Jeyamohan’s The Abyss hurls readers into an exploitative world hidden in plain sight

‘The Abyss’ leaves you shaken, forcing you to question what a privileged society deems monstrous. But the author’s own politics mars the effects of this powerful book.
Jeyamohan’s The Abyss hurls readers into an exploitative world hidden in plain sight
Jeyamohan’s The Abyss hurls readers into an exploitative world hidden in plain sight

Years ago, Tamil novelist Jeyamohan wrote Ezham Ulagam, which he says, in the foreword to the book’s English translation, sent him back into a world he had forced himself to forget. This English translation, he called The Abyss. Published in April by Juggernaut Books, The Abyss hurls its reader into a world hidden in plain sight — an exploitative world of begging cartels; a world where physical disabilities become currency not by empowering, but by reducing disability into commodities. 

Jeyamohan says he wrote Ezham Ulagam from what he witnessed when he himself had to take to begging after he ran away from home in his early adulthood. These were memories he’d repressed until a chance encounter decades later. In The Abyss, we too are forced to reckon with the depths of an abusive enterprise in which people with physical disabilities are ‘items’, their births and deaths counted in terms of profit and loss. But the author doesn’t write them into existence with patronising pity. Strangely, the man who runs this cartel, one of the lead characters, is also not an utterly villainous man. Instead, the story urges you to rethink what a privileged society considers “monstrous”.

The people who give money to the beggars often part with those few paltry rupees in terror of their disabilities. As they come in contact with these people with disabilities on the steps of places of worship, their base fear of a divine punishment that could take away their own ‘unmarred’ features terrify them into hurriedly throwing down change before scampering away to their god, as the beggars laugh in their wake. These cartels are enabled by those who'd rather look away than at something unpleasant. So who are the real monsters here? 

The original Tamil title of the book refers to the seventh circle of hell which, according to Hinduism, is supposedly inhabited by ghouls and all manners of grotesque creatures. The cartel trades in disabilities; battering, forcing into sex, and selling humans with the cold blood-curdling rationale of what deformities can get the highest bid. But the same cartel leader is disgusted at the practice of deliberately maiming people to force into beggary.

As the author says at the beginning of The Abyss, this is not a book offering sociological studies. It’s not an outsider’s commentary. It’s a book that simply makes you look and doesn’t let you look away. It preys on your uneasiness, then makes you question yourself on what exactly is making you squirm as you read. 

This translation of Ezham Ulagam will no doubt leave readers shaken and troubled. It is a powerful political work that speaks from its heart in empathy.

Unfortunately, non-Tamil readers who may seek to know more on Jeyamohan will also find that his politics isn’t always emphatic. In 2014, the author drew criticism for his misogynist views on women writers. The Scroll reported at the time that Jeyamohan had said women writers “employed many publicity gimmicks and had attracted media attention and popularity”. His screenplay for the blockbuster Vijay-starrer Sarkar takes a skewed position on voter fraud, claiming that poor people sold their votes for money thereby endangering democracy. The film, and there are many like it in Kollywood, begs the question: why should the onus of saving democracy rest on the most marginalised?

Most recently, Jeyamohan also wrote several blog posts in defence of another Tamil writer Konangi, against whom multiple allegations of sexual abuse have emerged in social media posts by survivors. 

The Abyss is an intensely political read that has left me deeply shaken, but it is still hard to separate the book from its author’s questionable politics. 

The book is translated from Tamil to English by Suchitra Ramachandran.

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