When a child does a bad deed, maybe steals from home or bullies another child, we are more than likely to, ultimately, dismiss it as a childish mistake. Children, after all, are only figuring their way through the world. But what about when a child’s transgressions are more serious, maybe even heinous? Is it their fault? Do they deserve to be punished?
Tamil writer Poomani’s novel Vekkai traces the aftermath of 15-year-old Chidambaram’s murder of a local landowner, Vadakkuraan. Rather than hide his crime from his family, Chidambaram admits to it. Although Chidambaram’s family isn’t supportive of his actions, they seem to understand his reasons. They had even anticipated what he might do—Vadakkuraan had murdered Chidambaram’s older brother and revenge, somehow, was inevitable.
Thirty-seven years after its writing, this morally singeing novel has been translated into English as Heat by N. Kalyan Raman. The story spans the seven-eight days following the murder, pursuing not so much the physical fate of the characters (will they get caught? What will be their punishment?) but their inner conflicts as they come to terms with what they believe is a just crime.
After the murder, Chidambaram’s father decides that it is best for them both to leave their village. Together, father and son go into hiding. They steadily move locations along the hills surrounding their village, while also sneaking back for news of a possible police investigation. Their days are hard. They must forage for food when supplies run low. And seek rest while always being vigilant. They must decide whether to go back and confess, and what story to tell when and if they do. As father and son bond in the harshest of circumstances, we sense their adversity elementally. Descriptions of hunger and the process of making makeshift meals recur, which at times even makes the story feel somewhat like an adventure. But the frequency of such passages, even if meant to reflect the simplistic view of a child in the wilderness, does get tedious. The details begin to stall the narrative, and that feeling isn’t helped by certain translation choices. Sometimes, for instance, the things father and son forage are translated as their scientific names. But at other times, features of the landscape or food retain their Tamil names, with footnote explanations. Perhaps the attempt has been to locate the translation in its particular rural backdrop, but the shifting register doesn’t always serve the smoothness of the prose. The moral immensity of the story, nevertheless, pushes through.
In a recent interview with Hindustan Times, Poomani said he wanted to “present a complete portrait” of Chidambaram. But the story doesn’t read as a portrait of a child murderer. Instead, it paints the far more complicated landscape that surrounds him. Here, violence is cultural inheritance, and revenge, the consequence of power relations too intricate to be judged swiftly. That Chidambaram’s family was tormented by the landowner, or that he had been the one to incite the child, do not pardon the boy’s violence. Rather, they help pull apart definitions of justice, childhood and parenthood. As Chidambaram’s father (the most engaging character of the novel) recalls his past, we see a parent question the legacies he has passed on to his child, and how he might shield him from the truest horrors of the world. The moral responsibility of parenthood, and its often contradictory demands for unconditional love, form the most disturbing and moving strain of the book.
“Ayya changed completely,” Chidambaram remembers of his brother’s death, “Aaththa (mother) became thin as a reed.” Parents are most debilitated by the grief their children bring them—that is their parental obligation. But when the decease of children, physical and moral, becomes habitual, the novel contests whether a single person can even be held responsible. Chidambaram’s father says to a family member, “You’ve suffered a lot because of children.” And yet, in this world, children cause only as much pain as they have known. “Your weapon is your company,” Chidambaram’s father says to him.
That lesson seems like a refrain. Again and again, weapons are held close, treated with care, almost worshipped. Chidambaram’s grieving mother, after losing her older son, declares, “I’ll hide a sickle under my sari and cut him (Vadakkuraan) down. I’d rather go to jail than grieve about losing my son.” When grief gets too much to bear, weapons, and their destructive force, can be the only solace. How can we blame Chidambaram when all that the world has bestowed upon him, literally, is ammunition?
Innocence, the novel suggests, is not the natural condition of childhood. Perhaps it isn’t even an adequate measure of a person’s guilt.
Poorna Swami is a poet, writer and dancer based in Bengaluru.