The Vanishing Generations
T V Varkey (Translation by AK Srikumar)
We vouchsafe a Syrian Catholic church that will reflect the uniqueness of Malabar, so that we may create a church incorporating our pure ancient philosophies and guru-shishya traditions… A community that does not foster its native spirit will not be able to survive.” These words of Reverend Kunchacko in The Vanishing Generations (Manjupokunna Thalamurakal) sum up what it’s author, TV Varkey, says in its 620 pages. One is never far from either the sense of the land or native pride in this novel, which has been translated from Malayalam into English by AK Srikumar.
Varkey’s novel, placed in the fictional town of Kudamon, is a quilted narrative of southern Kerala through its social, cultural and political history. The story maps the evolution of a society that was at its syncretic best, yet not without its failings — slavery and caste oppression were acceptable and feudalism was a way of life. Kudamon, an obscure village, balloons into a trader’s town, and also a cultural hub for writers. Varkey’s Manjupokunna Thalamurakal (The Vanishing Generations) assumes a wider arc, presenting the growth of the Syrian Catholic church, changes in Hindu communities, especially the Namboodiri Brahmins, and the rise of a communist government in independent Kerala. Spanning nearly a century, from the 1850s to the 1960s, the story circuits the Syrian Catholic Paalat family, across seven generations.
We enter the story with the protagonist, Kunjilona, who takes on a generational curse that tails Kudamon’s Paalat family — men who marry girls from the Paalat family give birth to a daughter, and die soon after. However Kunjilona survives, and creates for the family a firm foundation of liberal thinking, enterprise and audacious inquiry. With an entrepreneurial bent, he opens Paalat Stores, shifting from farming as their traditional occupation. The decadence of the caste system, though, is seen in every quotidian ritual, from walking on the streets to the right to education. While Kunjilona doesn’t buy into it, he knows how to navigate his way around the social constructs. At the store, he welcomes the upper caste Brahmin and is correct with the lower caste Ezhavas and Pulayas.
The entry of Rev John Jackson and his wife Margaret into this undiscovered village brings with it ideas of a free society and access to the outside world — not only with roads, but also education that goes beyond Sanskrit texts. Running parallel to this is the progress of the local Syrian Catholic Church, which becomes the pivot around which education, trade and egalitarian ideals take shape.
Father Emmanuel Manchuetil, the flag bearer of the church, has the indefatigable energy to defy the supremacy of Rome and appoints Kunjilona’s son, Kunchacko, to become his successor — Rev Kunchacko, conversant with Sanskrit shlokas and the law of the land, can even arrange for goons if required. He is made the Vicar General of the church, and, like his father, is both provocateur and priest to the town. The church soon takes on the onus of health and educational needs, bringing business and community together. Politics is not seen as party-led as much as it is about helping people evolve. Rev Kunchacko campaigns for the education of the girl child, widow marriages, and even starts a newspaper to raise awareness about social discriminations.
Kunjilona’s other son, Abraham, takes on the family business, and expands into tea plantations and rubber estates.
And with the entry of two further generations, Francis and John Paul, Kudamon finds itself inside a Renaissance vortex, marked by its people’s intellectual, economic and political sagacity.
A Paalat Press is also established soon, and a new world opens up for Kudamon. It begins to participate in the larger narrative of the country, engaging with writers and poets such as CV Raman Pillai and VC Balakrishna Panicker, and freedom fighters such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi. The Vaikom Satyagraha, a movement against untouchability, features too. With the passage of time, Kudamon sees government jobs increase and petrol-driven vehicles enter the town, and, one sees how the church grows into a dictatorial institution that proclaims damnation on anyone who goes against them. The irony lies in John Paul’s breaking away from the church in the end, closing the Paalat family’s chapter that began with his great-grandfather, Kunjilona.
The women who stand by their men — Mariamma, Kunjilona’s wife, her mother, Thaandamma, or Joan, mother to Annie, the seventh generation, are stoic about everything life throws at them. When the novel begins, we see lower caste women are bare-breasted and walk in front of processions in temples with naked chests. The saying that “when the hen crows, the world will end”, is symptomatic of what an entire society feels. When fiesty Joan comes into the frame, she says, “I don’t want to marry, again. When I need a man, I will hire one…”
The translation by Srikumar is impeccable. But, all the characters are uni-dimensional, with very little shading in them. Like in all good literature, the story, ultimately, is about human relationships and the society it shapes. However, the book closes on a Tolstoyan note, where one realises: “The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless”.