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Book review

The way of all flesh

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

The way of all flesh

This novel remarkably conflates sexuality and spirituality in a strait-laced Brahmin society of the Thanjavur of yore.

R. Narayanaswami (1919-1992) considered himself a protege of the Tamil writer Ku.Pa. Rajagopalan whose pseudonym was Karichan (Tamil for drongo), and hence chose to write as Karichan Kunju (drongo’s chick). Along with Ku.Pa. Rajagopalan, Na. Pitchamoorthy, Thi. Janakiraman, Ka.Na. Subramaniam, and M.V. Venkatram, he was part of the famed “Kumbakonam group” of writers associated with Manikkodi, the little magazine that spurred a literary movement in Tamil.

R. Narayanaswami (1919-1992) who wrote under the pseudonym Karichan Kunju.
R. Narayanaswami (1919-1992) who wrote under the pseudonym Karichan Kunju. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Pasitha maanidam (1978), the only novel Karichan Kunju wrote, maps the many hungers—physical, sexual, and spiritual—of humanity through the characters of Ganesan and Kitta. Set in early 20th century Thanjavur, the novel, translated deftly by Sudha G. Tilak as Hungry Humans, plays out over five decades in the lives of these two men which briefly intersect, then run parallel, only to meet again in the end.

Two lives

Young Ganesan, who does odd jobs at a chatram (choultry) in Kumbakonam in exchange for food and lodging, is adopted by a village schoolteacher in a lucky turn of fortune. A child who belongs to no one and hence to everyone, he is adored and cherished by the entire village of Thoppur, which rallies around to conduct his sacred thread ceremony in style before sending him off to a religious boarding school in Mannargudi. But the idyll does not last long. At Mannargudi, his schooling comes to an abrupt end when he is singled out by the landlord Singam Rauth, who seduces him with a life of luxury in return for sexual companionship.

Hungry Humans
By Karichan Kunju (translated from Tamil by Sudha G. Tilak)
Penguin Viking, 2022
Pages: 267
Price: Rs.599

The novel opens with Ganesan returning to Kumbakonam after forty years, disfigured by leprosy, orphaned all over again, back to square one. Admitted in a hospital run by Christian missionaries, he watches “his older body die slowly and a dreadful one replace it” even as he struggles to quell both his self-loathing and his still-burning libido. He finally decides to leave the hospital, live the life of a vagabond and let time tame the hungers of the body and mind.

In a parallel narrative, Kitta, a school dropout, sets out from Thoppur for Mannargudi, determined to earn money and prove his worth. He quickly works his way up, from being a wealthy Chettiar’s chauffeur to setting up his own pharmacy business, but he cannot quite shrug off the shame of the past and the suspicion that respect will always elude him. In Thoppur, he was derided as the village lecher; at home, he feels estranged and constantly slighted by his wife and children.

Kitta is constructed as an antithesis of sorts to Ganesan. Ganesan may be a “loser” in the materialist sense, and if worldly attachments are the glue that hold life together, he has long since come unstuck from that life. Kitta has succeeded in amassing wealth and power, but ends up loveless and spiritually bereft.

‘Pasitha Maanidam’.
Pasitha Maanidam’.

Often acknowledged as the first modern Tamil novel that openly dealt with same-sex relationships, Pasitha Maanidam is remarkable for the way it conflates sexuality and spirituality in a strait-laced Brahmin society of the Thanjavur of yore. Karichan Kunju places a “leper”, an outcaste, at the heart of his narrative to record the way the society of that time looked at disease and disability. He describes in detail the many chatrams and mandapams in and around temple towns of Thanjavur that housed the itinerant, the homeless, the lonely and the diseased; these are Ganesan’s safe spaces, where he spends days and months in contemplation, feeling no attachment or connection to things around him, and where his real redemption awaits him.

The novel also subverts social stereotypes with matter-of-fact ease. Singam Rauth is no black-hearted villain, just a man forced by society to lead a life of duplicity, who nevertheless ends up ruining Ganesan’s prospects in the process. The moment Ganesan musters the courage to tell him, although after many years, that he is no longer interested in “pleasing men like you”, Rauth turns contrite and lets him go, even offering to arrange for Ganesan’s marriage and get him a job.

Kitta’s brother-in-law, Mathoor, is another man trapped both in his own body and an unhappy heterosexual marriage. The women who endure the consequences of their partners’ choices—Machi, Ammu, Sundari, Bhuma, Kodhai—are all etched with utmost empathy.

Critiquing Brahmin superstition

The novel cocks a snook at Brahmin superstition even as it records how the community struggles to find its feet in a fast-changing world. More than one character rues his downfall at the hands of “crafty Brahmins” who are usurers, and who have, lately, taken up all sorts of jobs including catering businesses and driving horse carts and buses, elbowing out others in the trade. On the auspicious new moon day of Adi Amavasai, Kitta’s wife Ammu cuts him to size with a “What is the point of ritual cleansing if the mind remains filthy?” when he suspects her of infidelity. On the same day, Ganesan “becomes” a mendicant when someone inadvertently smears sacred ash on him as he emerges from a dip in the Kaveri. Pilgrims promptly begin to drop coins in front of him, hoping to redeem their sins. Taken in by his self-absorbed demeanour, Pasupati the beat constable exalts Ganesan to the status of a spiritual guru, when in fact it is clear that the eager disciple is the more enlightened one.

The endless hungers of the body and soul are a running thread through the narrative. As Ganesan muses: “Do we eat food or does food consume us? This is like the story of the snake that swallows its own tail and perishes.” Do food, sex, money and power sate these hungers or do they only serve to further numb the senses? This is what this novel of ideas explores, with incisiveness and compassion, in a translation that is as expressive as it is elliptical.