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Living and dying: Review of Tamarind History

N Kalyan Raman

Tamarind History by Sundara Ramaswamy (English translation: Blake Wentworth), Penguin Books India, New Delhi 2013 209 pages, Rs. 299

Among the many narrative modes prevalent in pre-modern India, the sthalapurana (or place-legend) enjoys a special stature. It is normally associated with a local temple and tells the story of how the temple came to be built on that site. Sthalapuranas inevitably feature kings, queens or hermits and involve divine visitations in one form or another. What we might learn about the place and the people who live there is incidental. When the modern novel came to India in the late nineteenth century, the sthalapurana provided a ready framework of story-telling, except that, instead of god, a society in transition was the protagonist. This format facilitated multiple plot-lines that could be woven around a community of people who were confined not just by geography but also by tradition, livelihood and modes of feeling.

The sthalapurana-like framework did well in America, where the self-consciously democratic emphasis on the ‘little man’ (or woman) naturally led to a plethora of small-town narratives. Famous works such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1916), Sinclair Lewis Main Street (1920), the many tales of Faulkner set in the mythical Yoknapatawpha County (1930-60), and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days (1985) testify to America’s endless fascination with the dynamics of small town existence. Closer to our time, we have had Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo enthralling us with its magic.

In India, however, our literary tryst with small communities appears to have been short-lived. We have several novels and short stories by RK Narayan set in the fictional town of Malgudi, OV Vijayan’s The Legend of Khasak (1969) and The Saga of Dharmapuri (1985), Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938) among the more well known books. In most Indian languages, though, place-centred narratives have been few and far between. Except in historical narratives describing a remote past, place was seldom the leading protagonist in Tamil fiction. Literary fiction tended to be more about existential and moral questions faced by individuals, and in later days, about class and caste conflicts.

Sundara Ramaswamy’s Oru Puliamarathin Kathai (1966), which gave us the ‘local’ history of a traffic junction in Nagercoil town of southern Tamilnadu, belonged to this loosely defined sthalapurana genre. Also published in the same year was Krithika’s Vasavechvaram (1966), a fictional village created by the author to critique the sexual mores and hypocrisies of men and women who inhabited the eponymous village. In 1970 appeared Neela Padmanabhan’s celebrated novel, Pallikondapuram (English Translation: Where the Lord Sleeps, IndianWriting, 2008), where a forsaken man’s torment is reflected in the physical reality of Thiruvananthapuram when it was still the capital of the Travancore dynasty.

Along with the other two novels, and perhaps even ahead of them in the assessment of many critics and readers, Oru Puliamaratthin Kathai has been hailed as a classic, a novel read keenly by successive generations of readers even today. It has also been translated into English and several Indian languages. The first English translation, published by Penguin, appeared in 1995 as Tale of a Tamarind Tree. In 2013, Penguin published a second translation, Tamarind History, as part of their Modern Classics series of works from Indian languages. Tamarind History, the book under review, has been translated by Blake Wentworth, an American academic based in University of California, Berkeley.

Unlike in the other two novels, a tamarind tree has the ‘lead’ role in Tamarind History. Proliferating over a traffic junction in a small town, the tree bears witness to a series of events that stand testimony to the nature and evolving traits of the people of that town. The small town was Nagercoil of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, situated very close to the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent at Kanyakumari. The period covered in the narrative stretches from the thirties to the early fifties of the last century, just a few years ahead of the transfer of Kanyakumari district to the newly formed linguistic province of Tamilnadu. Given its history, most people in Nagercoil were bilingual, speaking both Malayalam and Tamil. 50% of the population of Kanyakumari district consisted of religious minorities, such as Christians and Muslims, lending a special flavour to the town. The Hindu population in this largely agricultural region was divided on caste lines, with the Vellala community being dominant. During that period, the communist movement also had a significant presence in the region, with leaders like P Jeevanandam and Krishna Pillai working to unionize peasants and agricultural labourers. It was here that the tamarind tree began its life.

The tamarind tree once stood on the rise which surfaced in the middle of a tank, which was filled with water throughout the year. A short way to the south of the tamarind tree stood a grove of casuarinas trees, where people who had no work to do went to sleep during the day. Here is a fond description of the tree from that time:

“It was born, and it grew believing in itself. It put forth leaves and blossomed...Branches stretched up to the sky, and roots bore down to roam within the earth. Yes, it was a tree full of dignity, one which grew into full life.”

At the beginning of Tamarind History, we encounter the tamarind tree as part of folklore, recounted by Damodara Asan, a gifted local raconteur. Chellayi, a heart-broken young woman had hanged herself from the tamarind tree, and moves were afoot, for less than honourable motives, to cut down the tree, calling it haunted. The tree was eventually saved through Asan’s native cunning.

