Monday, February 28, 2011

Enmakaje - Ambikasuthan Mangad

For the last couple of decades, people of the northern district of Kerala are fighting the authorities(on one side) and the business magnates, trying to protect the land and the their living, against a deadly chemical. Enmakaje, a small village in Kasargod, become a symbol of the resistance ( and being its all enduring sufferer) of the movement against Endo Sulphan. The reports from various NGOs and Global agencies, project the gruesome effects of this chemical causes to the environment and the living creatures. The insects, the cattle , the reptiles , the birds one after other, either disappear or migrate to cleaner areas. Those who continued to live in the area suffered the most. Kids born with deformities, people dies of mysterious deceases, increase in the number of people with mental illness... the counts are numerous. But for the authorities, these aren't enough to act. They demand concrete evidence, facts and results of analysis. The sponsored 'fact finding missions' of Governmental agencies returns with reports showing lack of evidence. Most of these people never set foot in the troubled zone. It is this issue forms the background to this good novel by Ambikasuthan Mangad.

Ambikasuthan's Enmakaje is a place of hills, not one or two but in thousands.  Enmakaje is also a place of languages, not one or two but near a dozen. Apart from 'Tulu', Malayalam, Kannada, Konkani there are Marathi settlers ( Naiks) , Arab speaking people and Byari prominent in Enmakaje. However, this multi linguistic nature does not prevent people from communicating, as people can converse in at least 5 different tongues. Enmakaje is also a place of truth. There are numerous "steps of truth" around that place. Once you are on those steps, you have to tell the truth and only truth. The believe is that you will not be able come down from these steps if you are a liar. Enmakaje is ( or was) also a place of water , with its umpteen streams making it land fertile. There are no wells in the village as the water is abundant for every house in the village..

Now all these are history, as the government controlled and run "Plantation Corporation" has converted a substantiate part of the natural flora into Cashew Plantation. The trouble started when they corporation started spraying the pesticide known as "Endo Sulfan" under various marketing names. According to various report, and certain study's the ecological balance of the village is damaged for ever. People started dying of mysterious deceases. Kids were born with damaged limbs or other physical ailments. The number of mental patients have up beyond the normal rates of other places. Number of suicides increased. This was not a story of Enmakaje alone, but that of the other areas where the use of Endo Sulfan is prevalent spread across 7-8 villages in Kerala and a few in Karnataka.

There are protests and agitations, and typical in such cases through out the history and across the globe, these were crushed by the use of power. There were multiple committees and study groups sponsored by the government ( and hence by the Pesticide Lobby) which always returned with report giving 'Endo Sulfan' a clean chit. Even recently, a Central Minister came to the support of the Pesticide company in Public. However, every independent study shows the use of Endo Sulfan as the reason for these un-natural phenomenon in these villages. The water bodies are contaminated, the levels of Endo Sulfan in the blood samples are alarmingly high among residence. Even 'breast milk' samples, which is considered to be the purest food, was found poisonous. The impacts are also huge on the flaura of the area. There are no insects any more. Birds aren't seen. The common crow is a rarity. The hills once had a large number of animals are now vanished and bare. The resistive movements are active with many NGO organisations, but never been able to make any headway over the years. These workers are threatened by the mighty and was haunted by the authorities.

It is to this place is where Neelakantan and Devayani comes looking for peace escaping from every human contacts they ever had. After an eventful life at the Capital city of Kerala, disillusioned with life. His open house, with no door or windows, was a shelter for every one who is in need at Thiruvananthapuram. From lepers, to old people, injured to prostitutes .. every one found his house their home. Devayani, reached his place on one of such escapade  form the cruel animals of the society and stayed on. By destroying every evidence of their life, the two started of from South of Kerala to the northern part of the state. It is in one of the abandoned hill that they make their home. To the poor villagers, he is the silent saint, who never speak to anyone, not even to Devayani.  He seldom leave home. Devayani has an occasional travel outside, to the weekly market, buying essential. Their need is minimal. Eat the roots and fruits,or a rare rice soups.

Their encounter with the reality was accidental. The kid came into their life after Devayani found his parents hanging from the ceiling and the abandoned kids silent cry made her to bring him home. Neelakantan was angry, he did not want anyone else in their life, he reacted violently, ran out of home to the hill and jungle. The kid was silent, it made some sounds when in pain and hungry. The wounds on his body did not dry up. It is the tribal chief and doctor 'Panchi' who explained the cases to them. He is not a kid, but did not grow. There are many kids similar , some with missing limbs since birth, some with tongue hanging outside unable to put them in, some crippled and many with mental illness.

