translated by Sajai Jose, OUP, Rs.250.
Requiem for the Living; Johny Miranda, translated by Sajai Jose, OUP, Rs.250.

A compelling story that opens up the Kochi-Creole world to the reader.

Set in the clutch of small islands that dot the backwaters off the bustling city of Kochi, Johny Miranda’s novella tells the compelling story of a Creole people haunted by their real and unreal pasts and by a present that is almost hallucinatory. Told through the eyes of a young sacristan, it is a gripping account of emotional, physical and spiritual isolation in a beehive-like community rooted in embroidered tradition and consumed by religiosity. It depicts an overpowering world of make-belief, a medley of religion, ritual, custom and superstition that solidifies into the life system of the islanders — a phantasmagoria of real and imagined pasts in which the ornamental inheritances of the Portuguese days and the harsh realities of a marginalised people are intermingled. Sacristan Josy Pereira’s lonely world floats in a Cloud of Unknowing that is chilling in its blindness, desolation and helplessness.

The Kochi-Creole community is today almost indistinguishable from the coastal world around it except perhaps for its underpinnings of rituals, prayers and the remnants of a patois — and, of course, the Portuguese surnames that brand them. Even though they are officially enumerated as ‘Anglo-Indian’ and people used to refer to them as paranki (Portuguese), according to some studies they have no ascertained component of miscegenation. They are an indigenous coastal community of artisans and workers — potters, carpenters, boat-builders, tailors — proselytised by the Portuguese in the 16 and 17 centuries and drawn into the spell-binding world of the mythology and dogma of the Catholic church. Along with the new faith they received another dubious gift: Portuguese names that stamped on them the paranki identity. The Portuguese were ousted by the Dutch in the late 17 century and the Kochi-Creoles continued to traverse history immersed in the fairy tales of their faith and battling hard for survival. To Kerala’s Catholic mainstream moored in the mainland and dominated by the Syro-Malabar Church, they are eternal outsiders — the Latin low castes.

Johny Miranda’s novella is perhaps the first insider-fiction to emerge from the Kochi-Creole community. The very fact that it received little notice in Malayalam when published a decade back and remains out of print exemplifies the sectarian attitudes referred to by J. Devika in her scholarly introduction to the book. One would only like to add that such mindsets are not restricted to the Hindu upper castes of Kerala but also the Christian and Muslim. The fast-flowing, lush narrative of Miranda’s novella opens up for the reader the Kochi-Creole world with its raw passions, unfathomable violence, impotent rebellion, all-encompassing religiosity and insufferable loneliness. It is ably translated by Sajai Jose and supported by an excellent introduction and an author’s note that speaks from the heart.

Oxford Novellas’ series editor Mini Krishnan is to be congratulated for discovering and bringing into the Indian mainstream such gems of bhasha literature.

Requiem for the Living; Johny Miranda, translated by Sajai Jose, OUP, Rs. 250.

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