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Published on: 12/29/16 6:00 AM

Book review: Songs of the Cauvery by Kalyanaraman Durgadas


The flow of life

By the banks of the Cauvery in Tamil Nadu, a set of people try to make sense of their life and times. 

As the nineteenth century draws to a close and the twentieth appears on the horizon, India`s freedom struggle is fast gaining traction. This story is set in the quiet coastal hamlet of Tiruvaiyaru, and opens most dramatically, with Sambu Sastry`s young wife of a few months, Mangalam, taking her own life. Even as the readers  sit up and read on to ascertain just why such a thing should happen, they are catapulted into a richly-hued tale that takes up several strings, that of nationalism, hidebound tradition, a conforming to old rites and rituals alongside the stirring desires of a young generation, and winds all these strings together to form a tenacious segment of twine.

The tale unfolds in measured components, and is steeped in interesting detail, both historical and communal. Sambu loses Mangalam but as she desired and as she set out in her farewell letter, he weds her younger sister Bhavani. They go on to have two children, Panju (Panchapakesan, of course) whose life takes an unexpected turn when he goes off to Kumbakonam to join college, and Janaki who is compelled to rein in her intelligence and her desire to study further, and take charge of her household instead, for a long while. The siblings form the backbone of the story, and their lives are as convoluted as the meanderings of the mighty Cauvery. Then there is the comely devadasi Ranjitham who is torn between her heart which belongs to Panju, and her mind which tells her it would be more prudent, more profitable,  to acquire a wealthy benefactor rather than stay loyal to the impecunious, ardent man who loves her. There are the British officials posted in this area, not all of them enthusiastic about having to stay in this dusty, hot land with its hot-headed, emotional people. There are the nationalist political leaders, nascent freedom fighters,  who meet Panju and wield considerable influence on his thinking as well as his future course of action.

It is a seamless blend of historical fact and poignant fiction, falling into the faction genre. The author uses his pen like a pointillist, filling in the minutiae in a meticulous manner. Panju learning the art of kushti clandestinely; the sweet fledgling romance between Janaki and Arul; the temple priests performing the archana and abhishekam; Sambu`s covert encouragement of his daughter`s desire to read, absorb, learn. The supercilious, contemptuous white sahebs; Panju`s move up the ladder of nationalistic activity, all of it, people and circumstances moving towards the cataclysmic conclusion.

The humour is soft, subtle, a barely tangible presence. Drama threads itself throughout the story as in the passages where the white man is cursed by the dancer; the assassination attempt at the finale; the breathless chase on the railway platform and in the train.

The  calm, slow and steady transit of the Cauvery sits in counterpoint to another kind of transition, that of a political nature,  the tumultuous shift from colonial rule to freedom.

Songs of the Cauvery is a slice of history neatly wrapped up in fiction; a neat microcosm of life as lived in sleepy little agraharams in the hinterland, as well as in the bustling city of Madras. It is the kind of book that rewards the assiduous reader with well laid out nuggets of an era long gone. And if the Cauvery connect is tenuous, it nevertheless is an endearing touch.

This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 29 Dec 2016.

Cauveryfictionhistorical fictionKalyanaraman DurgadasSongs of the Cauvery

Sheila Kumar • December 29, 2016

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