Friday, 14 March 2014

Book Review: Dolmens in the Blue Mountain, by Kandathil Sebastian

The chain of evergreen hills which forms the Western Ghats runs through the entire eastern length of Kerala and is home to a variety of flora and fauna. At one time, it was inhabited entirely by hill tribes, but over the past hundred years, Malayalam speaking immigrants from the coastal plains have taken over the hills completely. Just as in the rest of Kerala, the Ghats are dotted with concrete monstrosities, built with remittances from overseas. Stone quarries have laid waste to large sections of the ever green hills. Much of the wildlife has been systematically hunted down to extinction. The biggest losers however have been the hill tribes, who believe that the hills are imbued with the spirits of their gods and goddess and whose ancestors sleep in dolmens on cliff tops. The tribal population of Kerala’s Western Ghats has been decimated ever since the migrations began and large parts of the traditional homelands over which they roamed have been denied to them under the pretext of forest conservation.

The extreme damage caused to the ecology of the Western Ghats in Kerala has been repeated in five other states, prompting the Kasturirangan panel to recommend that around 60,000 sq km of Western Ghats, spread across six states, should be turned into a no-go area for commercial activities like mining, thermal power plants, polluting industries and large housing plans. These recommendations have evoked violent opposition, especially in Kerala.

Through Dolmens in the Blue Mountain, author Kandathil Sebastian tells us the story of a hardworking Syrian Catholic farmer, Devasy who starts life as a sharecropper for a Nair landlord at Ezhacherry, a village fifty kilometres away from the famous port Allepey and prospers to become a landlord in his own right, and Devasy’s descendants. Devasy’s son Ouseph (Malayalam for Joseph) fathers five children, two boys and three girls and builds a church at Ezhacherry. Ouseph could have educated his children, but doesn’t, even though his second son Thomman is keen to study. Ouseph’s elder son Varghese migrates to the hills and starts farming on cleared forest land with the help of tribals, to whom he supplies arrack. Varghese has two sons, Philipose and Dominic. Varghese’s brother Thomman stays on at Ezhacherry and ends up in jail after killing a goon who was trying to rob him of his money. Thomman’s son Saju is intelligent and hardworking, though Thomman cannot afford to send him to an English medium school and saju is forced to attend a Malayalam medium school.

Dolmens in the Blue Mountain is the story of Philipose and Dominic, their cousin Saju, Deven, the tribal boy whose father had helped Varghese conquer the hills, Deven’s wife Kannnagi who is raped and exploited by Philipose and who takes to the path of violence in the company of other Naxals and finally of the dolmens where Deven’s and Kannagi’s ancestors rest. Sebastian’s charatcers are authentic and one can find them all over Kerala’s Ghats and in the various places all over the world to which these hardy folks have migrated. Philipose is a ruthless exploiter who cultivates both politicians and cannabis. Dominic joins a seminary, but leaves disenchanted, unable to tolerate the total obedience and subservience demanded by the Church. He ends up in Canada, married to a nurse, the fate of so many Keralite Christian men who are unable to find a remunerative vocation by the time they reach a marriageable age. Saju, despite not having had the best schooling and undaunted by his inability to clear the civil services exam, obtains a Ph.D and works in the development sector, happy in his own skin. The author’s bio at the end of the book confirmed my suspicion that Saju’s story is that of the author.

Sebastian writes in the sort of everyday English spoken by the majority of Keralites and other Indians. Though every sentence in the novel might not receive a stamp of approval from Wren and Martin and Sebastian constantly flip-flops from the present tense to the past, something I found disconcerting, Dolmens in the Blue Mountain is on the whole, well-conceived and executed. A very interesting read, I would recommend Dolmens in the Blue Mountain to everyone interested in knowing more about Kerala, especially its Syrian Catholic community which is very influential and punches above its weight in Kerala’s politics.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I look forward to read the the book.

Anonymous said...

I read the book....excellent story. Its characters are still speaking to me; its events are still haunting my conscience...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent review of a marvelous book. I read the book and agree with your observations.