I found Karichan Kunju’s Hungry Humans to be heartbreakingly deceptive. Perhaps it was the numbness that washed all over me as I read it. Or maybe it was shock, or acceptance, a quiet passivity that was anything but apathy. Reading Hungry Humans makes the reader numb with the weight of society’s turbulent irrationalities, that seep through every crack in your skin, and control you incomprehensibly.

In alternately tracing the lightly entwined lives of its two protagonists, Ganesan and Kitta, who hail from the same heavily Brahminical village of Kumbakonam, the book teaches you that personal choices are a myth, and it is either cruel chance or the deliberate ways of people that shape your life, your thoughts, and your actions.

The book presents itself to you placidly. It doesn’t flash you with exciting promises and it doesn’t tug at your hand with airs of impatience. On the contrary, its very first sentence – “Ganesan was lost in contemplation” – leads you in quietly, almost as if to not disturb Ganesan, to tiptoe around his presence, and watch him carefully as he watches the houses and chatrams standing timelessly along the southern bank of the river that runs through Kumbakonam. Warm familiarity fills him, but Ganesan is passive and satiate.

A repetition of rites and rituals

And so is the reader. The book isn’t a call to arms against the Brahminical society inside which Hungry Humans gives the reader a glimpse (although it could very well be), leaving them with a strange taste in their mouth – bitter with conservatism, rigid social hierarchies, and an unforgiving lack of social compassion. It only lays bare the instrumental tools that ultimately cloak the hunger of these hungry humans with their hungry bodies and hungry demons – their rites and rituals. Karichan Kunju makes sure to describe these traditions with painstaking repetition. Every time a character applies vibhuti to their forehead, its mention is deliberate. The food for every meal is noted down carefully.

“What affliction do these tender children have? They look all right, he wondered. On the other side of the complex, he saw men and women brushing their teeth and cleaning themselves before setting off to the gardens to work. A few patients were drawing water from a well and bathing at a designated place.”  

Kunju’s descriptions are mundane. While the premise of the book was scandalous for its times, and it is indeed riddled with secret desires, I found myself glossing over these almost indifferently. It isn’t the sex or the disease that kept me on my toes, it was the nonchalance that they were treated with, and the way in which daily routine finds a way to eventually numb every anxiety.

“Ganesan felt neither the desperation to set off on pilgrimages nor the desire to visit temples. The lessons of his childhood and youth had laid bare before him the shallowness behind piety and the hollowness of prayer and worship.”  

Not a reader’s book

The book doesn’t care much about the reader at all. Just as in the beginning, the reader continues to watch the characters’ lives unfold as if they were staring into their living room window. The author does not attempt to excite the readers, or even shock them. The tone of the book betrays no sense of a need to engage the reader and pull them into its world; in every sense, the reader chooses to pick up the book and put it down at their own will.

The stories of the characters, even as they are narrated from their perspectives, are told mechanically. Every thought and action has either an explanation or simple, mute acceptance that the character resolves all by themselves. The clear rationality of their thought is obvious at first, and eventually, is almost amusing. As Ganesan resigns himself to a life on the street, abandoned by the world that is prejudiced against his leprosy, he quietly thinks to himself, “If pleasure is to be experienced, then pain also has to be endured, isn’t it?”, and leaves it there. So be it.

Sudha G Tilak’s translation too, much like the book, has no frills. The words lay bare what they are required to as simply as possible, capturing the tone of the original text capably. The tonality of the book is as ritualistic as the lives of the people it speaks of, in a way that is almost business-like.

“No matter what you would have decided, it would have meant the same thing to me. I am happy with the way things unfold; I take them in my stride.”  

There is no climax in Hungry Humans. The book ends as Kitta and Ganesan enter their middle ages, a long way from where they had begun their journeys. What happens to them later is inconsequential – the reader knows that in any case, acceptance is inevitable. They feel condemned to their own fate – always a part of a greater something and yet not. They connect with the characters not as an audience, but as fellow humans – perhaps hungry, or perhaps not.

Hungry Humans, Karichan Kunju, translated from the Tamil by Sudha G Tilak, Penguin Viking.