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“Hungry Humans”: This Tamil novel forays into themes of masculinity, desire, sexuality, and caste repression

"Hungry Humans": This Tamil novel forays into themes of masculinity, desire, sexuality, and caste repression
Author Karichan Kunju
"Hungry Humans": This Tamil novel forays into themes of masculinity, desire, sexuality, and caste repression
  • The book “Hungry Humans” by Karichan Kunju has been translated from the Tamil by Sudha G. Tilak. The book was first published in 1978 as “Pasitha Manidam”.

  • When Ganesan returns, after four decades, to the town of his childhood, he must also come to terms with his past: his exploitation at the hands of older men, his growing consciousness of desire and his own sexual identity, his steady disavowal of Brahminical morality and his slowly degenerating body. He longs for liberation-sexual, social and spiritual-but finally finds peace only in self-acceptance.

  • The book offers deep insight into the conservative and caste-conscious temple town of Kumbakonam, viewed here with dispassionately cold clarity as a society that utterly fails its own. Sudha G. Tilak deftly builds upon Karichan Kunju’s prose to expose this world, raw, real, without frills or artifice.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

The gentleman’s house was small. Also, it was rented, he informed Ganesan. A board outside the door read: ‘Free homeopathy dispensary’. The house had a living room followed by a hall and a small courtyard. A door at the back opened into a yard with an outdoor toilet. A man sat cooking, making quite a din with the pots and pans.

Ganesan took in the terracotta roof and the walls covered with large prints of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Azad, Rajaji and Kamaraj. Amongst those images hung a framed photograph of Padma. She stood smiling in elegant jewellery, clad in a traditional nine-yard sari. Her eyes danced with sensual appeal, looking almost lifelike. Ganesan stared at the photograph for a while.

The gentleman walked past the hall into an anteroom. Ganesan looked around and spotted an ambar charkha in one corner. A desk, table and a folding chair propped against the wall was the only furniture in that sparse but calm room. The gentleman came back with a tumbler of milk.

‘Drink this,’ he said and set it down. Ganesan was still staring at Padma’s photograph. After an awkward silence, the gentleman again egged him on to have the milk. Ganesan, however, was lost in a reverie. ‘Padma, Padma!’ he said, his voice cracking.

‘Are you Ganesan?’ the man asked. He sounded both shocked and agitated.

‘Yes, that’s me. How do you know my name? And where’s Padma?’

‘She’s here and there,’ the gentleman said, one hand on his heart and the other pointing to the sky. The shadow of grief on his face was unmissable. Ganesan could not believe that Padma was dead. Moments ago, he had held memories of a young and lively Padma. He closed his eyes and opened them again, but nothing had changed. Padma was dead and her widower was cradling her memory in his heart.

‘What would you prefer for dinner?’ the gentleman asked and turned around to call someone. Nanda, a forty-something man walked out. The gentleman introduced him as his comrade, who was also involved in social service for slum dwellers, and his housekeeper. ‘He loves spinning,’ the gentleman pointed to the charkha. He then instructed Nanda to rustle up a meal, saying Ganesan would stay with them for a couple of days.

The gentleman then informed Ganesan that he offered free medical service to the people in the village and also in the neighbouring hamlets. Ganesan listened to him detailing his work, but he didn’t hear anything about Padma.

After a minute, Ganesan interrupted. ‘How do you know my name? What happened to Padma?’

‘I guessed who you were when you continued to stare at the photograph, and then you called out her name. I thought it would be better to talk after we both calmed down.’ He then told Ganesan about their married life of nearly thirty years. They had been blessed with two daughters who were now married and had children of their own.

He told Ganesan that he had been drawn to celibacy. ‘Padma wanted more children, and more of me. While we were civil to each other, this contentious issue created friction between us. After the country gained independence, and in the aftermath of the Partition, the collapse of our country’s ideals and the killing of the Mahatma, I threw myself into social service. I resolved to turn celibate and stopped spending time with her. I would return late at night. I ate frugally and my ascetic habits started irritating her. Soon, I began to sleep on the thinnai of the house.’

He said Padma cracked after a year of rejection. ‘She became irritable and would snap at people at home. People on the street would hear our quarrels. I was stubborn, too. Even after the deaths during Partition, our population had grown to over fifty million. Bringing more children into this world didn’t appeal to me. I held out mulishly and now regret my obstinate behaviour. It cost me a loving relationship and family life,’ he explained.

‘A while later, Padma fell ill with pneumonia. Her fever rose and she was delirious. On her last night, I heard her call out. “Shivaratri! Sugirtham Ganesan! Ganesan, tell me a story. I can’t sleep, make some space so that I can sleep with you,” she was saying. She was gone soon after, like camphor that dissolves in the air,’ he continued.

Ganesan broke down. He mumbled apologetically, ‘Sir, we were children.’

‘Let’s forget the past. You should rest now. Nanda has made rasam, appalam and rice. It’s only five in the evening; we can eat later,’ the gentleman said.

Disturbed by what he had heard, Ganesan left the house the very next day. He refused the gentleman’s suggestion to park his money in a bank. Instead, he made his way towards Mazhavanthangal with the money in the suitcase. After spending a few days there, he acted upon the advice of local doctors and landed in Kumbakonam.

"Hungry Humans": This Tamil novel forays into themes of masculinity, desire, sexuality, and caste repression

Excerpted with permission from Hungry Humans, Karichan Kunju, translated from the Tamil by Sudha G. Tilak, Penguin Viking. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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"Hungry Humans": This Tamil novel forays into themes of masculinity, desire, sexuality, and caste repression