What is it about human nature that has a seemingly insatiable hunger for power, wealth and fornication? And how, tragically, when, after a life spent chasing these never ending appetites, one realises the futility of the attainment which all seems but ashes as the river of life closes in relentlessly on the unceasing sea, the mind seeks to detach itself from bodily desires and floats above them, seeing and unseeing at the same time! But it is too late, alas as one cannot go back and relive one’s misspent youth no matter how much one may regret the many indulgences and depravity that had marked those years.
The acclaimed Tamil novel Pasitha Manidam, set in the Tamil heartland, takes the reader through the fields, temples, village ponds, chatram and agraharam that act as the setting for the principal characters of Kitta and Ganesan’s journey from childhood to middle age. The drama that plays out in the lives of the people that inhabit this geographical setting which provides the authentic backdrop, however rises above it in the sheer humanness — the emotions, actions, greed and selfishness — that are the building blocks of all human beings, no matter where they may be.
The contrast between Ganesan’s good looks and virility and the debilitating disease of leprosy that gradually gnaws away at his body serves to symbolise the gradual decay of his spirit and the dissoluteness that pervades his being as he grows up from being a promising student and an adored boy of the village to a morally corrupt man who is content to live life out as the sexual toy of men and women. Kitta too undergoes a transformation from a lazy wastrel to a rich businessman and a bully who, towards the end of the novel, realises the pointlessness of the existence he has worked so hard towards.
Village life, community spirit and a bygone era are brought to life even as the hypocrisy of the so-called upper caste, the fluidity - and varying stance according to convenience — of their morality is exposed uncompromisingly. Child abuse, infidelity, homosexuality — are all issues that are delineated with a steady hand and eye — remarkable for a novel written in the 70s. The extraordinary faces of human bonding, family ties and neighbourly camaraderie are evident throughout in spite of the bitterness and rancour that may sometimes run through these relationships. Nowhere is this brought out more clearly than in the manner in which the village gets together to perform the thread ceremony (upanayanam) of the young Ganesan. People are generous with their gifts of money, essentials for the feast, efforts and time — all to ensure that the ceremony goes off well, all the guests are well-fed and the event lacks nothing that would make it a true celebration of community, customs, learning and giving.
The narrative moves back and forth in time with a sometimes discombobulating effect as the reader tries to connect the dots, identify the characters and links and grasp the threads of the narrative as it weaves through locations and time periods. Some parts of the novel are painfully detailed while some others are pared down to a bare minimum and would have benefited from some elaboration. The philosophical musings may sometimes seem unnecessarily lengthy and the interaction between the policeman Pasupati and the leper, Ganesan is somewhat reminiscent of the conversations between Velan and Raju in R.K, Narayan’s The Guide. The translation is excellent, with only a few minor discordant notes in the use of slang which can seem jarring in the otherwise smooth flow of language and phrasal structure.
Hungry Humans is a novel worth reading for its characterisation and depiction of human nature with all its blemishes and beauty.
By Karichan Kunju
Sudha G. Tilak
pp. 267, Rs.599