Out of the Book


Book: Agngnaadi

Author: Poomani

Publisher: Cre-A Publishers

Pages: 1,068

Price: Rs 925

Book: The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing

Editor: Ravikumar, R. Azhagarasan

Publisher: OUP

Pages: 334

Price: Rs 595

There is an eternal debate on whether the universal or the particular makes a work of fiction literature. Universality gives articulation in any form the status of art. But the particular gives colour, vigour, temporality, spatiality, power to represent, to misrepresent, to extol and extinguish. The subjective draws attention to a range of details, from triumphalism to humiliation.

The gifted novelist Poomani's latest work, Agngnaadi, and the committed Dalit literary critic, activist and publisher Ravikumar's anthology of Dalit writing in Tamil, published by Oxford University Press, remind us that well-intentioned, representational lit crit can obliterate the nuanced, multilayered universe created by literature.

Let's celebrate literary achievement before lamenting lit crit's limitations. Poomani is Tamil's midnight's child. This 1947-born writer of Pallar scheduled caste is one of the earliest consciously subaltern writers. He benefited greatly from the expansion of Tamil narrative in the early 1970s that foregrounded regional dialects and idioms the particular which invigorates literature. With five important novels and over 80 insightful short stories to his credit, Poomani should feature in any anthology of modern Tamil literature.

Agngnaadi is a brilliant novel spanning two and a half centuries, chronicling southern India, especially Tirunelveli, and exploring the interplay between the four markers of colonial and postcolonial Tamil society state, wealth, religion and caste. Like Amitav Ghosh used sailors's pidgin and a patchwork of Bhojpuri, Hindi, Hindustani, Urdu and Bangla to weave a tapestry of the immigrant's world in Sea of Poppies, Poomani draws on the rich oral Tamil tradition, where every caste and region has its own dialect and usages, where language functions as a social registry, to bring out the graded, sedimentary nature of our social hierarchy. While describing cataclysmic events, Poomani retains the focus on his characters. Recurring tragedies like riots, land-grab and colonial excesses have no temporal limitations and always seem to reprise a recent tragedy. Despite Independence and progress in many spheres, the world is sliding. He captures the irony of the concurrent existence of progress and obscurantism by creating multiple images of water: water as metaphor, as simile, as physical object, as spiritual object. Water bodies are not just life-givers but also fine places to commit suicide. But finally, the novel affirms hope while portraying stark reality by documenting the agency of ordinary men and women who share their grief and console each other across caste and religious boundaries.

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