Book Review: Seasons of the Palm – by Perumal Murugan

Seasons of the PalmThe chakkili, the “untouchables,” are the lowest of the castes in India. Those unlucky enough to be born chakkili are sent into indentured servitude by their parents as soon as they are old enough to work at eight, maybe nine years of age. The children have to work day and night for the gounder caste landlords. They herd goats, clean up human waste out of bedpans, clear the dung from the cow pens, and perform the most dirty work that nobody else will do. This does not get better as they grow up and become adults. Forced to grovel in front of the landowners and other higher castes, they are forever doomed to a life of humiliation and squalor.

Set in the late 1960s, Seasons of the Palm tells the story of the chakkili boy Shortie and his friends Tallfellow, Stumpleg, Belly and Matchbox, who are all “employed” – abused really – by different gounders. If something goes wrong, like a goat gets sick and dies under their watch, they get severely beaten and tortured, and they have to pay back for the dead goat by working for free for a year.

Their masters are careful not to touch them. To fill up their food bucket, they lift the lid with a stick, pour in the food, and close the lid with a stick again, lest they be contaminated by the “chakkili dogs.” The chakkili are completely naked, except for two items: a loincloth and a towel, which they wrap around their heads most of the time. The towel doubles as a loincloth when the loin cloth is being washed or otherwise used.

Shortie sleeps in the cow pen on the dirt floor. His cover is a burlap sack. Here is an excerpt:

His body feels stiff in the December cold. He tries to curl into his sack as tightly as possible, but it does not help. Damp clings to the tiny woven mesh of jute and he feels the cold as so many needle points worrying his skin. He brings his legs to his chest and curls into a warm round ball. The goats outside in the goat pen have all caught cold and each one of them has a dripping nose. He has been kept awake all night by the noise of goats clearing their throats, and swallowing their spit. His ears are stuffed, his mind numbed into quiet by one big ball of goat-sound that has lodged into his brain. A few goats sneeze. Shortie’s nose tingles on hearing them. — chapter 19, page 283.

Seasons of the Palm is translated from the original Tamil, a language I know nothing about. I noticed that there is a lot of verbal abuse going on, the gounders calling the chakkili dogs, thieves, fuckers, and many other expletives I’d rather not repeat here. The chakkili simply accept that language and respond with “Master” to their abusers. One of the labels they often get is “leftover-eating dog” which makes me think that this must be some elegant Tamil expression of humiliation that does not quite translate properly into English. A “leftover-eating dog” may not be a pleasant image, but in America it is not unthinkable, and I would certainly never dream of insulting somebody using this expression. It seems to work well in Tamil, as it is used a lot in this story.

Reminiscent of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, this story illustrates in graphic detail the lives of the untouchables from their own perspective. They don’t question their world, they simply cope. Hopelessly trapped, with lives filled with endless toil, very little food, massive abuse, both verbal and physical by all others of authority, constant brutal injustice, they have resigned themselves to the very simple pleasures in life: Feeling the rain on their skin, watching the stars at night, sharing the white flesh of a stolen coconut with their friends, or holding a baby goat in their arms.

Rating: ***

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