Lessons that trickle down the family tree


The tigerclaw tree
P A Krishnan
Tranquebar

2011, pp 319
Rs.295


The Tigerclaw Tree chronicles the lives of four generations of a Tenkalai Iyengar family.

The novel opens with the family’s 100-year-old matriarch Ponna mulling the fortunes of each of her children and the paths they chose to prosperity, asceticism and madness; even as she considers her own past — hurriedly married off at a tender age to the whimsical son of Tirunelveli’s most prosperous moneylender.

We are introduced to the murky histories of the men and women and how each generation fought its own demons. Ponna’s story is told in the backdrop of the Great Indian Mutiny while her sons witness and partake in the Freedom Movement of the next century.

In a way, these two characters represent the two major stances of Indians towards the British during the 19th century. Pakshi is the concurring moderate: resenting imperialism but satisfied with autonomy where Nammalwar is the fire-breathing extremist. Their sister Andal’s life is curtailed by archaic traditions that force her into marriage when still a child and soon into leading the life of a widow.

The following generation treads a similar route as their political beliefs dictate their destinies as tragedy strikes with regularity. It is the fourth generation of the moneylenders’ family that the book mostly focusses on: the fiery, intense Nambi and the likeable, somewhat gullible
Kannan.

Both of them explore their own idealogical paths and political beliefs. Nambi, the brilliant firebrand doctor who serves the poor and shuns mindless politicking, marries Rosa, a Dalit Communist doctor. Kannan, much like the author, dabbles with teaching before entering the civil services.

Their stories are set against the changing winds of the south Indian political climate — the flirtations with Communism, the Dravidian movement and Naxalism. We are occasionally offered insight into the social and cultural milieu of the ‘70s: film stars and their massive fan following, the tardy education system, and student movements.

Religion too is a strong flavour in this book that begins with a family tree representing its cast of characters — a la Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Perhaps the Nobel laureate’s magnum opus was a strong influence in this ambitious narrative. Krishnan attempts to tell a larger story with a plot that he, in places, probably has a more personal investment in.

But the interspersing of the lives of the protagonists with the political currents of each time is the mainstay; why, there’s even a somewhat hilarious scene of love-making that the work of Lenin, in the form of a large tome, makes possible.

Occasional wanderings into humour aside, the author, at times, seems predisposed to lead the plot into darker, gloomier alleys. It is however the lighter asides that stay with the reader as the pages turn. Then, there are several translations of Tamil devotional poetry that are placed in the context of the trials of its characters’ lives (the author acknowledges the legendary A K Ramanujam for the translations of these).

The novel, it seems, traverses with a sense of inevitability; here eventualities aren’t necessarily the consequences of previous actions. One of the characters mentions the regular visitations from doom that the family has had to endure — this, the reader may find, at times, inexplicable.

Although it is hard to imagine how a book as expansive as this one could come full circle — not suggesting that it does — The Tigerclaw Tree concludes with a semblance of realisation. It leads us to believe that one of the characters makes an unlikely discovery of profound truths about his beliefs as a result of adverse circumstances.

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