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Bitter brew?

Kokilam Subbiah's vibrant novel "Thoorathup Pacchai" portrays the anger and angst of the indentured labourers in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka. A profile of the novelist who expresses her concerns through art and literature.

`Pitiless monster!' Valli spat out the words. But will the know-alls who enjoy savouring its hot brew ever understand this anger? — These are the concluding statements of Kokilam Subbiah's vibrant novel "Thoorathup Pachchai", wherein Valli, the protagonist, gives vent to her frustration and anger at the tea fields that thrived, bursting forth into lush, green shoots, having feasted on any number of men and women.

Talking to Kokilam Subbiah, who was in Chennai recently, one realises that these lines clearly spell out the motive that impelled her to write her novel: to shock complacent tea drinkers into an awareness of the toil, hardships, and angst that go into the making of the cup that cheers.

Neither Tamil nor tea was part of convent-educated Kokilam's early life. Contact with the indentured labourers in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka — then Ceylon — through her husband, a fortuitous meeting with Kamil V. Zvelebil in Czechoslovakia in 1956, and the offer of Kanna Muthiah of Tamil Puthakalayam to publish her book, contributed to the emergence of her seminal work.

Kokilam's marriage to Subbiah, MP who represented the tea workers in the Sri Lankan Parliament, brought her face-to-face with migrant labour from India. Her innate concern for them drew them to her. She spent time with them on her trips to the plantations with her husband, and she made them feel welcome in her home when they visited Colombo.

The women, the older ones in particular, found in her an empathetic listener. She registered in the recesses of her memory all their life experiences — the pain of being uprooted from their motherland and of combating the vagaries of an alien environment with no economic improvement to speak of. The seed for her book was sown.

In 1956, Kokilam got an opportunity to represent the mostly illiterate women plantation workers at the World Women Workers Conference held in Czechoslovakia. Her life took a definite turn when she met there the literary-minded Professor Kamil Zvelebil, who appreciated the felicity with which she handled both Tamil and English. He was Kokilam's introduction to the world of translation. He also urged her to put down the wealth of her experiences in writing. Her book began to take shape.

Kokilam had made records of the individual stories of the women who had spoken to her. She picked up these strands and wove them into a novel. "I have only portrayed reality," she avers. "I did not change the life stories at all."

By now resettled in Chennai, Kokilam began working on her book. Between the demands of her young children and her day-to-day chores, she could find the time to write only late at night. She picked up courage to show her completed manuscript to Ganam Muthiah of Tamil Puthakalayam, who was impressed by the story and her style. The publisher offered to bring it out after getting it edited by the eminent writer, Chidambaram Raghunathan.

Kokilam modestly says, "My writing is not scholarly. I use simple language intended to reach everyone." The book, which came out in 1965, had its own edited version published in Sri Lanka also. It was well-received in both countries. Recently, at the request of non-Tamil readers, she wanted to translate the work into English. Strangely enough, not a single copy of the earlier edition was available. She finally unearthed it from the archives of the University of Berkeley.

The second edition of "Thooraathup Pachchai" was brought out in 2002 by Akilan Kannan , the present publisher of Tamil Puthakalayam.

The Muses have smiled on Kokilam. Apart from translating Tamil poetry into English, she has also written poems and won the Editor's Choice Award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry instituted by the International Library of Poetry. She has worked in the Dravidian section of the University of Chicago, teaching Tamil language and literature to graduate students. Her translations of ancient Tamil poems find a place in "The Smile of Murugan", an anthology edited by Kamil Zvelebil. She fondly remembers her association with A.K. Ramanujam at the university.

Next, it was art that invited Kokilam to enter its portals. She did a Master's course at the Chicago Art Institute. Her photographs, etchings and lithographs have a stunning impact on the viewer. Her links with literature remain unbroken, however, and she is currently working on a collection of her poems.

Kokilam, now 75, is not afraid to voice her opinions on any issue. Her deep concern for indentured labour still continues, and she bemoans the lack of writing on these workers, who, she feels, are treated as `cheap commodities' the world over. From her base in the U.S. this woman, with the courage of her convictions, gives expression to her concerns through the medium of her talents.


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