Some of my favorites novels have been family sagas. Books like Middlesex, Roots, The Immigrants, and One Hundred Years of Solitude have profoundly illuminated the passage of time through the intimate stories of families. Since grade school, we’ve grown accustomed to associating history with dry, old textbooks, from which we’ve forced to memorize dates and be tested on our abilities to mindlessly regurgitate the names of places and so-called important historical figures. In contrast, family sagas allow us to look at history through the lens of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. We get to know these characters intimately, immerse ourselves in their privates thoughts and personal struggles, and watch how their lives interwoven with the events we’ve learned about in history class. We learn how the lines between the personal and political are often blurred, and rather than being some abstract, ethereal thing, how political circumstances impacts the personal lives of our lead characters.
The Vanishing Generations is the English translation of the Malayalam novel, Manjupokunna Thalamurakal, written by T.V. Varkey. It’s a multigenerational tale that centers on the Paalat family, a Syriac-rite Catholic clan. The novel opens in Kudumon, a small village situated on the Malabar Coast, during the 1850’s. Our first lead character, Kunjilona, of the Cholkunnu house, is arranged to marry Mariamma, the only daughter of a widow named Thandamma. Mariamma is from the Paalat house, a clan notorious for an alleged curse resulting in the deaths of its sons-in-law. In the Syriac Christian community during the 19th century, it was customary for families without male children to adopt the husbands of their daughters. Therefore, following his marriage to Mariamma, Kunjilona left the Cholkkunu house and formally joined the Paalat clan. Despite anticipation of an untimely death from marrying into the Paalat House, Kunjilona manages to live long enough to start his own business and raise a family of his own. Kunjilona’s success raises the status of the Paalat House to a level of respectability and prestige.
Kunjilona and Mariamma have two sons, Kunchacko and Abraham. Kunchacko is celebrated for his cleverness and intellectual interests, which he eventually channels into his life as a Catholic priest. In the late 19th century, parish priests are often the most learned men of the village, and Kunchacko uses his role as a priest to advocate and inspire social change both within the church and the broader community. Abraham, on the other hand, is less intellectually-inclined. Unlike his brother, Abraham eschews scholarly pursuits and social activism and chases after materialistic endeavors, investing in tea and rubber plantations in the high ranges and reaping its profits. In addition, he’s an hedonist who pursues servant girls to satisfy his insatiable carnal thirst, even with the quiet acknowledgement of his silently-suffering wife, Claramma.
Being a Catholic priest, Kunchacko forgoes family life to tread the path of priestly celibacy. On the other hand, Abraham, if you were to ignore the possible illegitimate offsprings he may have sprung from his many dalliances, has two children with Claramma, Francis and Susannah. While, Susannah resolutely pursues a life of celibacy as a Catholic nun, Francis marries a girl named Agnes and they have two sons, John Paul and Mathew. While Mathew renounces family life to dedicate himself to revolutionary causes, John Paul marries a girl named Philomena and they have two children, Jesus (yes, that’s his real name) and Joan. The family saga concludes with Joan and her daughter, Annie, being the sole occupants of the Paalat house.
The advent of modernity is the central theme of this saga. As the story progresses, we, the readers, witness Kudumon transform from the bucolic, yet backward village without even a single paved road, to a respectable intellectual hub with its own printing press. The hegemony of the iron-fitted upper-caste Hindu elite crumples in the face of western education, springing forth progressive values and modern sensibilities. The lead characters marvel at the speed of changes that occur in their humble town.
Accompanying the advent of modernity is the gale of creative destruction. Just as the processes of industrial mutation revolutionizes economic structures, destroying the old in favor of the new, the same applies to cultural institutions. In the opening pages of the novel, the local parish is the pillar of the village. During the mid-to-late 19th century, magisterial authority was often vested with the parish priest. The lives of the Nasrani villagers revolved around their local parish, and the broader Roman Catholic Church.
However, the succeeding generations of the Paalat clan gradually start to regard the church and Christian doctrine with varying degrees of skepticism. Abraham declines to step foot in the parish whenever Qurbana is in progress. Francis, while maintaining his identity as a Catholic, adores the advancements of science, regarding it as more relevant and useful to the lives of ordinary people than ancient religious doctrines. And John Paul flat-out rejects religious dogma, and unabashedly voices “blasphemous” remarks to the ire of his colleagues and supervisors at the Catholic-run college where he teaches.
