The sea, its people, and their stories hold limitless joy for R.N. Joe D’Cruz. Akila Kannadasan speaks to the writer whose novel Korkai won the Sahitya Akademi Award for 2013

‘One more pearl — just one more’ his mind would beg him. Deep inside the ghostly blue waters where pearls call out in silent voices, the diver will be tested. His child’s school fees and hospital bills will haunt him the moment he decides to swim back up with his harvest. But he will die if he yields to his greed. For, even a second’s delay at the seabed will eat into the time needed for him to swim back to the boat of his waiting partner. And he will be swallowed by the sea, just like the countless others who dived in for her pearls that gave their families a livelihood. These people, who depend on the sea goddess ‘Kumari aatha’ for their sustenance, their lives, and history, form the crux of writer R.N. Joe D’Cruz’s novel Korkai (Kalachuvadu Pathippagam), which won the Sahitya Akademi Award for 2013 in the Tamil language category.

The award came as a surprise for Joe, who is the president of a shipping company in Chennai. Korkai is his second novel, which followed his much-acclaimed Aazhi Soozh Ulagu that was based on a similar theme. He doesn’t read much; nor is he prolific. How is it then that an Economics major from Loyola went on to write the most celebrated novel of last year? The answer, as one observes after a long conversation with the writer, lies in his love for the fisher folk, who are his “brothers and sisters”.

Born in Uvari, a coastal village in Tirunelveli district, Joe woke up to the sound of the waves and the sight of hardworking men with nets slung around their shoulders setting out to sea every day. “If I walked through a side-lane by our house, I would reach the sea,” he recalls. His eyes gleam as he describes his homeland: “I can see it all before my eyes. The kadal karai (seashore) is lined with poovarasu, punnai, vembu, and flame of forest trees...Paneer pookkal dot the road leading to our church. The sea spreads endlessly before us…it’s 5 a.m. and the church bell, we call ‘asthi vaara mani’ rings across the village that has some 600 houses...”

As an altar boy in the village church, Joe got the chance to observe and listen to the stories of his fellow villagers. Their rituals in times of love and war, their beliefs, their business acumen…he took it all in. He saw families break due to deaths at sea; witnessed the uncertainties that defined the lives of the people of the neidhal landscape. Years later, when he held a pen to paper, they poured out in the form of novels.

“I didn’t know that I was recording everything,” smiles Joe. “You know, when there was a fight between two villages, the men who wielded weapons left women, children, and cattle untouched. So were the leaders — such was their dharmam.”

Joe wrote his first novel in 2004 at the encouragement of Vasanthakumar of Tamizhini Pathippagam. “I wrote at railway stations, bus stands…I didn’t even talk to my wife during the three months I worked on the 552-page novel,” he recalls. While Aazhi Soozh Ulagu talks about the people of Uvari who fished using catamarans, Korkai details the history of Thoothukudi district with Korkai as the backdrop from 1914 to 2000. “I have worked on a bigger canvas for Korkai,” says Joe, adding that his first novel was a “microscopic study”.

Joe writes for the sake of his people. “I feel that this is my duty. I want to do something for them.” Korkai runs for over a 1,000 pages — Joe backs it with heavy research and on-field study. “The people had an inherent knowledge about water currents, wind, climate, tides, stars…Korkai records this. Unfortunately, this knowledge that forms the basis of today’s mechanised sailing vessels is vanishing,” he observes. He has drawn flak for the novel’s underlying criticism of Christianity.

This is perhaps why certain sections of his people failed to appreciate it. “Korkai was a trade centre whose wealth and harmony attracted traders from as far as Portugal. I wanted to show my people who they were; what their history was, what mistakes they committed and how they lived many years ago,” he pauses. “It didn’t reach them. But I have done my job.”

Pearls of wisdom

- Korkai was an important trade centre and capital of the Early Pandya kingdom.

- Pearl divers secured pearls they harvested at a belt around their waist that was handmade by their wives. Traditionally, it was the brother of the diver’s wife who held the rope that was fastened at his hip. For, he would hold on to it with all his might since his sister’s livelihood was at stake.

- The novel includes a dictionary for words of the coastal dialect used in it. ‘Aradu’ for instance, means ‘to cry loudly’; ‘oravi’ means ‘big fish’; ‘kilaesam’ means fear.

- It features an illustration of a sailboat, complete with labelled parts, and the terms with which winds from various directions are referred to. The ‘vada kachan’, for instance, refers to wind that is favourable for the sailing vessel to reach Colombo.

- Joe has made documentary films Vidiyaadha Pozhudhugal and Towards Dawn that speak of problems at the Palk Straits and Enadhu Saname, a collection of his interviews that addresses the problems of the fishing community.

- Joe wrote the dialogues and also contributed to the screenplay of the movie Maryan. He hopes to make feature films in the future.