To them , it is the curse of the hill ( or nature in a broader sense). The 'jaDAdhAri hills' had a curse on the people and they are suffering this for their ancestors misdeeds. They have resigned to the fate and the occasional medical help they seek. A chance meeting with the Doctor, give him insights to the issues of Endo Sulfan. Hurt and sad, and his inability to cure and save the boy, drags him into the action scene from his self inflicted isolation from the society. Protesting in front of the Plantation corporation with the body of the dead child, and attacking and disrupting the helicopter which came in to spray the next round of pesticides, Neelakantan and the group started the resistance in a small way. Typical to such team, they too were soon branded as 'naxalites' and was arrested and tortured along with another activist.

There are characters typical to a cinema story. The minister, who has no time for the people, the local leader who has all the power and fan fare, the good fellow medical practitioner, the freelance press reporter, the group of silent victims ; each playing their parts in their own way.

Main stream literature that themed on environmental issues aren't many. Juan Rulfo's master piece Pedro Paramo is the work that came into my mind as I read this book. The village of Comala, with its wandering souls awaiting 'moksha'.  Unlike 'Comala', Enmakaje is real. Comala is haunted by its ghostly souls, but in Enmakaje, the souls are real, who suffers the fate resulted from human greed in front of us all. They also have no escape, until one day death release them from this. What is haunting us is these images, we have seen over the years, in news papers and other media.

Despite the propaganda nature of the novel, Ambikasuthan Mangad has done a good job with his narration. Except for the initial drag of getting into the groove and its documentary style of detailing , the language is in line with the tale. The beautiful mixture of myths , legends and folklore into the story did help to take this into a different level. He use the change of languages and tone effectively.  On the other side, none of the characters are deep or strong, and are very predictable. However, the book end fabulously.

We need more of such books, widely read and discussed.
Enmakaje  ( 2009 )

Ambikasuthan Mangad

D C Books

200 Pages

Rs 120/-

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

All Souls - Javier Marias

Javier Marias is one of those writers I have never managed to read, all these years, despite many recommendations. This book might not be the best place to start, but it is all that I could get my hands on. Marias have spent two years during the 80s teaching Spanish at Oxford as a visiting professor. This book is a result of his experience and life there. Oxford is a typical boring academic town with its pretentious life with eccentric, and lethargic, uninteresting people. Protagonist of this novel ( if one can call it so), is also a Spaniard teaching at Oxford on a two year assignment and the book is based on his interactions with some of the entertaining characters in the academic circle and around.

This is not a story per se. Its a loosely collated details about various interesting, colorful and being at a place like Oxford, slightly off beat individuals that the protagonist had acquainted. In that count, this is not a full length novel with a definite story line with any moments of twists or turns, nor does it have any subtle undercurrents of sustained emotions.

One of the ongoing thread of this book is an illicit affair the protagonist has with one of the academic of Oxford , whom he met during a "high table" dinner. Also, his wandering around the small time second hand book shops in search of the books of few obscure English writers. However the novel is more threads through a collection of individual portraits some of the characters. This include a couple of homo sexual professors, economist specialized in 18th century tax structure, professor of literature who writes horror novels, another academic and Russian expert who is suspected to be a spy, second hand book sellers, plump chicks of neighboring towns at the pub, members of some exotic writer society, among others.

The writing is brilliant ; crisp and satirical . Episodic progression through one character to the other with a detached clarity and observation keeping the interests of the reader alive through out the reading. Dry humor, touch of pathos ( there are no happy or positive lives around barring the narrator), and sensitive and touchy characters and encounters.

Unlike a regular novel, there are no build up or development of characters or theme. However, he handles the subject and the characters very delicately. I don't think there will be consensus among the reading community about this novel. But on the whole I liked the novel for the shear sensitivity of the writing.
All Souls ( 1989 )

Javier Marias ( Translated by Margeret Jull Costs yr.1992)


210 Pages

Saturday, February 19, 2011

llustrado - Miguel Syjuco

This book had a distinction of winning the man Asian Literary award , even before it was published. I understand the book was in its manuscript form when it was conferred the one of the biggest Asian Literary Awards for writing in English. That probably a reason for me to look for this book, adding to the motive of not having read anything of a Philippines based writer ( Miguel Syjuco, is based out of the Montreal, though).

