Facts about the Indian Nationalist Movement of the early 20th century are drilled into every school kid in our country from the tender age of seven and up. I was one of these kids, taking down copious notes about the Battle of This or That, the Leader of this Rebellion, or the Architect of so and so Treaty. A lot of it I accepted at the behest of an unrelenting grading system, and a lot I accepted because of some innate interest in The Past.
A decade later, when university happened to me, I began to crave those sides of history that were seldom presented to me. And it was a chance encounter with Kalyanaram Durgadas’ novel, “Songs of the Cauvery” which gave me just that.
It follows the story of Panju, a young boy at the cusp of two ages. Behind him, lies the world of his Brahmin father, of strict divisions in society, and a measured respect for British settlers and all the learning they had to share. In front of him, on the other hand, lies the freedom struggle – a world that is as alluring as it is dangerous. We see Panju grow from a precocious little boy into a restless youth, treading the fine line between these two worlds. His inner conflict and journey are the foundation of this novel, but Durgadas infuses it with many other remarkable characters that make “Songs of the Cauvery” all the more captivating.
Panju’s father, Sambu, is the chink in the wall of tradition, making several allowances for his young son that would he himself never had. There’s the wrestling teacher who prepares Panju, mentally and physically, for a still-to-be-identified mission which constantly propels him forward. And there’s Ranjitham, a devadasi who catches our young protagonist’s eye during his college years. Panju falls head over heels for her, but Ranjitham is no push over, or damsel-in-distress. She is cautious and unswayed by this Brahmin boy’s adoration until she is more sure of him. And even when she is, her decisions are driven by her calculated understanding of the world, and the power she can exercise in it.
Ranjitham is one of two remarkable female characters in this novel, the other being Panju’s older sister Janaki. Even as a child, Janaki is keenly aware of the different roles and opportunities available to her and Panju. And she is keenly aware of her need to break out of the set up. While her brother navigates the changing socio-political landscape of colonial India, Janaki forges her own bold path by demanding access to higher education. Despite her mother’s constant reprimand, and her father’s various (though half-hearted) resistances, she becomes the first woman to enroll as an undergraduate of English literature.
Like Ranjitham, Janaki is no passive plot device – a terrible fate that many a female character must suffer, both in books and film. And it’s to Durgadas’ credit that we have these two intelligent, headstrong female characters, couched in a story about what is apparently one of the most masculine pursuits – Nationalism.
What resonates with me, over and above the characters and plot, is just how rooted this novel is in its South Indian (specifically, Tamil) context. The names that had lined my textbooks for ten years (and then some) were invariably North Indian ones. Thumbing through these before every exam was the subtle practice of forgetting. It was the act of erasing a history, a language, customs, dress and even food from anywhere outside the handful of Northern states, the static image of which have come to represent this vivid, diverse, ever-changing country of ours. Today we are surrounded by a ‘national’ narrative and culture that is distinctly Hindi-speaking, Hindu, and upper-class. Sitting smack-dab in the middle of it all, it’s oddly comforting to read a book that flows with names like “Thanjavur”, “Kumbakonam”, “Pondicherry” and, of course, “Cauvery”, each of which form the setting of a story that carries you along in its ebb and tide.
It’s all of these elements that come together – like tributaries of a river! – and make “Songs of the Cauvery” an important and relevant read to us today. Oh, and did I mention the novel delivers a great plot twist, too?