An epic terrain

Koogai captures the original’s spoken rhythm and the poetic descriptions of the landscape.

Published - July 03, 2015 05:12 pm IST

Koogai (The Owl); Cho Dharman, trs. Vasantha Surya

Koogai (The Owl); Cho Dharman, trs. Vasantha Surya

“The owl’s call, once heard/Foretells a death. Twice heard,/A dire fate. Three throaty moans …/Seven times it calls to restore to you/The things you have lost./Eight times it hoots, and quite suddenly/You die./A call repeated nine times or ten/Is by far the best. But by then/You are already dead”

This song in more ways than one captures the cadence of Koogai, both in terms of content and style. Koogai came out in 2005, a decade after Dharman’s first novel Thoorvai (1996) created a stir in the Tamil literary circles for its experimentation in form and its grounded realities. Urulaikudi, Dharman’s village, is his perennial resource. His traditional performing arts background and working class connections make him unique in many ways. His literary mentor and maternal uncle Poomani is the foremost writer to open new frontiers of content, language and discourse in Tamil literature.

Koogai is almost an ethnographic document of the lives of the lower-caste people in Chitthiraikudi village and their near exodus to the slums of Kovilpatti. The novel abounds in instances of oppression meted out to the Dalits by the dominant middle caste groups — false cases, forced sexual assaults, insults and thrashings. The Owl on the other hand saves children, foretells future, guards the devotees and in many ways organises the marginal sections of the society. The Owl and the State, signified by the police, occupy the epic terrain of the novel.

The narrative is not linear. The plot is made complex by the interweaving of songs, stories, dreams, nightmares and fantasies and lores of various deities. Aandaalamma, who was born female but did not become a woman biologically, turned into a fountain in the dryland. The details of trees and birds are no less a document of the ecosphere under discussion. The many proverbs and sayings bear the wisdom of the common man.

The hierarchy of caste in all its ramifications is ever-present in the novel. Peichi, who lives in Subramania-puram surrounded by Dalits, is Kaali Thevar’s wife. Her daughter Maari is happily married to a Thevar boy. Krishna Paraiyar has converted to Christianity and is named Peduru. The protagonist, Seeni, who belongs to Pallar community, mocks at that name punning on the Tamil word ‘ peththuru’ (cull out) thus: “Sounds like someone’s knees being pulled off … or eyes being gouged. I’ll have to remember it like that”. The Christian priest is supposed to have mixed the seed of karuvelam in the dung, thereby disturbing the land’s ecological balance. (Called ‘seemai karuvelam’, it is a menace brought into the region’s landscape. To directly blame the Christian priest is to undermine the impact of the colonial power.) The Arunthathiyars remain on the fringe, chattering away in Telugu, ill-treated by the dominant forces, including the Pallars.

While Dharman has managed to address the inter-Dalit castes’ lack of solidarity and the ‘graded inequality’ among them, there is a definite positive slant towards the Pallars. This seems to be an impasse in Dalit writing in many languages, and definitely in Tamil.

The three introductions offer varied perspectives to the text. A. R. Venkatachalapathy lays out the literary map of Karisal Ilakkiyam in Tamil. He traces the two trends of modernist literature in Tamil and the new influences of magical realism. While giving a summative view of the influences of modernist writings and the heated debates over ‘arts for art’s sake’ and ‘art for people’s sake’, he dismisses the literary influence of the left movements. The example he gives to prove that is the fact that IPTA did not have an active role in Tamil Nadu. Unlike this, street songs/plays and stage songs to collect funds for Bengal famine relief and anti-hoarding and corruption during World War II abound in the Janasakthi issues of the 1940s. (My forthcoming article in the Jadavpur Journal of Comaparative Literature explores this aspect). Poets like Jeevanandham to Bharathidasan and Tamiloli and the Left-based magazines like Samaran, Santhi, Saraswathi and Manithan prepared the grounds till the 1960s for literature that was the by-product of mostly monolingual Tamil writers. In fact Sundara Ramasami began with Santhi and disowned his avowed left ideology later. Ki. Rajanarayanan was primarily a Communist worker. Raghunathan and Jayakanthan contributed their bit to the documentation of lives of the toiling people. It is pertinent to approach Dharman’s novel from this perspective as well.

The translator Vasantha Surya has captured the spoken rhythm, rhetoric of perfomative poetry or ritual, the conversational register and the poetic descriptions of the landscape. It is to Mini Krishnan’s credit that one owes the rich tapestry of multiple strands of Tamil literature being made available to wider audience via English. Koogai is a rich addition to that long list.

Koogai (The Owl); Cho Dharman, trs. Vasantha Surya, OUP, Rs.650

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