Book: Island of Lost Shadows
Author: E Santhosh Kumar
Translator: PN Venugopal
Publisher: Niyogi Books
What would you do if no one was watching? Would you abuse, cheat, lie, torture, rape, kill? As poet John Donne famously said, no (wo)man is an island. Born into this world, we are a part of it, for better or for worse. We live interconnected lives where our actions have far-reaching consequences. However, that's not the case in the novel Island of Lost Shadows.
Published in 2015, Island of Lost Shadows is the English translation of the Malayalam novel Andhakaranazhi (2012) by E Santhish Kumar. It won him the Kerala Sahitya Academy Award. Translated by P Venugopal, Island of Lost Shadows is a treatise on the human condition. Set in the emergency era, a lawless time of brutality and naxalism, this novel is an uncanny satire on the political and cultural climate of Kerala.
Poet Sreenivasan shelters Sivan, the revolutionary who has just committed a crime against a "class enemy". After a series of safehouses, Sivan skips arrest to take refuge in a macabre yet mystical island lost to the world. Sreenivasan however, is not as lucky. He goes missing. Sakunthala, his wife, believes that he was picked up by the police. How do these characters react when pushed into a corner?
Sakunthala sets out with endless grit in a search for Sreenivasan. Sivan settles into a routine as the fraudulent accountant at the island's timber business laying in wait for permission from the party to re-enter the world. Journalist Chitrabhanu aka Chitran, lives to regret ratting out Sreenivasan and transforms from a radical short story writer to a priest. Ayyakkuru, the tribal, dwarf caretaker of the mansion on the island who seems to know everything and be everywhere blinks and misses the mark.
Interestingly, Karadi Papa, the original comrade, the one who Sivan was being entrusted to on the island, never materializes. Everyone on the island talks about him but his existence is hearsay. On the mainland, Sreenivasan's arrest is hearsay since only Sakunthala has seen him in custody.
Though there are no direct mentions, the story does bring to mind the life and times of TV Eachara Warrier. During the Emergency of 1976, P Rajan, his son and an engineering student were taken into police custody and tortured to death. Warrier fought the state for years for confirmation that Rajan was in fact killed in custody.
What is it like to be left behind when your loved one goes missing? They leave behind memories and take with them every certainty of the future. Hope takes up their place, a hope that they will return, a hope that they are alive and well. And the constant dread that the efforts to find them are not strong enough, that something has happened to them.
Sakunthala lives with this dread everyday. Their son Sasi was a mere toddler when Sreenivasan went missing. Even after he grows up into a young man she does not let up on her search for Sreenivasan.
She follows every lead and confronts every person that it brings up with a quiet conviction and sentimentality found commonly in truth-seekers. Many, finally including her advocate, try to dissuade her off the search but her decision is clear.
When asked to settle the case for money, she poignantly says, "It will be the sales proceeds of a man, sir. Perhaps, blood money. If I accept it the smell of it will stick to my hands all through my life." Her character, with its doubts, tears and upsets, is delightful especially because of her unflinching faith in life.
Meanwhile, the island is a wonderfully strange microcosm. Mute dwarf who speaks, timber trade accounts that play snakes and ladders with numbers and a setting wiped clean of the social equality that the firebrand was fighting for.
Things happen, time passes, no explanations are given. How do you fight a revolution while hiding away from the world? Who do you become when you suddenly find yourself in the exact same position of power you have been fighting against?
"To the person in the bell jar,... The world itself is a bad dream", said Sylvia Plath. As the days go by and the comrade fails to hear from the outside world, he goes on living, owning the eccentricities of this island and at one point choosing to stay.
Eventually, as it always must, history repeats itself. The revolutionary falls off his high horse of ideology and other cerebral things, to the ground where everything is real. On the ground, he meets the physical needs of his body, acquires a taste for absolute power and disintegrates one day at a time. From dust to dust.
However, PN Venugopal's translation is sometimes too literal. It struck me when he described a woman's hair as a string of palm fruit. Panankola in Malayalam does mean a string of palm fruit but it's used to describe thick, dark and curly hair; an analogy that gets lost in translation.
Another instance is when Thechappan says to his wife Mary, "Nothing to lick upon?", looking for a spicy snack to accompany his drink. Throughout the book, I paused to imagine the original intention of the author making for a rather dissonant, disjointed reading.
Written like a suspense-thriller, Island of Lost Shadows is filled with ambiguities and uncertainties. Skillfully, the author makes sure that, just like the protagonists, the general discomfort of being kept uninformed follows you around the narrative. The cyclical nature of history, politics and life is brought to the fore with incredible accuracy that you can't look away. I plan to re-read it in Malayalam because this book is definitely a defining moment in Malayalam novel history.
Delving into the intricacies of the human mind and discussing the dissonance in our society, Island of Lost Shadows holds a mirror to our lives today. Of armchair activism from the isolation of our devices, of terrorism perpetrated by islands of 'others' and of jingoism in a time when the truth about truth has to be pieced together from WhatsApp messages.
This novel reads like one of our blockbuster movies. There's action, drama, suspense, poetry, revolution, magic, sex, abuse and a complete lack of social order. It makes us suspend our disbelief and become one with the character's condition as only exemplary writing can.