Koogai, the owl-
huddled in its hollow
with the sun overhead,
it flies free
when darkness descends.
Bird of the night-
an abuse, a bad omen
attacked and shunned
by birds, by humans... .
Strong, but unaware of
its immense power,
Koogai, the owl-
or wise? .
Set in post-Independence Tamil Nadu's era of agrarian and industrial change, Koogai reflects the nuances of an authentic contemporary myth leavened with irony and fierce humour. Empowering themselves with the image of the owl, a totem of self-respect and hope, men and women break free of old caste taboos only to find themselves entangled in the doublespeak of an egalitarian rhetoric.
Cho. Dharman, the son of solaiappan and Ponnthayi of Urulaikudi village of Koyilpatti, is a leading Dalit. Writer and is widely known as one of the karisal writers. For a while he worked in a textile mill. He has published two novels, Thoorvai (Agaram, 1995) and Koogai (Kalachuvadu, 2005), and a non-fiction work, Villicai Vendar Pichakkutti (Marutha, 2002).
'When Kovilpatti sneezes,' it used to be said, 'the Tamil literary world catches a cold!' Located in the dry 'black cotton soil' (karisal) region of southern Tamil Nadu, this small town with a population of barely one hundred thousand is perhaps the most unlikely place for a modernist literary renaissance. Kovilpatti, the town and the taluk in the present-day Tuticorin district, stands in for the entire karisal region, which covers the Kovilpatti, Ottapidaram, Ettayapuram, and Vilathikulam taluks of Tuticorin district; Sattur and Sivakasi taluks of Virudhunagar district; and a few marginal areas of Tirunelveli and Ramanathapuram districts. It is bereft of rivers. Only wild streams carrying flash floods and brackish brooks flow here. The perennial Tamiraparani river skirts this region and, ecologically and culturally, marks it out from the wet zone. The soil, though fertile, does not let water percolate and consequently there are few wells. The abandoned wells of saline water that dot the often-desolate landscape bear witness to the ruin of the topsoil. To bring further woe, the karisal region falls in the rain shadow region of both monsoons-the southwest and the north-east. Scarcely mentioned in ancient and medieval historical narratives, this region itself came under the plough only with the advent of Telugu-speaking agricultural castes from the north-'a new force in the agrarian system,' in the words of the preeminent historian of Tirunelveli, David Ludden-along with the Nayaka chieftains following the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire in the late sixteenth century.
But just a spell or two of rain can turn the black soil boun- tiful, yielding a rich harvest of a variety of millets, pulses, and groundnuts. Well suited to the growing of cotton, it is often called black cotton soil in English. A new variety of cotton flourished here from the early nineteenth century, called 'tinnies' (after Tinnevelly-the colonial name for Tirunelveli-the erstwhile composite district), and became the cornerstone of an economic upswing. When the American Civil War broke out in 1860, the supply of cotton from the American South was disrupted, resulting in a cotton boom in the Kovilpatti region, with tracts of land cleared of coconut and toddy palm trees, giving rise to the popular saying: 'The scorpion stung the coconut tree and the poison shot through the palm tree.' Cotton carding, ginning, and spinning mills mushroomed, affecting major economic and, in its wake, social transformations. This history is still visible in the not-inconsiderable cotton mills that survive. The dry and water-starved climate is also particularly conducive to the development of match and firework industries. The town of Sivakasi (popularly called 'Little Japan'), where much of this industry thrives, is globally recognized. Sivakasi also became a major centre for offset printing, and brightly coloured calendars produced here can be seen on many a wall across India. The name of Kondiah Raju, a local legend, crops up whenever one talks of calendar art in India.
The peasant here is commonly perceived as an unfortunate, if not an accursed, being. The contrast with the adjoining rich rice-growing culture and the temples spawned by the Tamiraparani river basin is too stark to be missed. The precarious nature of agriculture in this wretchedly poor region, especially since the 1960s, has kept up a steady supply of labour for the workforce for the mills and match factories. The first of Dharman's two novels, Thoorvai, captures this social transformation evocatively, while many of his short stories provide poignant vignettes of life inside these sweatshops. The nimble hands of young boys and girls were especially suited for stacking the matchsticks on the frames. Busloads of children being picked up from their homes in the wee hours to work in the factories, to return only late in the night was a common sight. And for many a decade, towards the fag end of the twentieth century, Kovilpatti was notorious for employing child labour and drew considerable media attention and consequent state and non-governmental organization activity.
The unrelenting blackness of the bleak karisal landscape, broken only by the straggling udai trees, can occasionally light up with the dancing of peacocks. The great modern classics of Tamil-the fiction of Pudumaippithan and T.Janakiraman-were nurtured in the Kaveri and Tamiraparani basins. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, there was little to show by way of literary crop from the karisal. However, although the great modern poet, the fountainhead of Tamil literary modernity, the iconic Subramania Bharati, was indeed born in this region and spent his boyhood here. His literary career had little to do with the karisal, and one would be hard put to find any trace of it in his writings. In the 1940s, the emergence of G. Alagirisamy as a part of literary modernism was certainly exceptional. Many of Alagirisamy's best short stories-for some inexplicable reason the short story has seen towering achievements in the hands of Tamil writers-are set in the karisal region.
