Once Upon a Time in Kerala
By T.S. Pillai
translated from the Malayalam by Anita Nair
Seagull Books, 2016
Chemmeen, the story of star-crossed lovers whose union is forbidden by the social restraints of gender, caste and religion, is one of the most popular Malayalam language novels of the 20th century. When Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (1912-1999) published the novel in 1956, the first printing sold out in two weeks. Pillai’s novel is not only popular throughout India, but has also been a literary sensation around the world, translated into more than 30 languages. Seagull Books’ reissue of this classic, with a new translation by Anita Nair, brings this pivotal work of Indian literature to the attention of a wider English-speaking audience.
Following the example of earlier Malayalam writers from the 20th century, Pillai centers his writing on social issues affecting the lives of the lower classes of people living in the small villages of the Kerala state in India, a narrow area along the Southeast coast of the country. His novel Thottiyude Makan (Scavenger’s Son, 1947), for example, portrays three generations of a family who must subsist as scavengers because of their status as untouchables. The novel challenges the hierarchy which is the core source of social inequality in India: the caste system. Pillai dares to question the traditional idea that one’s profession should depend on one’s social status, and he is sympathetic to the lives of the lowest members of Indian society, the untouchables.
In Chemmeen, Pillai focuses on the subjugation and oppression of women and their harsh and unfair treatment by males in Hindu society. The story of the very first fisherman who rows his boat out to sea in search of a big catch had a particularly profound effect on Pillai’s choice of social commentary in this story. An old tale, well-known among the fishing villages, relates the story of the very first Kerala fisherman who journeyed beyond the horizon when a storm blew up and battered his boat. He returned safely to shore for one important reason: the fisherman’s faithful wife stood on the shore and waited and prayed all night for her husband’s safe return. The belief in and adherence to the lessons in this myth places an unfair burden on women, whose chastity and faithfulness determine the well-being of the entire community.
In his 1995 essay “The Story of My Chemmeen,” Pillai recalls his desire to write a novel around the superstitions embodied in this familiar fable about the sea:
My intimacy with the seaside began when I was nine years old. I knew all the faces and moods of the sea goddess. My mind was flooded with thoughts of the sea goddess and the chakara. One morning, I stuffed a few shirts and mundus into a bag and walked to Ambalapuzha. I was on my way to Kortayam.
Pillai takes this journey for the express purpose of writing a story reminiscent of his boyhood on the Kerala seaside. By the end of his eight days in Kortayam, he had completed Chemmeen, which would become the most popular and famous of his thirty-nine novels.
Chemmeen, which means “prawn” in Malayalam, is set in a small fishing village on the shores of the Kerala state. Karuthamma, the daughter of conservative Hindu fisher folk, is its main character and brave heroine. Karuthamma’s story starts innocently enough with fond memories of her childhood spent on the sea. One of her favorite playmates is Pareekutty, the son of a Muslim wholesale fish seller; even though Karuthamma is strictly forbidden to marry a Muslim, as a child she is allowed to become friends with Pareekutty. Their first meeting when they become playmates is a memory that they both cherish:
Once upon a time a little girl of four years had wandered along the seaside. A little girl who collected shells from the beach and ran to gather the silvery minnows that flew off the nets the men flung out of their boats. In those days she had a little boy companion. Pareekutty. Wearing a pair of trousers and a yellow shirt, with a silk handkerchief knotted around his throat and tasselled cap, and clinging to his father’s hand. Karuthamma remembered her first glimpse of him very well.
These lines are typical of Chemmeen’s simple style, which is fitting for Pillai’s fishermen and fisherwomen characters. Pillai’s Malayalam is a distinct fisherman dialect used by these modest people who must work extremely hard for a subsistence living. Their entire lives revolve around hours of fishing that often earns them only a few rupees. In addition, the “Once upon a time” introduction to Karuthamma’s story is apt for a doomed romance that has the qualities and characteristics of a literary fable. But Pillai sets his narrative apart from other simple tales by elevating his story to the level of a moral fable that highlights social inequities based on gender in Hindu communities.
The sweet and innocent scene of Karuthamma and Pareekutty as childhood playmates stands in sharp contrast to the pivotal first scene of the book, which is a loving, flirtatious and romantic exchange between Karuthamma and Pareekutty, now teenagers. Their laughing and teasing with one another has an element of shyness and hesitation, but their interaction is also sexually charged: Pareekutty’s hungry eyes keep focusing on Karuthamma’s round bottom and full breasts. Karuthamma notices that her body has drawn his attention, and through his eyes she has a new awareness of her femininity and her sexuality. At a time in her life when Karuthamma is at her most vulnerable there is no privacy afforded to her budding sexuality; the entire village takes a keen interest in every young woman’s physical and emotional blooming.
When Karuthamma’s mother Chakki gets word of her daughter’s potential romance, she has a stern warning for her daughter. Chakki reminds her daughter of the strict and unfair standards to which women are held in their community:
In this vast sea, there is much to fear, my daughter, my magale. All of which determines whether a man who goes out to sea will return. And the only thing we can do as women is keep them safe with true minds and bodies. Otherwise, they and their boats will be swallowed up by the undertow. The life of a man who goes out to sea rests in the hands of his woman on the shore.
