The man I refer to is Narayan, no robust Victorian vehemently proclaiming optimism but the Adivasi writer who wrote Kocharethi (1998), the novel in Malayalam that needs to be acknowledged as the first novel to be written by a tribal about his people in India. It is an acknowledgement long overdue, which will be fulfilled when Oxford University Press brings out a translation next year.
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Narayan who was born in 1937 (not certain ) in Kudayathur belongs to the tribe called Mala Arayar. He studied till the std. X in the local government school, then got a job in the postal service.
I asked him what had triggered his interest in books. “Circumstances. When I joined school the system of providing free rice gruel at noon hadn’t started. Education was not free. Right until Independence, the school fee was a chakram per annum. I went without food at noon. One day someone said that if I remained in the class room when others left for lunch and something went missing, I would be blamed. This frightened me so I began to visit the reading room opposite our school. There were three or four newspapers, a few books and a periodical. Soon the owner began to leave me in charge of the place when he went for lunch. I used the time to read whatever I could get hold of.”For Narayan, writing Kocharethi was an act of resistance against misrepresentation of his community by the literary and literate world.
Though the manuscript was completed in 1988, Kocharethi was published only in1998, after Narayan opted for voluntary retirement.
By the time Narayan finished the novel, the indignation and burning desire to tell the true story had evaporated. Seized by doubts about its literary worth he gave the manuscript to a teacher-friend to read. The friend forgot all about it and put the script away. There it lay for five years till Narayan asked him about it and that too only because another friend urged him to do so. Five years had gone by and the hand-written script had yellowed and crumbled. Narayan rewrote it. Another four years of ajnathavasam, till Narayan sent it to DC Books, Kottayam. The rest is history Kocharethi won The Kerala Sahitya Academi award and several other awards.
The novel is about the Araya community, as it existed in the early years of the 20th century when a cartographically identifiable, political Kerala did not exist. Trade, a strong missionary presence, demographic and geographic compulsions made it impossible for the Arayas to isolate themselves from other communities. Interaction with these communities and proselytism led to the erosion of the distinct tribal identity and culture. The novel is set in a period when erosion had already begun. Even then certain features distinct to tribal communities remain: self- sufficiency, honesty, willingness to work hard, pride and an indomitable spirit.