Hollowness of White Man’s Burden
by Geetika Kaw Kher on 05 Apr 2009 0 Comment

With the arrival of Vasco da Gama at the port of Kozikhode way back in 1498 began the process of colonization of India, which unfortunately has been celebrated as the ‘discovery of India’ in our history books. It is this ‘discovery of India’ that has been problematized by George Thundiparambil in his novel ‘Maya.’

While the book criticizes concepts like White Man’s Burden and the slave trade, and looks at all missionary activities as suspect, it also tries to give some insight in to the history of spirituality in India. The entire narrative spans six centuries and tells stories of occurrences factual and conjured, of ancient traditions and belief systems, and of adventurous seafarers and internal strife.

The author has woven a part historical narrative around the popular Kaapiri tale which has become almost a part of folklore in Kerala. This is a tale about a black slave uprooted from his homeland somewhere in Africa by Gama’s men and forced to find his destiny in India. Popularly believed to be responsible for protecting buried wealth, Kaapiri has become an awe-inspiring and worshipful character at Fort Kochi and Mattancherry.

But in Thundiparambil’s account you find him as a friendly ghost, a mute witness to various political and social changes, waiting for his final redemption which is only possible through a young girl, Maya. The latter has to listen to accounts of his previous lives, and only then can he attain the final moksha promised by a Tantrik.

Taking Kaapiri as the central figure, the author talks about rather too many things, hence often you find the narrative slipping. Though in parts the writing is quite interesting and articulate, somehow the author fails to keep the reader engaged on a sustained basis. You cannot fail to notice the highly dramatic nature of the novel, at times completely unnecessary. The writing too, gets repetitive at times. It is not long before one feels like one is reading either a history textbook or a fantastic tale. Kaapiri’s tryst at the police station and his fooling the officers, his vague association with the living world on full moon days when he can be seen and his school-boyish passion for Maya appears too far-fetched.

The other central character ‘Maya,’ who is supposed to listen to Kaapiri so he can say his final goodbye to the phenomenal world, is portrayed as a beautiful modern day young girl with deep sensitivity. Being the only one who can see and converse with the hapless ghost, she soon falls in love with him. 

As far as I can understand, the idea is to portray Maya as the timeless and eternal feminine, and her love for the ghost is supposed to be of the profound nature. This beautiful concept of eternal love and divine consort falls flat in the wake of incidents like Kaapiri beating six armed men in Bollywood-style to protect Maya and her family.  Moreover, his various births get completely boring by the end of the book.

The author could in fact have done well without mentioning his last birth as ‘Ajay,’ which is completely superfluous. The tantric angle and the battle between good and evil manages to fade into drama, rather than maintain a philosophical or sacred position. The brief philosophical debate comes across as entirely disconnected with the main narrative. Deeply esoteric tantric practices which have been mentioned in passing have hardly been given a serious thought.

The element of sensationalism that pervades the entire narrative is detrimental to the spirit of the book. The core narrative itself is quite informative, and on its own can generate a lot of interest. Besides, it addresses various important issues which have been comfortably swept under the carpet. 

Completely historical facts such as the dispute over the Gama anniversary celebrations in 1998 and its ultimate cancellation, the theft of cows and their slaughter by new converts, the complaints lodged by the Nairs over the issue to the Cochin Rajah, are quite well researched. Moreover, the description of various people belonging to different religions, castes and classes is interesting from the point of anthropology as well.

Thundiparambil talks of Syrian Christians, Muslims, Brahmins, their internal biases and reproaches. He hints at the beginning of the policy of divide and rule which later colonizers exploited to the maximum In passing, he brings in the trouble between Jews and Muslims. Hence overall, an interesting and intriguing plot if seen bereft of all the supernatural and exaggerated embellishments.

The book is worth a read mainly because it dares to question certain events and incidents in the history of south India and tries to demystify the character of Gama, who is usually considered as an adventurer-hero in Indian history.

It also brings to light the salient features of slave trade, how these miserable people were bought and sold and could be conveniently put out of the way on the slightest pretext. More pathetic than the physical misery is the vain feeling of having saved these aboriginals in the hearts of colonizers.

It reminds one of an incident in the famous book, Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, where Crusoe is teaching Friday, his aboriginal companion, the English language, and cannot make him understand the concept of a monotheistic Christian god. Friday is adamant and believes in his native religion, and considers Pokya, the crocodile-god, to be the supreme divinity. After a period of disagreement and cold war, Crusoe realizes that divine has various forms and his way is not the only correct way; thus dawns upon him the futility and hollowness of the concept of White Man’s Burden.

George Thundiparambil
Printed at All India Press, Pondicherry, April 2008
Published by Gauli Publishers, No.4 , 2nd floor, Thiagaraja Street, Pondicherry
Price Rs 375/-
Number of pages 317
ISBN 978-81-906473-0-4

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