Impressionism and a boy killing a bad man

Poomani’s characters are not righteous men with a cause. They just happen to react to whatever wrong is done to them

Cover of Heat (social media image)
Cover of Heat (social media image)

Luis A Gómez

Starts with a bang, sort of a bang: a young boy kills a man with a sickle, and runs. The first few pages of Heat are simply a violent moment that will unfold, slowly, from the kid’s mind to the readers to help them understand one of the simple reasons a person has to chop an arm of another and then make a fatal incision in his ribcage: vengeance. But Poomani, a venerable figure of Tamil literature, will not spend much words describing the killing or the escape; what comes after that shapes the entire book.

Using cinematic resources, the author doesn’t indulge in elaborate language or big analogies. Austere and elegant, his style of writing sets actions and dialogues almost naked. Pim, pum, pam! And run, Chidambaram, you killed the man who got your brother murdered. Run and then throw one of the homemade bombs you carry behind you, when you see the pair of shadows following you, enhanced by a bus’ lights. Like this, a reader will find sequences all over Heat. Focusing on the light, the weather and the landscape, the author will get you glancing at the country, the hills, a little temple or a Banyan tree. In some passages everything is almost frozen for a page or two. Flashbacks will provide some rationale to the killing, the anger of this boy, and the suffering of his people.

Again, like the film director Poomani is, this book flows over a week in the way a documentary would. That said, in the afterword to the English edition, the author not only recalls his own youth but one true story of a 15 year old boy killing a man, just not the end of it. Maybe because there is none yet to these bloody anecdotes where a powerful rich man can kill a boy without remorse or punishment but a boy killing a bad man will have to live on the run or be jailed. In that dichotomy lies the plot and the narrative of Heat. Anybody will find a story that addresses the theme from various angles. One being honour, for example, treated as poor people’s trove; motivating a fierce but quiet demeanour, honour leads to revenge, a way to settle a score with those greedy persons who exploit them or grab their lands by force.

It’s not just about violence and an unjust world. Because violence is not the boy’s brutal behaviour but the privilege of the police, the judge, these powerful land grabbers. This book deals more with a community reacting to that privilege, refusing to be simple ignorant victims. Heat sheds an uncommon light on this: these poor farmers he writes about haven’t lost what is theirs without putting up a fight. That conflict is what Poomani and many Indians know too well.

A few parables, an impressionist effect

Planted in between the stages of Chidambaram and his father’s escape, you will find short scenes about little wonders and a few parables to be run in your mind. Like the parable of the good thieves pushed away from their agricultural life by bigger fish. Or maybe the snake hunters the boy watches at work. These scenes glue the main story as in an old adventures novel. The exoticism lies tenderly in the past, or in this world the young boy gets to know, it’s never insulting or nostalgic.

In the same way, Poomani makes nature always present, coping with human interventions. Everything we built and do is ‘at risk’ of being covered by foliage, ravaged by animals ... lost.

Then, we reach the core of Heat. Problematic as it is, the disruption in the lives of ‘big men’ and the institutions of the state must be thought from below, with care but passionately:

So you say. What unnecessary trouble? Are we inviting it? Shouldn’t there be a limit to the atrocities these big men commit? If the landlords levy big fines on wage labourers and swindle their earnings, how will their families survive? If we try to put an end to this practice, these landlords get a sprain in the groin. Those government fellows are even worse. All thieves, working hand-in-glove! And you call them great souls. Great souls, my foot (p. 102).

But Poomani’s characters are not righteous men with a cause. They just happen to react to whatever wrong is done to them. That’s an added value surging from the directness of the writer’s style, a certain amorality, an ethos not derived from imposed notions but from their common sense.

That’s more or less what impressionism was during the last third of the Nineteenth century. A detailed attention to the light and the foliage all around, the ambience. That’s what Van Gogh had in mind when, late in his life, decided to paint and brush his version of the world over canvases. Or, approaching Heat with literary examples, Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant, or Isaak Babel and Boris Pilniak after the Russian Revolution. Trying to produce art after the invention of photography was not the art of resemblance but of sensible memories, souvenirs of the heart.

In this voyage Chidambaram is forced to take, he grows older by the day. Learning to cook by heart or becoming stealthy around populated areas. Discussing the situation with his dad and uncle. Remembering his family and a life that looks lost in time. Like that other boy in The Steppe, one of Chekhov’s masterpieces, this poor Tamil kid marvels with the surroundings while a new maturity springs inside him.

‘This is a bad time for good people’

It is indeed. In Heat democracy looks in decay from below, contradicting the rosy outlook the state tries to put over it. Rich people and have-nots were never equals in front of any law. The boy written by Poonami learns this the rough way (while on the run) just like his father did and his grandfather before them. Theirs is an unfair fight—sickle versus money— they are willing to fight, nothing else to do.

The dialogues between Chidambaram and his father, ranging from family to politics, are simple and clear. People in the villages talk in the dark like this when they gather at night to discuss the important things of their little lives. They know what makes a policeman’s lathi dance and the judge stay put (money.) That’s how the system works and they lose most of the times. Only the cynical will deny that these officers never bring justice or protection, as they should. Gross generalization? Perhaps, it’s like thinking poor people are ignorant or—worse—stupid.

But this is not a pamphlet or a work of socialist realism. It’s a familial love tale, around a boy who killed a man seeking revenge. A hideous thing for a young person to do when, like Poomani states in the afterword, his life should be like a garden ‘sheltered by the cool shade of affection.’ So maybe we should think of this book as a compassionate exposition of how people forced to live in the lowest layers try to preserve their humanity. That’s the rationale of their actions, killing if they must.

What about the heat? Well, if Poomani is right, the heat is yet to come and burn it all.

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