Thursday, January 5, 2017

Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees (Requiem for the Living) by Johny Miranda, translated by Sajai Jose

Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees
Requiem for the Living 
Johny Miranda
Translated by Sajai Jose (Malayalam)
87 pages, ethnography, family drama

Thank you to Oxford University Press, India for providing a review copy of this book. This is part of the Oxford India Novellas series, which translates short works from Indian languages into English. 

An oppees is a prayer for the dead. This novella tells the story of a people who are eligible for an oppees in every way, while yet alive. - Author's Note

Josy (Osha) Pereira is the latest in a line of church sacristans in a village near Kochi, Kerala. His family belongs to the Parankis - a Christian group with mixed bloodlines due to centuries of Portuguese rule and trade in the area.

In a winding narrative, Osha tries to explain his life to the reader: his grandmother Mammanji's almost magical religious/traditional healing abilities; his father's desertion of the family in order to go on pilgrimage; his own hapless marriage and inability to connect with his wife; and, most importantly, his unique community and the religious and cultural values that it reveres.

Women and Men

As noted by J. Devika in her fantastic introduction, one of the central issues in Osha's story is the struggle between men and women in this community, and in Kerala as a whole. While Kerala is widely regarded as one of India's most developed and progressive states - with the highest rate of female literacy in the country and a higher percentage of women in the population than men - the actual story is much more complex. Keralite women do work outside of the home, and many have jobs that are considered "man's work" in the rest of India. Historically, several of the ruling groups have also been matrilineal, tracing their lineage through the female line and placing the elderly women in the family in a position of great power (but limited mobility).

Perhaps related to this history of female power and (limited) autonomy, Keralite society brims with an existential crisis of masculinity. This is reflected in many ways: restrictions on women's movement and strict gender separation in some public places and transportation; high rates of crimes against women; and a tendency toward machismo on the part of men, who feel that they must prove their manhood. This last aspect (expressed primarily through the need to be right at all times, even if demonstrably wrong) that has been particularly pronounced in my dealings with Keralites during the year I lived in a village near Kochi.

This novella does a great job of depicting these ideas and attitudes. Osha's life is dominated by powerful and influential women, and he does not know how to deal with this. He feels emasculated: why does he have to rely on his mother or grandmother, and why are his male relatives so ineffectual in comparison to them? Osha's existential angst, which he treats with alcohol and laziness, highlights this major problem in Keralite society.

Ethnographic Details

This novella is unique in that it is written by a member of the Paranki community from Kochi, a forgotten and marginalized group that does not fit into Kerala's highly stratified and purity-conscious society. As the translator notes in his introduction, much of the culture depicted in the novel is unfamiliar even for Malayalam readers: the "extremely local references" to Kochi Creole/Paranki culture and religion call for a detailed glossary of terms and rituals, provided at the end of the book. 

Osha also seems to be aware of how marginal his community is; he often stops to explain the significance of various rituals, terms, or clothing. This adds an additional flavor to the narrative: he is evidently addressing someone outside of his group, and wants to reveal something about his heritage and life. Luckily for the reader, this provides a detailed look at this fascinating religious, cultural, and ethnic minority, the history of which is further elucidated in J. Devika's introduction. 

While I did not like this story, per se, I do recommend this novella for the ethnographic information it provides about Keralite society and this particular community. If you are at all interested in cultural mixing, Indian Christians, or minority communities, I highly recommend this book. 

Further Reading: 

"Tribute to Cochin Creole Portuguese," an interview with Dr. Hugo Canelas Cardoso by K. Pradeep (The Hindu)
"What Led to the Decline of the Matrilineal Society in Kerala?" by Sheryl Sebastian (Feminism in India)

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you Chelsea for this blog. It lead me to this unique author. Being from the community, my interest is piqued. I am an amateur researcher myself and I hope this book will open up new avenues.