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The Ocean-Ringed Earth

N Kalyan Raman

Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (The Ocean-Ringed Earth) by Joe D’Cruz, Thamizhini Pathippagam, Chennai 2004

Aazhi Soozh Ulagu’, the title of the novel under review, is an exquisite phrase from Kamban’s Ramyanam (circa 12th century CE), which occurs in Kaikeyi’s exhortation to Lord Ram before he is sent away into exile for fourteen years. ‘All of this ocean-ringed earth is Bharathan’s to rule,’ declares Kaikeyi, while Ram must travel into the jungle to undertake ‘intolerably arduous’ penance, live austerely and bathe in the waters off hallowed pilgrimage centres, before returning home in two times seven years. In a contemporary reworking of this metaphor, playing on the multifarious meanings of ‘Ulagu’, the title of this debut novel by Joe D’Cruz, first published in 2004, refers to the Ocean-Ringed World of a community of fishermen in a coastal village south of Tuticorin in southern Tamilnadu. The vastness of the ocean, which provides daily sustenance and brings death in unpredictable, uncertain ways, is the backdrop of the narrative in which awesome and tragic destinies of men, women and children are played out on the sands, in the briny air and on the unplumb’d, salt ocean over five decades—from 1933 to 1985.

In a somber note prefacing the novel, the author recalls being the altar boy at a funeral service in the local parish church for a fisherman whose life was lost at sea. “A black cloth draped over the coffin placed centrally on a table inside the church had these words printed on it: Today, it’s my turn; tomorrow, it’ll be yours.” “I began to observe the nature of Death,” the author writes, “with fear, and eagerness”. “When the path through which life commenced was the same for all living creatures – equal in birth – how various were the ways in which Death came to us! What is this great force of Death, which shall never be conquered, trying to teach us?”…”Every question that emerges from my experience of life invariably ends up as a very simple query: What is life worth in the face of Death?” D’Cruz wrote his debut novel as a means to explore this question

On July 17, 1985, three fishermen belonging to three different generations – Godhra Pillai, Susai and Siluvai from Aamandhurai village – are stranded mid-ocean while on a routine fishing expedition. Slowly, as the days and nights pass, it becomes more and more certain that they will all die. The story of their struggle – marked by tenacity, generosity, resourcefulness, love of the ocean with its awesome variety, splendour and spectacle, and terminal heroism – is told in sections interleaved with the larger story of the community itself, its cast of characters spanning all generations and ages, its gods and demons, its ecology of local and village feuds, caste prejudice and enterprise, love and dreams of a better life, and death—especially Death that touches them randomly, but with a sure hand. In the closing section of the novel, Siluvai, the youngest of the marooned, an orphan in his early twenties, survives the ordeal, rescued by a passenger ship off the coast of Tuticorin.

There are no individual heroes or even protagonists in Aazhi Soozh Ulagu. Truly, it is the narrative of a community’s life told refracted through the lives of its people, the near and far events of history, and of course, through the great unconquerable force that determines so much of how they live and die. For a first-time author, Joe D’Cruz has an impressive mastery of the novelist’s craft, a sparkling style and deep reserves of empathy for his characters. Being of the community, he brings us awesome descriptions of the sights, sounds, creatures and even moods from the far reaches of the ocean with c confident knowledge and exceptional powers of description. His evocation of the forlorn air and poverty of a coastal village, of the follies and wisdom of its people, is simply brilliant. D’Cruz captures every nuance - of land, air, water, god and the Devil – and it is hard to think of a recent novel in which so many different voices and people in various stages and walks of life are rendered with such perfection of detail. His people live in a world where their religious practices segue seamlessly into that of the Hindu world surrounding them; where their adopted religion does not free them from the divisive brutality of caste prejudice; where the Church alternately nurtures and exploits, offering the one true dwelling for their faith; and where mobility into the larger world – to Rameshwaram, Kanyakumari, Colombo, and around the world as merchant sailors - wreaks several kinds of havoc with their lives, one way or another. For all the awareness of Death which sings throughout the novel like a melancholy dirge, there is a poignancy and controlled pathos to the narrative, along with a steadfast dignity. Vannanilavan’s classic novel of the Seventies, Kadalpuraththil (tr: In a town by the sea), sharing a similar setting, was imbued with the same poignancy; but turning on romantic love, it now seems much narrower in scope and perhaps less authentic, even, than Aazhi Soozh Ulagu.

Beyond bearing testimony to the author’s literary skills and accomplishments, the novel is significant for several reasons at this juncture in our national and literary life.

There are few novels being written in India today which use the possibilities of this form to traverse a wide swathe of the social world, touching on the myriad dimensions individual and collective life. Perhaps this is due to inexorable limitations of imagination & experience on the part of the writers; or because more and more of our writers are pushed into straitened petit bourgeois circumstances, from which they are constrained to “produce art”; or because it is no longer possible for writers, in the normal course, to have sustained contact with or interest in the larger community; because, just as large sections of the populace are simply dropped over the edge – forever out of the reckoning - of a globalizing economy, these sections are also increasingly moved beyond the ambit of cultural production, denied admission into a public space where they would be honoured by acknowledgement, attention and concern.

However, expansion of educational opportunities in recent decades has moved large sections of people in India into the world, literally, of letters. For the very first time, whole communities, hitherto marginalized, now have the means to put together their own narratives, create literary expressions of their own culture and politics; and in brief, to declare their own sense of the universe. This is perhaps a possibility unique to Indian language literatures, with some linguistic communities racing ahead of others in this respect. The Fernando community of Tuticorin – whose most famous son was JB Chandrababu, a genius figure of Tamil cinema of the Fifties and Sixties – can now find a place in the Tamil imagination; so can ‘Siluvairaj’, a scholarly Dalit, from a village in drought-prone Ramanathapuram district. For a society with a long and shamefully persistent history of stratification and abuse, such developments can only be emancipatory. After all, it was more than eighty years since the first Tamil novel that a narrative of the social world of Muslims – the first ‘Muslim’ novel, if you will – saw the light of day (Oru KadalOra Gramathin Kathai, by Thoppil Mohammed Meeran) although Muslims have been living in the region for centuries.

These novels – and communities – also lay claim to the Tamil language – among the most famously diglossic languages in the world – with all its history and literary legacy. D’Cruz’s novel is dotted with celebratory references to fishermen’s communities (Bharathavar) in Sangam poetry as epigraph and chapter headings. In a sense, with Aazhi Soozh Ulagu restores to the author’s community what was always theirs and will be forever. The novel also documents and makes accessible for the first time the age-old nautical terminology of sea-faring Tamil communities; it restores to us the Tamil names of different species of fish found in our coastal waters, while describing for us how they look and move and live in the ocean

During the debate on reservations earlier this year, D. Raja, General Secretary, Communist Party of India, wrote in The Hindu (paraphrase mine): “These children are fighting against reservations, calling it unfair. There are people in our country who have suffered two thousand years of unfairness, which is our history. This history should be taught in our schools, so that people do not have the wrong idea of unfairness.” In another way, Pascal remarks in Pensees: “There are those who would never have loved had they not heard speak of love.” What better way to acquire this knowledge than through works of imagination. This new flowering of Indian language literature may bring us such critical knowledge and take us that much closer to that farthest frontier for us all, democracy itself.

Review published in The Book Review, December 2006, Volume XXX, Number 12, Page 6. The Book Review Literary Trust, New Delhi.


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