Life on the road

Lead review

Life on the road

In her latest novel ‘Idris’, Anita Nair takes us on an unforgettable journey through 17th century South India, laden with a magical narrative and beautiful descriptions, writes Monideepa Sahu

Idris, a trader of Somali origin, embarks on an epic journey “seeking the measure of earth and man.” His tall, muscular body, dark-as-midnight skin and a jewelled eye of glittering gold set him physically apart from the rest of the world. His powerful personality is equally striking. This “eternal traveller” seems to need nothing, not even sleep.

Idris comes across as “someone who couldn’t be tempted or bought, corrupted or convinced. All he needed was himself”. Self-realisation dawns on him in the course of his exciting travels. Idris does indeed need and seek something, the tastes, smells and loving touch of someone, someplace to anchor his restless spirit and call home.

This beautifully crafted novel chronicles Idris’s travels, which bring him to Malabar to attend the Zamorin’s Mamangam celebrations. South India in the 17th century is an exotic, magnificent and dangerous place. The lush tropical beauty of Malabar harbours many perils and social evils.

Innocent people are accused by their social superiors of crimes they did not commit, and then are subjected to murderous ordeals in the name of a skewed justice system. The caste system has spread its tentacles over the people in a stifling grip. The “laws are stringent, and allow no deviation.”

The most shocking custom is the ritual of Chaver warriors attacking the Zamorin when he stands on the Manittara during the Mamangam festival to proclaim his power over his kingdom. The original feud, the reasons for this ritual attack made once in 12 years, have been long forgotten. Yet for such pointless honour, Chavers have continued for centuries to go headlong into battle and certain death. No one knows how many bodies of Chaver warriors have been tossed over the ages into the deep well of the Manikinaru, like layer upon layer of debris.

Fate leads Idris to nine-year-old Kandavar, who he realises is his own son, born of a mysterious night of passion. Idris feels the urge to draw his son close, to take him and his mother Kuttimalu away to begin a new life together. But fearing the harsh consequences from the strict caste laws, Idris hides his true identity. He is accepted as a guest into the Vattoli tharavad, Kandavar’s home. Kandavar’s uncle and mother entrust Idris with the task of weaning the boy away from his suicidal ambition of becoming a Chaver warrior, and teaching him to value life.

Wishing to delay the inevitable parting, Idris takes Kandavar on a voyage along the coast, from Malabar to the Dutch trading settlement of Galle, Ceylon, Thoothukudi, and on to the diamond mines of Golconda. Anita Nair does a marvellous job of bringing such rich and varied settings and cultures from another age, to vivid life.

The pages are filled with delightful descriptions and the action moves at a pleasing pace. With the help of intensive research and a forceful imagination, she draws readers to share life aboard the ships, feel the rocking waves and fear thunderous monsoon storms. We follow Idris through the homes of wealthy merchants, bazaars and lanes of port towns, the pearl fisheries off Thoothukudi and factories making quicklime from seashells.

Idris and Kandavar, around whom the novel revolves, stand tall as passionate, strong-willed and powerful characters. In Kandavar, we see a warrior in the making. He is also a little boy who loves his pets, his baby sister, his mother and his Aabo, Idris. Driven by courage, and childish curiosity and recklessness, he gains maturity in the course of his travels. Realising his true identity, he shows his selfless love for his Aabo by guiding him towards love and safety.

Idris is a towering figure, as powerful and upright as the heroes of classical epics. Perhaps his only failing is that he is too noble and perfect, somewhat beyond the pale of ordinary humans. Kuttimalu and Thilottama, the two women in Idris’s solitary life, have lesser roles to play in the story. They too, are interesting and passionate characters.
This is a memorable tale, imaginative, exciting and skillfully brought to life.

The social evils, moral dilemmas, the hypocrisies of a bygone age grip us in the course of the dramatic action. As the Chavers are killed in their futile pursuit of honour, we share Kandavar’s horror at the sight of his favourite cousin’s dismembered head being rolled like a coconut.

We do not again need Chandu Nair to explain the futility of Chaver honour. An Armenian book-keeper moralises about caste barriers, “silly fools. They (the Hindus) look alike, sound almost alike, and certainly smell alike, but they behave as if each lot of them are distinct from the other.”

Two banias from distant Surat are reluctant to cross a river because the coracle is wrapped in cowhide. They relate with anger how a Persian cruelly killed a peacock, but consider it just that the Persian himself is killed as a punishment. Idris gently points out the fallacy of their ideas.

When diamonds are finally unearthed in Golconda, Idris’s assistant Golla reflects, “It has to do with human greed... We covet what isn’t easily available.” Such commentaries, which crop up now and then, seem intrusive and superfluous. They hinder the magical flow of an otherwise remarkable narrative.

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