Title: Island of Lost Shadows
Author: E Santhosh Kumar
Translated by: PN Venugopal
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Price: Rs 395
Set in the backdrop of the Emergency, the world of E Santhosh Kumar’s Andhakaaranazhi (translated into English as Island of Lost Shadows) is at once uncannily real and ominously otherworldly. Comrade Sivan aka Pavithran is a “revolutionary” with blood on his hands. Buoyed by code words and the kindness of strangers, he moves furtively from place to place to evade the long arm of the law. And that is how he arrives at Karadi-Papa’s island one dark, lightning-streaked night. All he can make out is a vast bog fringed by the sinister silhouettes of giant trees.
There’s not a soul in sight, only the headless carcass of a pig that has washed ashore. Doubt and disorientation quicken Sivan’s pulse. Is this place really a “safe haven” as promised, or has Sivan finally walked into a trap? Is the island, in fact, a prison by any other name?
Elsewhere, in a sleepy small town in mainland Kerala, Sreenivasan, the timid proofreader and poet manqué who once sheltered Sivan, vanishes without a trace. Some say he has been “taken away” for police interrogation; the police claim he escaped from their custody; Sreenivasan’s wife Sakunthala runs from pillar to post in
frantic, fruitless search; their little son Sasi burns with a week-long fever that triggers seizures that will shadow him for life.
Days and weeks morph into months and years; public memory being what it is, Sreenivasan is soon a forgotten phantom. Only Sakunthala continues to keep up the chase and grapple with the old unanswered
questions: how did he go missing, and why? Was he a scapegoat for Sivan? Did he escape from custody or was he eliminated? If neither, was he still alive? If yes, did someone know?
Fiction and fact swirl around in dark eddies along the plot of Island of Lost Shadows. From the Godot-like Karadi-Papa who ostensibly owns the island, to Ayyakuru the mute dwarf who is treated no better than a beast of burden, down to the flea-bitten pet monkey who seems wiser than his master Thechappan — each inmate of the island is oddball enough to verge on the fabulist. The island itself is more than a geographical space; in some ways, every character in this book is marooned in a desert island of his/her own mind and making. There are passing
references to the Calcutta Thesis and a throwback to the infamous Rajan case with graphic descriptions of the brutal uruttal technique of rolling heavy wooden logs over the bodies of prisoners.
Mention is also made of the Communist Party split of 1964: even as the Party implodes and multiplies into factions “like cells” and baffled old-timers introspect as to where they went wrong, the masses regress even further into the status quo of apathy: “People? They do not have the time (to protest). They are busy standing in queues for rice and kerosene. They were never aware that whatever you did was for their sake.”
A word about the translation: the dense prose of Santhosh Kumar’s Malayalam doesn’t always transfer efficiently into English, and there are niggling clunkers aplenty (“It was out and out white khadi”; “He opened the vial of sniff”; “Sivan was at a loss of words”; “…after trudging through many a path many a times”; “He could be passed on as a playwright”. But, as with most translations, the pluses far outweigh these minor minuses, and the reader is towed through the narrative as in a whodunit, thanks to the well-paced plot and the palpable air of intrigue that always has you wondering: what next?
It also helps that Island of Lost Shadows is essentially a novel of vignettes. Long after the last page had been turned, I kept seeing a human head impaled on the iron gates of a tharavad; a man in dog chains, unkempt beyond recognition, covered with bruises and welts all over; a woman who waits for years in vain for a knock on the door and a return to status quo ante. And not least, the two lightning-singed coconut trees that bookend the narrative, bent like question marks against a blood-red sunset, as if to proclaim: the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Abhirami Sriram is a Chennai-based writer