He’s sailed a long way from the fishing village of Uvari in southern Tamil Nadu whose coastal peoples’ (Parathavar) pearl-diving and boat-building history mingled with sea-faring Romans, Chinese, Arabs and missionaries accounting for his Portuguese surname. Joe D’Cruz, 51, left her ancient shores, dropped his PhD programme in economics to work in a senior position in a shipping company in Chennai’s port. In the vibrant world of contemporary Tamil literature, his debut, Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean Rimmed World), 2005 was hailed as an epic that traces the history, religious ancestry, and lives and tribulations of the Parathavar to modern times.
Navayana, a political publishing house had signed an agreement on April 7 to publish the English translation of the book. However, D’Cruz’s Facebook status on April 9 effusively supporting Narendra Modi for PM had activist-writer V Geetha withdraw her translation and Navayana suspend the publication of the book in retaliation. In a freewheeling chat D’Cruz discusses freedom of opinion, his love for the ocean and promises more writing.
Are you disconcerted that Navayana suspended publication of your translated work?
I feel chastised. It has been over a year-and-a-half since V Geetha approached me to translate the book. It’s not an easy one with its Tamil dialect and layers but I respect her passion and commitment. After that, a formal agreement between Navayana was signed on April 7. Following my FB status supporting Narendra Modi on April 9, the publisher and translator withdrew from the agreement. It’s saddening but then, like the undulating waves, things have a way of evolving. I’ll wait and watch.
Many writers, including Left liberal ones, have supported you saying it’s equally fascist to ban a book based on the author’s political stance.
I am grateful but this is not only about a writer’s freedom. It’s about freedom of expression. This is an opinion that I hold that is curtailed or censured. I find it saddening that my happy working relationship with the translator has come to naught. I am not an ideologue. My support is for the disadvantaged. Just as I respect the stand of the translator’s I think I have a right to mine.
What is Aazhi Soozh Ulagu about?
Aazhi Soozh Ulagu was my maiden effort and is close to my heart as it’s about my people. I reject the pejorative “fishing community” and prefer to call them coastal communities, the brave offspring of the water nymph, the catamaran makers who inhabited the coasts of southern Tamil Nadu that saw international trade, marauding armies, whose indigenous religion had over hundreds of gods, who were brought under the fold of Christianity by saints and missionaries.
For one who supports the downtrodden where did your allegiance to Modi spring from?
I am a proud son of the coast and its culture; I firmly oppose programmes that will harm the ecology of the coasts but I love my country equally. India’s economic prosperity that will help the lowest to march forward should emerge from dynamic leadership. I’ve travelled around and have heard Modi speak. As he is from the lower rungs of society, I think he will be sensitive to the needs of the poor and also in opening India’s economic profile before the world. I appreciated Manmohan Singh when he helped with our economic liberalisation; but now the time has come for Modi.
And his record over the Gujarat pogrom?
The courts have not indicted him. I think he needs a chance to provide leadership.
You have been accused of succumbing to Hindu majoritarian fold.
(Laughs) I succumb to love and humanism, not Hindutva. Following the publication of Aazhi Soozh Ulagu, Christian groups slapped cases as the book included material about the conversion of coastal people; I could not visit my village until my father’s death after its release in 2010 as uninformed locals thought my book included foul language. Some threatened to kill me and frightened my aged parents and spreads canards about my book amongst the innocent villagers without even knowing about the book or having read it. It’s easy to take offence and easier to accuse.
Various Christian organisations objected to the conversion aspect of the coastal people in your book?
A case against me at the local court will come up for hearing this month over this. I have only said what history has recorded of the ancient glories of the Pandya kingdom, the bravery of the coastal people and their successful exploits in pearl diving, the attacks from the Arabs, the tactical agreement with the Portuguese and later conversion into the Christian fold in my book. Faith, respect and maturity are needed amongst us.
You are a late bloom in the Tamil literary scene but have managed to make your mark with awards and controversies alike.
I can only recall enjoying short stories by Wilde, Maugham or Dickens as a boy with no literary leanings. But it was in 2004, at the gentle push of a fellow writer, that I began to write and it’s nothing put pure joy. I am cut off from the world, my family, and am immersed in it. As for controversies, He said, “Let there be light”. God or Nature or Time will offer solutions to most problems.
Sudha Tilak is an independent journalist. She lives in Delhi.