Valli: A Novel
by Sheela Tomy
Translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil
Do you know what forest bathing is? Have you ever spent time in the woods, no jogging, no workouts, just walking mindfully among the trees, taking in their love? This is an excerpt from the novel 'Valli', and it takes you to the Western Ghats in northern Kerala is a land of mist and mystery, of forests and folklore, rich with the culture of its indigenous people, the Adivasis.
I’m writing to you sitting in the front room of Manjadikunnu. Not sure when that crazy boy will find the time to copy this into an email. He’s busy planting bamboos near the spring. Once, when he was in college, James took off into the forest. Trekking, he said. It was almost forty days before he came back, and when he did, he was in love with bamboo. Even in the driest of summers, when all the hills are parched, there is water in his bamboo thickets. The barrel, made from a palm-tree trunk that he’s sunk into the earth at the source of the dried up big canal, fills with crystal-clear water like the attar of roses. When Sara and I came here, much of these were swamps. Stick a toe in the ground and water would spurt. In the valleys were paddy fields, and everywhere, the songs of the forests. All gone now … Only revving vehicles and chattering tourists are left.
It pleases me to see lakes and green hills in the photos you send me on WhatsApp, to know that the people there are protecting nature. See, our indigenous people, the Adivasis, were also nature’s guards. They never poisoned the waterways to catch fish, and yet their bamboo baskets brimmed with vaala, kuruva, snakehead, catfish and whitespot. They only took just enough honey and left the rest for the bees, just enough fruits and jungle roots to survive. They lived in bamboo huts. Then the migrants arrived from the lowlands, and everything changed.
It is the abode of the gods themselves that is ruined when forests are destroyed, the sanctuary of countless creatures. What’s once gone does not return, my dearest. Learn to understand the times, the nature, the land, your own self, and your fellow beings. Be thankful and humble before the endless, unfathomable knowledge. That’s all any of us can do with this life.
Waiting for your arrival…
My dear Valyappachan,
When winter is gone, the naked branches of the trees will be covered in blossoms once again. Spring cannot hide. What is gone will return, Valyappacha. That’s what Europe has taught me. It’s zero degrees centigrade here. The leafless trees and the slanted roofs of houses are hidden under beautiful white blankets of snow. It’s such a pleasure to jog in the cold. You’ve stopped your walks because of the cold, haven’t you? Watch out, you’ll be an old man soon. Just wait until I get there I’ll box your ears! Wayanadan cold is not cold!
Let me tell you something that my Japanese friend told me. There’s this thing in her country called ‘shinrin-yoku’ – forest bathing. Spending time in the woods, no jogging, no workouts, just walking mindfully among the trees, taking in their love, being aware of the dampness, the fragrance, the murmur and music of leaves, their gentle caress … It’s good medicine for stress relief and for building up immunity. There are even clubs that take people who are depressed on these walks in Japan. When I read your email, I thought that’s what James uncle was doing when he ran off into the forest. A green meditation. Shinrin-yoku. I’ll uncover his secret as soon as I get there!
I have to submit my project tomorrow. It’s been over three months since I’ve had a good night’s sleep. Our robot is ready, and when it started working yesterday, my project-mate Saif and I jumped up and down, and Michael – our senior – made fun of us. A single positive result from a mechanical being is nothing to rejoice about, he said. Betty – that’s our robot’s name – moved through the storey below our department’s, observing people’s movements and collecting data. The idea is to see if we can tell, based on these movements, whether someone is a student or a lecturer or a guest. You know how those who deviate from the paths preordained for them are called mad? I wonder how Betty would categorize someone who threw away their books in the final year of their degree and went off into the forest. A traveller? An explorer? An environmentalist? A nomad? A madman? Or a maverick?
Valyappacha, do you think, in this vast universe, everyone’s path is preordained? Like planets in their orbits, are we destined to revolve in a circular path designed even before we are born? If so, why would God, who thinks that all His creations are good, send them off on wrong paths? Who is to blame? Who made the mistake?
Don’t stop writing to me, Valyappacha. Your letters are windows through which I can see Mama Susan’s land. And in your orderly words, I see something of the old schoolteacher.
Are you fed up of waiting? Don’t worry, I’ll be there very soon.
Valyappachan’s kuttan (Tessa)
(Jayasree Kalathil shared the JCB Prize for Literature in 2020 with S. Hareesh for her translation of his novel, Moustache. She received the Crossword Book Award for Indian Language Translation in 2019 for her translation of N. Prabhakaran's Diary of a Malayali Madman, which was also longlisted for the Mathrubhumi Book of the Year Award. She is the author of The Sackclothman, a children's novel that has been translated into Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi.
Sheela Tomy is a novelist, short story writer and scriptwriter. Valli is her debut novel, for which she was awarded the Cherukad Award for Malayalam Literature in 2020. She is also the author of a short story collection, Melquíadesnte Pralayapusthakam (Melquíades's Book of Floods), published in 2012.)