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Antiquity in all its Grandeur

A commemorative postage stamp featuring Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai

In the eighties, Kayar used to be telecast as a period drama series on Doordarshan. Having watched an episode or 2 then, I don’t remember to be impressed or understood anything being an adolescent. But recently, having read its English translation by N. Sreekantan Nair published through Sahitya Akademi, I can’t help but marvel at this masterwork of a book and its distinguished author.

Kayar (Coir) is a voluminous novel originally written in Malayalam by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. It is the saga of Thakazhi village in Kerala, during the British Raj and early days of Independence. The canvas of this magnum opus stretches across 7 generations and a time span of 150 years vividly painting the culture, tradition and the social order of yesteryears’ Kerala and the gradual transition it went through to arrive at the current state of affairs. By means of myriad characters it recounts in finer details the social, political, economic reformations as well as the upheavals the society, families and individuals went through those times.

Pillai’s style of writing is plain and straightforward but heartwarming nevertheless. There are no concealed connotations, suggestive overtones or confusing philosophies of any sort. Yet in this simple narrative of numerous tales of different people belonging to different communities/ religion and their families, Pillai reveals his great insight into human nature and acute analysis of human character. He skillfully etches the ‘Change’ in times, values – cultural and moral, lifestyles, caste system, human emotions and relations – personal as well as between various religious communities. His recitals efficaciously depict the gradual switch from the matriarchal to patriarchal system, the tragic consequences of the high-handed British Laws and Acts, failure of land reforms and its disastrous effect because of the partitions of the matriarchal families, radical transformation in the education system – from caste based guru-kuls to ecumenical English schools, defeated feudalism and slow emergence of socialism, new found awakening of patriotism, influence of Gandhism, ensued situations of World War II, creeping in nepotism, preferred overseas immigrations, overall greed and a general loss in prominence for morals, God and the good in the society.

Story unwinds with advent of renewed land classifications, by the orders of the Royal family, and arrival of a Classifier and his greedy wife in the village. The social set up then consisted of some powerful feudal lords belonging to the rich ancestral families of higher caste Namboodaris and Nairs enjoying complete authority over the matters pertaining to the village and the temple. The temple of village deity Dharma Sasthavu was held in high reverence and formed an integral part of the god-fearing people irrespective of caste and creed. The labour class was of Ezhavas, Parayas, Pulayas and Christians. The only source of income was agriculture and all payments were made in kind, especially measurements of Paddy. Deep-rooted customs, rituals and traditional sentiments were the undercurrents holding this society together.

Typical family would have several generations living under the same roof with daughters of the house inheriting ancestral properties and the uncles being responsible for bringing forth the nephews and nieces. Adultery and infidelity, though not socially acceptable were still prevalent and as-a-matter-of-fact things. Free willed marriages, widow remarriage, taking in second husband etc. were all accepted norms. Intercaste marriages were very common, but the rigidity of caste system prevailed by not taking any food at spouse’s place.

Corrupt Classifier and his team reassesses lands accepting bribes and other favours. The normal system is disrupted by such irrational land assignments and an imbalance creeps into these families. To add on to it, newer land reform laws of British and introduction of courts for settling disputes create a tumultuous situation as they are highly misused by the knavish.

Slowly, this affects generations down the line, and the once affluent families now face penury while the labour class and Christians gain prominence by sheer hard work and European association. All these are recounted through stories of different members of Kodanthara, Mangalaserry, Cheeratta, Seelanthipillil and other such families, Outha Mapilla, Attukkadavil Anthony and their successors representing Christian community and Purakkalathil Abdul Rasak, Pareed etc., belonging to the Muslim families.

Stories of Kochu Nair and his son Manikantan disclose the total revamp of Education system and the mad rush for official ranks and government posts. Through Kunjan Nair, Surendran and Viswanathan author brings out the patriotic ardour that was gaining stance. Similarly, World War II, partition of India on religious lines, gaining of Independence, there upon following elections, Government and other changes in the society are subtly conveyed.

The Novel is very big and takes considerable time for reading. There are more than 100 main characters and innumerable side stories and to keep track of them is slightly weary. The consistent introduction of several characters in first few chapters is somewhat confusing. But as you continue, you realize that it is not really necessary to remember them, simply because it’s a flowing story and with ample back references. Anyway, the list of main characters is given in the beginning, which is helpful as you cruise along this marathon classic. The complicated long Malayalee names, which are sometimes repeated over several generations, are bedeviling. Also generous use of Malayalam to maintain its originality gives that authentic native touch but would have been difficult to comprehend without the glossary provided at the end.

The only other book of similar genre that I can recall is “Things fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, which portrayed the cataclysm of African society on account of European invasion. Kayar however brings forth true India in all its beautiful diversity and gives a joyous experience of reading.

A highly recommended read.

0 28 February, 2011 Books February 28, 2011

About the author

While I think I am a Creative Genius, friends and folks term it as Perennial Eccentricity! They opine that all my ramblings are the result of a disoriented brain.. whose one lobe is eternally dysfunctional while the other perhaps needs correction surgically! Yeah, jealous them :) Anyway, be warned people.. here's another Crazy Dudette! Please read at your own risk.

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  1. Anney

    Welcome to GC. So refreshing to see someone read a malayalam book and write a review. Am so bad at piecing the letter togather to read!
    Thanks for the review.

  2. Rama Jois

    Hi Bhaskar and Anney, thanks for your welcome and nice words. Well, I read the English translated version and not really in Malayalam, so was kind of okay.. although all the tongue twisting mallu names were really something 🙂

    1. Rama Jois

      Thanks for the welcome Mani. And I will take it as a compliment.. though am nowhere near a pro and just a hobby reviewer 🙂

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