My village is every village in the Western Ghats — exploited by man’s greed: Malayalam writer Sheela Tomy

Valli, Tomy’s first novel published in Malayalam months before the coronavirus pandemic, is about the hill district of Kerala nestled in the Western Ghats now facing an environmental catastrophe.

In the letter to Tessa, daughter of Susan from whose diary the novel develops, the author says, “Everything that was in Susan’s Kalluvayal, and some of what was not, is in this book.”
In the letter to Tessa, daughter of Susan from whose diary the novel develops, the author says, “Everything that was in Susan’s Kalluvayal, and some of what was not, is in this book.”

Malayalam writer Sheela Tomy migrated to the Middle East more than two decades ago from Wayanad, where she grew up as a grandchild of settlers from the former Travancore region of Kerala. Valli, Tomy’s first novel published in Malayalam months before the coronavirus pandemic, is about the hill district of Kerala nestled in the Western Ghats now facing an environmental catastrophe. Ahead of the release of the novel’s English translation, Tomy speaks with Faizal Khan about the novel and its characters. Edited excerpts:

What was the point of departure for the novel, considering Valli is your debut novel about Wayanad in Kerala written as an immigrant in the Middle East?
I was born and grew up in a Christian migrant village in Wayanad, a village of paddy fields, coffee and black pepper. My grandparents migrated to Wayanad from Thiruvithamkur (Travancore) in the 1950s. I grew up listening to stories about the fights for survival of the migrants alongside numerous myths and beliefs of the wild land. I wanted to dedicate my first novel to my land, my people and their untold stories. My father was a schoolteacher, but his father and uncles were farmers. My childhood witnessed all the miseries of Wayanadan life. Valli is a reflection of all those and the changes thereafter. Before beginning to write Valli, I did a lot of research about the land and its people. I wanted to reflect the transformation of Kalluvayal (a village in Wayanad that is a major character in the novel) over the last five decades, from a densely forested land to a dry land with no paddy fields, lost biodiversity, the Adivasi people who once fought for valli (wages) still fighting for valli (earth) and farmers on the brink of suicide.

Is Kalluvayal, the village in Wayanad where the novel is set, a real place in the hill district?
Kalluvayal is a real place. It’s my own village where I was born. It is also every village in the Western Ghats. Wherever nature is exploited by man’s greed, there is a Kalluvayal. Kalluvayal is universal. In the letter to Tessa, daughter of Susan from whose diary the novel develops, the author says, “Everything that was in Susan’s Kalluvayal, and some of what was not, is in this book.”

Recent artistic works based on Wayanad, for example, the independent film, Paka (River of Blood), the first feature film of Film and Television Institute of India alumnus Nithin Lukose, who was also born in the district like you, focus on the history of its feuding families who settled from Travancore in the 1960s and 1970s. What were the forms of expression you were grappling with initially to tell the stories of the people of Wayanad?
Nithin Lukose is from my district and we are relatives. Paka, as I understood, focuses on the feud between two families who migrated to Wayanad. Valli has a much broader canvas. It engages with nature, the forest, its inhabitants, the migrants as well as the aboriginal people of the forest, the politics of the land and so on. The story of Valli takes place in a Christian migrant village. The Bible and church played an intimate role in their lives. Hence the dialect of the Christian communities is employed and Bible verses are prominently adapted. The tribal communities of Wayanad have their own languages, songs, myths, rituals and cultures, reflecting their beliefs and dreams. I have included the Paniya language which has no script and their folklore songs in Valli, with the kind support of an expert, Saritha Chandran.

Were there any major influences in creating the novel’s structure, style and aesthetics? Gabriel Garcia Marquez is mentioned a few times in the book.
As a reader, I enjoyed reading Marquez a lot. Arundhati Roy’s style in God of Small Things and the structure of Pedro Paramo by (Mexican writer) Juan Rulfo are some of my favourites. I am not sure if they influence my writing. From Malayalam, I love the style of Sara Joseph and her poetic writing matches with my aesthetics. I am aiming to create my own style and even like to adopt different styles for each work based on the subject.

There are powerful literary references, famous Malayalam novels like Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Chemmeen, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s Balyakala Sakhi and popular film songs from the 1970s, many of them reflecting a radical sway of the society then. Yet the communist party is a fringe element in the novel that begins with the death of Naxal leader Varghese. Your comments.
Balyakala Sakhi and Chemmeen are all-time favourite novels and popular household names even today. The 1960s and 1970s were the golden era of Malayalam movie songs. People enjoyed film songs on the radio and that was part of their life. They loved, dreamed, cried and laughed through those songs which were beautiful poems written by the poets of the time. Valli aims to draw a picture of the life of ordinary people. My aim was not to write about the activities of the Communist party or about the Naxal movement. But the lives of Padmanabhan and Peter tell how the party interfered in their lives. A novel set in the socio-political situation of Wayanad in the1970s cannot forget Comrade Varghese.

Wayanad’s violent history of settlers has often portrayed the grandmothers, who were the worst-affected in the migration, as playing a vital role of schemers in the violence. How much does your research tell you about this, because your novel is a vast canvas of powerful and vulnerable female characters?
Women are subjects and objects of violence in patriarchal contexts, and some may collude with violence. In reality, women were crucial in the history of migration. They played equal roles as men in making rough forest land into cultivable land. Women’s resistance to the destruction of nature is a recurring theme in the novel. Women and nature are expected to accept exploitation in silence, but they refuse to do so. Valli has many women characters embodying strength as well as vulnerability. None of them are schemers of violence, but fighters for survival, as I could find in my land.

Lastly, please share one or two arguments or laughs from your curious collaboration with acclaimed translator and author Jayasree Kalathil. Both of you live abroad on different continents.
I longed so much that someday the world would read the stories that only my forest village of mist and mystery could tell. There are no words to express my happiness when Jayasree Kalathil approached me wanting to translate Valli. As we started to interact I found a like-minded person in her, and I enjoyed working with her. We had debates which paved the way for me to sharpen my political convictions. Jayasree’s translation was far beyond a literary recreation and it was even rethinking the idea of original text. I am thankful to Jayasree for translating its soul, politics and poetry so beautifully.

(Faizal Khan is a freelancer)

Valli
Sheela Tomy
HarperCollins
Pp 420, Rs 599

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