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Cho Dharman’s Kukai — fantasy and politics

August 13, 2011

There are two  short stories in No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India  that you must try and read.  (It’s a wonderful anthology, and there are lots of wonderful things to read in it, but I wanted to focus on just two of these here). They are called ‘Kukai‘ by Cho Dharman and ‘Ponnuthayi‘ by Bama. The latter story is lovely and I was impressed by the provocative ways in which it defies a morality around things like motherhood, wife-hood. However, ‘Kukai’…

I have always fallen in love easily with fantasy and surreal fiction. But Cho Dharman’s Kukai  is particularly exceptional because of the precision with which it weaves in Dalit folklore and struggles into its myth. Briefly, Kukai is about a lower-caste young man (Cheeni) and his wife who struggle to live peacefully in their village when we first meet them. But their fortunes quickly change, because of the spirit-bird – owl – who advises them to do various, many things. In the story, the owl is venerated because it is a bird whose (bird) community does not understand its ways of working at night and strange rituals. At one point, the goddess Lakshmi is frightened into blessing the main character because of the owl (whose power comes from being buried underground and shitting). In fact, great knowledge and wisdom is gained from the owl’s shit.

The story is exquisitely detailed and we meet many lovely characters like an ancestral woman who “threw open her blouse for the desire of a man” and was kicked out of the family for it. She is vengeful and powerful in her rage. Even though, she is  a minor character, she lays down the foundation (and the plot turn) for the entire story. There is also a transgender character in the form of the landlord’s third borne — a person “who is born a girl, but will not grow up to be one.”

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