Crispin Salvador, a leading literary figure of Philippines, was found dead floating in Hudson river in New York. Though the authorities dismissed this as another case of suicide, one of his protege , the narrator of this book, who is named after the author himself, did not believe so, for reasons justified enough. Salvador, is reportedly, writing a novel, which is expected to cause major disturbances to the literary , political and social life of Philippines on its publication. Salvador, son of a rich sugar plantation owner, had his education done at the best of European schools , later known for his hard hitting political reportage and his wayward way of living ( often with communist guerrillas, with various women). A writer of various genre of literary works, spanning children's books, political reportage, cheap romance novels, action packed thrillers , novels of high literary value which won him couple of awards, short stories and a 'tell all' memoir, which alienated him from his erstwhile family and said to be the reason of his living exile in US.

Miguel Syjuco's curiosity picked up after he learned about the missing manuscripts of his 'work in progress' novel , the Bridge Ablaze (TBA) which is expected to threaten the social fabric of Philippines. Unable to accept the suicide theory, he chooses to investigate the truth by himself, bringing him to the islands of Philippines. His intention of meeting Salvador's friends and family members, his comrades and critics, and most importantly, his daughter living aloof. The story thus takes us through the fragments of the life of the rich and the political and social history of Philippines spanning over a century. Ilustrados are the educated rich class of people during the colonial period under the Spaniards. The current lots are the descendants of the those rich during the colonial period, who continue to control the government and hold influential positions in the state.

Syjuco's expectation about the reaction of the death of the writer wasn't shared by anyone he met at Philippines. "...nobody's going to the States to murder someone nobody remembers, who's writing a book nobody has seen." was the typical reaction. There wasn't any enthusiasm in the social circle about the obscure writer whose yet to be published book. Even the dead writer himself isn't very open about his book.

I truly wish I could tell you more about TBA ( the bridge ablaze) . I can't. Not yet. I can tell you only this. It is a necessary work. Because it will implicate them all. All those people who said hope was hopeless, and so instead took to begging with their eyes a portion of the booty.... now I'm bargaining, begging, for just one last chance to bequeath a book about all the lessons I've learned painfully over the course of my life. .. I once thought The Bridge Ablaze would be that masterpiece. I'm not so sure it matters much anymore
.The book also is critical about the current state of writing in Philippines.
What is Filipino writing ? Living on the margins, a bygone era,loss, exile, poor me angst, post colonial identity theft. Tagalog words intermittently scattered around for local color, exotically italicised. Run on sentences and facsimiles of magical realism, hiding behind the disclaimer that we Pinoys were doing it years before the South Americans
Mixing up the historical period and the social structure , Miguel Syjuco writes the tale from the current , corrupt , greedy, scandalous politics of Philippines ( naming the rulers and leaders ), to the period of US occupation and the period of Spanish colonial period, giving us glimpses of the history of the family of Salvador, Miguel Syjuco ( the narrator) and the current state of affairs. Interestingly, the resemblance of Miguel's life with that of Salvador's is very evident ( with his relationship with the family, the mostly exiled life, unhappy love life) and the tale is often interlaced and mixed.

The book itself id written with the new medium of communicating and experimenting with various styles. Part of the book is the narration by the protagonist, part is the writings of Salvador from his various works, the interviews published at Paris Review, few diary entry by the protagonist, e-mails, blog entries and the follow on comments and a few third person commentary on Miguel Syjuco ( the protagonist).there are also a parallel thread of funny anecdotes about a character who has nothing to do with the main story whatsoever ( some of the jokes are good for cracking at a party gathering though). All these are interesting, but does not add anything to the theme by itself and often diluted the seriousness of the theme. He has a good style of writing and the book itself is an easy read. But it does not classify to be a masterpiece.

If I may borrow the exact words from this book, it is a work of a writer who,
...sit at home in your Greenwich Village Penthouse, living off the family inheritance, writing in English about the Philippines for the entertainment of foreigners..."
I have the similar opinion about most of the Indian Writing in English.

Ilustrado ( 2010)

Miguel Syjuco


308 Pages
Other Reviews : Guardian , Washington Post , Complete Review, NY Times