Mirage first published in 1964 as Thoorathu Pachai (the Green of the other side/ Distant Green) in Tamil has now found its English avatar. Written by someone who was involved in unionizing Tamil labourers in Sri Lanka, the novel is a hard-hitting account of the suffering of women on tea estates. This is a novel about three generations of women (and their men) though in the beginning it seems to be about Tamil men, the decision makers in the family. Perhaps the move away from traditional occupations and societal structures makes the men increasingly irrelevant to themselves and their worldview and to the women and families except as potential trouble makers! As the author-translator says in the Preface, the attempt in this novel is ‘to bring to the fore the unchronicled, unvoiced lives of the indentured labourers from India working on the tea plantations of Sri Lanka’, and this means that the book is ‘social history in the form of fiction.’ The daughter of a civil servant, Kokilam Subbiah came into contact with the lives of Tamil labourers after her marriage to the MP who represented the plantation workers, Subbiah.
Kokilam Subbiah organized a women’s movement on the estates and eventually recorded the lives of women workers in order to understand their life and history. The incidents narrated in Mirage are thus ‘culled from real-life stories and are not figments of imagination.’
Mirage begins in the second half of the nineteenth century, during an extended drought and the resultant famine in Senthur, in Tamil Nadu. It quickly sketches out the plight of the peasants and the indifference of mirasdars and explains why many families from the village migrate to Sri Lanka. This includes the twice married Velan and one of his families. His daughter Valli is to become the actual protagonist of the story, the life of the new community of plantation workers will be painted around her by the author. The mirage of prosperity and independence is soon shown to be just that during the journey itself, when the villagers come to realize that the kangany who recruited them with a honeyed tongue is no better than a slave trader. Their lives sink into a life of debt and imprisonment in the estates.
The novel shows their lives till Valli’s old age, encompassing two world wars and the beginnings of the trade union movement. It is an almost unending story of economic and sexual exploitation, frustration, and the struggle to live life with a sense of normality in the face of all odds. While the gates clang behind them, and men are severely hampered in the movement that they were used to, their lives can go on as if nothing has changed, for actually nothing has changed except that, in the eyes of the women, the male predators are closer at hand and on the prowl throughout the day, and it does seem far more tempting here to use the body to curry favours – after all they have come here to avoid starvation.
The irony in the Tamil title is that Sri Lanka is lush green after all, their own native villages in Tamil Nadu having been various shades of brown. But the lushness of the green sucks their life blood away without ever giving them a sense of place or roots outside the plantations. So far as they see, even their bodies are buried on the plantations to save the cost of fertilizers. What the women had to endure, their strength and their heroism is what the novel is about. The hard work, the frequent childbirth, the domestic violence are what they would have endured elsewhere as well, but here in the closed world of the plantation they are seen as fair game by the Indian and the English supervisors. Their men stray, beat them up, steal their money, become alcoholics, lose their jobs, become beggars, while the women carry on with their lives to the best of their abilities. While a ray of light seems to emerge at the end of the novel when Valli’s grandson returns as a much feted union leader after a spell in prison, the procession (and the novel) ends in police brutality and firing and the death of Valli’s son. Valli curses the tea bushes as heartless monsters and the novelist wonders how those ‘enjoying their daily cup of tea, how will they ever know the story behind the wonderful brew?’ It is indeed a bitter cup of tea that the novelist has brewed for us in this novel.
The Tamil must have worked its own magic, with the coming together of various accents and vocabularies to create the unique Jaffna Tamil. This cannot be even hinted at in an English version, but the author is an experienced translator, and the book works in English. I must confess that Gopal Gandhi’s Saranam made a greater impact on me, but then I read it years ago. I am certain that Mirage will find its place on the bookshelf next to it and be a great introduction to those of us who still wonder where it all began and why things are the way they are in Sri Lanka.
G.J.V. Prasad discusses life and literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.