That Year at Manikoil by Aditi Krishnakumar
Reviewed by Madhuri Kamat
It’s a joy to read That Year at Manikoil by Aditi Krishnakumar. It showcases what is fundamental to the critical process of growing up that is often overlooked in coming-of-age children’s and young adult novels – the ability to be sensitive to the condition of those around and what is going on in the larger world. “That year” refers to 1944 when Japanese forces occupied Burma and Malaya and were on the threshold of overrunning British India through the northeast border and the sea. The massive displacement of families it led to, forms the backdrop of the story, which pivots on ten-year-old Rajalakshmi (Raji), who finds that her maternal grandparents’ home, fictional Manikoil in Tamil Nadu, always a summer vacation abode, is now her mother and sister’s permanent residence.
The book, a part of Duckbill’s “Songs of Freedom” thrums with the silenced song of freedom playing out within the household: despite fierce arguments, Raji’s mother is overruled by her husband and must take herself and her daughters away from Egmore to her maternal home for “their safety”; Raji’s sister Vasantha engaged to be married to her father’s friend’s son cannot stay behind to study further in the college of her choice while her brother, Kittu can do so for his law education; a male stranger must act as a chaperone for their train journey from Egmore in Madras to Trichy while her own son, Gopu can travel alone on the same mode of transport though he’s going as far as Imphal to join the British-Indian army overruling parental opposition and hyphenated loyalties; and even without consulting his wife who is expecting their first child.
On reaching Manikoil, Raji learns that the exodus is not restricted to her hometown of Madras; there are families fleeing the war in Burma and Malaya. Unable to afford train travel they walk through warzones and pack boats to cross the seas. Starvation threatens as edible crops that grew wild in abundant supply is woefully insufficient as families pour into Manikoil. The spectre of death that everyone tries to shield Raji from comes closer with grim news of the death of a student’s father on the war front. Her brother, Gopu Anna’s letters home from Nagaland and Manipur warfronts continue the theme of displacement as he writes of the seizure of tribal homelands by military garrisons and the death of a fellow soldier for this trespass. In a lovely touch, text redacted by the military censor is shown through cancelled font and as victory becomes certain, the censorship also ceases.
In her only girls-school, Raji faces name calling from both sides of the migratory factions as “being from Madras, she’s an outsider among the locals in Manikoil but to the returnees from other countries, she remained a local.” Among the returnees is her classmate Ilavarasi, the grandchild of a migrant couple from Manikoil who like many others sought to escape agrarian distress by becoming labour on rubber plantations in Malaya ages ago. Trying to ‘belong’ in her new school, Ilavarasi creates an elaborate fiction about her father owning the plantation before her lie is discovered by Raji. Ilavarasi admits that “We didn’t have much in Malaya. The plantation owner paid for us to go to school and let us look at her books – oh, please don’t tell anyone.” Raji doesn’t but only because she is schooled by her mother and her grandparents not to be judgemental.
The resentment Raji faces, however, in school and from her own cousins goes beyond the locus of her origins to cutting jibes about her Thatha (grandfather) consorting with the British and working with the Maharaja. Her school woes are further compounded by her sisters, Vasantha and Kanakavalli’s academic brilliance, which she cannot match up to. When Raji discovers her true metier – her talent for singing being singled out by family and British officer alike – she still remains unsure of being able to perform in a recital to the exacting standards of her music teacher.
The vadyars (teachers) for Sanskrit and music, Suprabhatam, murukku, temple runs bring the Tamilian household alive but it’s the finer details of the “easy rhythm set by the agricultural seasons” such as the oxen to move the oil press and personal quirks like the artificial light forbidden for reading by Thatha, to name just a few, that ensure it does not remain a stereotypical portrayal. Ilavarasi’s home is evoked through smells and her mother’s stance on the gift of the pavadai is lovely. The nuances of decision making on pregnant women’s treatment depending on their relative relationship with the mater familias is superbly brought out. The kids intimidated by and yet desirous of impressing Gandhi Thatha is a fun read as is their attempt at listening to a forbidden radio broadcast.
There are some aspects, however, that could have been more finely etched. For instance, barring a mention of Dr. Ambedkar, caste is largely absent from the narrative that does not shy away from political discussions. Despite the feminist leanings, the adult in-laws are shown not to match up to Raji’s family who are always wise, generous and all things kind and nice. This begins to grate a little. Raji’s moment of epiphany on being able to render her song strikes a false note and Gandhi’s reaction to a critical secret missive misses the mark.
What doesn’t miss the mark is the exemplary writing in charting Raji’s growth, be it the questions whose answers she seeks or her conversations with kin, teachers, classmates, Ilavarasi’s grandmother, and an unnamed woman; all of which lead up to the luminous moment when the child is considered adult enough for a mother to confide in. There’s no earth-shattering revelation of some deep, dark family secret but her political philosophy on freedom, the nation state, and the Empire. It’s a thing of beauty needing to be celebrated as children are rarely treated in real life or fiction as worthy of such knowledge. This book underlines how the personal is political.
Madhuri Kamat works for the developmental sector, pens children’s stories, and writes screenplays. She has created a pamphlet on street children’s right to take shelter under Mumbai’s bridges. Her passion for their protection led her to translate poems on their lives; pen poetry on homeless women and write a script for a short film produced by the UNICEF on migrant children in the harvest season. She has written screenplays for Marathi and Hindi television shows including the Hindi remake of “Yo Soy Betty la Fea.” Her children’s book, Flying with Grandpa (2018) and its sequel Bringing Back Grandpa (2021) published by Duckbill, are now published by Penguin Random House, India. Flying with Grandpa made it to the Amazon Editor’s pick within a month of its publication and was shortlisted for the Neev Literature Festival’s Book Award, 2019 and Peekabook Children’s Choice Awards 2019. Her other books include Whose Father, What Goes?, an interpretation of Hamlet, handprinted by Writers Workshop, Kolkata and e-books Burial of the Dead, a mystery and Yudi Yudi Dharmasya, which re-imagines the epic Mahabharata through the eyes of Kunti. Her children’s books can be found on Amazon and Flipkart as well as indie children’s bookstores in India and her e-books on the Kindle bookstore. For more of her book reviews, visit: India Educational Resources. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org