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Cho Dharman: Alone in Shadowland

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Tamil author Cho Dharman turns tales from the bucolic into cultural histories and anthropological meditations. He talks about his art and politics in a conversation with V Shoba

LIKE AN UNDERCOVER agent, Cho Dharman, a writer of realist fiction, quietly pursues his characters. He takes you places no documentary can. Into the mind of paavadaikari (woman in a petticoat), a prostitute about to deliver her 15th baby, standing by the steps of the temple tank in Kovilpatti, contemplating the lives of all the children she has given away for adoption. Behind the bars of a prison, where, as a fellow inmate, he befriends murderers and crooks and probes the terms of their suffering, witnesses their personal hells. To a hospital where a matchworks worker gets rid of a foetus even as the burden of wrenching her family out of poverty grows heavy inside her. Dharman’s killers, farmers, children, transgenders and prostitutes defy scepticism as only real people can. They do the unexpected. They take charge. They are not bound to the plot. “I do not use my work to propagandise. I write what I see. There is no room for imagination and embellishment,” he says.

At 66, Dharman leads a reclusive life—“self-narrowed” he calls it—in Kovilpatti, a town in Thoothukudi district, Tamil Nadu, where he spends his mornings writing from a small, unswept room on the upper floor of his house, and afternoons scraping the silence by the edge of a pond, crouched over a fishing rod of his own making. “A creator must bond with his characters before deciding their fate. I set aside four hours every day for this. Today, it is paavadaikari’s turn—I have written her story thrice and torn it up. Somehow, I must find a way to make the reader empathise with her,” he says, piercing an earthworm with the sharp end of the hook and swinging the rod into the water. In a couple of minutes, the float made of peacock quill dips to the left, signalling a bite. With a jerk, Dharman hauls up a mid- sized tilapia, a farmed fish that glitters like an armour of uncut diamonds. We sit with the sun warming our backs, watching the tall sambu grass fidget in the breeze and the sambankozhi, a native bird, returns to its nest. Athaikondankulam is a life-sustaining pond in Kovilpatti that belonged to the raja of Ettayapuram—the birthplace of Tamil poet Bharathiyar that lies 15 km east of here. It is a kanmay, an untranslatable concept that can be loosely described as a rain-fed community irrigation pond. The fields that the kanmay once watered have sprouted apartments, enclosing it on all sides in a chaos of colour. “This is one of the last ponds left in Kovilpatti. Over the years, politicians have converted half the ponds into bus stands and public buildings,” Dharman says.

His third novel Sool, published in 2016, is a lament about the state of the thousands of water bodies that India inherited at Independence. Dharman is concerned not only with ecological destruction—he has documented 64 birds of the region threatened by change—but also with its avaricious origins and its ripples through agrarian communities. In one of his stories, a dispute between two villages over water sharing is solved when one side sends an expert diver trained to operate the sluice gates of the kanmay to shut them forever.

A master chronicler of life in the karisal or the dry black soil lands of southern Tamil Nadu—a region comprising taluks from Thoothukudi, Virudhunagar, Tirunelveli and Ramanathapuram districts that is devoid of rivers or streams—Dharman is not merely a writer of birds and ponds, but of the cultures and the histories that enliven the environment around him.

His novels and short stories bemoan the agrarian crisis and the consonant disappearance of village arts, the plunder of nature, and the hollowness of Dravidian ideology that he believes has supplanted time-honoured value systems. Importantly, they dwell on the craggy divides between castes, where the truth hides in plain sight, jarring the reader out of complicity.

A Pallar, Dharman has never identified as a Dalit writer, yet his opus on caste and his second novel, Koogai (2005), translated as The Owl by Vasantha Surya (Oxford) in 2015, has a monolithic immensity rivalled by few other feats of Dalit writing in Tamil. In typical slice-of-life style, without any crusading bitterness, Dharman slips between tectonic plates to record the minor earthquakes that occur when a village is confronted with migration, urbanisation and an increasingly assertive Dalit population. In Koogai, an inauspicious nocturnal bird that resembles the owl and moves under cover of darkness becomes a potent symbol for the oppressed. When Seeni, an old Pallar man, adopts the owl as a revered guardian deity in an act that has as much to do with faith as with self-affirmation, good things happen. Before leaving for the city, a Brahmin entrusts his lands to Pallars, conferring on outcastes who are not even allowed to share the waters of the common well they themselves dug, a means of agency. The social equilibrium is disturbed, and the Dalits, for the first time not at the mercy of the other upper castes, refuse to handle their corpses or to build the bier and the funeral car. Freedom tastes sweet as a bumper harvest of flat beans, but in these karisal lands, neither comes easy. The Pallars in Koogai, alas, do not know how to savour it, and must start all over again.

