Book: Idris: keeper of the light
Author: Anita Nair
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Cultures by the sea have their own notions of time and space. They think about millennia rather than centuries because they have amidst them people, customs and cuisine from a maritime history of circulation. Like the flotsam and jetsam deposited by the ocean, they also have races, religions and people blown there from the lands across the winds. Writing on Kerala, one can speak about Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Portuguese, Chinese and the Dutch without causing any consternation or drawing accusations of a pretension at cosmopolitanism. This makes the task of a writer both difficult as well as easy. Easy: because history and diversity are grist to our mill; and difficult because we have lost that easy sense of a world in our backyard; of polyglot life; and of intimate strangers, living as we do within the bars of nations and monolingual states.
It is the mid-17th century and Idris Maymoon Samatar Guleed, travels out from Dikhil on the border of Somalia and Ethiopia to the Malabar coast, following the trade routes across the Hadramawt. Tall, dark, handsome with a golden eye covering up a childhood blinding, he travels across the cosmopolitan and welcoming space of the Indian Ocean. Everywhere, as a stranger he is welcomed: xenophilia is the default option of coastal societies where every wave brings in the possibility of trade and wealth. Idris lands in Kozhikode, then under the Samoothiris and at the height of its power and influence as an Indian ocean port on the long route from Melaka, through Aden to Europe. In Malabar, dominated by Muslim traders on the coast and Nair overlords in the interior, Idris gains a son as a result of a passionate liaison with a Nair woman, Kuttimalu. She is drawn by his aloof, yet intense strangeness as he is by her devotion to a custom that allows her few transgressions.
It is the relation between Idris and his son, Kandavar, born of a moment of illicit passion with Kuttimalu, which is at the heart of the story. Kandavar feels the strange tides of Nair martial valour coursing through his veins, and the stories of the chaver, the suicide squads that every 12 years try and assassinate the Samoothiri are his inspiration. Idris has to draw him away from this fatal destiny while at the same time searching for his own. Women are drawn to his dignity and courtesy, men to his wisdom, experience and fund of stories. For Idris, the world is his oyster as he travels across southern India towards the fabled Golkonda in search of diamonds that will make his fortune. And it is at Golkonda too, that his quest ends, as he finds love and fulfilment with the mysterious Thilothama, the lonely heiress.
This is a riveting story written with facility that mines every cliché about early modern India and its cosmopolitan cultures. It is not clear why the story is set in the 17th century; not much is done with history here except to mention briefly the mamankam or the ceremony of suicide attacks on the Samoothiri. Why is Idris from Somalia and what role does his being black play in the novel, except as novelty? Idris, though he is the fulcrum of the novel, is a cardboard character with not much of an inner life except for insomnia. And being black he is also handsome, sexy and immaculate in his wisdom. He is like Velutha in The God of Small Things and Kalua the untouchable in Sea of Poppies, the result of the inability of the Indian middle classes to write about classes and people other than themselves except within the tropes of the noble savage.
Dilip Menon teaches at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg