When the void stares right back at you

Books like this one, which throb with lived experience, rudely turn the reader’s gaze to a hell that exists right outside his window.
Last Updated : 16 April 2023, 01:50 IST

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Back then, all naughty children on the subcontinent were warned their mischief could summon those who kidnap kids and maim them — an urban legend to beat all legends. Until our main character, Pothivelu Pandaram, encounters a tenement full of such children for sale and he must rush out to retch. For his business is comparatively honourable. He only trades in “items”: the naturally deformed, lepers, hunchbacks or those born with diminished mental capabilities. He also breeds “items” by selectively mating odd pairs to birth unique mixes of deformities in babies. All of them are strategically staged on the steps of temples by his minders according to festivals and seasons. Brisk business in this line ensures that Pandaram is relatively wealthy. To maintain a wholesome image, Pandaram also works at the local Murugan temple as its cleaner; a gig he outsources to the decrepit Valli.

Much is made of books that change lives. Some books hold us tighter than friends. And truly, the right book finds its way to the seeker. However, books that throb with lived experience to reorient perceptions are rarer and far more valuable for they expand the limits of the reader’s universe. And as mind-boggling as the landscape of The Abyss is, it unveils a layer of hell we are within touching distance of, yet one we don’t or won’t know of. Jeyamohan’s Ezhaam Ulagam translates to the seventh level of hell and through translator Suchitra Ramachandran’s superb rendering, readers of English now have access to this extraordinary tale featuring the most miserable forms of humans who are forced to earn as beggars, subsisting on rotten scraps while being mated and bought or sold like cattle.

Empathy and ruthlessness

The book begins with Pandaram unable to sleep and then freshening up and rushing off in a hurry through a stream and fields, humming a hymn to Muruga under his breath before reaching, breathless, to organise a midwife to minister to Muthammai at childbirth. His piety and the group filled with concern hint at wholesome goodness at work here. Nothing could be further from reality, as Muthammai’s unique deformities make her his cash cow. Over the years she has birthed 18 “items” and there may still be a few years more of ‘harvest’. All are elated when the sprog is horribly deformed too and could bring in a great price. All except Muthammai, who doesn’t have the vocabulary to voice her distress at what her mind and body are made to endure.

As a father, Pandaram is tender and loving. His wife Ekkiyammai constantly grumbles that his gentleness as a father, the leniency and spoiling, are making their daughters unmanageable. They are good girls, and his life revolves around them. When he returns from the festivities at Pazhani having forgotten the bangles he had promised his youngest Meenatchi, she cries herself to sleep. Unable to handle his guilt at making her so unhappy, he travels out to Meenatchipuram to wake up the goldsmith Shanmugavadivelu to mould the bangles immediately and returns with them. The deep piety and these moments of empathy contrast violently with his ruthlessness towards his “items”, his complete apathy to their hunger and pain.

A quiet dignity

The “items” themselves are wretched creatures accustomed to all forms of brutality, accustomed too to the impossible tragedy of their lives. Yet keeping them afloat are tenuous bonds, their group dynamics and all the human emotions their living conditions deny them. When Pandaram’s henchman Madhavaperumal hastily puts together a mangal sutra to cart Erukku off from the hospital lest she goes with the nuns there to a convent, she decides to consider the marriage real. She burns with concerns about her new husband’s meals and his health even though each time she asks, she is rewarded with brutal blows. And Muthammai names her one-eyed boisterous baby Rajinikanth after the movie star as she nurses and cares for him with intense love.

The high point of their kinship comes when Kuyyan is distraught at being denied a feast for Pandaram’s daughter’s wedding. It wasn’t their owner’s doing: 50 uninvited colleagues of the groom turned up drunk at the nuptials and the bride’s family had to stretch all their resources. Yet the disappointment makes Kuyyan dash his head against the wall in sorrow. The beggars rally around raising ₹Rs 50 for a proper meal for him. They even enlist the cop Thanu Pillai’s help to ensure he is treated like a customer and not shooed away.

Tragedies unfold in the lives of Pandaram and his “items” alike: all entrenched in the quiet dignity of rural Tamil Nadu. Despite the filth and the moral turpitude that underlies this topic, human grace and hope gleam through. The superlative craftsmanship of the writer and his intimate knowledge of topography is entrenched in his own reflections as a beggar at Pazhani, a factor that authenticates as it relocates the average middle-class reader’s gaze to the other side of hell.

Published 15 April 2023, 20:07 IST

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