Resonance of Literature – Seasons of the Palm

One often finds it intriguing how a flattened piece of wood with few inks splattered in patterns can make a person cry. For words have the power to move mountains and shake hearts so why does one delve deep into the vast expanse of this subject called Literature. It is because it speaks those truths which the mouth shies away from uttering. It explains details which the ordinary life can entail and yet be unknown about it.

I write this from a small and remote tribal village in Chhattisgarh with no proper connectivity to the mainstream. I feel this tributary is snaking its way around from the lived realities around me to this amazing phenomenon called book which I illustrated in my introduction. I just finished reading Perumal Murugan’s Seasons of the Palm. There is a concept of performativity in Social Science, where a victim or an oppressed has to ‘perform’ her oppression every time for her to assert her rights. A very simple example would be how a tribal has to prove her backwardness to the authorities to claim their entitled rights. In terms of literature, a women writer has to perform her feminism every time she writes, for there are questions too often which asks her about the ‘women’s perspective’ in her writing. The reason I bring this concept is to introduce you to Perumal Murugan.

Perumal Murugan is a Dalit writer from Tamil Nadu and his works have been translated from Tamil into many other languages including English. Seasons of the Palm is also a translated text from Koolla Madari. This book has tried to break the notion of performing the Dalit identity in very many ways. This is not to say that he has not at all touched the subject, rather he has put it into a context where the picture is not black and white where the oppressor is not the evilest creature on earth and our protagonist Shorty, the oppressed, not the naïve innocent child who obeys his parents faithfully.

This novel is built with a complex set of emotions just like any other literary work based on real life. I often find this sentence ‘based upon real life’ amusing. Can there be any word of writing in this world which has not been born out of real life? Everything has some or the other resonance with the life around. It is not possible to ride on the pillions of poesy to fly high if there was no ground to fly from, in the first place. Every piece of literature has been born out of its times and the author must have seen and observed her mettle to write it down in a piece of paper. However, my occasional detour was to back Murugan and second his thought that his fictional work doesn’t and cannot come out of blue. It is lived realities and experiences of many people which find words in his novel. Seasons of the Palm is about a young Dalit boy Shorty whose work is to herd sheep and do other jobs in his Master’s house to pay off the debt his father owes the Master. This debt seems to never end as his father keeps taking more money and the interest piles on. But in the introduction itself, Shorty clarifies that he doesn’t engage himself in this complex math, unlike Belly, another sheepherder and makes sure she gets a fair share of her work. This story has many other characters like Tallfellow, Stonedeaf, Stumpleg, and Selvan who is the son of Shorty ’s master.

The book is a very detailed account of the activities these young lads are engaged in when they are herding sheep or protecting them in the night or escaping out of this constant slavery. Murugan very beautifully details those moments of joy which these children steal out of their slaved lives like catching fishes, stealing palm fruits, stealthily going for a cinema and many more like it. These moments are precious also because Murugan describes nature with it. He somehow hints at the fact that although people are discriminatory and often involve themselves in drudgery, nature has always been kind and compassionate. This is done so lucidly in the book that I resonate with it in my village right now. Although there are no sheep here, I see similar actions by the goats or Poochi, the dog in my compound. The way the valley, the well has been described, it is as if one is also diving deep with each breath Shorty takes in it.

The social conditions of this village are not unusual. During the temple festival, these untouchable boys have to stand outside. Murugan also gives an account of how they come to this temple during the rest of the year when no one is around and play with the idols freely. There is a progress which Shorty makes as the story moves forward, he is described as this young boy who is fearful and sensitive in the initial chapters but in the end, he has become unwary of his surroundings. Murugan describes this as :

His (Shorty’s)ears appeared to have shut themselves off from the world.
Just as how his body had drawn itself into a tight knot, waiting to be kicked at anytime.

These lines come in the final chapters when Shorty starts asking questions about this atrocity to his father and starts calculating the money he earns and owes the Master. His beatings made him reason out a phenomenon which earlier he took for granted. As mentioned earlier, Murugan doesn’t put them in the strict categories of Oppressor and Oppressed. Shorty does run away for a few days and his Master accepts it as fate. In the same way, his Master leaves his sheep and cow free on the Harvest day and exclaim them as poor beings who work throughout the year. This care and compassion for the animals show a more skewed picture of caste discrimination. Casteism is so rampant and obvious that even a caring heart practices it without actually being so ruthless. If a reader needs one reason to pick this book it should be for its detailed accounts of the village life along with its half-hidden flaws, for everything needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

About the Author: Kalpita is a Bachelor in English Literature. Her ultimate goal is to fulfill the romantic notion of changing the world for better and she is pursuing MA in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

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