But it was with Ki. Rajanarayanan-incidentally Alagirisamy's boyhood friend and literary confidante-that karisal literature came of age. Poomani, the distinguished novelist, aptly described him metaphorically as 'munnathi aer', the first plough that breaks the field. Born in 1923, Rajanarayanan took part in the freedom struggle and was involved in the Communist Party from the 1940s to the 1960s. Despite being in the thick of the literary world through his friendship with Alagirisamy, he was a late bloomer. It was only in the mid-1960s that he began to write stories. Originally published in Thamarai, the literary journal of the Communist Party of India, his stories were immediately recognized by the literary vanguard as strikingly new. With Rajanarayanan, the dialect and the demotic announced their coming into the literary world. Tamil, linguistically speaking, is a diglossic language with distinct written and spoken registers. The spoken register is the fulcrum of fiction, and Tamil writers, with some distinguished exceptions, were not entirely comfortable with handling it. Rajanarayanan's writings marked a rupture with his bold usage of the karisal dialect, and, unlike earlier writers who narrated in the formal register reserving the dialect for capturing conversation, Rajanarayanan ingeniously brought the dialect into the narrator's voice. The strong romanticist streak underlying his stories mesmerized his readers. I remember my initial ecstasy on reading his short-story collection (at the age of fifteen), Vetti, and the resultant intense desire to visit the karisal land. (Such was my fascination for his writing and the milieu in which it was set that I read, from cover to cover, headword by headword, the karisal dialect dictionary that Rajanarayanan compiled!)
His short story, 'Kathavu' (The Door) is a poignant portrayal of a door, the children's only plaything in an impoverished peasant home. The children swing on it daily and decorate it with matchbox labels-a favourite childhood collectible-until one day the bailiff takes it away in settlement of a debt. If this story can be said to have opened the door for karisal literature, Rajanarayanan's Gopalla Gramam (The Village of Gopalla), by defying all known forms of the Tamil novel, was another enabling moment. Drawing on a wide range of oral traditions and folklore, Gopalla Gramam etched the twohundred-year history of the Telugu-speaking peasant caste's migration to karisal country and striking its roots there.
As a steady stream of writings flowed from Rajanarayanan's pen through the little magazines-a self-conscious form of literary production that flourished in reaction to the largely philistine mass-circulated commercial magazines-larger social and political transformations did not fail to leave the distant karisal region untouched. The peasant uprising of Naxalbari and its attendant movement had its resonances here. Even though the Naxalite movement was confined to a few pockets in Tamil Nadu and was soon crushed ruthlessly by the state- V.S. Naipaul provides a brilliant account of it in his India: A Million Mutinies Now--it had a lasting influence on Tamil literary writing. The left movement in Tamil Nadu has had a checkered political history, but of its literary influence, the less said the better. Squeezed by Tamil identity politics and the Dravidian movement, the left had little influence on art and literature. That there was no representation from the Tamil region in the famed Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) is largely symptomatic of the non-existence of a cultural left in Tamil Nadu. Left literature bloomed in Tamil only in the wake of Naxalbari. The pent-up creative energies that had few avenues for expression in the mainstream found sluice-gates opened in the 1970s through leftist little magazines. It was a decade that triggered heated debates on the function of literature: the debate on 'art for art's sake' vs 'art for people's sake' raged for years, yielding ever-diminishing returns, but its effect in animating discussion and inspiring writers was enormous. Socialist realism was the dominant informing ideology and to say that a work was artistic amounted to damning it.
The first major rupture in literary writing in post Independence Tamil Nadu emanated from this moment. For many contingent reasons, the karisal region was arguably the epicentre of this literary efflorescence. The fiction of P. Jeyaprakaasam and Poomani-not incidentally, Dharman is the latter's nephew-marks a new beginning in modern Tamil writing. Traditionally, the writers of the Kaveri delta and the Tamiraparani basin dominated modern Tamil writing. Kovilpatti marked a shift. It brought in its wake a very different social-read caste-profile of writers with a different culture and lived experience. If the conscious Naxalite politics of ]eyapragasam foregrounded class differences expressed in a romanticist vein and alluring language, Poomani entered the field with a bang: The first line of his acclaimed novel Piragu (Later), 'Hey, you chakkili motherfucker,' was the literary equivalent of a bomb going off, and caught the Tamil literary world by the scruff of its neck.
