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A Bitter Cup of Tea

G.J.V. Prasad

By Kokilam Subbiah
Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2006, pp. 200, Rs. 230.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

M irage first published in 1964 as Thoorathu Pachai (the Green of the other side/ Distant Green) in Tamil has now found its English avatar. Written by someone who was involved in unionizing Tamil labourers in Sri Lanka, the novel is a hard-hitting account of the suffering of women on tea estates. This is a novel about three generations of women (and their men) though in the beginning it seems to be about Tamil men, the decision makers in the family. Perhaps the move away from traditional occupations and societal structures makes the men increasingly irrelevant to themselves and their worldview and to the women and families except as potential trouble makers!   As the author-translator says in the Preface, the attempt in this novel is ‘to bring to the fore the unchronicled, unvoiced lives of the indentured labourers from India working on the tea plantations of Sri Lanka’, and this means that the book is ‘social history in the form of fiction.’ The daughter of a civil servant, Kokilam Subbiah came into contact with the lives of Tamil labourers after her marriage to the MP who represented the plantation workers, Subbiah. Kokilam Subbiah organized a women’s movement on the estates and eventually recorded the lives of women workers in order to understand their life and history. The incidents narrated in Mirage are thus ‘culled from real-life stories and are not figments of imagination.’   Mirage begins in the second half of the nineteenth century, during an extended drought and the resultant famine in Senthur, in Tamil Nadu. It quickly sketches out the plight of the peasants and the indifference of mirasdars and explains why many families from the village migrate to Sri Lanka. This includes the twice married Velan and one of his families. His daughter Valli is to become the actual protagonist of the story, the life of the new community of plantation workers will be painted around her by the author. The mirage of prosperity and independence is soon shown to be just that during the journey itself, when the villagers come to realize that the kangany who recruited them with a honeyed tongue is no better than a slave trader. Their lives sink into a life of debt and imprisonment in the estates.   The novel shows their lives till Valli’s old age, encompassing two world wars and the beginnings of the trade union movement. It is an ...

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