Author: Paul Chirakkarode, Translator: Catherine Thankamma
Publication: Oxford University Press
Price: Rs 595
Everyone longs for a home to call their own. Home can mean a certain economic status for some, a sense of belonging for others. In Pulayathara (home or land of the Pulayars), Paul Chirakkarode shows us how fragile this concept of a home is for the Pulayar and Paraiyar, the so-called lower castes of Kerala. Home, for them, is not rooted or fixed, it is wherever the landlord permitted them to build one — usually a small hutment made of clay, bamboo and palm leaves.
We see this in the story of Thevan Pulayan, an old farm hand who has worked on his landlord’s fields since he was a young boy. The book opens with Thevan reminiscing about the house he was allowed to build in a corner of the field. After Aayirampara, the fields he has lovingly nurtured all his life, his home is his pride and joy. It is all he needs to start a family. So he marries and the couple have a son, Kandankoran. Cut to the present and we see the old man being ousted from his home. With nowhere to go, father and his son seek shelter at the home of a Christian relative, Pathros.
A mild-mannered man and an ardent Christian, Pathros lives with his wife Maria and daughter Anna in a small hut built on Church land. He welcomes Thevan and Kandankoran with open arms — a gesture that doesn’t sit well with Maria, as it involves two extra mouths to feed. The same night, at the preacher’s house, the Church committee’s Syrian Christian members congregate to pick a speaker for the ‘Awakening’, a spiritual event meant to bring the congregation closer to God.
When the preacher suggests Pathros, as he has “a voice that could make waves of repentance surge through the congregation,” Custodian Thomas breaks out into a sweat and has visions of his ancestors reporaching him for this insult to their ancient lineage. So he gets the preacher to agree on inviting a speaker as good as Pathros.
On the day of the event, the Dalit community waits expectantly for Pathros to address them but are shocked when someone else takes the stage. This episode marks the first of many cracks in the seemingly idyllic life of the community, and the realisation that the caste discrimation they sought to escape has doggedly followed them from one religion to another.
Back at Pallithara, Thevan rues his fate, while a romance blossoms through stolen glances between Kandankoran and Anna. The Syrian Christians create problems for Pathros for harbouring his Hindu relatives, who eventually leave. Kandankoran, however, decides to convert to marry Anna, a decision he questions when he notices the unequal seating arrangement at the Church service — the Pulayars sit on mats, while the Syrian Christians lean comfortably on benches.
This realisation also dawns on Pathros and Paulos. “Like a caparisoned elephant”, Pathros had felt a certain pride for having risen above his Hindu brethren. He realises that for people like Custodian Thomas, he is “just Pathros Pelen”.
Paulos, on the other hand, decides to turn thought into action. He mobilises the community, leads them out of the Church during its yearly anniversary, and decides to hold a meeting by inviting a Dalit writer to address them on the oppression they face.
In all of Chirakkarode’s works, caste discrimination in Christianity is a central theme. He relentlessly questions the hypocrisy of Christianity, stripping off its veneer of equality and tolerance. Like the Pulayars, we are left wondering what sort of a religion and god lets it’s people be trampled upon and treated as less than human.
We feel for the characters — Pathros, because he is caught between the religion he has grown to love and inequality that exists within it; Thevan, who loses his home, his belongings and his sanity; and, mainly, Kandankoran, who feels his caste acutely following his conversion, almost as if it has physically dealt him blow after blow.
We also feel for the women, Maria and Anna. The relationship between mother and daughter takes a tumultuous turn when Kandankoran arrives on the scene. She cajoles and scolds Anna to forget about marrying him, who has no home or a job. Anna is steadfast in her love for the dark and handsome Kandankoran and vows to marry no one else but him.
In Anna and Kandankoran, Chirakkarode also gives us a picture of domestic bliss, that “they may be dark skinned, but they, too, are human” and deserve happiness.
Pulayathara moves at a leisurely pace, mimicking the landscape, giving the reader enough time to absorb each character’s experiences, and ruminate on caste atrocities. A name can be changed following conversion, but caste sticks like a stubborn stain. Yet, the book offers hope — hope that the people will rise up and protest.