As the sexual attraction between Karuthamma and Pareekutty builds, the neighbors assume from her flirtatious behavior that Karuthamma has sinned by violating her chastity. The most heartrending part of Pallai’s narrative is when the close-knit community in Kerala comes together to condemn Karuthamma for her playful teasing with Pareekutty. Karuthamma is aware of the slander being spread but there is nothing she can do to combat it. Her love for Pareekutty is chaste and sincere, and she struggles to understand why being in love with a good, kind, hardworking man can be so wrong.
The appeal of Pillai’s tale lies in his treatment of the universal themes of sexual awakening, coming-of-age, forbidden love, and false hope. Karuthamma and Pareekutty have a few unplanned encounters on the beach during which they admit their affections for one another and peer ardently into one another’s eyes. But Karuthamma is so hurt by the appalling stories being circulated about them that she begins to completely avoid Pareekutty and will not speak with him when he visits her home. Eventually, Pareekutty’s only way to communicate with his beloved is to sing love songs to her while lying on the beach at night, close enough to Karuthamma’s house so that she hears him. As Karuthamma hears Pareekutty’s songs she knows he will always be in her heart, no matter which Hindu fisherman she will be forced to marry. As one final act of defiance against her community, she steps outside her house and has a moving and emotional farewell with Pareekutty:
The strains of the song entered her. Karuthamma sat up. An image of Pareekutty appeared before her. Was he, in fact, calling out to her? What else did he have as a reprieve, as a consolation, but that song? Not just that night, but he would sing every night. He would continue to sing even after she left. He didn’t care if anyone listened to him or not.
Her mother was asleep, her father was away. She knew the shore would be deserted. She felt something stir in her that made her want to open the door and step out. The singer’s heart hadn’t broken yet. But he sang as if he wanted it to shatter.
By denying herself the love of a man whose only sin is being a Muslim, Karuthamma becomes a symbol for the hardships that the women in the Kerala state are made to endure. Women have no control over any aspects of their lives; they are expected to keep house, make meals, sell fish, have babies and remain faithful to their husbands. A woman has no right to question any of her father’s or husband’s decisions and if she steps out of line then she risks incurring great verbal and physical abuse, depicted in the novel in ways that a modern audience will find shocking and jarring. When Karuthamma’s younger sister, Panchami, stands up for her sister against their father Chembankunju, for instance, he beats her relentlessly: Panchami tries to flee to a neighbor’s home but he pursues her:
Chembankunju felt his senses leave him. He ran to Nallapennu’s home. He dragged Panchamini off Nallapennu’s lap, took a stick and flailed her with blows. He kept asking her if she too would entice a Muslim boy. Nallapennu stood with her mouth open. Panchami kept crying out for her mother. Between blows, he screamed, “Tell me you won’t lead on a Muslim boy, tell me…!”
Pillai portrays all of the fishermen in Chemmeen as unreasonable, oppressive and greedy. Chembankunju is the worst of them, the antithesis of the kind and gentle Pareekutty. Chembankunju has worked on other men’s boats for his entire life and he wants nothing more than to own his own boat and nets. But the loan sharks that prey on men like him would surely ruin him if he attempted to borrow money to buy his own equipment. Chembankunju realizes that Pareekutty is wealthy because of his independent business as a fish seller. Chembankunju uses Pareekutty’s feelings for Karuthamma to manipulate him into lending Chembankunju a large sum of money.
Even though Pareekutty is forbidden from marrying Karuthamma, he loves her so much that he gives her father all of the money he has to purchase his own boats and nets. As a result of his generosity, Pareekutty loses his business and his livelihood and is reduced to impoverished solitude, wandering the beach pining for the love of a woman he cannot have. Money, wealth and material possessions are worth nothing to Pareekutty if he cannot be with the love of his life. Pillai’s juxtaposition of the greedy, materialistic Hindu father with the kind, selfless, loving Muslim shows that the strict conventions of any particular religion do not guarantee that a man will be a good, decent human being.
By focusing on money, power and his own success, Chembankunju also keeps putting off his responsibility to accumulate a dowry and to find a proper fisherman as a husband for his daughter. This is the point in the story where Karuthamma, Pillai’s heroine, is at her strongest. She denies herself any contact with Pareekutty; she knows she will be married off soon and accepts her fate stoically. Karuthamma doesn’t become emotional or irrational, she doesn’t throw a tantrum or try to run away. Instead she comes up with a plan that defies her father and solves the problem of paying off his loan; she steals his money a bit at a time, so he won’t notice, and saves it to pay Pareekutty back. This act of defiance is a subtle and realistic way for Pillai’s heroine to protest both her father and her traditional upbringing.