Many writers followed in their footsteps: Tamilselvan, Konangi, Melanmai Ponnusamy, S. Ramakrishnan, Suyambulingam, Veera, Velusamy, Gowrishankar, Vidyashankar, the poets Devathachan and Abbas, and the brilliant designer Maris. Birds of passage, such as Yuvan and Samayavel who spent some productive years at Kovilpatti as their job transfers stationed them there, were part of this formation. If one cast a stone in Kovilpatti, it was said, the chances were it would hit a writer. The atmosphere was thick with writing and debate, and the memories of it so strong that already there is a rich harvest of memoirs recollecting those heady days. By 1984 this rich crop of writing prompted the publication of an anthology of stories of karisal writers. Karisal Kathaigal (Karisal Stories'P appropriately commemorated Rajanarayanan's sixtieth birthday, together with a companion volume, a festschrift of sorts, Rajanarayaneeyam. The twin volumes (to which may be added the aforesaid dictionary of the karisal dialect) announced the arrival of karisal literature as a distinct field in the Tamil literary world.
In the following decade, fresh winds blew over this dry region. Translations from the Soviet Union-apart from the nineteenth-century Russian greats, Soviet writers such as Chinghiz Aitmatov of Kyrgyztan, especially his Jamila and Farewell Gul'sary, had a great following-published at throwaway prices by Progress Publishers and Raduga Publishers from Moscow, as part of a propaganda blitz in the Cold War, opened new worlds and offered alternative, richer models of social-realist writing for storytelling (not to speak of exemplary book production). Already, with the first tentative baby steps taken by offset printing into Tamil book publishing, experiments were being made with book production.
It is difficult to imagine the awe and wonderment that Latin American writers-especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez- evoked among Tamil writers. The confluence of social real- ism and magical realism created a kind of literary sensation. Konangi published two bumper numbers of his irregular journal Kalkuthirai, one each on Dostoyevsky and Marquez. In the latter, an experiment in language-upsetting conventional Tamil syntactic structures to mimic Marquez's Spanish-triggered innovative uses of language. Non-linear became the buzzword. Magical realism was recreated, mimicked, and aped-choose your word. (Someone recalled in its wake a Tamil saying about cats marking themselves with branding irons to imitate the tiger') Rising above these jejune experiments, Cho. Dharman's Koogai is a genuine creative mutation of both literary modes, well adapted to the existential reality of contemporary Tamil Nadu and to the karisal region in particular.
Simultaneously, a bigger political storm was brewing. The turn of the last decade of the twentieth century was a testing time for the Indian nation, state, and society. A one-party rule based on the Congress consensus was crumbling. The economic cri- sis of 1991 led to liberalization and the consequent opening up of the Indian economy. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the communist parties of India to think for themselves. The acceptance of the Mandal Commission recommendations for reservations to backward castes let loose unprecedented social forces. The Babri Masjid-RamJanmabhoomi controversy turned out to be the cutting edge of an ascendant Hindu fundamentalism. The centenary of Dr Ambedkar fuelled the rise of Dalit assertion. Periyar, who had until then been reviled by a discourse dictated by Brahmins and Marxists (proving his tongue-in-cheek comment that the two were one and the same), was discovered anew by Tamil intellectuals. This mix made for an explosive brew. A bliss was it in that dawn that intellectuals of my generation can scarce forget.
Caste, which had remained outside the public discourse, despite the long years of Periyar's uninhibited anti-caste campaigns, had now emerged. The ugly truth began to be consciously realized that what had passed for the long and rich literary heritage of Tamils was essentially the product of Brahmin and Vellalar upper castes. Few writers from lower castes, not to speak of Dalits, had a place in the Tamil pantheon. The caste question was complicated in Tamil Nadu. The most radical of non-Brahmin movements had functioned here for well over a century, drawing sustenance from an even longer heterodox tradition. The Dalit question being subsumed within a larger non-Brahmin political movement, there had been no independent or autonomous Dalit movement-say, as in Maharashtra-to speak of. There was little of self-conscious Dalit literary writing-once again the contrast with Marathi or even Kannada is striking.
The Dalit movement-both literary and political-arrived at this moment. Autonomous political parties, such as the Dalit Panthers of India (now the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi) and the Pudhiya Thamizhagam, were born. A new generation of Dalit writers debuted with a strong and shocking language and vocabulary resulting in a rich outpouring of writing about Dalit lives. This creative outpouring was accompanied by a large volume of critical writing that foregrounded caste as a foundational element of both material and cultural spheres. In its wake also came debates about who could represent Dalits. Could non-Dalits write credibly about Dalit lives? On occasion, these debates evoked memories animating left and socialist literature. Upper-caste writers had their first taste of the guilt of caste privilege. Instructive was a brash, young, non-Dalit writer's fear of being beaten with 'a Dalit stick' if he voiced the usual platitudes.
The fall of the Soviet Union-the crumbling of pan alternate model of development-and, in practical terms, the freeing of the communist parties of India from the need to serve Soviet Cold War interests, paradoxically, had a liberating effect on the left movements in India. Left intellectuals jumped into the Dalit movement, now that there was another cause to fight for. In literary terms, socialist realism that had made for some appallingly stereotypical writings soon stood exposed as a bankrupt artistic creed. Writers seized the alternate models of writing emanating largely from Latin America.
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