Review: Beasts of Burden by Imayam
Imayam, one of the most significant Tamil writers of our times, wrote his first novel at 20. Koveru Kazhuthaigal, translated as Beasts of Burden by Lakshmi Holmström, turned him into a literary icon. A reprinted edition to mark 25 years of its publication appeared quietly last year. It is an intimate portrayal of an impoverished family adapting to both modernity and their diminishing circumstances, during a time of change and decline. In the time of the novel coronavirus, this novel is a pertinent account of survival during hardships.
Beasts of Burden opens with Arrokyam, a middle-aged woman, and her family organising a trip to church hoping it will fix their problems. In the 1970s, when the novel is set, Arrokyam is deeply perturbed by the socio-economic shifts she senses. She wants to hold on to the old order of the caste system where roles and exchange rates were predetermined. Increasingly, Arrokyam and her husband Savuri find themselves burdened with more work but their rations drastically cut down. They receive less grain for the work they do, and lesser still for helping out in the fields. The customary rewards on the occasions of birth and death during which they perform important duties become almost token. Every evening, the family collects leftover food from other families, but their portions keep growing smaller. They face the worst of the economic hardships because they are Mahadalit, the most marginalized among Dalits, serving a community of agricultural bonded labourers.
Arrokyam, who has a special relationship with each household in the village, uses it to cajole and flatter them into getting her dues. When that doesn’t work, she calls them out on their pretences at generosity. She flares up and fights for what she is owed. Imayam writes about the family’s life and daily activities with ethnographic details. Ordinary events — weddings, babies, bickering, love, goodbyes — coexist with exploitation and apathy. Josep, the oldest son, is whisked away by his modern wife who scorns at the family’s casteist sycophancy; Mary, the daughter, helps out the most at home and mopes around about being too curvy; Peter, the youngest, is the most recoiled by their marginalised life — but Arrokyam refuses to entertain the possibility of him becoming a priest and escaping the caste system.
When it was first published, Koveru Kazhuthaigal opened up heated political conversations about Dalit identity and the role of the writer. It was criticised — even considered an anti-Dalit text — for its depiction of caste oppression within Dalit communities. Imayam has also been criticised for his rejection of caste identity — for both, his work and himself. “I’m writing to do away with caste, then how can I have a caste identity,” he has said in interviews.
His way of doing away with caste is by uncovering its dynamics to reveal complexities without judgements. In an introduction to Beasts of Burden, he writes, “The world is an ocean, in which concepts and theories are like ships which appear and disappear. My works were not composed with the comfort offered by these ships, but written from within the sea and by looking at its vastness.” The result is that this story, rooted in specificities of a certain experience, has a resounding universality: it is simply about how life goes on.
When Arrokyam was younger, we later learn, they always had a granary full of a variety of grains, which she was able to sell even during times of famine. In the old days, their life was a “prince’s life.” During this time of national economic crisis and rise in apathy, “it’s not the times that have changed, it’s the people who have changed.” Even dead cows, which occasionally supplied them with beef, are now buried instead of given away to eat.
Later, the family’s primary occupation (washing and mending) is disrupted when a laundryman and a tailor set up shops in the village. But Arrokyam continues to follow her routine: they wash the few clothes they’re able to collect, she administers complicated childbirth, carries out all her tasks. And while she soothes the village’s women and children, she curses her own children who have left, longing for them and for death: the dramatic Indian mother. She cusses at Savuri who swears often, but they never linger on their volatile exchanges.
In an introduction to Beasts of Burden, its translator Holmström writes, “Koveru Kazhuthaigal gives us an extraordinarily detailed picture of a lifestyle that is reclaimed and told with pride, without any attempt to “Sanskritize” it. That us, there is no supposition that the lifestyles of the upper castes (vegetarianism, brahminic rituals, etc.) are, or ought to be, the norm.”
This is not a reassuring novel — although its descriptions of food, often consisting of mixed leftovers downed with chillies, are appetising and comforting. But at a time when the world is struggling for answers, it offers some wisdom.