Tamil writer RN Joe D’Cruz is undaunted by criticism of his politics, and the recent loss of a publishing contract. A true fisherman, he is prepared for stormy weather.
A rough sea lashes at the coast of Pondicherry on a searing day. A few hundred metres from this battlefield of the elements, through the windows on the first floor of a house set amidst a fledgling grove of drumstick, mango and papaya, RN Joe D’Cruz watches the waves skitter like leaves in the distance. From Uvari, a fishing village in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu, D’Cruz is a prolific chronicler of the state’s liminal coastal landscape, home to the subaltern community of Parathavars, an ancient seafaring people, now classified into over a dozen sub-castes.
Hailed as the Hemingway of contemporary Tamil literature for his watertight prose and wondrous descriptions of pearl diving and shark hunting in the Bay of Bengal, and denounced as its Judas for critiquing his community’s conversion to Christianity at the hands of the Portuguese, D’Cruz now finds himself sucked into the vortex of a heated debate on political leanings and freedom of expression in the publishing industry.
It has been almost a month since the writer, then sitting in his office in Chennai, unwittingly set off the domino that has struck down the English translation of his first novel, Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean-rimmed World), a decade after it was first published in 2004 by Tamizhini.
D’Cruz’s Facebook post on April 9 in support of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, caught Navayana, a Delhi-based publishing house, unawares. It cancelled the agreement to translate his book, saying it was appalled at the author for “calling a fascist like Modi a ‘dynamic visionary’”, though later said that the book was “in abeyance”. “I don’t really care about an English translation. I want my books to reach my community and I dream of turning Aazhi Soozh Ulagu into a Tamil movie,” says D’Cruz, 51, back at his house off East Coast Road outside Pondicherry, where he is on a weekend break from his day job as president of a shipping company in Chennai. “I am more relaxed here. I belong to the seashore,” he says, settling into an old wood recliner, dressed in a faded lungi and T-shirt. In his spacious living room, model catamarans gleam atop an antique armoire alongside conch shells and awards, including the 2013 Sahitya Akademi award for his epic second novel, Korkai.
To hear Joe D’ Cruz talk about Tamil Nadu’s fishermen — a community comprising Mukkuvar, Paravar, Chetti, Pattinavar, Palli, Nattar, Karayar, Kadayar, Sembadavar, Odakkavar, Valayar, Valaignar and other MBCs — is to be swept up in the intrigue of their ancestry and religious history, to ride the waves on their kattumaram (catamarans) and pai mara kappal (ships), to be lulled by their songs and the endless rocking of their seas. His novels are vivid sketches of the fantastic borderlands by the Gulf of Mannar and their wealth of precious pearls that once attracted colonisers here. In Aazhi Soozh Ulagu, which presents a cross-section of village life from the coast, the sea is a metaphor for life and impermanence; and the Paravars discover the spirit of sacrifice as the only way to conquer death. Korkai, named after the historic port city and capital of the early Pandya kingdom, is more ambitious in its scope, tracing the changing lives of the fishermen over three generations. D’Cruz’s prose is stative, suspended in time, his ocean of memories foaming with passion. Colloquialisms get a glossary of their own towards the end of Korkai’s 1,174 pages. “The Pearl Route was the reason for the prosperity of the Pandya kingdom. But the lives of these fishermen and pearl divers have remained undocumented for 2,000 years,” he says.
D’Cruz has almost wrapped up a third novel — it will be his last, he says — on another aspect of man’s exploration of the sea: the shipping industry. “My novels are about living characters and history as it happened. They have angered a lot of people. A church has burnt my books, I have been sued and vilified in my village and there have even been death threats,” says D’Cruz, who writes of the pain of a people bereft of their native culture after converting to Christianity. “In the year 1532, the Moors attacked the Tamil Nadu coast with the intention of destroying a Murugan temple and building a godown to exploit the riches of the region. Over 2,000 Parathavar were killed in the battle that ensued. Helpless against their weapons, we fled the banks of the Thamirabarani and sought the help of the Portuguese who had just landed in Calicut. They agreed to arm us with guns if only we would adopt their religion. Our people, who already worshipped hundreds of Hindu deities, had the maturity to accept Christian gods into their pantheon, but the successors fell prey to the institutionalisation of religion,” he says. D’Cruz is married to a Hindu and he is keen that his children, Anthony, 12, and Hema, 10, not just go to church and pay their respects to “imported gods” but also to those closer home. “Before the conversion, Parathavar worshipped Varuna. Lord Murugan is our machaan (brother-in-law),” he says, crooning into a lullaby about how the god, married to the fisherwoman Deivanai, took a tribal woman as his second wife. “My mother and my grandmother sang it to me when I was young,” he says. “Even today, we fishermen are outwardly Catholic but inside, we have a Hindu soul. We worship the native goddesses and break a coconut when we set sail.”
D’Cruz’s works lament the erosion of the Hindu culture of the Pandyan era, of a people suddenly adrift on the seas of faith, bobbing in the aftermath of a wave of conversion. He stirred awake a dormant beast that was mouldering in the water and his work has been hated — and secretly loved — by his community ever since, he says. “Only a tree that bears fruit will be pelted with stones,” says the poet and scriptwriter, reciting a Sangam-era verse in his lyrical Nellai Tamil accent. If Modi is the tea-vendor who could be PM, D’Cruz is the unlikely president of a shipping company where he found employment as a peon decades ago. Born to a seaman who was often away at sea and a hardworking mother who taught at an elementary school and stitched and cooked to feed her five children, D’Cruz wore his first pair of trousers as a graduate student at Loyola College, Chennai. College turned the shy village lad into a brash, well-built youth who played hockey, picked fights and even hit his PhD guide at Madras University over a disagreement. “After all, that is my innate nature,” he says. “The Parathavar were fighters who ruled over the neithal areas (one of five Tamil literary landscapes, neithal refers to the seashore and is associated with pining in Sangam poetry) and hunted sharks with spears. We aren’t a docile people. We have just lost our way,” he says.
D’Cruz says his life is a wave that swept him this way and that. “I have been directionless, adrift, but always lived by the sea. It took me wherever it wanted to,” he says. He has dabbled in poetry (Pulambalgal, 2004) and scriptwriting (Tamil film Mariyaan, 2013) and even made a documentary on the plight of fishermen on the Palk Strait. Playing with his children by the beach in the salty evening breeze, D’Cruz still has an air of formidable hauteur about him. Just as renegotiating the history of fisherfolk is important, he says, so must we worry about the future of Bharatmata. “India’s Ganga hasn’t run dry, not yet. A strong leader like Modi can reclaim it. I am not batting for Hindutva. But I believe that if Modi wins, it will be a victory for Indian democracy,” he says. D’Cruz recently shared the stage with Modi at a political meet in Kanyakumari, but he insists he is only a spectator with a ringside view of the political drama. “I want to re-establish crucial links — links between Parathavar and their Hindu culture, and those between fishermen and the upland people. I want to unite the various Parathavar communities and set up a library for them in my house in Pondicherry where they can read and write about themselves,” he says.
Under a blushing sky, the waves get heavier as though they are burdened with the anxieties of his people. Uvari has lost all its beaches to erosion and sand mining. Idinthakarai near Kudankulam is in the throes of an anti-nuclear protest. Just as the Sahitya Akademi award caught him by surprise as he was boarding a ship in Goa, the tide turned when his translator V Geetha decided not to “be associated with anyone or anything linked to Modi”. But Joe D’Cruz has no regrets. “The world is an old pond. Jesus, my forefathers, they all jumped into it and made a big splash. When you jump, what kind of a splash will you make?”