Pillai uses the marriage rituals of this Hindu community as a source of additional commentary on the oppressive burden it places on women. Since Karuthamma has spoken in a romantic way to a Muslim man and is now viewed as a ruined woman, no one in the fisher community wants to marry her. The men and women of the village berate her parents for violating yet another of their customs by having their nineteen-year-old daughter remain at home and unbetrothed. Karuthamma’s father eventually solves the problem by finding a young fisherman from a neighboring village named Palani who, because he has been an orphan his entire life, is considered a vagrant and has no knowledge of the rumors being circulated about Karuthamma’s wanton sexual behavior. An intense argument breaks out on the day of the wedding between the two fishing communities about the bride price, a scene which reads more like a negotiation over fish or other goods than a decision about a young woman’s life: even in marriage negotiations, women in this world are treated as chattel. But throughout all of this fighting, Karuthamma herself remains brave, accepting with fortitude the fate of marrying a man she does not even know. After all, at least it will be a liberation from the oppression of her father and her village.
The second part of Chemmeen focuses on Karuthamma’s valiant and determined attempts to make her marriage with Palani a success. She chooses to view her marriage as a positive situation because not only will release her from the cruel oppression of her father and her fishing village but it will also free her from the memories of her love for Pareekutty. But Karuthamma’s hardships continue into her married life because there are no female relatives of Palani to take Karuthamma home and introduce her to her new community. When she moves in with Palani she is completely alone with no extended family to help her navigate life as a married woman.
Since Palani has been a bachelor and on his own for his entire life his habitation is nothing more than a decrepit hovel that doesn’t even contain any proper tools for cooking. Karuthamma must make do with what she has as the two strangers attempt to live together and forge a marriage that was foisted on both of these outcasts. Pillai writes about the young couple’s first hours together:
She had no one but him. He was all she had. His likes and dislikes would be the basis of life. And she knew nothing about his likes and dislikes.
Karuthamma could endure any hardship. All she wanted to be was one of those countless fisherwomen who lived their lives out willing to put up with anything and everything. She didn’t want anything significant happening in her life. All she wanted was to be an ordinary fisherwoman to the end. But would that be possible?
Another bold theme that Pillai weaves throughout his story is that of Karuthamma’s sexuality and her yearning for affection. Karuthamma craves physical attention and respect from her husband; in return she is determined to make a comfortable and happy home for her new spouse. Her sexual desire, awakened by Pareekutty in the opening of the story, is finally sated when she and Palani make love for the first time:
With the right due to him, a man held her close to his body. She submitted obediently. Even if she had loved one man, a man’s touch, the submission to a man, the rapture of breathlessness, all of it came from another man. She was his now. Her body was just for him. And she would keep it chaste for him.
She didn’t know how long she lay in that languorous submission. Young blood coursed hotly in those veins. The hungers were rapacious; dams had been burst through and a deluge followed, unrestrained.
Presenting a fully feminine character so uninhibited about her sexuality was a bold choice for Pillai, writing in the early 20th century about a conservative Indian village.
At first all seems to go well with their marriage, until Palani also learns of the rumors of his wife’s alleged affair with a Muslim man. Since she is married and lives far away in another village, it seems as if Karuthamma and Pareekutty’s relationship is over. Then one day he shows up at her marital home to deliver the news that Karuthamma’s dear mother, Chakki, has died. No one in Karuthamma’s old village, not even her own father, was willing to make the effort to bring her this upsetting news. With Pareekutty back in Karuthamma’s life, even for just an instant, all of her old feelings of love, longing and hope overwhelm her once again.
While Palani is out at sea attempting to make a big catch, Karuthamma and Pareekutty finally consummate their relationship. This act of infidelity brings about Palani’s death well as the lovers’. In the novel’s final, tragic scene, Karuthamma and Pareekutty’s bodies wash up on the shore, entwined in one another’s arms. The romantic idea of lovers sharing one passionate night together as their last earthly act is a universal and ubiquitous trope: although they could not be together in life, they could at least attempt to be together in death. What makes Pillai’s story particularly moving is that Karuthamma chooses to end her life embraced in Pareekutty’s arms; this serves as her last act of defiance against the patriarchy that has suppressed her for so long.
Pillai’s critique of the treatment of women in his community did not go unnoticed by the people of Kerala when the book was published. The widespread success of Chemmeen was not looked upon favorably by the fishing communities who felt that Pillai focused unduly on the superstitions of the sea myths and cast the fishermen as uncouth and greedy simpletons. Pillai was tormented and harassed by protesters until the end of his life because the fisher folk of Kerala believed that he was too harsh in his criticisms of their social and religious customs.
It is astonishing that Pillai was able to write Chemmeen in eight days and produce a novel that possesses such depth of character, interesting plot lines, social commentary and a plethora of moral lessons. The reissuing of this book is important for feminist literature in the 21st century. While the novel demonstrates the progress women have made against their subjugation, Karuthamma’s tragic story also serves as a reminder of the persistence of misogyny and the courage it takes to resist it.
Melissa Beck reviews books with an emphasis on literature in translation on her website www.thebookbindersdaughter.com. Her reviews have also appeared in Numero Cinq and World Literature Today. She’s @magistrabeck on Twitter.