I do not use my work to propagandise. I write what I see. There is no room for imagination and embellishment,” says Cho Dharman

Dharman overthrows stereotypes about Dalit society, arguing especially on behalf of Pallars, a landed class that has assimilated well with mainstream Tamil society. Paraiyars and Arunthathiyars, the other two major Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu, are not as fortunate, but politicians claiming to represent their interests, Dharman alleges, take up only those issues that will make headlines. “Why must the Dalit parties keep dragging honour killings into the political square and dumping the bodies into the caste cauldron if not to keep it boiling forever? Why don’t they begin erasing caste by asking that government-aided schools in Tamil Nadu, most of which clearly spell out their caste affiliations, be renamed? Why should I have to send my child to a Nadar Melnilai Palli (Nadar Secondary School)?” It is a bold charge to level against a community of intellectuals that has adopted him as an icon. They know full well, though, that Dharman does not condone reimagining general social distress as caste conflict. “Dharman is different from the other Dalit writers in the sense that he does not hesitate to speak well of the upper caste when they happen to lend a helping hand. Koogai was much criticised by fellow Dalits because it has a Brahmin character who is helpful,” says Vaasanthi, a writer and editor who was instrumental in publishing several stories of his in a Tamil weekly.

When your bias begins to reflect in your writing, and you can no longer support it with facts, that is when freedom of speech becomes problematic, says Cho Dharman

“I cannot take sides when I write. When your bias begins to reflect in your writing, and you can no longer support it with facts, that is when freedom of speech becomes problematic,” says Dharman. “My family and others like us came into the possession of our lands because Brahmins migrating to the city left them in the care of our forefathers—just as the Nadars are doing now.” He writes with authority and without fear on the unspoken nature of communities: Holi-playing Seths who set up matchworks factories in the dry heat of the Kovilpatti-Sivakasi belt before the Chinese started making machines that could quickly dry the sticks, and the poor women and children who toiled for them; the hard-working Nadars who, once they began to control trade, gained notoriety for counterfeiting and adulterating products; Marxists armed with empty slogans and Che Guevara posters so harmless that the police referred to them as ‘chellapillais’ (darlings); Convent-bound Christians, the subject of a new novel sprawled over 420 pages—four notebooks filled with the crisp, precise strokes of his favourite Wality fountain pen—about the cloistered life he glimpsed as a student pursuing technical training at a Church-run Thoothukudi polytechnic. “I abhor the false philosophies of the Marxists despite having been a unionist and Naxal sympathiser, but my writings can be seen as Left-leaning. I write about village gods and about our culture, and that makes it easy for people to label me a proponent of Hindutva. I can only laugh,” he says. Dharman’s critical gaze is like the karisal sun that spares no corner—not even the Tamil literati, who, he says, prefer to peddle emotion over fact. “No one wants to write even short stories, let alone novels, anymore. Poetry is the easy way out—a jumble of words that somehow sounds profound. I began my journey as a poet, but once I read Sangam literature, I tore it all up and stopped calling myself a poet.”

The short story and then the novel— his first, Thurvai (‘Wasting Away’), was published in 1996—were forms he learned to mould using characters and instances he encountered in daily life, and he further enriched them with the wisdom of someone rooted in his soil.

