People know of Cochin (or Kochi, as it is called now) as the biggest city in Kerala, its financial hub; a city which has almost become a metro. The image which comes to the mind is this:
Whereas, in the not-so-recent past, it was nothing but a group of mud flats inhabited by a few hardy fisher-folk. These people are a self-contained world. They are almost all of them Latin Catholics, converted by their erstwhile Portuguese conquerors. Most of them are abysmally poor and many are heavy drunkards, helped on by the prosperous bootlegging industry flourishing in these islets since fishing became non-lucrative. Their entertainment of choice is the "Chavittu Natakam" which is said to be a curious mixture of the opera and the traditional Kerala art form of Kathakali. And nowadays, they are also a political pressure group who dictates which Member of Parliament is elected from the district of Ernakulam.
P. F. Mathews' Chavu Nilam
("The Dead Land") tells the story of a group of these people on an unnamed islet: to be more specific, it is centered around a doomed family who decide to make the site of a former leper colony (the dead land of the title) their homestead. The visiting tailor Michael "Asan" (master) decides to marry Mariam, who is a squatter on the land, against the better counsel of the superstitious villagers. Mariam is the daughter of a mad mother who has murdered her husband - and the unfortunate events start right away, with Mariam having one miscarriage after another. Even though three of their children survive - Peru, Barbara and Eesi - they are also doomed by the curse of the dead land. After many agonising years of doomed living and many incidents of suicide, accidental death, murder and incest affecting not only the inhabitants of "chavu nilam" but also the whole islet, the story ends with cousins Inasu (son of Peru) and Anna (daughter of Eesi) living a sort of stable life in their huge house on the cursed land.
The novel is a weird mixture of narrative and myth. There is no story as such, other than the frightening degradation of a family, and a people doomed to perish with them. The novelist has used a rather convoluted language which reminiscent of Malayalam translations of the Bible: ponderous and at times frightening with its Old Testament fixations of sin and justice. The characterisation is done with bold, deft strokes: the picture of a people, slowly losing touch a with a past and not having much of a future is finely etched - and the metaphor of the "Dead Land" is very effective.
However, the pointlessness of the whole thing becomes jarring after a while. The piling of misfortune upon misfortune, rather like the gore-fest in a slasher movie, does tend to lose reader interest. The constant back-and-forth shifting of the timeline also tends to confuse. Towards the second half of the book, the story drags, and one starts waiting for the denouement: this slim book (160 pages) seemed overlong at times, due to the snail's pace of the narrative.
A bold attempt, which would have benefited from a bit more structuring. A worthwhile read nonetheless.