In Swarga, Malayalam writer Ambikasutan Mangad’s extraordinary novel (and translated into English by J. Devika), two lost souls retreat from the inhumanity of urban life in 1990s India, deciding to shed their names, and become hermits in a remote forest. They soon discover that the serenity that surrounds them is deceptive, that the land and people around them are slowly succumbing to a slow poisoning. Based on the real-life endosulfan poisoning in Kerala, Swarga was a huge bestseller in the state, and is now being translated into English for the first time:
He entered the water. During the daytime, the water in the canal was gently warm and clear. You could see the pebbles lining the bottom through water as clear as glass. He looked closely at the water for some time to see if he could spot a fish. Not even a tiny one? And none of the other creatures of the water, either.
He had been bathing in this water for the past six years. But for the first time now, he felt a stab of fear. He was not at ease as he immersed himself. After the fourth dip, he got out of the water and, not bothering even to towel himself, began to walk back briskly. A sudden sight stopped him in his tracks.
A big crab. It came out of its hole and sat on the paving stones by the bank of the canal, its legs upraised towards him! The posture seemed to be one of entreaty – ‘Save me,’ it seemed to say.
The crab’s colours – red and black admixed – reminded him of some ancient time. It wore on its back impenetrable armour. Long legs on each side, glinting like swords. Large eyes that sparkled and bulged out like marbles. Neelakantan could not take his eyes off its formidable, dark beauty. He stood transfixed, praying: let this sight never vanish…
When it began to move rather jerkily towards him on those legs which looked like huge, blood-smeared scissors, he began to feel scared. The hot lava of fear began to fill his mind, displacing the relief that had been cooling it. ‘Hey, Human Being, tell me,’ it seemed to be saying, ‘what have you done with all my comrades who fought the war of life in the Dharmakshetra, Kurukshetra?’ It seemed to silently accuse him; unable to bear its searing gaze, Neelakantan jumped up and ran towards the house through the thickets, not turning back to look.
Devayani put the neerdosas into a plate, smiling.
‘What sought of fellow are you? Your head is dripping wet!’
Wiping his wet face, controlling his heavy panting, Neelakantan said, ‘A huge crab. In our canal. As if it had climbed out of some ancient time.’
Devayani did not respond. Neelakantan ate a bit of the dosa and went inside to look for the shirt and dhoti that were on the clothes line. Devayani had bought those from the market. He had gone to meet the doctor without even a shirt. When they returned from the clinic, he told her that he would not dress like an ascetic again.
As he dressed, Devayani stood leaning on the door, watching him with playful interest. This is like a dream, she felt. The Neelakantan of the earlier times was back. A lively smile played on her lips:
‘Suits you. Where are you going?’
‘Not sure where. To the Kodangiri colony, first,’ said Neelakantan. ‘It’s been a week since we saw Panji. And didn’t I tell you about the truth steps near the Kodangiri canal? Why don’t you come along and see them? We’ll take the child along.’
‘I am not coming today. He seemed to be running a fever last night. You go by yourself?’
Neelakantan crossed the bridge and walked by the hibiscus fences of the areca gardens. Panji had pointed out Subba Naik’s house that stood in one of them, but how to locate it now? He decided to ask a passer-by…
The house Panji had pointed to could now be seen at a distance. Neelakantan went there directly. A pavilion of coconut thatch had been raised in the front. Below it white circles of light lay scattered on the three dogs that were sleeping in the yard and the benches.
‘Anyone home?’ Neelakantan raised his voice.
The three dogs lifted their heads together, took a look and promptly went back to sleep.
He looked around to see if anyone was coming.
Some cows reached out of the cowshed to look, curious. Cowsheds were a part of the house. He was convinced of that the day he came here with Panji. Enmakaje’s homes had cowsheds that were built close to the houses, and on the same high ground. Family members and cattle were equally valued.
Another surprise awaited him on the right side of the house. A pond, some ten feet long and wide. It brimmed over now, so full was it. Not man-made. It was the water that flowed from a water tunnel that ended right behind the house. The water would flow in even in summer.
He remembered Panji’s words. Enmakaje was a land without wells. Every house had a tunnel dug from the hill. The local word for it is surangam.
Enmakaje is the land of surangams, Neelakantan noted in his mind.
‘Yaaru? Ena bekku? Who is it? What do you want?’
An old man came out. Neelakantan folded his palms in salutation and asked, ‘Is this Subba Naik’s house?’
The old man nodded. ‘Yes . . . Hautu.’
Suddenly a flash of recognition lit up his eyes. The sanyasi from the Jadadhari Hill! He had seen him from afar a couple of times. The old man pushed a chair towards him respectfully. ‘Please sit, Swamy…’
A lovable little calf was at the door of the cowshed. There was a black woollen cord with red stripes around its neck, from which a bell hung.
Only a moment later did Neelakantan realize that something was wrong. ‘Ayyo,’ he could not help exclaiming as his hand flew to his breast.
The calf had only three legs. Balancing itself on its two hind legs, the calf wobbled up to the old man and put its head on his lap. He ran his fingers gently on its forehead and said, ‘Th’ one b’fore this, it wa’ also born wit’ three legs onl’. Lived onl’ one or two weeks. There’s ’nother Sindhi cow i’side. ’Er calf ha’ two heads. Wa’ dead b’fore its head touched the groun’ . . . Narayana Bhat nex’ door also ha’ a calf wit’ three legs. It’s a yea’ ol’ now. The chil’ren tease it – give it a nicknam’ . . . “autorickshaw”!’
He smiled but it was a very sad smile. Neelakantan could not bring himself to smile in response.
‘Why is it like this here?’ asked Neelakantan.
Subba Naik’s reply was quick. ‘Jadadhari’s curse, for sure. Fallen all over this land! It runs so deep, it can’t be washed oﬀ, can’t be hidden! We’ve suﬀered much . . .’