Fading Dreams, Old Tales By Pa Visalam Oxford, Rs 495
This is a work that combines personal and historical independence, human nature and nurture in a cunning way, thus trying to make the reader aware of higher issues pertaining to injustice both towards women and the exploited class, says sarah schmitt
AN interesting combination of several genres — a semi-autobiographical narration, a political and historical chronicle, a story about true love – Tamil writer Pa Visalam&’s powerful novel Fading dreams, old tales narrates the story of a girl&’s childhood and youth spent during the turbulent social history that saw World War II, Independence and the introduction of Communism in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The first-person narrator, an unnamed girl who is the daughter of a respected government official, grows up in a humanistic and well-to-do family as the youngest of several siblings in the Tamil-speaking village of Nanjil Nadu, then part of Travancore-Cochin state on the border Tamil Nadu-Kerala border.
Often feeling neglected, with more attention being paid to her elder sisters’ marriages and lives, the growing girl child witnesses them leaving the house one after the other and finds solace and individual motivation in her educational and intellectual studies, an opportunity she is fortunate enough to avail herself of.
Already at this stage of naïve childhood descriptions and observations, the character&’s distinct intellectual potential and curious personality becomes apparent; when plucking a handful of tiny, colourful flowers among bushes in her garden, she feels a great sadness and pity for these beautiful flowers, realising their sole fate consists of being trampled underfoot, rendering their existence useless, the distinct beauty of their smallness appreciated by nobody.
In her puberty years, she is then introduced to Communism through her elder brother who gives her Karl Marx&’s Communist Manifesto and the Capital. With her brothers working elsewhere and rarely visiting home, and her sisters all married off, the pubescent girl soon realises her decreasing marriage value is becoming an increasing burden on her parents but firmly rejects the thought of marriage.
Tragically, the young girl&’s brother, who had joined the Air Force during World War II, dies in a plane crash. With India&’s independence also comes the narrator&’s personal freedom. Consciously and with great determination, she seeks to escape society&’s restricting shackles of morals and expectations, and develops an independent, critical personality, obtaining knowledge through books and her own reflections on the world surrounding her. Soon after her brother&’s death, her most beloved father, the hero of her life, also passes away, suddenly leaving mother and daughter alone, without means or savings. Leading a poverty-stricken existence in their house, which once was filled with joy and prosperity, the two are forced to sell off the family&’s land and harvests, and live off the small amounts sent by relatives far away.
In order to forget her material hunger, the young girl turns to books, wondering whether she feels different from other women because she has read so much and whether human affection is doomed to die when money is scarce. Aware of being exploited by a greedy community devoid of sincere emotions, and desperate to bring progress to their helpless situation, the now grown-up woman is urged by the idea of being a good Communist and struggles to become a true comrade. Cunningly and unconventionally following the few rays of hope she has, she finally succeeds in moving forward and is accepted as a member of the Communist Party. Being the only woman, she is soon appointed to render public speeches, becomes a member of various political associations and stands for party elections.
Time and again, her surroundings point to her vulnerability as a woman, warning her to exercise caution in the man-dominated world of party politics she has entered. Still, demonstrating great strength of character, the path forward is unobstructed for many years. The mature woman has learned to protect and defend herself, fighting injustice and the patriarchal system with great fervour, encouraged and inspired by fellow comrade Nandan who is able to recognise her visionary and beautiful mind. Needless to say, they soon fall in love. As the party grows, however, their Communist dream is slowly compromised as they become aware of competition and divergent political positions within the party, which eventually makes them quit the set-up, along with many other comrades, finally leading up to the party&’s split into the two fractions of the CPI and CPI(M).
The author, a social worker who is also actively involved in the world of modern Tamil theatre, published her second novel in 2012 at an impressive age of 80. By describing her environment in a stream of consciousness mode through dialogues, thoughts and observations, she combines personal and historical independence, human nature and nurture in a cunning way and thus tries to make the reader aware of higher – national and international – issues pertaining to injustice both towards women and the exploited class.
Unfortunately, the novel&’s translation from Tamil into English, whilst successfully conveying the stream of consciousness intertwining thought and dialogue, often lacks in eloquence and linguistic competence, thus diminishing the quality of the original text.
Although signing off in 1964, Pa Visalam&’s work is a noteworthy contribution also to contemporary political questions concerning proprietary, women&’s and worker&’s rights.