“The characters in ‘Songs Of The Cauvery’ are strongly etched, and each main character plays out her or his idea of love,” writes Sonali Bhatia.
The book, Songs of the Cauvery is set in the transition years between the nineteenth century and twentieth century, along the fertile delta of the river Cauvery. The backdrop: the early stirrings of the freedom struggle against British colonial rule.
What is interesting to me about the book is the varied themes it contains. First, it is the story of a young patriot who is fighting for freedom.
But it also evokes the culture of the day and has a deep feminist undertone.
It is set at a time when female literacy in India was about 1%. Often girls were married at age 8 or 10 and sent to the husband’s house after they ‘came of age’ (got their first periods). Then they were so involved with housework that even if they wanted to and others were around to support them, they couldn’t study.
Against this backdrop, Janaki, a strong female character and the sister of the protagonist, wants to be the first local female with a college education.
An extract from the book, with Janaki trying to convince her father to send her to school:
“Is the path of knowledge only for boys or men?” she asked.
“Not at all. Great women scholars are mentioned in our ancient texts.”
“And the knowledge is gained by …?” the child persisted.
“Learning at the feet of a guru.”
“Appa don’t you want me to have that?” she asked.
“What do you mean? I want the best of everything for you,” her father insisted.
“So I can go to school!” said Janaki.
“Yes. No. What about your marriage? What will the neighbours say about my letting a daughter go out of the house?”
“Appa, have you always acted according to what others say?”
Another strong theme is that of various aspects of LOVE. The characters are strongly etched, and each main character plays out her or his idea of love.
The primary form of love that is found in Songs of the Cauvery is a love for something that is greater than oneself.
Panju loves his country so much that he believes that his life or even the life of another person is a small price to pay for the welfare of the country.
Janaki loves the idea of duty — stemming from an idea that one must do what is good rather than what is convenient, an idea that she has inherited from her father, Sambu.
Sambu loves the idea of ‘Tyaga’ — loosely translated as ‘sacrifice’ but more accurately as ‘letting go’. He aims to reach the absolute state of peace, or Liberation. He constantly subordinates his own preferences and decides on issues based on what is good rather than what he wants.
Ranjitham loves Panju, But she loved the ideals that Panju stood for even more than that.
Arul loves Janaki for the woman she is— so much so that he is willing to let go of what were his greatest desire and true vocation.
The author has done a painstaking amount of research – he actually found out the books prescribed in the syllabus his characters would have studied, and then read whichever of those books he could get his hands on! He looked up the question papers of the day, to get an idea of what his characters would have faced in an examination. The climcatic scene is set in a railway station, and — you guessed it — the railway timetables mentioned are all accurate. Aside from writing, Kalyanaraman Durgadas dabbles in astrology, and he cast his characters’ horoscopes, and even admits to having to do a bit of re-writing thanks to the outcome.
Being a teacher myself, I had to include the extract about the girl child going to school — but not all Kalyanaraman’s depictions of childhood are pleasant. In fact, I recall this scene most often, when I think about Songs of the Cauvery. It is about the protagonist, as a child, taking a cherished toy on its first ‘outing’.
Kuppu’s top hit his squarely, knocking it off the circle, and spun on the ground. Panju had lost the match. Time for the forfeits. The forfeit allowed the winner to inflict damage on the loser’s top by stabbing it five times with his own top.
Now Kuppu produced his surprise, a top that he used only for giving and receiving forfeits. It was a huge top made of hardened wood with a thick, inch-long nail.
Panju started to protest, but Kuppu’s top had already struck once. When Kuppu lifted his top, Paju’s top stuck to his.
“No!” shouted Panju, as the second blow sunk the nail deeper.
The next blow broke Panju’s top cleanly in two.
You will laugh, you will cry, you will tear your hair out … but you won’t be able to put Songs of the Cauvery down!
Songs Of The Cauvery
Author – Kalyanaraman Durgadas
Publisher – Rupa
Sonali Bhatia is a Bengaluru based writer and storyteller.