In Paavalampatti, a village in Tamil Nadu, the life of a young Brahmin boy changes unexpectedly when he discovers the bloodied body of a labourer, Murugappa, under a tamarind tree. It is a murder that leads to no investigation; it does not even cause a murmur in caste and class-bound pre-Independent India where the life of an Adi Dravidar is inconsequential.
Only the boy Ramu is haunted by the memory of the corpse. Keen to unburden himself, he reaches out to Murugappa’s daughter, Ponni. Far from the prying eyes of the villagers, a quiet friendship begins between them. The story of Ramu and Ponni and the story of a country in turmoil unravel in parallel.
The novel is divided into four parts. The first is set in Paavalampatti where S. Shankar captures well the rigidity of caste hierarchy in the countryside.
Murugappa is grateful to Gomati Paati, the matriarch of the house, for employing him, a lower-caste man. But Murugappa’s brother Chellappa clearly sees the convenience of this arrangement. Do such acts of supposed benevolence break down caste hierarchies or solidify them further?
From the village, Ramu travels to Madras to study. In the third and fourth parts, we return to Tamil Nadu. Ramu and Ponni with their friend Arokiasamy decide to build a school in Thirunelveli. But trouble confronts them when the quarry owner, who leases them his land, realises that education deprives him of his workers. From this point, a taut narrative suddenly becomes loose. Ramu and Ponni drift apart but that part is not fleshed out.
What I found tiring were the conversations (“His eyes and legs are mine. His face and hair are Ponni’s. The rest of him belongs to all of humanity!”) But besides the occasional longueurs, this novel of forbidden love is well-crafted. It is also timeless because India, as we know, has not changed much since.
Ghost in the Tamarind; Subramanian Shankar, University of Hawaii Press, $24.99