A Crimson Destiny

Amrita Dutta
Tamil literature in english, tamil classics, Sahitya Akademi winning books, Poomani, Vekkai, crime fiction, indian express book review, indian express news

Book cover of Heat Poomani.

Title: Heat Poomani
Author: Translated from Tamil by N Kalyan Raman
Publication: Juggernaut
Pages: 244
Price: Rs 499

“Chidambaram had only planned to hack off the man’s arm.” The opening of Poomani’s Heat plunges us into a crime — a 15-year-old slashes his sickle at a powerful, older man. “As he ran, he heard the man’s scream rise and fade like the final cry of a goat in a butcher’s yard.” For the rest of the book, till the last sentence, the boy and his weapons are almost never parted. In the interregnum unfolds a novel in which guilt and innocence lose their fixed contours.

Tamil writer and Sahitya Akademi winner Poomani wrote Vekkai in 1982, inspired by the story of a real-life teenage killer. The novel, a classic in Tamil literature, has been translated into English, over three decades on, by

N Kalyan Raman. When a child commits a violent crime, how much is that choice his? How much does society bear responsibility for the coarsening of a child? This slim novel seems to suggest that while well-meaning and earnest, these are blundering, journalistic questions. What remains vital is the child, his sensibility and his world.

And so, even if a body does turn up on page one, a curious thing happens. The novel backs away from the gore, and clears a space for the reader to glimpse Chidambaram better. We see him flee his home and village, as the news of the killing spreads. We see him rub his dog’s coat with affection, a few moments after he has struck the powerful landlord. We see him wash the bloody sickle clean and tie it to his waist. We see him watch silently as he suddenly turns into a “man” in his father and uncle’s estimation.

His father, Paramasivam, becomes a fugitive too, as he accompanies his son into the countryside for protection. Ayya, as Chidambaram calls him, is torn between pride and shame: he feels upstaged by his son, who took it upon himself to take revenge. As we slowly realise, from the brief, tense conversations between the father-son, this is a family torn asunder by violence. Their small stretch of land had caught the eye of the powerful Vaadukkaran; Ayya held out, refusing to sell the plot, but found his elder son, Annan, murdered. It’s the “heat” of that rage and injustice that they carry with them.

Though Poomani never spells out the caste dynamics, the hierarchical nature of the society is never in doubt. The novel is a clear-eyed, unsentimental assessment of who gets away with crimes, and why — and who are left waiting for justice. Powerlessness perpetuates itself from generation to generation. In his youth, Chidambaram’s father, had also landed up in jail, when he had protested casual oppression by the powerful. Ayya is this novel’s most complex character, convinced of the need for violence to reclaim his dignity, even as he is aware of how it will crush his son’s freedom. “A man can’t live on rage alone, son,” he says.

What do the fugitives live on? That’s an important question. Every day, Chidambaram steps out to find the answer. The scorched, arid landscape, which rustles with life and love in Poomani’s writing, is not his enemy, but an old friend. Here, beyond guilt and punishment, the rhythms of daily life carry him through. He scours the land for food, he plucks tangy fruits and vines; he climbs palm trees to find pandaneer, and fashions vessels out of things strewn around. He stops, fascinated by the beauty around him. He keeps his bombs aside, and plays a childhood game. He makes a hammock for himself, and weaves a garland of kurundi flowers.

While this reviewer is not equipped to judge what is lost in translation, this English rendition is vividly told. The minimal, even inexpressive dialogue conveys the inarticulate truths of family relationships. The language is supple and cinematic; unobtrusive details — the flickering of lights, the smell of a flower, the stare of an owl in a field — underline the presence of a natural world fecund with possibilities, one that cradles human life, in all its imperfections. Troublingly, the book remains silent on the question of Chidambaram’s guilt, if it does not dodge it altogether. It seems to suggest that the dignity of human life persists beyond crime and punishment — the reader is convinced, almost.