Poomani, the name by which generations of Tamil readers have known the writer P Manickavasagam, published Vekkai in 1982. It was his second novel, unfolding in a subaltern rural Tamil landscape, like his first, Piragu. The two books together established Poomani, then in his mid-thirties, as a new star in the Tamil literary firmament.

A thirtieth anniversary edition of Vekkai was brought out in 2012, acknowledging its status as a modernist Tamil classic. In 2014, Poomani won the Sahitya Akademi award for his magnum opus Angyadi, a historical novel set in the late 19th century (for which he researched the Nadar community in Madurai and Tirunelveli with the aid of a two-year grant from the India Foundation for the Arts).

Despite Poomani’s undisputed stature in the Tamil world of letters, it has taken nearly four decades since his literary debut for his first two novels to be available in English. An English translation of Piragu is being brought out later in 2019 by Chennai-based Emerald Publishers, while Vekkai was recently published as Heat, in N Kalyan Raman’s spare yet vivid translation.

Here is how Heat opens:

“Chidambaram had only planned to hack off the man’s right arm.

He was aiming for the shoulder, but instead the sickle had sliced through the upper arm, its sharp tip entering the ribs. The severed arm had dropped near his feet. He kicked it away, grabbed the sickle and fled. As he ran, he heard the man’s scream rise and fade like the final cry of a goat in a butcher’s yard.”

Nothing is as expected

It is a grisly way to begin a tale. But it does not quite portend the tone of what is to come. Little about Poomani’s novel is predictable. Neither his characters nor the events he describes have predetermined outlines that might be fillable with a broad brush. People, relationships, histories are built up slowly, with small, deftly drawn strokes that make for the finest sort of shading. So the 15-year-old protagonist may have killed a man, but he is not a killer.

Chidambaram’s father Paramasivam, whom he calls Ayya, may lose control of himself whenever he drinks, but that does not tar him as an alcoholic. The narrative may begin with a murder, but it is neither a mystery or a thriller or a police procedural. Much of Heat unfolds in flashback, and read backwards, it might be seen as a revenge saga: I’m waiting to see if this is how it will be interpreted by Tamil film director Vetri Maaran, of Aadukalam, Visaranai and Vada Chennai fame, who is adapting it into a film.

The nuance I flag seems to me crucial not just to Poomani’s storytelling, but to his worldview. For instance, Chidambaram is indeed a fugitive: he is running from the law. But what the book reveals, over conversations present and past, is that it is not so easy to slot him under that common phrase: a “fugitive from justice”. Poomani is centrally concerned with the difference between law and justice. The enmity between our protagonists and the murdered man, Vadakkuraan, stems from Vadakkuraan’s avaricious desire for their land, and the cycle of violence he starts. The law, it seems, will never punish him – so Chidambaram decides to.

We have, of course, developed an extended tradition of popular cinema in India that is concerned with this gap between the legal and the moral – in Hindi cinema, for instance, that trajectory has only grown sharper from Awaara (1951) to Deewar (1975) to Raman Raghav (2016). I imagine Vekkai, published in1982, was an early fictional instance of such open criticism of the police. “[E]very policeman is allowed to keep a weapon tucked behind his arse and one more in front, long with a round club in his hand,” complains Paramasivam to his brother-in-law. “But we are not allowed to carry weapons... if we do the same thing, it’s a crime.”

At another point, he warns Chidambaram to beware police corruption, based on class and caste loyalties and actual bribes, “The police may not come after us today. But if our enemy gives them money, they’ll come running like hound dogs. So many atrocities take place in our courts. The law is what the rich people lay down.”

The foundations of violence

Poomani doesn’t wish to make this about caste, but he makes it clear enough that the systemic violence stems from the astounding inequity at the foundation of our social structure. Families like Chidambaram’s are resisting a long history of socio-economic oppression. A third of the way through the novel, we realise that the father, Paramasivam, committed a crime that sent him to jail in his youth – and that, too, was in retaliation for unwarranted, long-term oppression. “The rich guys couldn’t stomach the fact that we were farming our own piece of land.”

The novel also details other forms of informal justice, which might use the law strategically – “A good man from that village gave evidence” – or remain outside it entirely, like the cotton-thieving ganglord Muthaiah, whose men “will never step inside land that belongs to a poor man”, and who is a respected mediator of local disputes.

The other way in which to read Heat is as a palpably experiential journey into the Tamil countryside. This is a world in which cash crops like cotton and sorghum are beginning to be grown, and a ginning factory figures prominently, but which is also still brimful of wild plants and trees and animals whose ways a fifteen year old boy knows well enough to live off: the sour-bitter taste of a guduchi vine, the joys of cactus fruit, a rabbit killed by a vulture. And these are supplemented by cultivated pickings: sugarcane, sweet tubers left buried in a field, padaneer collected in toddy tappers’ pots which the boy climbs for.

And yet, even as a fugitive, Chidambaram is never purely utilitarian. Whether it is making a garland of kurandi flowers to put around the neck of a temple horse, crafting a hammock out of roots and palm leaf mats, or just admiring the skill of men hunting and skinning a snake, he wanders through his ordinary world with an unerring eye for its beauty. Seeing through his eyes might make you see it, too.

Heat, Poomani, translated from the Tamil by N Kalyan Ramani, Juggernaut Books.