WRITING STYLE: 3.5/5
ENTERTAINMENT QUOTIENT: 4/5
The prologue to The Dravidian opens with a scene from the Ramayana when Hanuman is worried about saving Laxman’s life and goes to Upa Vaidya in Lanka. He gives Hanuman a tonic that helps save Laxman’s life. Indebted to Hanuman for his prompt action and bravery, the ever grateful Ram promises to uphold Hanuman’s request of protecting the Dravidians and their land.
Deeply rooted in traditional wisdom, the Dravidian tribe was the first to discover and preserve the life giver plant or Sanjeewani. This was way back in about 1000 BC in the Indus Valley. It is known as the resurrection plant. If properly combined, its ingredients have the potential to save and maybe even bring back life under certain circumstances. The tribe is divided into three classes- farmers and gatherers or Ryutu, the warriors or Dravida and the doctors or Vaidya. However, these are mere notional classifications as they have a very small population. So many of them play multiple roles. Sanjeewani is a treasured possession and had to be prevented from falling into the wrong hands.
After a turbulent landing of the Indigo flight at Chennai airport, Jose and Arjun are anxious to get past the excessive traffic to reach the court in time for the hearing of their case. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative, Dr. Chandragiri who is hospitalised after a scientific expedition in Kerala is wailing in pain. Chila Dravida’s administered herbs are inimitable to ease his pain. He is well known for his path-breaking work in plant biochemistry. It is the deep knowledge of the Dravidians about the medicinal values of Sanjeewani that helped save his life while operating on him. It is the same Sanjeewani that finds mention in the Ramayan.
Along with his research student Zara Agnes and guided by a local Dravidian Viran, they encounter a tiger about to pounce on them. Totally in sync with Nature, the dwellers of the forest are characterised by their sharp instincts, quick defences and deep knowledge of the implications behind every move that birds and animals make. After administering morphine and tying bandages to the tiger’s fractured leg, they allow it to rest while they collect some herb samples from around. The story is more focused on the development of the characters and tries to capture the subtleties in their personalities. It is more about the idea that all characters are the outcome of their environments and, hence, in tune with it. However, it is not limited to that. The possibility of characters shaping their environment is equally explored in the courtroom battles that comprise much of the final one-third of the narrative. The trees, plants, surroundings and other sights within the forest do not find much description except for whatever is needed to build the story and to explain the motives behind the positions the characters take.
The Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB) is where Jose and Arjun are to gather. The special IP court is filled with lawyers, journalists and observers in anticipation of the case hearing. The dispute is regarding the wrongful and dishonest use of the King Cobra trademark by the Cum On Company that does business by selling things of personal hygiene. The court proceedings are disrupted as a group of people wearing tiny loin strips rush into the courtroom chanting slogans of Om Namo Naga Devaya. They are Naga Rajas, the tribe that Cum On’s Managing Director Naga Murthy hails from. They carry snakes along with them that frightens those present. They immediately take a dislike towards them and look down upon them as alien to modern and civilised culture. The stories of Dr. Chandragiri and the lawyers Jose and Arjun alternate between chapters. It is interesting to see the parallel narratives grow simultaneously and then converge at a particular point as they all come face to face only to prove of great help to each other. Despite the subject, the novel is not grim. It has subtle humour scattered in bits and pieces.
The Dravidians have an enemy tribe called the Kshasa. In an effort to preserve the Dravidians, Dr. Chandragiri puts forward his plan that is appreciated by the Maha Vaidya who in turn takes him to see the secret garden. The secret garden is a product of botanical genius. Through Dr. Chandragiri’s efforts, tradition meets modernity and modernity’s effort is to protect this ancient knowledge in order to channelise it for positive use by future generations. But in his lab located at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore hopes are about to dwindle. His intention of using the knowledge of the Dravidians to create modern pharmacological products that can be availed by people at local pharmacies is a cash-heavy research project that requires regular and proper funding. Unable to receive any response from the Government, he decides to approach private pharmaceutical manufacturing companies and things go smoothly for a while.
The Dravidian is highly original and unpredictable. Many loose ends get knotted and unknotted throughout. Kankanala pays attention not only to the plot but also in structuring the novel well. If anything then it is the length of the book that makes it difficult to read, though individual chapters are only single or even half page long. Despite several intermeshed themes of tribal clashes, land disputes, tradition, mythology, modernity, judiciary and science there is a holistic balance. The central dichotomy of all dichotomies is the contrast and conflict between the old and the new.
Dr. Chandragiri reaches Chennai to hotel Grand Chola with a group of the Dravidians to stage a protest where the Prime Minister is holding a conference. They are sandwiched between two already protesting groups wanting to MODIfy and deMODIfy the nation. Arjun and Jose have won the King Cobra case but are unable to head to the airport because of the crowd. Taking up the Dravidian case will be another feather in the cap for the lawyers. But the Kshasa are also plotting a siege. As the plot picks a pace and gets denser with several new characters, will this pact be able to protect rustic knowledge and the guardians of it?