In Paavalampatti, a village in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, a young boy playing imaginary games about mythological kings and demons discovers the corpse of a murdered man under a tamarind tree and thus his childhood ends abruptly. Ramu, the boy, lives with his grandmother, Gomati Paati, his father, Vishu, and his uncle Siva and his family—they are upper caste Brahmin landowners and Murugappan, the murdered man, was a Paraiyan of the untouchable or Dalit community. Murugappan’s brother Chellappa, his son, Manickam, and his daughter, Ponni, live in a hut in a coconut grove and Murugappan was the overseer for Gomati Paati’s lands. Thus, Shankar, begins a multigenerational saga involving the two families from two different castes, and intertwines the story of modern India with a distinctly South Indian regional focus.
Ghost in the Tamarind is Shankar’s third novel and his most ambitious in both craft and historical reach. A professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Hawai‘i, Shankar is well-known for his scholarly work, and this novel demonstrates a deep knowledge of Indian caste politics, South Indian history, and Tamil culture. When the narrative begins, India is still under British rule and World War II has just begun and the Indian National Congress is launching the Quit India movement.
As Ramu grows up and falls in love with Ponni, thus igniting a controversy that divides his family and drives a wedge between him and his father and uncle, we see India become independent, suffer through Partition, and struggle with the challenges to its democracy from Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
The novel references these larger, well-known historical narratives of India, but Shankar’s novel emphasizes the problems that the new Indian state presents, particularly in terms of the rights of those disenfranchised by India’s entrenched caste system. In telling the story of the oppressed castes, this novel explores the ideas of E.V.R. Periyar, an atheist, anti-caste activist who fought Brahminism and coined the term, Adi Dravidar, to refer to the community.
In the novel, Chellappa, Ponni’s uncle, runs away from Paavalampatti to Madras and becomes an activist in the anti-caste movement. Ramu is drawn into the political movement, eventually marries Ponni, and sets up a school for the children of the working poor in another South Indian village. However, caste wars persist and the novel tracks the multigenerational impact of caste- based violence through four generations.
Shankar’s gift as a novelist is the depiction of complex and nuanced characters. From Gomati Paati whose courage and wisdom shape Ramu’s life to Chellappa, the radical, and Ponni, the fiery activist, each character is brilliantly depicted. The novelist’s attention to place, his close descriptions of landscapes, and his careful mapping of cities like Madras and Calcutta, bring this narrative to life. Gomati Paati and Ponni are probably some of the best female characters depicted in contemporary Indian fiction—strong, complicated, and passionate, and in charge of their destinies.
The narrative offers a much-needed perspective of Indian history from the South and thus different from that of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines. Shankar’s depiction of village life in Paavalampatti (and this is the second novel in which the village is featured) is reminiscent of that master of Malgudi, R.K. Narayan. Ghost in the Tamarind is a novel that must be read not just for its historical sweep but also for the power of storytelling.
S. Shankar will read from this novel on September 12 at 6:30 PM at the Capitol Hill branch of Seattle Public Library. The reading is sponsored by Elliott Bay Books.
Editor’s Note: The time of the event was previously listed as 7:00 p.m. The article has been edited to reflect the correct time of 6:30 p.m.