Dharman taps into a deep well of knowledge that would make an anthropologist proud while refusing to be a meek pawn in the march of tradition. Ask him about the history of farming in Kovilpatti, a region that once grew native oilseeds and every millet that ever had a Tamil name, and he describes forgotten cotton varieties like Karunganni—“ tall like a kuthu vilakku (a large traditional oil lamp), with spreading roots that made it hardy”—and Kuppan, which bore dense woolly clouds with just one rain. There is much that is left to be said about a place he calls home. “Take, for instance, the politicians who buy large swathes of land in benami transactions at market value and apply for NABARD loans to fund imaginary orange orchards and non- existent fields of cotton. I myself have sold six acres to such a buyer. In a world that is full of make-believe, I feel like it is a writer’s responsibility to tell true stories. I always say that the Thirukkural is a dated book of morals meant for rulers; one can no longer live by those rules. But if one reads contemporary literature and follows the moral threads therein, that is enough.”

As a youth, Dharman’s political consciousness was shaped by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and its flamboyant rhetoric of Tamil pride. “Like most young men, I was attracted by Mu Karunanidhi’s oratory—it was much later that I discovered his aphorisms were often directly lifted from the poetry of the Siddhars. But back then I was ignorant. I was a high-school dropout from Urulaikkudi (a village 10 km from Kovilpatti), a good-for-nothing who got into fights and never could stay home. After joining the party in the 70s, I was happy to beat up people for the DMK. I became a proper street thug,” he says; his body language still hints of an angry young man who went by his given name of Dharmaraj. One evening, just as the village of Thittankulam near Kovilpatti was preparing to welcome Karunanidhi, the opposition party erected a large cutout of his archrival, MGR, framed by a door, as though announcing a personality contest. The last image anyone saw before the square was engulfed by darkness was of Dharman climbing the transformer. When power was restored, MGR went missing and Kalaignar was welcomed without a hitch. Weeks later, someone would dredge up the cutout and the rusted remains of the door from the bottom of a well. A case would be filed, but in the absence of eyewitness testimony, Dharman could scarcely be blamed. “The Dravidian parties told us there was no god, but they did not offer an alternative. They taught people, who until then were following a certain moral code, that it was fine to cheat and to kill without fear of consequence as long as they had political support. The institutionalisation of corruption began with the DMK and I could see how it was destroying Tamil society,” he says. The protagonists of the movement—Periyar, J Jayalalithaa, Annadurai and Karunanidhi—repeatedly find a way into his works as thinly veiled caricatures. “This is the power of fiction-as-fact. It is a dangerous game, yes, but I am happy to argue my case,” Dharman says.

The institutionalisation of corruption began with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and I could see how it was destroying Tamil society, says Cho Dharman

In a characteristic literary sleight of hand, a man named Mookkandi, shortened to Mu Ka, mirrors Kalaignar’s idiosyncracies in Sool. “My protection is that not many people read me,” Dharman says, with an amused flip of his hand. “When I was invited to speak at a memorial service for slain writer Gauri Lankesh, I said, ‘This is good, this means that she was widely read and had the power to influence society’.”

Dharman’s publishers, Trichy- based Adayalam, who have just brought out a collection of his short stories, titled Anbin Sippi (‘Oyster of Love’), say the first 150 copies of his books are bought by assistant directors who often approach him for sketching out characters based on them. Another hundred or so are lapped up by non- resident Tamils. The son of a koothu artist whose answer to any question was a tale from the Ramayana or the Mahabharatha, Dharman is a writer shaped by mythology and history as much as by the politics and the social upheaval of his times. A textile mill worker and trade unionist until he voluntarily retired at the age of 50 to focus full-time on his writing, he lives alone—his wife died 12 years ago and his two sons work in Chennai and Thoothukudi—in a 38-year-old house he means to rebuild from scratch some day. Other than his khaadi kurta, there is little about him that betrays his occupation. He makes polite conversation with his neighbours and has lunched at the same restaurant for 12 years, at Rs 60 a plate. At dusk, he strolls to the Shenbagavalli Amman temple, and sits by the tank chatting with his writer friends—for Kovilpatti has been at the centre of a modernist literary renaissance, with the likes of Poomani (who happens to be Dharman’s uncle), Ki Rajanarayanan, Tamilselvan, Konangi, Devathatchan (a poet and a close friend who runs a store in town), S Ramakrishnan and others further enriching the soil with their gritty stories. In the darkness of Kovilpatti, Dharman is a lamp with two wicks—one glowing sepia over what is irrevocably gone and the other casting shadows of a starkly different future that may come with its own demons.

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