Literary Review

When hate begets hate

Book cover of 'Imayam' (The Begetter)

If you are looking for a happiness-enhancing read, do not bother with Pethavan (The Begetter). If you are looking for a grand theory of life, do not bother with Pethavan . If you are looking for a clear-as-hell mirror to what life is like for those trapped in the insane, inhuman world of caste identity, then do consider reading this book. It will deliver that world to you as it is with no extra embellishments, no soothing salves.

The plot is eerily simple. Pazhani’s daughter Bhakkiyam has done the unthinkable. She has fallen in love with a Dalit sub-inspector. The village panchayat has already delivered several ultimatums to Pazhani. He must kill his daughter, come what may, or face the consequences. It is a question of caste honour, and caste, after all, is supreme. If Pazhani does not kill his daughter, he and his family risk facing a series of terrible consequences: Bhakkiyam herself might be gang-raped by a caste mob, their house may be set on fire, their land and livelihood will be snatched from them, if they are still alive, that is. It is a zero-sum game. The stakes can’t be higher.

When the story begins, a woman with a baby on her hips is dispensing casual advice to Pazhani on how to murder his daughter. Before we can quite recover from that, we are hurtled into the un-joy ride of the rest of book. You cannot breathe easy. For there is more to come. And then, some more.

In her note, translator Gita Subramanian says that translating the story was a very emotional experience for her. She writes of her decision to side-step the dialect of the original, to avoid Indian English and to stick with “simple, straightforward language.” A wise thing to do really — for anything else would detract attention from the life unfolding in front of our eyes.

In a case of life imitating art, Pethavan eerily anticipates the Divya-Ilavarasan affair. But perhaps it is best not to harp on this unhappy coincidence, given how common and under-reported honour killings are. As Imayam writes in his foreword:

I have only chronicled the lives of the witnesses who bear testimony to the way Tamil society lived. They live: animated witnesses who determine what literature is and who is a writer… History does not give importance to an individual’s or a family’s life story. On the contrary, it is the story of a society that should be written. That is the life of a place — the life of an era. I write a story to record the contemporary state of society.…

There are two very remarkable things about the story: one, its sheer energy and pace and, two, the unexpected tenderness at the core of it. In a brutally violent world, a world where justice, reason and fair play are entirely absent, how is tenderness even possible?

How can people without choices act with tenderness? But they can and they do, as Pazhani and Selvarani, Bhakkiyam’s crippled younger sister demonstrate. Pazhani’s mother Thulasi pleads with him not to “chop off the family’s banana tree.”

Bhakkiyam, we learn, was born to Pazhani and Samiyammal after many long years. The metaphor of the banana tree used to describe Bhakkiyam tugs at our hearts, as do the concluding scenes. The other metaphor used to describe her is equally powerful: “Bhakkiyam lay by the wood stove, dehydrated, like a pumpkin plant that has been uprooted and left to wither away.” Indeed, everything and everyone in Pazhani’s miserable household is withering away. Pazhani’s wife Samiyammal appears dead to the world. She, too, is a victim of an environment that is toxic and inescapable. Selvarani is “like a chick shivering in the cold.” There is no escape, it would seem, for any of them.

Imayam’s story leaves us with many unanswered questions. Here is one that will perhaps haunt me the most: what becomes of Selvarani, Bhakkiyam’s sister? I don’t know why I should care about her more than I do about the others, but I do.

A translation such as this one is as much a political act as it is an aesthetic one.

It directs our attention to issues that threaten to undermine the very fabric of our humanness, issues that must no longer be brushed under the carpet.

Pethavan: The Begetter, Imayam, trs. Gita Subramanian, Oxford Novellas, Rs.250.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2022 2:44:33 pm |