Then, because it fleetingly gave offense to the king of Travancore, the smelly water in the tamarind tank was drained and the hollow was filled with earth, paving the way for the site to develop into a market and thereby into a busy traffic junction. Post-independence, the casuarina grove, which had served as a haven for card-playing idlers and for adolescents exploring their nascent sexuality, was cut down and converted into a ‘Nehruvian’ park, where staid middle class citizens came daily and discussed politics while listening to radio broadcasts from AIR through loudspeakers mounted on poles.

Did the tree endure forever, under these circumstances? No, unfortunately. While the tamarind tree was always benign, stirring the breeze, providing shade and yielding copious fruit every summer, the world of humans around was not, making the tree vulnerable to the destructive whims and machinations of the human kind. Tamarind History is quite simply “the story of the tree living and dying.”

The novel is a fascinating account of the intersection of traditional society with the world of modern institutions in a small town – municipal council, retail trade, elections and the tabloid press. A pregnant woman’s craving for tangy tamarind pods leads to disruption of the annual municipal auction of fruit from the tamarind tree and consequent flexing of political muscle by rival political factions. The mysterious vandalizing of the neon sign of a shop at the tamarind junction rests on a back story of ambition, greed, trade rivalry, dirty tricks and enduring hostility. In the final third of the novel, we witness electoral calculations based on communalism, personal rivalry extended to politics, and fake sacralising of the tamarind tree as the abode of a Hindu goddess, leading to its eventual destruction by mercury poisoning.

Through narrating this tale of a tree, Sundara Ramaswamy (1931-2005) – “SuRaa” to his admirers – also tells us the story of a people in a certain time and place. He describes not only their lifestyle, traits and tendencies but also their resourcefulness and worldly aspirations. His account of how easily the great institutions of our democracy are casually distorted and even degraded by every citizen’s historical baggage presages the equally corrupted but bloodier present of our republic. The tamarind tree seems to stand for an unknowable, organic ideal, a gift of nature that we have maimed and destroyed in our continuing strife.

“For the people who come to the crossroads and the people who pass by in a rush to get somewhere else, if they are from my hometown, at some point they will wonder what point there could have been in destroying the tamarind tree...Will they ever find an answer they can honestly accept? God alone knows. And even if they never find an answer, who cares?...Raise a truthful question, that is more than enough. The same as a thousand answers...”

It is SuRaa’s worldview and style that makes Tamarind History such a special read. SuRaa, a pre-eminent figure in the world of Tamil letters post-Independence, was a stylist par excellence. In this debut novel, SuRaa disguises himself as the young and hopeful narrator who casts a satirical eye at the goings-on, milking even melancholy situations for their comic possibilities. In the manner of Pudumaipitthan, SuRaa’s literary forbear and fierce critic of Tamil society’s follies and foibles, the author is unflinching in his description of people and situations, making even the most bizarre of developments appear as though they are just the natural outcome of a given place and cast of characters.

And what a cast of characters! Given his early association with the Communist movement in the region, SuRaa writes about the humble poor with as much verve and engagement as about the rich and powerful. He seems prescient in his portrayal of traders-turned-politicians, journalist-turned-agents, double-crossing henchmen and dummy candidates (like Peanut Thatha) who never win even when they are elected to office.

Tamarind History is replete with many markers of the sthalapurana. A tree haunted by spirits, a pond paved over by a king’s arbitrary whim, pods disappearing from the tree in high season as if by magic, intrigues of evil men against each other and god, fateful attribution of divinity to the tree and its sudden, near-apocalyptic end.

Tamarind History has been translated by Blake Wentworth, an eminent academic who teaches Tamil and south Indian literary culture at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Wentworth has done a commendable job, transporting SuRaa’s complex narrative, filled with a profusion of inflected observations and age-old wisdom, into readable English prose, without obscuring the spirit of SuRaa’s narrative voice. Very few among the translated texts being produced in India at present are done by native speakers of English. When translations like Tamarind History appear, they serve as a benchmark for many of us who work on creating the English text while still enmeshed culturally and aesthetically in our own language and culture.

After Oru Puliamaratthin Kathai, SuRaa moved on to explore the role and predicament of the subversive artist in modern society with JJ: Sila Kurippugal (1981). His third and final novel, an enquiry into the nature of the family, has been published as Children, Women, Men (2013) in Penguin’s Modern Classics series.

But SuRaa’s debut novel will endure as the legacy of a young man’s wonderstruck, perceptive and large-hearted engagement with the world around him. The delightful characters of Tamarind History (or their descendants) tend to reappear in SuRaa’s seventy-odd short stories, perpetually struggling with modernity without losing the strength and fecundity of their native spirit. As always, the striving in SuRaa’s art is at once modest and grand: to raise a truthful question.

A version of this review appeared in the July-August, 2014 issue of The Book Review, New Delhi


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