“It was dark. .A cold wind blew over the hill and the trees swayed and the sleepless cicadas shrilled. By the hillside, through the deep green expanse of the trees and shrubs wild and sprawling , two frail figures ambled on. One tiny and the other frail, both women. One held a small hurricane lamp that allowed an orange gleam just enough for them to walk about. Two women in a pale orange light in the pre-dawn stillness. The path was wet from the night’s dew. Their footsteps seemed to intrude into the silent night that awaited a quiet dawn. The flame in the glass chimney flickered on, shedding barely enough light for the two to take tiny, careful steps. They had to do this before the dawn, before the sun came. The dictum said so. The older one was looking for herbs. ”
This lyrical passage introduces the reader to Biji Rajan, the masseuse , one of the ten people whose lives we become familiar with after reading Joshua Newton’s ,”The Book of the People”.
This passage is an example of the empathy with which the author has approached the small and big details , the twists and turns , the prose and poetry of the lives he unfolds for us.
They are not celebrities whose achievements would clamour out for their lives being recorded to inspire others to walk their way. There is no real drama..nothing that would make the book a nail-biting read and yet the way the extroadinariness of those ten ordinary lives is so surely , but subtly spelt out that they keep bothering you after you’ve put down the book.
Admittedly, some stories leave more of an impression than others. But yes, admittedly again, which of the ten stories gets under your skin may be different for different readers.
I think I was touched most by Biji, who healed innumerable people who approached her, with the love and empathy in her palms. May be the way she was introduced pre-dispositioned me into liking her. The little girl who grew up imbibing all the native wisdom and ethics of healing from her grandmother. Biji who emphasised that “most importantly we needed to love. If our hearts lacked love, nothing would work”.
Manu, who could never tire of elaborating on the “virtues of the wilderness”, and the intricacies of the lives of butterflies and who according to the author “had sprouted into a spirit that imbibed elements naturally belonging to a butterfly-lightness,swiftness,harmony, agility, silence and a love for the woods” , does not fail to impress either. What a charmed life, away from the hustle and bustle of the rat-race.
Koyamon, the native of one of the islands in the Lakshwadeep cluster ,whose life went through its crests and troughs, even as the waves in the surrounding ocean, went through the same routine endlessly and Peter Tomy, whose sense of right and wrong had been submerged way below the surface of his erratic and unruly youth and whose redemption came through an act of forgiveness of his mother-in-law , whom he had attempted to kill also stuck with me. So did Ravuthar, who trudged miles and miles into the forest to gather grass to thatch roofs, something that he had been doing all his life and which he continued to do with the utmost grace and submission to God’s designs.
Then there is Anand, the naturalist, who had eventually found serenity and harmony amongst the trees and plants of “spice Village” in Thekkady, where he lived and breathed in the luxriousness of Nature allowed to thrive with the very minimum of intervention . The boatmen whom one may accost on a vacation trip along the backwaters of Kerala and would as quickly forget once out of those environs, wouldn’t ordinarily invite a second look into their lives. Not anymore perhaps,,not after coming to know Radhakrishan , who had perhaps spent the major part of his life chugging along the vastness of those waters .Time had in the meanwhile changed the teenaged boy who accompanied his father on his cargo boat to a grey-haired man.
The author has obviously spent a lot of time getting to know these “ordinary” people. At places, one felt, the inclusion of all the tiny details became a deterrant to the smoothness of the narrative. But then again, those details were necessary, I guess to bring out the extroadinariness in their existences which would otherwise escape our notice, swamped as it were with the monotony of their everyday routines. One thing that they all shared in common was perhaps the peace with which they had accepted the place where they had found themselves eventually in life. There is immense wisdom perhaps in the realization that no life is ordinary .
Many times, one did feel that the narrative was by someone who was unfamiliar with the Kerala landscape and were witnessing things for the first time…but then the author has explained why that is so in his Note at the beginning of the book, “ This is what I belive:Our daily lives do hold moments of poetry. I’m not sure which part has won in this book though- the poetry or the rawness. Everything narrated is factual or based on facts. Persoanl life-stories are woven through their day jobs. Obviously, I stand the risk of being called a “faux naïf” examiner , somebody examining his own people as a foreigner and getting away with it. That’s okay. My interest was in drawing material from my own people to create something non-local, a kind of work that will resonate with readers anywhere.”
Notwithstanding that anticipatory bail, I would’ve personally vouched for the poetry winning if it had not been for the sometimes lengthy detailing, such as the one on vermiculture in Anand’s story , which almost seemed to come as an interruption. I think the story of Suresh the “kalaripayattu practioner failed to hold my attention for the same reason.