Lakshmi Saravanakumar’s Uppu Naigal is a novel that unfolds stories of sorrows and sufferings of the downtrodden and the marginalized people of the Indian society. It retells the tale of the dehumanizing forms of social discrimination and conflict of class hierarchy. This novel can be considered as a critical statement against human suffering, poverty and ignorance and the author evidently delineates the shackles of degradation. Having three different plots intertwined, each, however, is the portrayal of the problems of the age – the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual darkness.
Many of the characters are involved in theft, drug trafficking, extra marital affairs, prostitution and homosexual relationship because of the wretchedness caused by poverty and are condemned to abjectness, apathy and despair. The characters Sampath, Shivani, Chelvy, Thavidu Aadhamma and her mother are all victims of the malice deeply rooted into the society and their resistance shows their attempt to free themselves from the shackles of social evils. One of the protagonists, Sampath, working for the drug dealers in the underworld slowly employs himself in criminal operations including child trafficking. He degrades himself first to distributing dog meat to food stalls and then to becoming a dog butcher to sell the dog meat.
However, through the embodiment of the character, the author, brings to light the hypocrisy and fallacy of religious institutions such as Armenian Church and its priests. Shivani is a portrayal of immorality and her dishonesty is honest as she is ruined by the social constructs. The law and order are questioned in this novel by the character of Chelvy as she is a pickpocket and later becomes another victim of drug trafficking. Even though Thavidu is a sufferer of her fatality in terms of poverty, she acts by listening to her conscience and chooses the right paths. Adhamma and her family are the settlers in Chennai and she is a manifestation of childhood innocence. Even though Chennai is a hub for the Marwari and Telugu settlers and extends its hand for their trade and settlement, the city is another example for how the society jeopardizes the positions of human stances.
Thus the setting of the novel is the microcosm of India. The author criticizes the society which admits poverty and its wretchedness. Similar in theme is the novel, Les Miserables written by one of the greatest French novelists, Victor Hugo. In a letter to a friend describing why he wrote Les Miserables, Hugo said:
“If the radical is the ideal, yes, I am a radical… A society which admits poverty, a religion which admits hell, a humanity which sanctions war – seem to me an inferior society, an inferior religion and humanity. And it is towards the higher humanity and religion that I turn: society without a king, humanity without frontiers, and religion without a book… I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Miserables.” The same is the voice of the author in this novel, Uppu Naigal. As a novelist he expounds the inferior society, religion and humanity that act vindictively because of the social divisions and hierarchy.
The author of the novel, Saravanakumar, reiterates the concept of how poverty and hunger make men as beasts and he questions inequality and injustice prevailed in the society.
“Nobody had the fear or sorrow of having empty stomach. It seems that an ordinary man does not think of hunger till the day when a hungry man becomes a beast… During the days the town which was creating a society tormented by hunger was not aware that the society would be turned into that of beasts.” (Saravanakumar, p. 80). The theme embedded all throughout the novel is that hunger and desire turn men into beasts.
What made them turned into beasts? At this point the novel draws the readers to a question of moral philosophy. Most of the compelling characters of the novel are morally ambiguous. According to Haidt & Kesebir (2010) morality indicates what is the “right” and “wrong” way to behave, for instance, that one should be fair and not unfair to others. This is considered of interest to explain the social behavior of individuals living together in groups (Gert, 1988). To talk something about moral philosophy in depth– Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century philosopher assumes that human nature is violent and competitive. He insists on individualism and finds that the society becomes meaningful because of the individuals. He further tends to state that humans are selfish creatures who only concern their self-preservation. Therefore, human beings are always without an “absolute sovereign” to control the desires and always in a “state of war”, which is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. The novel, Uppu Naigal contains the same philosophy in it. The behaviours and actions of the characters reflect that they wish to persist on self-preservation and choose paths that are so mean.
According to Starobinski, a well-known literary critic and psychiatrist, evil is not in human nature but in social structures. Rousseau, as an Enlightenment philosopher stated that humans are naturally good; the society tampers with us, and thereby corrupts us. For him, human nature is good and pure. Accordingly, it is the society that corrupts and transforms ‘natural man’ into a beast who is always obsessed with his own desires. He further stated that one is born neither good nor bad. It is only with the birth of social institutions that his weakness became timidity or his strength a menace to his neighbours. It is the society, according to the author, Saravanakumar, that has made its individuals act as how they did. However, it is obvious throughout the novel that the author did not judge any characters and leaves the judgment to the readers.
Moreover, materialism in the novel promotes the philosophy of nihilism that rejects family, societal bonds and emotional and aesthetic concerns in the characters. It delineates the idea that there is no “mind” or “soul” outside the physical world. The characters, Chelvy and Muthulakshmy, in search of carnal love lose not only their families in the first phase but also their “mind” and “soul”. Sampath’s homosexual desires and his mother’s extra marital affairs with Mani can also be related to this.
In socioeconomic perspective, capitalism produces inegalitarian social structures. The social geography of the city is made up of a hierarchy of community environments reproducing the hierarchical class structure. Change in the system results from change in the demand of labor. Chennai is not exceptional. The author clearly showcases the demand of labour in the city of Chennai and the exploiting nature of capitalism. The inhabitants of Chennai go to the extreme ends to survive in the capitalist state and the characters, Udayar, Muthulakshmy and the Marwaris exemplify capitalists in this novel.
The plot threads are interwoven masterfully by the author throughout the story. The way the characters are portrayed balances the storyline. Even though many of the major characters are the victims of social evils, the characters like Thavidu, Aadhamma and Arthy spread love and hope in this novel. The titles given for each of the chapters are thought provoking and evocative. The author, according to his accustomed style, uses rich figurative quotes in the beginning of many chapters that validate the content of what is yet to come in the chapter. The author never fails to put the readers right in the heart of his story even though the reality the novel speaks of is harsh and the emotions it outlines are intense and the punishments are raw.
Although many of the Indian writers like Basheer, Kamala Markandaya and Mulkraj Anand have spoken of the same subjects, Saravanakumar stands aside in his own perspective. He proves to be ideal by being radical. The former speak the issues in the manner of questioning the society while Saravanakumar speaks the same in the way of disturbing the conscience of the society. He condemns it when it admits poverty; he condemns religion when it admits hell; he condemns humanity when it admits injustice. He perceives the society inferior when it turns its men into beasts, into dogs, and into sour dogs (Uppu Naigal) as the title itself puts it in. He stands as another Hugo in giving his voice for reforming the Indian society.
To conclude, Uppu Naigal is a scathing critique of the society and a true depiction of human struggles and sufferings. Credited with the gripping portrayal, Uppu Naigal would remain a fine story for all the ages as it calls for the regeneration and renewal of not only the Indian society but also of all the “sick” societies in the world through the rediscovery of the beliefs and perspectives towards humanity.
Riophilla Alfred –
Department of English Language Teaching,
University of Jaffna,
email – [email protected]