Nestled in the forested mountains of Wayanad, dissected by the Kabini river and its tributaries, is the Edenic village of Kalluvayal—the setting for Sheela Tomy’s dazzling debut novel, Valli. Translated from the Malayalam original by Jayasree Kalathil, Valli, a sensory jumble (and jungle) of the ecological, ethnographic, sociological, folkloric and Biblical, offers something for disparate readers. After all, the polysemous word that makes up the novel’s title means vine, earth, young women and wages.
Valli’s narrative is structured as a novel adapted from the diary that Susan, an architect, leaves her daughter Tessa. The unnamed author (whose identity the reader figures out only towards the end) incorporates fragments such as the letters exchanged between Susan and Tessa, news reports, even poems and divine invocations.
The multigenerational chronicle begins in 1970, when schoolteachers Thommichan and Sara elope to Kalluvayal to escape the wrath of her family, which thinks he is below her station. At Kalluvayal, they not only encounter pristine landscapes and rich local lore but a sharply delineated class system, one in which the indigenous Paniyars are bonded labourers toiling away for jenmis, the landed gentry.
Valli, however, is truly egalitarian, a saga that documents the despair of marginal existence among more than a dozen characters. Multiple people meet grim fates. They are washed away by floods, clubbed on the head, (self) poisoned and trampled by elephants. The novel, however, is deeply humanistic, preoccupied not with the grisliness of death but the affirmation of life.
The degraded and desiccated landscapes of Kalluvayal are ecologically resurrected. Tomy uses plants, birds and animals to establish a mood that can be described as jungle gothic. Occasionally, wry humour sprouts too.
Much like the two classic works it references—Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Chemmeen and O.V Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Itihasam—the line between the realms of the cosmic and the natural vanishes in Valli. Local histories and folklore come alive, unfolding or mirroring themselves within the contemporaneous world of the text. Eighteen rivers burst forth from the rubies of Unniyachi, a devadasi dancer. Karinthandan, a Paniyar man, is resurrected in a tree. Kalluvayal’s cosmology is syncretic too. Chedettilamma, a forest deity, is both Sita and the Virgin Mary.
Tomy deftly compresses social and cultural history. “Migrants from the lowlands came into the forest, their bullock carts crawling up paths carved out by the footfalls of travellers, traders and mendicants, and tracks where once echoed the hoof-beats of warhorses and drumbeats of forest folk.” Kalathil’s superlative work preserves Tomy’s fabulist style, conveys the rhythmic lilt of Paniya poems and retains the novel’s pathos.
The final chapters are too self-consciously pruned, the melodrama and full-circle moments feel like the literary equivalent of stumbling from a jungle to an artificial grass turf. Tomy’s biggest feat of empathy, though, is allowing the reader to feel as deeply as she does about the loss of Kalluvayal’s nature, culture and history. I too yearned to return to a village I have never visited.
Karthik Shankar is a Chennai-based writer and editor.