The temptation to exoticise cultures that have not been commodified yet must be indeed tempting, especially to a cultural insider. Narayan, Kerala's first tribal novelist, manages to avoid the pitfalls of both romanticisation and the now-classic postcolonial move of making the misery of the marginalised the sole literary theme in Kocharethi, a novel about the processes of cultural transformation and the hidden poetry of marginal lives.
The story of the Malayaraya adivasi community is synecdochically focused through the lives of Kunjipennu and her husband Kochuraman, set in the first half of the 20th century in the Western Ghats, in the pepper-rich border area of present-day Keralam and Tamil Nadu. Kunjipennu inaugurates the key theme of cultural change by refusing to marry her maternal uncle's son. Instead, she falls in love and weds Kochuraman. After a disaster — their home and only son burn down in a forest fire — they face unmitigated poverty. Drought and torrential rain torment the entire community as every single Araya slides deeper into debt and drink. Kochuraman is no exception.
Into this potent mix step the usual exploiters masquerading as benefactors and state-appointed guardians: moneylenders, landlords, the businessmen and the police who are naturally allied with the landlords. The Arayas who make attempts at resistance are beaten, while their land slips away from their grasp through the unholy conjunction of the upper-castes and the upper classes. A measure of joy comes into the lives of Kunjipennu and Kochuraman in the form of their daughter Parvati. The arrival of a teacher in the village marks the start of another transformation as the Araya children begin to go to school. Parvati gets through college and finds a job in Kochi. She marries against her parents' wishes and slowly breaks her connections with the community. Kochuraman, whose career of drinking has wrecked their lives, now falls ill and has to be treated in the city. Kunjipennu is forced to go as well. Supported by Parvati's husbands and friends the hospitalisation proceeds, but both Kochuraman and Kunjipennu discover that he requires surgery and, mortally scared of modern medicine, escape from the hospital.
Kocharethi is a novel that opens as ethnography, minutely detailing the lives and customs of a community. In the early stages the individual lives of characters are subsumed under the collective biography but as the tale proceeds they acquire greater textual flesh-and-blood. It is a novel about a community's transition to modernity that requires them to not only abandon older ways of living, but whose transition is rarely voluntary but is imposed on them through poverty, dubious and discriminatory modes of development that benefit the upper-caste landlords and the corrupt state machinery (embodied in the novel, as it usually is in postcolonial fiction and film, in the police). Numerous transformations are documented for us. Kunjipennu breaks gender roles initially by her choice of husband. The community as a whole is forced out of their traditional skill-sets and labour practices by poverty (a theme that echoes activist C.K. Janu's Mother Forest). Education and acculturation shift Parvati out of the community and into city life, but this is a choice she makes self-consciously. Class-consciousness, modernity's close associate, arrives as well, compounding the problems of the community. Christianity's arrival alters the life of several Arayas. With Independence comes the brown Congress Party Saheb, as a democratic republic erodes the power of the local king, substituting one exploitative mechanism for another.
Narayan's tale refuses to romanticise tribal ways of life — the pure, noble savage, Narayan shows, does not exist except as myth. He maps, of course, their intimate eco-vision, but also shows how disease ravages them due to their ignorance, alcoholism and the uneven gender relations. But he also points the finger at the economic exploitation that proves, finally, to be the bane of the community in the ‘ new India'.
The novel must be treated as a socio-critique whose polemics are subtle rather than vociferous, but is no less powerful for that. The slow erosion of cultural identity, the absence of agency for some sections of society, the increasing erasure of various communities from the supposed democratic space of citizenship, the questionable route ‘modernity' and ‘development' take, and the effects they have on men and, differently, on women are all woven into Narayan's novel. Kocharethi calls upon us to ethically engage with it, to question our complicity in the systemic conditions that produce these lives, to reflect on our own reactions to the tale, to our expectations of the form and genre and to unlearn our frames of understanding. Catherine Thankamma's careful translation deserves a word of praise for refusing to simply give us ‘local flavour' — the ‘uninspired English version' as publisher S. Anand recently described a translation — by offering syntactic and idiomatic transliteration that makes little sense, or to modernise everything. Kocharethi is a smooth read thanks to Thankamma's efforts and suggests that there is still hope for the translation industry in India. Jayasree's scene-setting Introduction is an indispensable reading-aid as well.
Kocharethi,Narayan, translated by Catherine Thankamma, OUP, 2011.