Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Dalit’s eternal night

By V Ramnarayan

I am ashamed to say that I did not know who Cho Dharman was when I went to a book review event relating to his novel Kookai last evening at TAG Centre, Chennai, organized by the Puthaka Nanbargal Kuzhu.

My worst fears of having to suffer a barrage of platitudes and being bored to death were more or less confirmed until a passage from his novel was read out. In the author’s own voice, the words sprang to life, full of raw power, honesty, humour even. It was a truthful telling of the lives of Dalits—oppressed, reviled, ill-treated and crushed by a cruel society—by someone who knows them and other marginalized people intimately. The passage is about two young Dalit men, who dream of a hearty meal at a roadside ‘club kadai’, bathe and dress grandly for it, and actually live their dream, only to be thrashed to death by their caste superiors for their intransigence.  

When it was the ordinary looking, moustachioed Dharman’s turn to speak, he did so with quiet confidence, in a clear, ringing voice. He spoke of his craft and his desire for anonymity for fear celebrityhood would prevent people from opening up to him as they do. “If you come looking for me at Kovilpatti, my neighbours will want to know if you are looking for the man with the ancient bicycle,” The people in his books are people he knows personally, and he does not want to interfere with the supply chain of raw material for his writing. “That is why you won’t find my photograph in my books. Only in my eighth book have I given my address following a request from a scholar who referred to me in the past tense in her MPhil thesis. ‘Please give your address in your books,’ she said. ‘Otherwise more students of your works will murder you as I did,” she warned.

“I write stories from my own life,” Dharman continued. “I believe the novel is the best form of recording our history. There is nothing new under the sun, and it is my writing, my style that will make you read my novel, not the story itself.”

Dharman illustrated the point by telling us how he would describe the forest in just a sentence or two. “You may enter the forest a hundred times to sight the tiger and come back seeing it only once, but the tiger saw you each of those hundred times.”  He gave us a sample of his indirect depiction of the decimation of a forest by man by following the flight of a parrot that cannot find a tree tall enough to offer a nook for its eggs, so leaves the jungle to deposit it in a neighbouring palm.

Dharman is fascinated by the marginalized among us including nomads and tribes. They have so much wisdom to offer the rest of us, we misjudge them so badly, he believes. He has been trying to befriend nari kuravas and other tribals for some years now in an attempt to understand and learn from them. “Polish, for that is his name, is my kurava friend,” he told yesterday’s audience. “He is of course unlettered, but quite a philosopher. I first met him when he and his fellow kuravas were camping near my house, and a number of clothes went missing from the clotheslines of our colony. Most of my neighbours suspected the kuravas, and I decided to meet him and check it out. I took my son with me, and found Polish cleaning his rifle, and the birds he had shot lying in a heap near him, with ants crawling all over them. There was no sign of the stolen clothes anywhere as Polish and the other kuravas went about their business clad in nothing more than their loincloths. My little son saw peacock feathers lying near Polish and asked him if he could have one. ‘Why do you need one?’ Polish asked him. ‘I’ll keep it with me and collect its fledglings when it gives birth to them,’ my son said. ‘Will you give me one of the little feathers?’ Polish asked him. Once my son nodded in the affirmative, Polish gave him the feather. He refused to accept the five rupees I offered him. ‘This is not for you. Between you and me it would be business, but this is a transaction between your son and me. He has promised to give me a feather in return.’ However, as we prepared tro leave, he shouted to my son, ‘The feather won’t deliver any more feathers.’ Polish is such a gentle, wise person, and we are so ready to brand his tribe as dirty, cunning, dishonest,” Dharman concluded.

When Dharman asked to accompany Polish on a rabbit hunt, the gypsy’s retort was immediate. “Why do you want to share my burden of killing lives? It is natural for a tiger to kill his prey, and it is in my nature to hunt, not yours.” Dharman managed to convince Polish, and did accompany him on the hunting expedition at night. Wearing goggles on his forehead, Polish went in search of rabbits, but when he sighted a couple of young ones, he did not shoot at them. “I will not kill the young,” he explained to Dharman.

There is so much in nature that we do not understand, Dharman told us. He spoke of tailorbirds whose nests have windows opening to one side or the other, depending on which monsoon the northeast or southwest would arrive first in a particular season. He also marvelled at how nesting birds can tell male palmyras from female palms—something no human can—and always build their nests on the male trees, as the female ones rich with fruit are prone to climbing and fruit plucking depredations from humans.

Dharman shared some of his rare experiences with hill tribes with the audience. “The tribals leave untouched overripe jackfruit hanging from the trees for the birds and the bees, never plucking them, and content with the fruit that fall to the ground on their own.  At an annual festival, men and women alike get drunk and dance merrily, dressed in strange bat-like costumes. ‘Without the pollination these creatures do, we would have no forest. Should we not show our gratitude to them?’ the tribals explained to Dharman.

The award winning novel Kookai (Night Owl) is the story of Dalits today, as we can see from this passage from Dharman’s foreword to the novel:

It was some forty years ago. The noon sun was blazing hot. It was perhaps the month of Chittirai, as the neem trees in our woodshad blossomed into a canopy of shade. The neem only blooms in summer. My father and I were standing in another part of our land.
All of a sudden a whole variety of birds, crows, mynahs, karichans and vultures, started surrounding the neem and screaming. Watching the scene wonder-struck, I asked my Ayya what it was all about. Ayya said, “There must be a kookai sitting on the neem tree. Have you seen one?” When I said, no, he took me to the neem tree, walking rapidly.
Ayya bowed before the neem tree with folded hands. When my eyes followed the direction of his obeisance, I saw a big, ugly bird seated there.The other birds flew repeatedly towards it and poked his head with their beaks. The kookai (kottan or owl) kept turning his head to each side and opening his mouth. Every time he opened his mouth, I saw a red  ball of fire inside it.

As Ayya shooed the other birds away, I asked him to explain the horror of the attack on the kookai. “Why do the birds poke the kookai?” He explained that even the smallest of the karichans could attack it. “Why can’t the kookai retaliate?” I asked him. He said, “The poor kookai cannot see during the day. That’s why all these birds attack him at daytime. At night no bird can dare to approach him.”

“Ok, but how do the birds know that the kookai is sitting in this tree?” I asked Ayya.
”There is so much in God’s creation that we don’t know but these birds seem to know.”

The story of the kookai continued to surprise me. After that first sighting, I saw it many times under different circumstances. Every time I see a kookai, I realize I am a kookai too, with an identity inerasable for millennia, an identity that is invisible to me but everyone else can see, an identity that I carry as my burden everywhere. Nights are the most important events of these night owls, nights are when their happiness and sorrows occur. In my novel Kookai, all important incidents must needs be centred around night. 

I believe that the novel is the most appropriate medium to demonstrate how a society, a community moves beyond itself in the space of time. I still see kookais. They slink in holes, hide in tree branches, pierced by other birds, just the way I saw them forty years ago.  

(This passage was translated from the Tamil original by V Ramnarayan).

1 comment:

Balachandran Balu said...

Nice translation. Thank you.