A powerful saga of loss, both personal and collective, Kocharethi maps the story of the Malayarayar tribe in Kerala. Melding history with culture, Narayan portrays their many struggles: from possession and dispossession of land to the challenges of preserving myths, rituals, social customs, and belief systems.
Translated by Catherine Thankamma, the work includes fifty-two illustrations, and will appeal to readers of all hues, including students and scholars of Indian writing, comparative literature, and translation, cultural, and gender studies.
Narayan, recipient of the prestigious Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, has published five novels and two collections of short stories. Kocharethi, a multi-prize winner, is his first novel.
Catherine Thankamma is a translator, writer, and critic. She teaches English language in the R.L.V. College of Music and Fine Arts, Cochin.
Adivasi Rachana: Life, Land, and Language
The lives of Malayalees are linked to their land. Discussions touching the question of land could be seen mainly in two types of discourses—the public, political discourse aimed at establishing the right over land, and literary narratives that describe people and their intimate associations with land. The fractured relationship with land, as one who owns it or as one who has been driven away from it, marks literary writing in Malayalam, particularly fiction. To an early novelist like C.V. Raman Pillai (1858-1922), control over the land was crucial for political suzerainty. In his trilogy on the history of Travancore, Marthanda Varrna (1891), Dharmaraja (1913), and Ramrajabahadur (1918), he portrayed landscapes of the mind against the story of conflicting interests fighting for power on a tiny stretch of land at the southernmost tip of India. In his masterpiece Kayar (1978), Thakazhi Sivashankara Pillai (1912-1999) tells a story spanning more than two hundred years, of the rise and fall of different communities in his birthplace, Kuttanad. While being the history of a region, Kayar captures the essence of the revolutionary shifts in Kerala's history, with reference to the changing pattern of landholding.
If Thakazhi narrates the saga of generations, M.T. Vasudevan Nair (b. 1933) delineates the lives of individuals struggling for existence within disintegrating feudal structures and value systems. Most of his characters are drawn from Kudallur, his native village. Naalukettu (1958) tells the story of a young boy, Appunni, against the history of his tharavadu, a matrilineal joint family, where again the disintegration of the tharavadu and shifting land-holding models become critical. In Thattakani (1995) ,Kovilan returns to Mooppilasseri, a thinly veiled representation of Kandanisseri, his birthplace. In the process of narrating the myths, legends, and history associated with the place, he creates new myths and legends for the displaced and the expelled. In the semi-autobiographical Thalamurakal (1997), 0.V.Vijayan (1930-2003) traces his family history in an attempt to examine the personal as against the collective. In the highly stratified Kerala society where caste is a critical determinant, ownership of land is an important index of social authority. Deprived of control over land for historical reasons, Vijayan traces the saga of his family in an attempt to understand the complexities of social positioning and its connections with economic and political factors.
Narayan's novel Kocharethi (1998) should be seen against this larger picture of literary narratives on land in Malayalam. The novel maps the adivasi's changing perceptions of land and its ownership. It gives us an insider's view as Narayan chronicles the changes that take place in the lives of the inhabitants of the foothills of the Western Ghats as they negotiate the interests of modernity. It is an account that traces the possession and dispossession of land, the innocence of a people who did not even have the notion land was 'property' and that they could be alienated from it. To the adivasis, the first inhabitants, there was no question of acquiring individual rights over the land. The land was not separable from their sense of collective identity; they were one with it and celebrated this union in all rites of passage. There are not many writers among the adivasis. In fact, the concept of writing was unknown to the adivasi until about fifty years ago. They relied on voice and memory, the spoken word, passed down from generation to generation. To them, voice is life embodied. More importantly, the symbolic universe of the adivasi is vastly different from that of a non-adivasi. Essence to the adivasi does not exist behind appearance metaphorically, but exists materially in its own right, immediately visible and knowable. God is with him as his friend and neighbour, whom he can appease with a drink, and from whom he can freely ask a favour. The distinction between `you' and `me' that marks any 'advanced' society is happily absent in the adivasi's worldview: 'It is always us, a feeling of being one with the hills and waters, animals and men.' He does not own any land, but the land is his, as much as it belongs to anyone else in the community. Those who are outside this inclusive way of life call it 'uncivilized'. They take the freedom to idealize, romanticize, or distort it. In Narayan's own words, those representations tended to depict the adivasi as a monochromatic figure, like a demon (a nishacharan) of mythological stories. It is to respond to such misrepresentations that Narayan took up the pen. He gives us an authentic picture, the story as told by one who has lived it. He says, 'We wanted to tell the world that we have our own distinctive way of life, our own value system. We are not demons lacking in humanity but a strong, hardworking and self-reliant community.'
Narayan says that the background as well as the descriptions of the terrain is based on memories. He draws freely from his own experiences to sketch the events in the novel. He says, 'I began to write the novel, drawing on my childhood memories, my grandfather's stories, and the rituals that he performed ... the title came much later.' But as the interview included in this book will show, it was not easy to get the novel published once it was finished. After Kocharethi, Narayan has moved away from the personal ambit of experience in his creative endeavours. His views on deprivation and destitution have also undergone a subtle change. Though he is not for a directly confrontational position challenging authority, he is very much aware of the inequities and advocates the means of peace and harmony for correcting wrongs.
Narayan's novel is not just about the past or the present, but explores the connectedness of the past, present, and future. The first half of the novel is an ethnohistorian's delight, with particulars of beliefs and rituals unique to a set of people who live in close communion with nature. The various social or cultural codes—`verbal codes' (phonological, lexical, syntactical), 'bodily codes' (physical orientation, appearance, facial expression, gestures and posture), 'commodity codes' (clothing, food, accessories, equipments, gadgets), and 'behavioural codes' (rituals, protocols, role-playing, games)—are detailed minutely. The second half of the novel is a painful narrative of personal loss. Forces of acculturation in different guises visited the adivasi community and they were ill-equipped to meet the challenges. The Christian missionaries, who introduced English education and Christianity into their midst, were one such force and Narayan is forthright in his comments about them. The gods of these early settlers were totally outside the Hindu pantheon
of gods and Narayan is equally critical of Hindu orthodoxy. He says,
‘The Christians came and started English medium schools. They
said worshipping stones and trees was wrong. Then the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) came
and did the same—replaced Puliambulli and Marutha with Vishnu
and Durga; ochre robes replaced the gowns of the priests and nuns.
No one was really interested in us as a people.’
Though we have many fictional works dealing with the lives of
the aboriginal population in Australia or Canada, Kocharethi is the
first book-length creative reconstruction of adivasi community life
from south India. Adivasis are believed to be the first inhabitants of
the land and terms such as atavika (forest dwellers), vanavasi (forest
dwellers), and girijan (hill people) are used to refer to them. They
were scattered through the length and breadth of the country, and it
was the European anthropologists who made a taxonomical listing
of their physical features and living conditions and classified them
under the unifying rubric, ‘tribe’. A great degree of objectification
and distortion was involved in this exercise of naming that sought
to explain the customs and practices unfamiliar to the Europeans
in terms that were familiar to them. The procedures of decennial
census taken during the British colonial period in India have also
been cited as an instance of system building. The term ‘adivasi’ seeks
to counter this logic of standardization. It refers to the fact that they
were the first inhabitants of a particular region. The term was coined
in the 1930s to highlight this fact and has now gained acceptability
as denoting -this unique characteristic. Over a period of time it has
attained wider circulation over terms such as ‘aborigines’ or ‘tribes’,
as denoting a past autonomy that was disrupted during the colonial
period and has not been fully restored yet.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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