“Kocharethi calls upon us to ethically engage with it, to question our complicity” – First novel by an Adivasi in Kerala

Kocharethi is a well-crafted text that exudes the vigour of felt experience” – Tribute to a dignified son of the Western Ghats by the novel’s Malayalam-English translator Catherine Thankamma

To read the full book review, click here >>

Narayan, Kerala’s first tribal novelist, avoids romanticising his milieu. Kocharethi is about the hidden poetry of marginal lives…

The temptation to exoticise cultures that have not been commodified yet must be indeed tempting, especially to a cultural insider. Narayan, Kerala’s first tribal novelist, manages to avoid the pitfalls of both romanticisation and the now-classic postcolonial move of making the misery of the marginalised the sole literary theme in Kocharethi, a novel about the processes of cultural transformation and the hidden poetry of marginal lives. […]

Narayan’s tale refuses to romanticise tribal ways of life — the pure, noble savage, Narayan shows, does not exist except as myth. He maps, of course, their intimate eco-vision, but also shows how disease ravages them due to their ignorance, alcoholism and the uneven gender relations. But he also points the finger at the economic exploitation that proves, finally, to be the bane of the community in the ‘new India’.

Subtle polemics

The novel must be treated as a socio-critique whose polemics are subtle rather than vociferous, but is no less powerful for that. The slow erosion of cultural identity, the absence of agency for some sections of society, the increasing erasure of various communities from the supposed democratic space of citizenship, the questionable route ‘modernity’ and ‘development’ take, and the effects they have on men and, differently, on women are all woven into Narayan’s novel. Kocharethi calls upon us to ethically engage with it, to question our complicity in the systemic conditions that produce these lives, to reflect on our own reactions to the tale, to our expectations of the form and genre and to unlearn our frames of understanding.  […]

Source: “Cultures in transformation”, Review by Pramod K. Nayar, The Hindu, 3 April 2011
URL: https://www.thehindu.com/books/Cultures-in-transformation/article14669586.ece
Date visited: 9 May 2020

A winner of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi, Narayan died on August 16, 2022, at the age of 81

Writings of protest

Though Narayan wrote several novels and almost a hundred short stories, his most famous work is his first novel, Kocharethi, the writing of which was an overtly political act to counter the offensive misrepresentations of his community, the Mala Araya tribe, which appeared in a novel that was being serialised in a Malayalam magazine. Though Narayan, along with certain members of his community, managed to get a stay order issued, they realised that such attempts could happen again.

They could not approach the court every time or be certain of getting a favourable verdict again. Writing Kocharethi was the solution they arrived at, and Narayan was assigned the task as he had already published a few short stories. By writing about his tribe, its history and way of life, Narayan challenged those who viewed the Adivasi the way the white colonisers viewed us, as barbarians. Or worse, used the Adivasi as a trope to render their fictional world exotic. […]

As for literary merit, Narayan attended school till the tenth standard, then became a clerk in the postal service. What stylistic wonders can you expect from one with such a history? What you have is a hugely readable, and well-crafted text that exudes the vigour of felt experience; experiences which Sunny Kappikad aptly describes as ‘non-transferable.’ […]

Source: “‘A dignified son of the Western Ghats’: A tribute to Narayan, India’s first Adivasi writer”, by Catherine Thankamma, Sroll.in, 27 August 2022
URL: https://scroll.in/article/1030906/a-dignified-son-of-the-western-ghats-a-tribute-to-narayan-indias-first-adivasi-writer
Date Visited: 29 August 2022

Narayan, author of Kocharethi, the first novel by an adivasi in Kerala, and Catherine Thankamma, who translated the book into English, talk about the book and its place on the literary scene. | To read the full review by SARASWATHY NAGARAJAN, click here >>

Literature on adivasis, shaped by perspectives of authors who may or may not have interacted or studied the tribals and their lives, could be romantic flights of the imagination or grim portraits about trials and tribulations of the tribals. Irked by these fanciful and wrong representations of his community, Narayan, a member of the Malaarayar tribal community in Kerala, took up the pen to write the first authentic novel written by an adivasi in South India. […]
At a time when tribals all over India are fighting a losing battle to preserve their lands and cultural identity, Kocharethi reminds us, yet again, how these children of the land were marginalised by the state, the establishment and organised religion. From proud farmers, practitioners of traditional medicine and guardians of the land, the tribals became displaced and dispossessed, dependent on the largesse of the State to protect their lands and, most importantly, their cultural identity. “Many of the incidents in the book are based on real incidents that I remember or what I garnered from my elders’ experiences, especially what my great-grandfather recounted of his life,” says Narayan, a former Postal employee. [..]

In the late Sixties many adivasis in Kerala began to vocalise their anger at the way popular culture represented the tribals in films and books. Letters to the editor and the publisher did not help. That is when elders advised Narayan, a voracious reader himself, to write a novel about his community instead of merely criticising what was there in print and celluloid.

The misrepresentations were marginalising a marginalised community. I wondered what I could write about and that is when I decided to stick to what I knew best. So I chose to describe my life, upbringing and culture,” says Narayan.

Thus was the spirited Kocharethi born. […]

Source: “Found in translation”, The Hindu: Life & Style / Metroplus, 27 April 2011
Address : https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/article1772998.ece
Date Visited: 9 May 2020

Kerala: Path we’ve taken favours privileged” – Commentary by K.S. Madhavan (University of Calicut) in Times of India >>

The first novel by the first tribal novelist of South India, Kocharethi maps the story of the Malayarayar tribe in Kerala. Melding history with culture, the work portrays their many struggles: from possession and dispossession of land to the challenges of preserving myths, rituals, social customs, and belief systems.

Narayan, who wondered if leaves cried out when they fell to the ground, follows an adivasi couple through their childhood, youth, old age, illness, and death to present a vivid account of their elemental life. Drawing deeply from oral traditions to underscore the earthy tensions of an adivasi society, Narayan evokes Nature and the Great Spirits, unfolds the Malayarayars’ changing perceptions of land and its ownership, and documents a way of life that is slowly fading into history.

In Catherine Thankamma’s hands the translation retains the flavour and verve of the Malayalam original. The Introduction by G.S. Jayasree sets the context for the work and the in-depth interview with Narayan conducted by the translator helps chronicle the many changes that have taken place in the Malayarayar way of life. Accompanying illustrations bring to life the story of a community unheard of outside Kerala.

Source: Oxford University Press – publisher’s description
URL: https://india.oup.com/product/the-araya-woman-9780198070474?
Date Visited: 9 May 2020

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

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