Review: Along with the Sun edited by Ki. Rajanarayanan
Caste, cattle and moneylenders decide the fate of the underclass in this anthology of 20 stories from the Karisal region of Tamil Nadu
Like trees, politics and culture too grow from deep within the land. What is allowed to grow on the topsoil; who can own a field; who will plough it; to whose home goes the larger share of the grain are questions that life takes centuries to resolve, if at all; a novel or a short story can settle it faster. Edited by writer and folklorist Ki Rajanarayanan, this anthology of 20 stories from the Karisal or the “Black soil” region of Tamil Nadu’s southern districts has not tried a quick-fix.
In Along with the Sun, the black stays black – caste, cattle and moneylenders decide the fate of the underclass; in this land, the sun here is a scorcher; its people cannot escape drought; women must negotiate their position in the family and in the village with age-old weapons. But even as that blackness is sprinkled clay-like over all the stories, art and the eye has gone everywhere. These are stories in which imagination and empathy has clearly gone to work on the authors’ lived experiences.
Along with the sun is a tremendous collection written by the best hands and minds of Tamil literature. It is specifically focused on “country writing” of the 1970s, the capture of people going about their everyday lives, living, loving and fighting with the meagre powers in their hand, in their village habitat. This was a movement as much as it was the “house style” of the writers of this region, beginning, as the foreword points out, with Sundara Ramaswamy, one of the most important Tamil writers of the post-independence period, followed by Thi Ka Sivasankaran, and then in a big way by Ki Rajanarayanan. Translated by Padma Narayanan, most of the writers included in this anthology in English, who focussed for the first time on the Karisal region, continue that tradition.
Some striking examples: In SA Tamilselvan’s story, Along with the Sun, which gives the anthology its name, a young girl’s affections for a man she grew up loving lasts beyond her marriage and his and the change of seasons, till she comes face to face with “her machchan’s” wife. Then, a dam bursts and her tears soak her husband’s chest, drowning his words of a good day at the market where he has sold all his coconuts ripened under a relentless sun.
In A Muththanandam’s tale, Bullocks, the same sun beats down on Ponniah Pillai, a farmer now fallen on bad days. He goes one day to the house of cattle-owner Perumal Konar. Here the relationship is measured by memories of buffaloes – Pillai’s and Konar’s. Remembering past generosities, Konar gifts Pillai a pair. These dumb animals and Pillai, are ultimately at the mercy of the same fate. Their bonding and the respite that came their way was meant to be short-lived.
That same sense of inevitability and doom builds up towards the end of Women with Flowers on their Thalis by Paa Jeyapirakasam. Thaili, the beautiful Pallar girl, the first woman to dance with the fire pot at the festival in a village dominated by the upper caste Reddys, challenges the caste order and is shown her place. The story of inequality is upended briefly by Thaili. The hands that own lands covet her, which emboldens Thaili; the Reddy women hate her.
For the first time, they saw a Pallar woman carrying water, walking along the street that belonged to them. And she had slippers on her feet…
‘How is it, di, that you walk through the village?’
‘Who gave you the permission?’
Next morning after the panchayat’s verdict, she is back to shepherding the cattle of the village through the tamarind grove, the long torturous route. Thaili is not to be allowed her rebellion; comfort and opportunity even though they would have come her way by compromise, are to be out of her reach.
In Credibility Established by Ki Rajanarayanan, Periya Modalali refers to Masanam, his servant boy, as that “Masanam fellow”. The boy is a good worker, which the master admits as well even as he beats him. The violence meted to the boy is completely arbitrary; it is meant to assert Modalali’s right over his servant’s body, mind and soul. In a delicious irony, Masanam turns the tables on his master when the village rediscovers him as a ‘holy man’ after leaving his master’s service. When a family member falls ill, Periya Modalali has to appeal to Masanam; when the rain does not come on time it is Masanan again who is called upon to rescue the village. People now lay caste aside and throng his hut to offer him milk as one would a god.
“Then Masanam, who usually drank without his lips touching the glass, now put it to his lips and sipped the milk…”
Concerns of social justice don’t always sit well with literature. The Karisal stories are an example of how, when done right, such concerns give birth to words of power and a truly alternative imagination.
Paramita Ghosh is the author of In A Future April. An independent journalist, she lives in New Delhi.