India’s first novel by an Adivasi writer about his community published 10 years after it was written. In conversation with Narayan, the author of the pathbreaking Malayalam novel Kocharethi.

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what is Heaven for!” Surely this is a sentence worthy of utterance at a time when the nation celebrates its 62nd birth anniversary. But what of the man who has to strive for a “just reward”, something that is ‘constitutionally’ within his grasp, yet denied? The man I refer to is Narayan, no robust Victorian vehemently proclaiming optimism but the Adivasi writer who wrote Kocharethi (1998), the novel in Malayalam that needs to be acknowledged as the first novel to be written by a tribal about his people in India. It is an acknowledgement long overdue, which will be fulfilled when Oxford University Press brings out a translation next year.

Narayan who was born in 1937 (not certain ) in Kudayathur belongs to the tribe called Mala Arayar. He studied till the std. X in the local government school, then got a job in the postal service.

I asked him what had triggered his interest in books. “Circumstances. When I joined school the system of providing free rice gruel at noon hadn’t started. Education was not free. Right until Independence, the school fee was a chakram per annum. I went without food at noon. One day someone said that if I remained in the class room when others left for lunch and something went missing, I would be blamed. This frightened me so I began to visit the reading room opposite our school. There were three or four newspapers, a few books and a periodical. Soon the owner began to leave me in charge of the place when he went for lunch. I used the time to read whatever I could get hold of.”

Kocharethi is Narayan’s first full-length publication work but he has written one or two short stories, which were published in periodicals. The writing did not attract the attention of readers but it did attract attention of the negative sort: of his immediate superior.

For Narayan, writing Kocharethi was an act of resistance against misrepresentation of his community by the literary and literate world.

Recalling the incident, Narayan laughs. “My superior remarked caustically that he supposed I had no real work to do and hence was wasting the postal department’s time and money.” Soon he had me transferred to a section where I was the sole worker.

Metaphor for struggle

Though the manuscript was completed in 1988, Kocharethi was published only in1998, after Narayan opted for voluntary retirement. This like everything else in his life was not a matter of choice but circumstance. From inception to publication (in Malayalam) the novel itself is a metaphor of the struggle of the marginalided to be heard. For Narayan, writing Kocharethi was an act of resistance against misrepresentation of his community by the literary and literate world. But life has a way of taking unexpected twists, when we least expect them. This is particularly so if you belong to an economically backward community.

By the time Narayan finished the novel, the indignation and burning desire to tell the true story had evaporated. Seized by doubts about its literary worth he gave the manuscript to a teacher-friend to read. The friend forgot all about it and put the script away. There it lay for five years till Narayan asked him about it and that too only because another friend urged him to do so. Five years had gone by and the hand-written script had yellowed and crumbled. Narayan rewrote it. Another four years of ajnathavasam, till Narayan sent it to DC Books, Kottayam. The rest is history Kocharethi won The Kerala Sahitya Academi award and several other awards. As he sat down to sign the contract with his publisher, D.C. Kizhakkemuri the founder of the publishing house told Narayan : “Such things do not happen every day, you know.” Cryptic, yet significant when we view the work against canonical Malayalam literature.

Backlash

There were many who trashed the novel and observed that Narayan had neither style nor craft and that the award was politically motivated. Not surprising, considering the caste/community-based hegemonic ties that dominate the Malayalam literary terrain. Such a bias prompted an erudite critic to dismiss Vaikom Muhammad Basheer as “at the most a Muslim writer, nothing more.”

Fortunately for Narayan, there were people who were willing to give worth its due. One such person was the late Ayyappa Paniker. As Paniker told Narayan at their first meeting, he had wanted to meet Narayan ever since he had read the latter’s short story “Tenvarikka” but he couldn’t get any information about Narayan’s address. In his inimitable way Panikker told Narayan: “You lack a godfather.”

Though he could be witheringly sarcastic and satirical, Paniker had an innate sense of justice. This prompted him to get a research scholar to translate “Tenvarikka” into English. It also prompted him to introduce Mini Krishnan, (Editor, Translations) of Oxford University Press to Kocharethi. “A really useful thing you could do would be to make Narayan’s novel available in English,” said the great scholar and poet who himself did a lot for translation. Mini then began her search for someone to translate the novel, a search that ended in me.

The novel is about the Araya community, as it existed in the early years of the 20th century when a cartographically identifiable, political Kerala did not exist. Trade, a strong missionary presence, demographic and geographic compulsions made it impossible for the Arayas to isolate themselves from other communities. Interaction with these communities and proselytism led to the erosion of the distinct tribal identity and culture. The novel is set in a period when erosion had already begun. Even then certain features distinct to tribal communities remain: self- sufficiency, honesty, willingness to work hard, pride and an indomitable spirit.

It is true that structural and stylistic markers of literary writing rarely appear in the novel. It could not be otherwise. Narayan is after all a first generation literate tribal; a writer in a time of transition; he cannot claim the lost pristine tribal identity; he has been influenced by the modernising process; he is a long way away from the portals of canonical literature. What Narayan can claim is that his novel reflects the ethos of a people in transition, in a manner that is simple yet empowering and utterly unique.

The English translation by Catherine Thankamma will appear in 2010. E-mail: catherine_thankamma@hotmail.com

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