Into a green darkness: review of Sheela Tomy’s ‘Valli’

Valli tells the tale of a land and its people — where resources brought outsiders and repression, but also resistance and strength

July 22, 2022 10:12 am | Updated 07:04 pm IST

Valli unravels in the agrarian idyll of Kalluvayal, a village buried deep inside the Western Ghats. It’s where mist carcasses the greens, a land of sun-dappled secrets and birdsong. It’s where ferns and vines embrace, ancient karimaruthu trees abound and umpteen animal sounds fill the air. Sheela Tomy’s debut novel is a ballad of enchantment that easily sweeps the reader into its green vortex. It’s the story of erstwhile Bayalnadu (land of the paddy fields, now known as Wayanad), the migrants who made it their home, and the real custodians of the woods, the adivasis. Inextricably linked to the earth, the novel transforms into a brilliant discourse on social and environmental justice.

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Valli is the tale of four generations, a narrative that progresses through diary entries and mails. The timeline spans half a century, starting from 1970 when Thommichan and Sara, a young couple (both teachers), arrive in the village. The author introduces a compelling array of characters, all of them contributing to the depth and dimension of the narrative. But the forest, a storehouse of mysteries and myths, is the protagonist. While nature is revered and adored by the aboriginals, some outsiders too forge an organic bond, revelling in its secrets and solace.

A tribal woman fetches firewood from the forests of the Western Ghats in Wayanad

A tribal woman fetches firewood from the forests of the Western Ghats in Wayanad | Photo Credit: iStock Photos

One with the forest

An excellent piece of eco-fiction, Valli is replete with fervent portrayals of nature. Nearly all the pages throb with the wild energy of Mother Earth as the river Kabani, trees, elephants, langurs, pangolins, caves, and stone carvings stay entwined. Agriculture, faith, festivals, folklore and even everyday conversations are not free from the frequent references to the flora and fauna. In their most intimate moments, Basavan is the mud of the fields and Rukku a chempakam flower and they lay on the rock talking about the chatter of pakkichis (birds). It’s a bond that transcends the mundane, a concord even death can’t challenge as they will be reborn as “one of its thousand trees, a blade of its grass, a sprig of its paddy”.

Read | A record of Wayanad’s heritage

Towards the end, Valli makes a heartbreaking testament to the plundering of mountains and woods. It reveals how the forest was converted into luxury retreats for the rich, how its children were displaced and exiled to the concrete cages allotted by the government. As Kelumooppan, the chief of the Paniyar tribe, awaits his death in the hermit cave, he talks about the home sanctioned by the sarkar. The elderly man hates the hot oven of a house with its tiled yards and finds comfort inside the rock cleft.

The book is replete with fervent portrayals of nature

The book is replete with fervent portrayals of nature | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

In one of the most poignant parts of the narrative, the author draws a parallel, “Have you thought about elephants? The noble, unsuspecting beasts are felled into traps dug deep into the earth, beaten, starved, terrorised with fire and loud noises until they are broken, their wills destroyed, controlled easily with mere sticks. Isolating those who live together in collective strength, driving them from the cool forests into scorching heat, destroying their homes, their walkways…”

Politics of the land

Valli means vine, a system of wages and earth in Malayalam. It also means a young girl and in the novel you see many women who carry the wild rhythm of the forest in their souls. Be it Susan (Thommichan and Sara’s daughter) who relocates to the desert with a fragrant forest in her heart or Isabella, a nun who leaves the convent, who comes back like a homesick bird, they draw their spiritual strength from nature. Be it Kali, the tribal girl who loses her mind after she is raped and banished, the lonely Umminithara who herds the ducks or Pembi the healer — they all immerse themselves into their wild surroundings. The novel celebrates their tenacity and grit while the oppressive structures are aptly acknowledged and re-appraised. And finally it’s nature who delivers the valli (wages) for all the atrocities. She sets off a spree of destruction, unleashing floods and landslides in a frenzied dance of vengeance.

Valli makes a heartbreaking testament to the plundering of mountains and woods

Valli makes a heartbreaking testament to the plundering of mountains and woods | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

 Sheela Tomy (trs Jayashree Kalathil)
 Harper Collins

Valli’s politics is thoroughly fused into its premise as it exposes the tyranny and horror, violence and malice. The language is simple and fluid despite the allegories and Biblical references. Adding to its allure, Tomy uses the original Paniya language, a gothrabhasha that lacks any script. While the author deftly captures the totality and complexity of the experience from an insider’s angle, Jayasree Kalathil’s translation is equally intense when it comes to bringing out the mood and keeping up with the quirks. The book explores the ecology of freedom, makes a strong statement and leaves behind many baffling questions.

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