Subjugation of exploitation

Subjugation of exploitation

 A flotilla of boats, carrying an army of smallpox vaccinators, approaches the islands off Ernakulam, ready to bring medical progress to reluctant people. As they all slam their doors shut and snatch diapers off their clotheslines to conceal the presence of infants, a child is about to be born, and the vaccinator turns midwife. Dutch Battery was once at the crossroads of Portuguese, Dutch and native trade. Like most parts of Kochi and Ernakulam, it nonetheless entirely lacks a cosmopolitan frame of mind.

Madhavan’s work here, despite its promising beginning, is a loosely connected string of events with one small kernel lost among them. The sense of place comes through, but not the sense of a people. Many characters seem to have no purpose other than to spout episodes of state and community history, and their fellows stood alongside, chiefly to say “and what happened then?”

In toddy-soaked conversations, or rather serial monologues, each speaker declares his full name and ancestry before making a rather thin point. From all the noise, it appears that two things are going on in the background. One, a group of men wish to perform a Chavittunatakam opera. And two, some members of the church proclaim themselves to be for the people, and yet, wish to offer an alternative to the communist ethos.

In the foreground is the narrator, Jessica. She is conceived and even after several chapters, we have still got only as far as her baptism biryani. As she grows into her early teens, the state of Kerala is formed, a war is fought against China, and another is fought against Pakistan.

It was the time of the old Kerala communists, the ones who used to put up their umbrellas whenever it drizzled in Moscow. It was also the time of mindless opposition to the very label communism. The gang at the toddy shop serves as a Greek chorus to all these events.

Then Jessica’s grandfather, thought to have perished at sea, returns. From this event, there is a more organic progress to the story. Jessica is not sent to a school on the mainland, as planned. Instead, she gets to know the blind old man, grows a little older, and passes on still more of the stories, myths and songs she hears every day.

Her grandfather also arranges for her to be sent to a maths tutor. One day, the tutor molests her. The young girl slowly understands what has happened to her and then tries to hold the man accountable. But her priest, the local party leaders, and finally, her own family and friends, cannot figure out how to make the man own up to his crime, much less punish him.

 Somehow, this disparate collection of individuals come to a consensus, that she is at fault, and that the tutor ‘must’ be innocent. No surprises thus far. It remains only for us to hear what Jessica does next.

Madhavan tells this oldest and saddest of all stories with a peculiar indifference. Jessica, whether in her happy childhood or her angry teens, remains shadowy, and we cannot extract a living, breathing girl from the surrounding clutter.

Litanies of Dutch Battery
N S Madhavan,
translated by
Rajesh Rajamohan
2010, pp 312
 Rs 350