2013, pp 534
All the way through the immense length of Sundara Ramaswamy’s third and final novel — Children Women, Men (translated from the 1998-released Tamil work Kuzhandaigal, Pengal, Aangal) — the flavour and lilt of the original Malayalam-accented Tamil lingers, as does the atmosphere. Translator Lakshmi Holmstrom skillfully conveys the sights, smells and sounds of Travancore-Tamil territory from the late 1930s.
It all comes alive — the home with a kuudam (central hall), Kottayam’s Tirunakkarai temple and its torch-lighted Sriveli procession, the smell of sandal paste, sweat and poverty, the Pottris, the Travancore songs, a child screaming ‘Saniyane’ at his cocky sister, the Tamil Brahmin accountants, teachers, doctors, revolutionaries, thinkers… it’s a slice of history, brought alive.
This detailed, painstakingly wrought book teems with characters, incidents, thoughts, speech — and in fact dialogue plays an integral part in the unspooling of many a scene, in giving shape to the individuals that populate this slightly overlong tome. Yet, despite the sporadic meandering, one’s interest is held to the last, as people meet their expected and unexpected fates. And what stays ultimately, is this understanding — that the more things change, some things don’t, especially in an ancient society like India. Widows can now remarry without raising eyebrows, but the cruelties of casteism, power and child abuse still prevail; fortunate girls like Sukanya are not rushed into marriage, but an intelligent, dusky rural Valli may yet be steered towards marriage, rather than college, love and life; disciplinarian fathers are perhaps a rarity, but fathers and sons still clash, families regularly face upheavals and learn to survive it all.
The novel is set in the pre-war years (1937-1939) when new political and social ideas swept the nation, catching the imagination of all Indians, even in remote southern corners like Travancore. Gandhiji’s words and actions awoke the sleeping conscience of the simplest Indian. Temples were considering entry to all castes, women were encouraged to look beyond hearth and home, participate in nation-building; change was in the air. In this story, Ramaswamy (1931-2005) brings to life scenes from his youth.
The book follows the fortunes of a Tamil Brahmin family as they settle in Kottayam, trying to earn an honest living, repaying the debts of a dying father in Alappuzha, taking responsibility for an extended family member from Thaliyal village in Nagercoil. In main, however, the story concentrates on unhappy young Balu, the nine-year-old scared son of a well-meaning but strict father SRS, and his asthmatic wife Lakshmi. Other members of this nuclear family include a confident older child (daughter Ramani), plus a widowed lady Anandam, cook to the family and soul-sister to Lakshmi. The group soon gets an import — mother Lakshmi’s scatter-brained younger sister Valli, tomboyish, difficult, somebody to be set right before eventual marriage to a chosen one.
The huge cast of characters includes the many relatives, friends and acquaintances of SRS — people like Chellappa, the revolutionary Gandhian who woos Anandam, quietly, and with dignity; Thaliyal Thatha Sethu Iyer (the voice of tradition); Dr Pisharadi, the gentle family doctor-cum-friend; Sridaran, his determined, intelligent, rebellious son, London-returned convert to the nationalist cause. And there is this intellectual group that gathers at the SRS home arguing and debating on politics and society.
The character of Balu needs special mention; here is a child who craves love from a father who does not seem to understand him like the mother does. Yet, eventually, it is the father who comes across as the voice of reason, reform, hope and awareness, willing to do the right thing.
The novel’s bedrock is the speech, the dialogues. They move the story, bring life to the pages, provide the occasional breeze of humour, temper the drama. An unkempt Valli is scolded by Lakshmi, ‘And is it written in the shastras that your hair should never come in contact with oil?’ Young Balu finds solace and solitary peace in the garden’s banana grove. Balu has named the banana plants —‘Amma banana, Paati banana, Athai banana…haughty thing!’ Throughout the book, the child is brilliantly portrayed, his hurt, angst and imagination spelt out effectively.
The ‘haughty thing’ is SRS’s sister Pankaja, one among the many supporting characters. Their explanatory stories occasionally add as speed-breakers, but thankfully the patient reader can get past them and be rewarded with sudden passages of great beauty and depth.
As the languorous journey concludes, there is fulfillment, some real sadness, but also the hope of a new beginning.Do take this train.