Unquiet flows a river

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi | Updated on July 30, 2018

The English translation of a famed 1974 Tamil novel lets a broader audience take in the ethos of a subaltern people in a fecund Dravidian belt

By saying that the water upstream resembles “giant teeth” when it overflows through the sluice gates of a dam along its course, the novel gives ample hints at the very start that the river is going to be effectively a character like the human beings around it. In fact, the first chapter is a brief biography on the initial course of the gurgling Kottaiyaru, but nowhere does the narration read like a drab geography textbook. Certain minute details of the tiny region deep down the Indian peninsula earn further enchantment when the river is “joined by a companion from the west” at an even more scenic Vallamedu — the chief locale of the literary work in Tamil.

A Madhavan wrote Punalum Manalum in 1974, fixing its story period to roughly that time when the novelist was much younger than he is today. That way, its recent translation in English is a throwback to the lives of a small group of subaltern people inhabiting a fertile spot in the cusp of Tamil and Kerala cultures half a century ago. Only that On a River’s Bank, one feels, could have more aptly been titled ‘A River’s Daughter’.

That is because of Panki. So focal is the presence of the young woman in the 140-page novel that it often gains a feminist perspective. It’s another matter the cover jacket of On a River’s Bank, brought out by Delhi’s Ratna Books, says the novel traces rudiments of ‘ecofiction’ in the country. Panki’s deformed appearance makes her life tough under her stepfather Angusami, a widower who has only aversion for the 20-year-old right from the times he saw her as a little girl.

The strong-willed woman, who is almost inured of constant ridicules from society that at times put her off, works by the river, carrying freshly-harvested sand to the bank. So does handsome Damodaran, who Angusami had adopted as a teenaged orphan and virtually made him part of the family. In the lovable Travancore man, ten years her elder, Panki occasionally tends to find solace — but the relation is seldom romantic. If anything, she desires to see Damodaran marry a girl of his match. Not different is the attitude of “strong and energetic” Angusami, who had been the “sand contractor’s star employee” for several years when he used to row a boat, dip into the river, scoop up sand and shovel it into neat heaps.

The mainstay of the story is the trio, who is “like the mud brought down by the river water”. There happens an occasional break in the linear narration when Angusami reminisces — largely wistfully — his marital life with Tangammai. The thoroughly dignified woman had lost her first husband in her prime, when she had a toddler daughter. Tangammai’s father Kuttan Mestri, who worked as a cook (for the common folk in a far cry from his prouder days as a butler for British officers in Raj-era India), would make tacit moves to get the young widow closer to an unmarried Angusami, a neighbour. His sincere help and matured behaviour impress both the father and the daughter.

Angusami, proud to belong to erstwhile Pandiya Nadu (Tutucorin), too, develops closeness with the attractively dusky Tangammai. The idea of marrying her buds and blooms inside him amid the revolting sight of five-year-old Panki — dark, but, unlike her mother, ugly: protruding eyes, flat nose and cleft lip. An “apparition” that continues to remain the “darkest shadow” in Angusami’s life.


A Madhavan


Into the sixth year of their marriage, Tangammai dies soon after having recovered from small pox that had left her weak and graceless. More than a decade later, memories about her visit Angusami in frequent snatches: he, too, is down after a fall. At age 50 and practically languishing, he yet again realises the vitality of Panki’s help in his life, but wouldn’t acknowledge it. Far from it, Angusami would spare no chance to snub her, much to the anguish of Damodaran, who would try to reform the situation, but to no avail.

Then, the monsoon arrives. It rains — unprecedentedly heavily for Angusami. After a week’s seclusion, when the family seeks to take their boat to the other side of the river in spate, a whirlpool drowns them. Panki never re-emerges.

River of life

The novel, for all its care for the ‘lowly’ characters, brims with the descriptions of the vibrantly rich flora and fauna of the riparian region. Its endemic birds, animals, plants, flowers and trees besides the changing hues of the sky and the moods of the sun come in opportune times. Often, they add to the mood and conduct of the human beings under a benign local god called Madan Sami, in whose name an annual festival is a big celebration on the banks.

Yet, it is the river that occupies a special place: several situations and actions are expressed by uncannily bringing in river-related images. Loneliness, for instance, is like a “river at night”. A cobra and a krait, fighting ferociously, make movements “like whirling current of water”. Thoughts with clarity are like “goldfish swimming”. A fatigue-hit Angusami is like a boat with a hole in the bottom. Such changes are normal: “Even the clear river water turns muddy when it rains.”

The dialogue sequences in the novel, translated by M Vijayalakshmi who was a librarian for long at the Sahitya Akademi, are particularly interesting. Since the characters are invariably rustic, their lack of sophistication makes the chats bold, frank and, thus, very engaging. Critically, Angusami’s bad times overlap with that of the ecological degradation his village faces in the midst of an overuse of the river sand. It is in such brooding situations that the middle-aged man slips into pensive reveries about his late wife, thus giving the reader a peek at his married life.

The shrinkage of the river also pops up existential pangs among people like Angusami whose livelihood is dependent on its sand that is vanishing by the day. “We know only how to dive into the river; can we climb a coconut tree?” he states — the words ‘dive’ and ‘climb’ tacitly proving to be symbolic.

The novelist’s tendency to find a mind in several inanimate objects is striking. For instance, the first chapter says the river, at Periyasalai, moves out with a “reluctant farewell”. Closer to the deluge-centric climax, when the heavy rains had one day reduced to drizzle, the author says it’s as though there was contemplation of a let-up. For a veteran like Madhavan, who was born in Thiruvananthapuram to parents from Kanyakumari — both monsoon pockets, drenched nature cannot but spring passionate vignettes.

The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist

Title: On a River’s Bank

Author: A Madhavan

Translator: M Vijayalakshmi

Publisher: Ratna Books

Price: ₹249

Published on July 30, 2018

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