A community in flux

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The Colour of Dawn by Janaki Murali; HarperCollins India, 2002; pages 198, Rs.195.

THE Palakkad Iyer Community is no stranger to cross-cultural currents. Its members speak a hybrid Tamil - Tamil with a smattering of Malayalam - a throwback to the linguistic alignments of the mid-1950s, when this town in the Malabar province of the former Madras presidency was detached and made part of the reorganised State of Kerala. The community barely paused before weathering this geopolitical change with the same resilience that its more enterprising members displayed on being transplanted to 'alien' locales, ranging from Dombivli to Dubai.


Yet, while individuals like Palakkad Mani Iyer, T. N. Seshan and M. S. Swaminathan strode with distinction across the national scene, the community has rarely inspired creative Indian writing. Few works in Indian English can claim to have brought the region and the community as vividly alive as Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things did with the Syrian Christians of the central Travancore region of Kerala.

The Colour of Dawn might just repair that omission. This engaging first novel, by a Bangalore-based journalist, is an affectionately recollected tale about three generations of Palakkad Iyers. The emotional centrestage is occupied by the book's strongest character Sita. As a child, Sita moves from Noorni graamam in Palakkad to Chembur in the Mumbai suburbs, when her mother goes to join her out-of-work husband. Appa is the epitome of the ineffective South Indian male. Unable to find or keep a job, he is ever ready to sponge on his wife and then work out his frustration on her. Her mother's death due to emotional and physical neglect leaves Sita virtually an orphan. She is then brought up by a kind-hearted aunt, 'Saras Athai', alongside her own young boys. Chembur, and perhaps Matunga, became the "Madrassi" suburbs of Mumbai, populated by thousands of such 'Athais', and 'madissar maamis', who retained their traditional values even while adjusting with dexterity to the demands of a different culture and lifestyle. For anyone who has lived this life in the Mumbai of the 1960s, and 1970s, the novel will hold many nostalgic delights.

As Sita blooms into womanhood, she becomes the object of the repressed attentions of Kunjan, one of her two male cousins. It turns out to be a cross that she has to bear all her life. It returns to torment her in the novel's present when, happily married to another man, Sami, she awaits the return of her daughter Sanjna, who has gone to the United States to study.

Sanjna does return, but with a Pakistani husband. The manner in which the reactions of different generations of the family to this event are portrayed, reflects the author's sharp powers of observation and eye for detail. In the climax, Kunjan takes violent revenge for 25 years of frustrated passion. But a lifetime away from the comforting womb of Noorni has strengthened the central characters and given them a new broadminded, liberal outlook. They take the idea of a union between a Hindu and a Muslim or an Indian and a Pakistani with mature understanding. The novel swings back and forth in time, with an almost irritating frequency, but one accepts this as a small price, because each generation is peopled with characters who are etched with affection and feeling.

Perhaps because this reviewer read The Colour of Dawn in a period when the media were providing terrifying imagery and reportage about the horrific goings-on in Gujarat, the book in some way reassured one that there were enough Indians around who still remained true to their humane roots, who still clung to their decent instincts and were 'secular' in earthy, practical ways that politicians can never even begin to understand.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor