I just finished reading my very first Tamil novel, Kalki’s Alai Osai. I have never read a full fledged Tamil book before; my reading of the language was limited to reading those bit-jokes in Ananda Vikatan. And now I realize everything I have missed out on all these years.
Kalki’s Alai Osai is an exquisite creation. A magnificent work of art that has no parallels, no comparison, that is quite unlike anything ever written. The free flowing language, the beautiful descriptions of pre-independence India, the little villages of Rajampettai and Devapattinam – all bring forth the magic of the simpler life. And yet set against the stark backdrop of the British Raj, they drive home a harsh truth – one that spanned a 100 year long freedom struggle, causing the deaths of thousands of innocent people who voluntarily or by circumstance laid down their lives to usher in India’s freedom.
Kalki’s characters are sketched with such clarity, that it is difficult to believe that what you are reading is mere fiction. At no point are you made to think that one particular character is good or bad. Everyone has shades of gray and they all make decisions that are only as sensible as the situation permits. Seeta’s vivaciousness, Dharini’s surreal grace, Lalita’s all-too-simple devotion to her friend, Raghavan’s monstrous desires and Surya’s ever steady ideals – all make for a collage of very distinctive and memorable characters that won’t leave your thoughts for a very long time.
Kalki brings alive the cruel reality of human nature, one thought, one action of ours that affects the lives of everyone around us and those of our future generations. He makes you realize that no matter how noble one’s intentions, the repercussions of one impulsive act can be catastrophic enough to haunt them for the rest of their lives. He depicts the contrasts in his characters by embellishing their similarities. He takes you on a sepia-tinted journey to the far-flung corners of the country, starting from a tiny village post office to the vast streets of Mumbai to the banks of the Hoogly in Kolkata to the buzz of activity in Karachi, all the while making you aware of the unrest in the country and its eventual culmination in the barbaric riots of ’47 and the subsequent partition.
As a story teller he remains completely neutral throughout and never allows his personal opinions to jade the narrative. Hence the events of the time remain in the background, affecting the protagonists but never trying to send out a social message of any sort. He also remains extraordinarily detached from his characters, never once lapsing into pathos-evoking descriptions of Seeta’s hardships. He just narrates. You decide your feelings for her based on what he has told you. He builds up the narrative with such ease and class that before you know it, you are possessed by an insurmountable curiosity to know the climax which is sure to leave you shattered and numb. Not because it comes as a surprise to you, but because you realize how futile it all is. And how realizing your mistakes may just not be enough, and if even a little late in coming, may be too late to really do anything about.
I cannot help falling in love with the book over and over again, with every chapter, with very line. It is indeed a pity that a writer of his caliber is not recognized anywhere outside Tamil Nadu.