Manal kadigai by M. Gopalakrishnan is the ultimate book on Tirupur, South India.
It follows the lives of 5 young boys who leave school and start working in Tirupur’s sweat shops; through the romps of youth, their trials in the working world and their personal lives. Each of them takes a different path although bound by a common denominator of the ‘banian business.’ The title means hour glass and the book goes through a couple of decades.
There is Siva, a smooth talker and hard worker, steadily moving upward; changing from a shy young boy who is the butt of the jokes when he starts work in a bra company, moving on to becoming partner and then a big business man himself. People are attracted to him. He uses them without compunction and then discards them when he needs them no longer.
Shanmugham is the poet who is never recognized. And a womanizer, whose own personal life ends up with a question mark.
Anbu, who works hard, struggles and yet never gets anywhere.
Steady Tiru who looks after his own and does his chosen job with dedication and strong principles even if it ruins him. Chettiar says of him ‘a man can be good but sometimes he can be too good to prosper in such a place’.
Rajamani is the communist; the man with ideals and dreams who gets disillusioned.
Paranthaman, finding his own personal life in a mess, listens avidly to the adventures of Shanmugham, half believing, a little envious, and yet reveling in second hand capers to assuage his soreness with life.
The women in their lives don’t figure much except as partners in bed and a little more besides. It’s the men who make Tirupur and are the main figures in this epic work.
There are a few woman characters that stand out. The young girl whose life moves from luxury to hardship overnight and yet is self possessed and confident. The watchful wife who has to keep a tab on the wayward husband. Vimala, the girl who shares the life of the upcoming Siva in every sphere but whom he never thinks to marry. The beautiful divorcee he plays around with.
There are other quiet women in the background who still make a mark.
Chettiar‘s wife who runs away with the movie manager while her husband is busy producing a movie just to get close to the leading lady. The good daughter in law who disappears with the god-man the family has been promoting. Shanthi, who leans on her brother‘s friend in gratitude when he bails them out.
Each character is lightly sketched and yet rings a chord in the mind. Of course, this character is real.
But it’s the dollar city of Tirupur which has a turnover of crores and figures on any business map in the world which is the real protagonist of the story. The different people it takes to keep this industry ticking. The moves they have to make.
The small boys who are lured there by stories of jobs and wealth and are promptly kidnapped by agents and housed in buildings, to become bonded labour till they grow enough to rebel and move on, only to be replaced by others.
The hardworking women who can’t stay home to cook and clean. They have to be in the workplace even if it means breaking up their married lives. In spite of the rough words, the brushes, the sexual harassment, the hard work that takes its toll on hands and mind.
The young girls who are led by promises of clothes and money into easy sex.
The tailors with their calloused hands. The stressed out supervisors who fall to drink.
The go-betweens who live on their mopeds and keep running between factory and bank and agent. The small business men carrying huge loads on their two wheelers, making a business of ‘seconds. ‘ Some of them save and send home, some spend the money easily, and some save to become mudalalis themselves, bringing kith and kin to earn money like they’ve never seen before.
The men who work the ‘lines’; going from city to city to sell the products in shops and then to collect the money from them. Their travails in strange cities
The men and women who run the barotta and chai kadais that are the life blood of the city. The old ladies who run the idli and dosai kadais with sweaty faces and worn bodies.
The mudalalis who sweep in and out in their cars which they keep changing.
The problems of leading such a life on the go are satiated in food, wine and women. At all levels, rich and poor. The foreign priest says he never had to give so much absolution in any other city in his life.
Each chapter is a little story revealing a little more about Tirupur. And the lives and thoughts of the people who live there. It’s hard to call it a novel. It’s more a series of short stories put together.
There are little poignant vignettes. Like the little boy who is sent out to buy tea and plays on the sand and falls asleep. The bull like agent who recounts the most sensuous encounter he has ever had in his life which happens in a crowded train compartment. Hardened Shiva breaking down when his friend’s little daughter runs away thinking he is yet another creditor. The delight of a young boy from the country in eating an omlette for the first time.
The noise and the smell of the factories and the bustle of the city that never sleeps at night. The buses and the traffic and constant roar of vehicles. The new flyover and the displaced mad man beneath. The havoc caused by the dye from the factories in the surrounding areas. The toll it takes on those who live there. The office of the anti child labour agency which grows in posh ness, and yet the plight of the child laborer remains the same.
It’s a book which encompasses gigantically a whole city and its way of life. With poetic descriptions of this dirty fast moving city and the beauty of the countryside around. Its all of 500 pages and more and in Tamil. It took me months to read it and that’s why I write so much. Because it hasn’t quite left me.
On zine5.com on 9th Jan, 2008