Wednesday, March 25, 2015
'Korkai' beats a path through a rugged coast
I have just finished reading Korkai, a voluminous (1174 pages), Sahitya-Akademi-award-winning Tamil novel, written by Joe d’Cruz and published by Kalachuvadu in 2009/2010.
Set in Korkai, which, during the Pandya kings of the Sangam period was a famous port city and the capital of the Pandya kingdom but is now a small seaside village on the banks of the Tamraparani in Tuticorin (now ‘Thoothukudi’) district in Tamil Nadu, this novel of epic proportions unfolds a saga of the life of the Parathavar (seafarers) of Korkai over a period of seventy-five years in a language which is at once challenging and enchanting.
For a good three-and-a-half decades I have been away from Tamil Nadu with occasional visits to Chennai where my relatives live. Though I am a regular and serious reader in English, I cannot claim to be one in Tamil, my mother tongue. During my occasional sorties into Tamil, however, I have read the likes of Mouni, Thi Janakiraman, Sundara Ramasamy, Neela Padmanabhan and Ashokamitran – writers who inspired me to write stories in Tamil some of which were published by Kanaiyazhi in the 1980s and 1990s – but not with the kind of commitment that my reading in English has demanded. The worlds these writers presented were familiar, though the sensibilities they evoked did make a difference. But, reading them was certainly a graduation from the stage of reading fiction of the kind represented by Devan, Sandilyan and Kalki during my childhood and adolescence. There was further graduation with Salma who led me into the deep recesses of a refreshingly different world with her Irandam Jamangalin Kathai. It was not just a world of women and of Muslims; it was a world of women's language, too – a world in which women speak not in a borrowed voice but their own. Reading the novel was a fascinating experience.
From Salma a couple of years ago to Joe d'Cruz in 2015 has been a smooth and natural transition. Yet, reading Korkai was like sailing in uncharted waters. As the thoni (boat) moves down the sea, now calm but soon rough, time also moves relentlessly, with the lives of three generations of some thirty-five families criss-crossing into one another over a period of a century against a background of rapid social changes effected by a host of factors – British colonialism, Roman Catholicism, the freedom movement and its aftermath, the changing economic climate, the rise of Nadars to power and affluence, and a close relationship with Sri Lanka. Into this voyage are seamlessly textured – if I might mix my metaphors – history, society, religion, politics and the sea itself. In other words, the architectonics of the novel, as literary pundits would call it, is indeed grand and amazing. That it doesn't give the impression of being a contrived attempt adds to its value.
Something else also adds to its value. It is difficult to believe that the detailed descriptions of the intricacies of seafaring and of the nuances of the Parathava life that one finds in the novel would have been possible for an outsider; they must have come from the lived realities of a sensitive and observant insider. Yet, the authorial voice is almost silent in the novel: the narration is by and large that of a detached outsider rather than an anguished insider.
An interesting aspect of the plot construction should be specially mentioned. The novel narrates the history of the coastal community of Korkai in 133 chapters. The chapters are closely knit, yet they stand apart with each chapter presenting a cameo picture of a particular incident which is part of a larger story. As a result, many of the chapters have their own independent value as short stories.
In theme as well as treatment, Korkai is indeed a significant attempt and a valuable addition to Tamil literature. I look forward to more novels from Joe d’Cruz.