The Hindu residents of Kudomon similarly fall victim to the sword of modernity. The matrililial joint-family tharavad system is overthrown in favor of male-led neutral families. The prestige of the once-elite Brahmins decline as they’d proven unable to maintain pace with the ever-changing times. In contrast, the so-called untouchable castes become educated and politically-conscious, motivating them to strives for equal rights and dignity. By the turn of the century, the rise of nationalism pose a threat to ancient, supposedly-divine-ordained hierarchies. The frequent political agitations signal the revamping of an entire culture, forcing the vanquishing of old traditions.
T.K.Varkey integrates the many stories of the Paalat family with the history of the Syriac-rite Catholic community. As readers, we’re introduced to a myriad of characters who are clearly allusions to well-known historical figures. Our protagonists are active actors in the crucial events that impact the Syriac-rite Catholic community. For example, Kunchacko is fictionalized blend of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Nidhiri Mani Kathanar. He fights tirelessly for the dignity and self-respect of his Syriac-rite community against the goliath that is the European-dominated Latin-rite hierarchy. Francis is a loose allusion to Kandathil Varghese Mappilai, the celebrated founder of Malayala Manorama. The various historical events that are referenced in this epic story include the Rokos schism, the Malayala Memorial, the formation of the Syro-Malabar Catholic hierarchy, the two World Wars, the Indian independence movement, the advent of communism, the formation of the state of Kerala, and the Vimochana Samaram that was followed by the dismissal of the state government by Delhi.
I’m a major history buff. However, as much as I appreciated all the historical references, there were a number of passages of the story that annoyingly read like a wikipedia article. It seemed that I was getting more information about a particular historical event, at the expense of the plot and basic character development. In fact, the lead characters themselves, were superficially-written, based on a handful of archetypes. The characters seemed to be conceptualized as carbon copies of their relatives before them. For example, Francis was the spitting image of his uncle, Kuriakose: intelligent, erudite, and passionate about social activism. Similarly, John Paul seemed to be molded from that same clay. In fact, whenever a couple has two children, one child is always written to be conspicuously more intelligent and academically-driven than the other. Undoubtedly, it’s common for relatives to share similar traits, however, I rarely got a sense of the lead characters as actual people. They seemed too archetypal and one-dimensional, some of them (i.e Kuriakose, Francis) being nothing more than “gary-stus”, perhaps a projection of the author’s own sensibilities.
I read a review of this novel by Latha Anantharaman (herself, a novelist). She was harshly critical of the female characters being “not worth mentioning. They alternately weep and hang about the house being curvaceous”. While I don’t exactly echo her critique, it is evident that the story is intensely male-driven. To be fair, the Syrian Christian community has historically been staunchly patriarchal and the author is a elderly man (whose predilections for voluptuous women are made quite obvious!), so male characters will undoubtedly play a greater role. However, the female characters of later generations project a more visible presence compared to their foremothers. To complement the idealistic and head-in-the-clouds John Paul, Philomena is written as a grounded, practical woman who efficiently runs the household and manages the family budget. Their daughter, Joan, is paid special attention through the last few chapters of the novel. In fact, Joan is probably the most evolved character of the entire story, whose wide spectrum of emotions and inner conflicts are thoroughly explored and contemplated. As we approach the conclusion of the story, we, the readers, take on her lens and view the world through her eyes.
Throughout the novel, modernity, social activism, and political agitations are viewed through optimistic lens. They symbolized hope for progress and enlightenment for the forward-minded and educated. However, as we approach the concluding chapters, the writing takes a darker tone. This becomes apparent when Mathew, the firebrand revolutionary, returns home, disillusioned by the prospects of the so-called revolution. John Paul, who held similar convictions but approached them through a literary/artistic angle rather than political methods, joins him in decrying the infighting and internal corruption rampant in the leftist movement.
