by Sheela Tomy, Translated by Jayasree Kalathil
Publsiher: Harper Perennial
In language as lush as the landscape it describes, Valli is a powerful ecofeminist lament, charting the slow death by human plunder of a majestic forest and the people it has supported over generations.
Written originally in Malayalam by Sheela Tomy, and translated by Jayasree Kalathil, Valli is enthralling in its description of the green idyll that is Kalluvayal, the forest where the book is set, and unflinching in its depiction of its destruction and that of the Paniyar community, bound strongly to every bird, animal and tree in the forest they call home. Moving between past and present; segueing from one character’s story to the next; weaving in lore, journal entries and emails; and doffing its hat at the likes of Marquez and Vijayan, Valli makes for gripping reading.
Central to every story in the book’s ambitious narrative is the saga of four generations of the Anjilikkunnil clan and the chain of events patriarch Kochouseph sets in motion when he moves to Kalluvayal, in Bayalnad (now Wayanad). “Heart-hardened” Kochouseph and his descendants prosper, building houses, plantations and, much later, resorts, encroaching on forest land, abusing local women, and trapping the Paniyar in the twin chains of indentured servitude and debt. On the heels of this ‘progress’ comes religious bigotry, widening the rifts in a community already sundered by habitat loss, slavery and the slow erasure of their pride and self-reliance. Aided by police and political strength, this chokehold on the forest and its people gets stronger with each generation, crushing even the odd clan member who dares show empathy or kindness to people around them.
Into this fiefdom come young schoolteachers Sara and Thommichan, fleeing persecution from her rich family. They take pains to assimilate with the Paniyar, attempting to empower and transform their lives with education. They are aided by others – teacher Padmanabhan, Anjilikkunil’s resident black sheep, Peter, and a growing band of Paniyar men and women, seeking to reclaim the forest. Change stirs; the tribals rebel, only to be crushed by the state. As the years pass, new faces appear to replace the ones lost to violence; yet little changes in Kalluvayal’s inexorable march to death.
The abuse and silencing of women is a grim thread through the book and the parallels with the pillage of Kalluvayal and its denizens is clear; Tomy sees both as a natural byproduct of a patriarchal society. Women, she suggests, are the future – the most nuanced characters in Valli are all women; it is the diary of one of them, Susan, that the narrative repeatedly returns to, and it is her daughter, Tessa who stands as a symbol of hope at the end. In a stirring author’s note at the end of the book, which draws strongly on her own childhood in Wayanad, author Tomy speaks of her attempts to understand the culture and history of this land her forefathers had migrated to and tell the story of its true people. Writing Valli, she says, “. was a prayer…to rewild the land of my birth…”, but also marks her own growing awareness of the “…politics of land and labour.”
Kalluvayal isn’t alone; halfway through the book, a character talks of joining a climate change protest, reminding us that the tragic story of this forest is the story of all forests. Valli’s is a tale we see unfolding around us every day, in every corner of our country, as citizens and bureaucracy face off over fast depleting resources and dying communities. Which, in turn, makes its apocalyptic end a warning we would do well to heed.
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