Visiting milestones in history
Renowned author Sethu’s Marupiravi (Rebirth) is a path-breaking novel, connecting an ancient past to a contemporary period, using magic realism to weave the story of the incessant flow of time, which carries in its embryo hopes and dreams of a forgotten past. Recently translated to English by Prema Jayakumar and published by Niyogi Books, The Saga of Muziris, is one more gem in the literary repository, now for a wider spectrum of readers to enjoy.
The novel opens with the rich metaphor of a 10-year-old Athira, collecting artifacts at Pattanam, who knows not that ‘the history, which historians all over the world had been following for centuries, slept in the small metal box with its broken edges, in the house with its bare stone walls.’ And it concludes with the protagonist Aravindan’s belief that ‘like the Genizah documents…some writings in the name of God, are to be preserved in a cellar.’
Author Sethu like Aravindan hopes his work like words in a jar can be handed over to the next generation for safe keep. This book is therefore as much about exploring history as an attempt at drawing young readers to an unexplored past, hoping that they will feel inspired by it and will cherish and preserve those roots.
Muziris disappeared from every known map of antiquity, without a trace, after the cyclone and floods in 1341 in the Periyar, which altered the course of the river and consequently the geography of that region. The quick rise of Cochin further obliterated the rich history of Muziris pushing it to a demise it didn’t deserve.
For the longest time Muziris had thrived as a major port town, attracting Romans and Greeks to its shore once, comparable to the most recent achievements when Vallarpadam at Kochi came up as the first international container trans-shipment terminal, a symbol of a reincarnation, according to Sethu, of the lost glory of Muziris.
So where was Muziris? For a long time Kodungallur was considered to be ancient Muziris for its historic importance during the rule of the Cheras. The author of the Greek travel book, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea gives an elaborate description of the Chera Kingdom and how Muziris was the main trade port for the Chera chiefdom. But Pattanam excavations from 2007 to 2014 changed that debate.
Sethu is not really concerned with the exact location of Muziris. Be it Kodungallur or Pattanam, or the general area around Chendamangalam, ancient Muziris is known to have been a critical juncture in the spice route with the spread of spice trade far and beyond the Indian Ocean when a steady stream of merchants flowed into Kerala and the port from all over the world. Apart from its trade and prosperity, it came to be known for the warmth and generosity of its people who grew in a very tolerant environment, thanks to the intermingling of so many cultures as amply evident in Kottayil Kovilakam even today.
Marupiravi is about this Muziris. It is also the story of how its history washes over the life of one man, Aravindan.
Sethu had often expressed a desire to write a novel, tracing the history of his village and surrounding areas. He achieves this through his protagonist Aravindan who, like him, feels a deep connect to his homeland. Aravindan is otherwise an expatriate settled in Mumbai, married to a Malayali, who can speak six other languages but unfortunately not Malayalam. If once in a while Vasanthi tries to speak in Malayalam, Aravindan stops her immediately, ‘Don’t,’ he would say. ‘I can’t bear to see my language bleed.’
Aravindan finds himself compelled to dig into the mystery of Muziris, inspired by the recent excavations at Pattanam and goaded by his historian friend who believes, ‘When we historians grow stubborn about trustworthy evidence, it is up to the writers to go into the possibilities that will not let themselves be contained in history books. It takes the mind of a poet to see a place, the life there, with the eyes of humanity and to approach them gently.’
Aravindan takes up the challenge and herein begins the novel within the novel. Aravindan’s novel begins at a time when the kuttuvans were in power around 1st century AD. It traces the rise of Muziris through trade and influence of foreigners on the locals and ends with Kochi claiming the fame of owning the first international container trans-shipment terminal.
One of the main characters in Aravindan’s novel is Kichan, an active participant in the growth of Muziris that owed its prosperity to foreign commerce, including shipping arriving from northern India and the Roman Empire. It is only because of Kichan that the well-born, beautiful but impoverished women of the Vadakkoth family, Thanka and her daughter Ponnu, cursed to have no male heirs, are found opening their doors to the middle-aged Yavana merchant, Adrian. Soon Thanka’s jewellery box is flowing with gold and semi-precious stones. So much wealth that ‘if the wind ever changed direction, and the ships stopped coming… The wealth garnered till then would be enough for generations to come.’
Roman trade would indeed decline from the 5th century AD, and the fate of the locals whose life depended on the seafarers would change considerably. Aravindan attempts to take his novel forward through these cataclysmic changes with the help of magic realism. His novel jump several hundreds of years, transporting one of the progenies of the ancient past to continue in the footsteps of her ancestors, whose dying wish had been to ‘own a godown, on the bank of the river or the beach.’
Thanka’s granddaughter Kunkamma takes upon the mantle to use the wealth she inherited to start the Vadakkoth Group, capable of handling the challenges of modern times. To her aid would come the visionary, enlightened and fearless Kichan, once more, the quintessential timeless spirit of man who knows how to march with time.
Naturally neither the narrative nor the plot of this novel follows any linear path. It is meant to be a voyage through history mixed with myths, legends, and pure fiction, and so the characters come and go, cutting across contours of time and space, moving back and forth, creating a complex and layered dimension. It is about ‘a place that lay beneath and above the soil-a time; many times; people who passed through that place and those times.’
While magic realism is the tool used by Aravindan to steer the course of his novel, Sethu on the other hand merges fiction with reality. Aravindan is made to interview the real-life personality Eliahu Bezalel, now 86, who migrated to Israel from Kerala in 1959, as part of the youth immigration programme. Eliahu speaks about his experience as a Malabar Jew as a first-hand source.
The novel also explores every other important milestone in history that Sethu witnessed while growing up and touches upon the trials, tribulations, and emotional predicament attached to social upheavals like the Paliyam struggle in 1947-48, the exodus of the Malabar Jews to the Promised Land post 1947, and the rise of communism 1957.
For Sethu’s doppelganger Aravindan, it is this inner churning that leads to deeper revelations, which he decides to jot down for posterity - ‘the sorrow and anxiety of travelling backwards through time and space. That can’t be avoided. We are formed through this; future generations will be formed through this.’
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