John Paul poignantly points out how “man’s nature is more fickle than the seas and oceans”, and cynically asserts that a person’s professed beliefs may change once he acquires an ounce of power. However, despite his urge, John Paul holds back from telling his brother in a paternal manner, “A revolution of the kind you envision will not happen in this land, my child. The darkness of centuries reigns here. The spirits of men are lost in murkiness. Gloom girds the soul and marrows of even those who preaches revolution. We cannot see such an awful contradiction among any other people in this world“. In this passage, Varkey makes it abundantly clear that despite the strides Kerala has made through social and economic progress, the residual sentiments of its repressive, caste-ridden past continue to live in its current generations. Misogyny and castism continues to thrive among Malayalis, just in a more subtle form.
The most surprising part of the saga is Joan’s relationship with her husband, Philip. Philip was a former student of John Paul who had since secured a position as a corporate executive in Bombay. He openly displays his affection for Joan and seduced her into marrying him. Following the wedding, Joan realizes that Philip was not the romantic she envisioned him to be. Rather, he’s an dedicated sensualist who prioritizes lust over love. To Joan’s initial shock, Philip often indulged his carnal urges with other woman. Surprisingly, he encourages Joan to do the same with other men, “Why do you object, Joan. Can’t you enjoy this variety too?”. While Joan was initially appalled by the very suggestion, she eventually acquiesces and proceeds to have dalliances of her own.
I’ve always thought of polyamory as a 2010’s millennial hipster trend. I would have never imagine anyone of my grandparents’ generation, especially two Malayalis from small-town Kerala, partaking in a practice that our current culture still considers to be salacious. Even more scandalous were the hints of a homoeroticism between Philip and one of his male friends, “He was a fair-complexioned young man with a stout, hairless body. Joan had found the nature of the two men’s relationship quite mystifying. Hugging and kissing before her very eyes, they had shut themselves up in the bedroom even as she watched, aghast. Squeals of pleasure and the sounds of heavy breathing emerged from within”. (Okay, maybe “hints” is an understatement!).
Polyamory and Homosexuality, although they’re not explicitly labeled in the novel, are portrayed as unconventional experimentations that are likely to accompany the prevailing reign of modernity. Philip is shown to be explicit contemptuous of traditional marital norms demanding strict monagamy and faithfulness. In his words, “We become human beings only when we experience life in all its variety”. Amazingly, Philip sounds exactly like a sex-positive blogger.
These unconventional practices are depicted in a relatively neutral light. However, despite her string of affairs, Joan later discards that lifestyle and focuses her attention on raising her daughter alone, following the death of her husband. Her polyamorous endeavors were merely symptomatic of a dysfunctional relationship with his husband.
Death is another recurring theme in the story. Like every sentences ends with a period, a person’s life must also end. Throughout the saga of the Paalat clan, death emerges as a poignant, somber conclusion to a life well-lived. However, in many cases, death strikes from behind, blindsiding its witnesses until they’re at a lost for words. John Paul, a man who had lived through two World Wars, gloomily comments how death shed light to the fact that life is fleeting. Within the vastness of the universe, human life is ephemeral and meaningless, as we are merely sparks of dust. Ironically, despite his stance on religion, it is this realization that causes him to sympathize with the priests, with whom he engaged in many wars of words.
Death also alludes to the very title, “the Vanishing Generations”. Every death marks an end of an era. People cease to live, and their memories vanish away, completely forgotten by succeeding generations. In a passage, Joan alludes to “the soft footprints of time, none of which contained any trace of the history or memories of this ancient house”. The final paragraph poignantly marks the relinquishing of cherished memories.
T.V Varkey’s The Vanishing Generations would appeal to a certain readership. I’d recommand this novel to hardcore history buffs. While the novel lacks developed, flesh-out characters, its philosophical musings and meticulous historical analysis makes it worth reading. Most Syro-Malabar Catholics are unaware of their own history and how our religion was actually practiced by our ancestors. Modern-day Malayali Syrian Christians, would gasp at the thought of consulting Hindu astrologers for our horoscopes, yet, like Kunjilona, Mariamma, Claramma and Abraham, that’s exactly what our great-great-grandparents did. This highlights how the passage of time evaporates old customs and rituals, and the memories of those practices have simply vanished.