“Chidambaram had only planned to hack off the man’s right arm” starts Heat in N Kalyan Raman’s translation of the Tamil novel Vekkai by Poomani. Set in a distinct subaltern space, a soil that Poomani himself drew nourishment from, Heat explores the events in the life of fifteen-year-old Chidambaram who – in a mishit – kills his elder brother’s murderer and goes into hiding.
It is an eight-day exile reminiscent of the Ramayana, except Dasharath comes along, Ravana is killed, and it is Rama who needs calming. Heat narrates its story from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy, and, though filled with familial love and the politics of growing up, it dangles from the hands of a cruel, power-hungry world. A simple novel in terms of plot, its power lies in the way it spotlights not the violence of the world it is set in, but a call for humanity from those who are forcefully co-opted into violence.
It is indeed violence that kickstarts the novel, being is the tool of choice employed by the protagonist to complete his agenda. But violence – as common as the arrack the villagers drink to relieve their burdens – remains in the background. The novel focusses on Chidambaram and his father’s journey through the forests and fields, and their struggle to keep the family safe while also protecting themselves from those who are on the lookout for them.
Under the shadow of his own actions and their consequences, Chidambaram is caught up in a flurry of emotions and memories. Yet, he feels no regret – he is convinced of the correctness of his action (that he killed an oppressive foe) and is in fact, raring to kill more men who perpetrate the chain of oppression. He carries his sickle with him at all times, and he does not hesitate to use a bomb or make new ones.
But this violence does not consume him – Chidambaram remains painfully human. He wishes he were back home with his mother and Athai who would massage his head with oil and feed him, he wishes to gain the approval of his father, and to be embraced proudly by his Mama. Chidambaram remains a child, a boy, who only wants things to go back to normal, to a time when Anna (his elder brother) was still alive.
The rationale of violence
Chidambaram lives in the lap of nature, deeply connected to the soil. He does not understand why his family lost everything they held dear. In the middle of his confusion is a profound understanding that the world works on the principle of “to each his own”. To find justice in a world that denies it to him, he needs to seek it of his own initiative.
His need for violence is not violent or irrational – in fact, Chidambaram rationalises his violence with infallible yet child-like logic: Vadakkuraan is a powerful man who threatens his family (and village) and in order to exact revenge, he has to be rendered powerless for the entire village to see.
By hacking off the man’s right arm, the symbol of power, Chidambaram intends to make an example out of him, a lesson for the Vadakkuraans of the world. The name Vadakkuraan itself is an example of how little Chidambaram knows about the man: It is his geographical identity – Vadakku (north) + ooru (village) + aan (suffix for man), the man from the village in the north. And Chidambaram believes that once Vadakkuraan is brought under control, justice shall reign and his life will return to normalcy.
Fighting against power
But where is this justice that everyone seeks? There is an experiential understanding of injustice in the novel. But the social and political structures that enable these injustices are not explicitly understood (by Chidambaram) or talked about. This refusal to openly talk about caste has been criticised by many literary critics (alongside criticism for Poomani’s personal politics in refusing to identify his works as Dalit literature). But this hidden mode of talking about caste arises out of the world of the novel itself – caste is not always demonstrated in explicitly understandable ways.
Moreover, the novel is from the perspective of a fifteen year old boy. He does not understand identities – he does not even know who Vadakkuraan is or what caste he belongs to. What Chidambaram sees is that power favours a few, and that needs to be fought against. Identities take a backseat.
Moreover, these power structures are not rigid. Even though they belong to the same family, Chidambaram and his father are named as the accused while the Mama walks away free (though his involvement is suspected). His status in the village protects him, he does not need to go into hiding.
For those without enough social clout, who are forced to concede to heavier powers in the power scale, displacement becomes their trade. And with the largest heavyweight of all, Vadakkuraan, in play, everyone is forced to accept defeat. Once on his radar, every family is displaced, either in mind or body. Chidambaram’s family, though they manage to hold on to their piece of land, are pained by the loss of their eldest son.
Small scale farmers are under constant pressure to give up their land. And when they acquiesce, they are left with no land and resort to stealing from the fields to survive. Even when revenge is served and Vadakkuraan is killed, it is once again, Chidambaram’s family who are displaced. Power lies beyond mere human bodies, it favours a winner even in death.
This displacement, this powerlessness, nurtures a deep current of resentment that unites people. Even in times of dire need, loyalty and sense of community take precedence. They understand that there is strength in numbers – “who [the men from Vadakkuraan’s village] will dare to come here?” Chidambaram asks his uncle. Family, caste, village, these identities are solidified and informed in the presence of the threat. A collective is created – in rebellion – that protects and nurtures Chidambaram, that while he may be displaced, he will never be alone.
And so Heat advances a model of a community where each individual works for a collective well-being under the safe protection of their community. Betrayals are inevitable, of course, for people are humans and humans err. But Poomani’s core ideology still remains clear: The people need to collectively rise against the injustice enacted by institutions and state machinery.