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Subtle play of caste and class dynamics

Although this appears to be a revenge saga, it is actually a story that explores our idea of morality and absurdities of life, says Mayank Jain Parichha
Last Updated : 19 May 2024, 01:20 IST
Last Updated : 19 May 2024, 01:20 IST

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In the last two decades, the English literary milieu has seen the emergence of brilliant Tamil voices like Perumal Murugan, Ashokamitran, and Charu Nivedita — all credit to the availability of good translations, which has opened doors for literary works in various Indian languages. Today, Tamil writers have carved out a distinct genre within the literary sphere for themselves.

To add to that list, N Kalyan Raman has translated Sahitya Akademi winner Devibharati’s first novel, Nizhalin Thanimai, as Solitude of A Shadow (2024). This is a story of revenge of an unnamed protagonist against a loan shark who molested the protagonist’s elder sister some 30 years ago. He vows to avenge what his sister and his family had to endure. This sounds like a classic script of a blockbuster film — of an anti-hero’s quest for vengeance.  Only, it isn’t.

The author’s craft and subdued play of caste and class dynamics intertwined with moral and psychological drama make this novel a worthwhile read. The forces of revenge in the protagonist’s mind blur the lines of good and evil, which makes the tale all the more interesting. The impression that this novel is a story of revenge is incorrect. In fact, this is a story about the complexities and absurdities of life, ideas of morality, and our notions of what is good and what is evil.

The narrator remains unnamed, and a couple of times, even misidentified as Karunakaran (the loan shark), albeit fleetingly. He is purposefully unnamed, and at the end of the novel, the author renders him to be an irrelevant character. Readers will know the reason why he becomes irrelevant when they reach the last pages.

The protagonist is a clerk in a government school and soon enters Karunakaran’s house on the school principal’s recommendation and becomes like a family member. He hatches plans to kill Karunakaran but fails. Instead, he keeps helping him like a dedicated and honest employee — becoming his shadow.

Karunakaran’s daughter Sulochana and the protagonist fall in love. But love for him is a sham as he is there to take revenge. He rapes Sulochana and then deserts her. When Sulochana asks the protagonist to marry her, he shows no courage but still feels guilty for his deeds. Ultimately, he justifies it to himself that his treatment of Sulochana is par for the revenge course. Throughout the novel, the protagonist does multiple things that render him a dark character. But he has a conscience, and one ends up with a strange sense of empathy for him.

Readers remain confused as to who the real villain in the novel is because Karunakaran doesn’t come across as vile, except for those deeds that exist in the memories of the protagonist. The narrative’s vividness, effortlessly brought to life by Devibharathi, is remarkable. The author doesn’t dwell on minute details or scene-setting architecture or environment; it is the story that takes precedence.

The story flow indeed does not disappoint; however, the novel does have some shortcomings. Details about the protagonist’s friends and upbringing contribute little to the storyline, with the protagonist’s backstory, revealed almost at the novel’s end, somewhat disrupting the pacing.

The author’s rationale was perhaps to offer a view of the protagonist’s psychological map and to make it more clear why he is the way he is. Unfortunately, that part appears sketchy.

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Published 19 May 2024, 01:20 IST

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