Her eyes shone with a rare radiance. In spite of her rather modern attire,she looked demure.She was working in a bank, she said and was travelling to spend some time with her parents. She added softly that her husband would board the train at Chennai. Lost in her own world she then sat looking out of the window with a smile on her face and I returned to my book. Love that is young,unsullied by the weight of expectations or the thorns of accusations is a beautiful spectacle. I was reading Chemmeen, the incomparable Thakazhi classic.
Chemmeen traces the story of Karuthamma. Karuthamma who grows up with her childhood companion,Pareekutty, the son of a muslim trader on the sea shore and how their casual flirtations cement into something more concrete and demanding.
Karuthamma’s parents cajole her to marry Palani, a skilled fisherman .Palani learns to love and accept Karuthamma in his life and she too has moved on, eager to prove herself an ideal wife.
Karuthamma’s father, Chembankunju and her mother,Chakki had borrowed money from Pareekutty, who besotted by Karuthumma had given it to them, perhaps expecting something more in return.
Pareekutty falls into loss and debt soon after while Chembankunju prospers. Using his savings and what he had borrowed from Pareekutty, Chembankunju manages to buy two Chundan Vallams or boats ,becoming richer and thus improving his social status. It is at this time that, the parents decide to wed Karuthamma to Palani. The guilt of her parents actions eats into Karuthamma who prevails upon her mother to return the money to Pareekutty before she is married off to Palani. Though Chakki is keen to do so, Chembankunju is now a changed man and refuses to part with his hard earned money.
Post her marriage, Karuthamma’s mother, falls sick suddenly and Chembankunju requests his daughter to stay back. Caught between the demands of her father and the pleadings of her mother,Karuthamma listens to her mother and accompanies her groom. Angered by Karuthamma’s decision, Chembankunju disowns his daughter, while she gathers herself to start a new life with Palani in a new village.
The fisher folk believe that any immorality among the fisher women would invite the wrath of the sea, the perils of which the fishermen deal with everyday. The story of Karuthamma’s rumored affair haunts the newly married couple bringing trouble to both Karuthamma and Palani.
Karuthamma’s constant assurances and promises eventually win Palani’s confidence and love. In the meanwhile, Chakki passes away and in her deathbed extracts a promise from Pareekutty that he should treat Karuthamma as his own sister and protect her.
Moved by Chakki’s authoritarian love , Pareekutty lands at Karuthamma’s place to inform her of Chakki’s death. Pareekutty’s visit kicks up new rumors and speculations about Karuthamma’s character.
Reversing fortunes,death of his beloved wife and the treachery of his new mistress drive Chembankunju mad. Panchami, his second daughter deserts her father and comes to stay with Karuthamma.
On a fateful day when , Palani had decided to venture out into the sea alone, Pareekutty and Karuthamma meet again. Their love is rekindled. Palani who had gone to the sea on his own, following the fisher folks indifference to him finds a huge shark and surges after it.
The next morning sees Pareekutty and Karuthamma dead on the sea shore and at a distance lie the shark and Palani.
The story ends on a tragic note.
The cinematic version of Chemmeen, widely regarded a classic was hugely successful. The novel itself has been translated into major languages in India and abroad. The local dialect, beliefs, ethos of the fisher folk is well captured by the novelist who himself had lived by the sea.
Whether it be Moby Dick,Mother Courage and Her Children or any other, the stories of sea and her children always manage to touch a raw nerve.
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