Jeyamohan’s Vellai Yanai – The White Elephant

I have always wanted to do Tamil book reviews. It is not easy. I am torn between examining the books in English and Tamil. If I do it in English, it rarely reaches people who can also read Tamil. So their chance of buying the book is slim. If I write in Tamil, I don’t reach the people I intend to. I just have a single website. And I already confuse the Google spiders enough. So without much ado, let’s go into the book that I had read this week. Last week Sunday, I was in Chennai Book Fair. Unlike the last time, I had already listed the books that I wanted to purchase. It saved a lot of time. I picked few more books than planned, though. One such book, which I had always wanted to read in “Vellai Yanai” which can be translated as White Elephant written by Writer Jeyamohan.

Before I talk about the book, I request you to come with me to some of the stained pages of history. These pages are stained with blood and gore, and we rarely revisit those places. The numerous British atrocities were never documented. If you were like me who grew up watching movies, we might think that British had long batons and they beat Indians who wore Khadi and didn’t like Vande Mataram chanting. But recently, I have come to believe that everything was commercial here in their occupation.

In 1870’s the British almost convinced all the small kingdoms into cultivating cash crops in the agricultural lands so as to earn more from the exports. Along with the heavy rain which destroyed the minuscule food crops, the rains failed in Bangalore and Mysore too. The farming coolies were already being cheated their labor by the land owners. The limited availability of cultivated food crops were exported from Chennai Harbour to England. If you look at the archives, you can find a picture which shows us the tons and tons of food crops neatly packed in sacks. The irony was, the rats ate more rice than the people who cultivated it while the bags waited for the ships to arrive. To add insult to the injury, the then governor of Madras Presidency held a ball for 60000 people to celebrate the coronation of the queen. There were three meals available in temples like Parthasarathy temple with ghee and dhal, where the lower caste people were not even allowed to enter and take the leftover food. The Christian missionaries who were recently converted to the Catholic church for protection from pirates argued that the famine is God’s deed and whatever we do to help people meant that they disrespect the God. Simply, nobody batted an eye when more than 55 lakhs people died without food.

 The British often used the metaphor of India being an elephant. This elephant is so huge, and it is impossible for the blind me who caress only a part of it to understand. And more than that the elephant can stomp down the tanks and rifles but it was tied down and didn’t protest in fear of a single rusted chain to which it was chained too and was waiting for the food grains it’s caretaker would throw on its way.

Ice House, Chennai, today may be just a bus stop for people. Those days they were the ones who provided high-quality ice for the drinks of British. The pristine waters of New England, USA freeze in the winter. People there cut the big chunk of ice and export it to India. The ice was preserved by a mixture of sawdust and salt. The Ice House, which was an American firm operating on British soil, employs men and women to cut the ice and the packing so that it could sell. It would look a bit of comedy now. But Ice cost a lot, it still does.

The story is told from the perspective of Aiden Byrne, an Irishman who got recruited by the British army and rose through the ranks to be transferred to Madras Presidency. He has a very excellent taste in poetry and whiskey. Like all Jayamohan’s protagonists, he is also torn between the poetry inspired utopia and the actual work and existence. His love for Shelly overflows as he witnesses one tragedy after the other. I am not complaining. When he sees a supervisor of Ice House flagging two hapless people, he stops him. The supervisor refuses to touch the people he was beating because of caste difference. Aiden touches a raw nerve there and starts inquiring about the conditions of the employees in the firm. They all have their legs twisted working in sub-zero temperature. Sunlight is not allowed inside the factory, much like our cubicles these days. They aren’t provided with clothes suitable for the job. Their eyes dull with hard work and pain. For a hard and long day of work and physical disabilities which may be caused because of the work, they workers were paid one ana. In other words one-fourth of twenty-five paise per month. The men who were earning such big money were not entitled to the British Relief Fund which was 450 grams of grain.

The people who got flagged goes missing, and Aiden starts his search. With the help of learned Kathavarayan, he travels to the Black town and sees the conditions they live in. He travels further to Chengalpet and sees the atrocities people inflict on each other. His report, which is quite extensive, is used by the governor for his personal appraisal. Finally, he manages to convince the people who work in Ice House for a sit-in the strike. The mutiny is crushed, and Aiden is promoted and sent to Tenkasi where he dies because of excess drinking.

The very chapter establishes the character, setting and the background of the story. A rare feat in Tamil novels. Most of Tamil books love to start describing the scenery, and then history as most of the Tamil writers are inspired by Russian Literature.  The trademark dialogues of Jayamohan keeps the novel moving along smoothly even when Aiden travels in a rickety cart pulled by the horses.

“Who are these guys, Joseph?” Aiden asked as they passed a settlement where they were preparing limestone paste. When a friend told that people chewed it along with some leaves he had banished him.

“They are called Paravalar, Sir,” said Joseph respectfully.

“Like Parayar?”

“They don’t even want to sound like them. They call themselves as Sunnambu Paravalar.”

“So these men are of high caste?”

“They are seven step ahead of us and fifteen steps below Brahmins.”

“How many steps are here Joseph?”

“There was a collector in Chengalpet who went by the name Olive Schmidt started creating hierarchy tree.”

“Then what happened?”

“They sent him back to England.”


“Because he started wearing his underwear as his hat. He tried to get into his office when he tried to get into his office with his hat covering his genitals. Governor had enough of it and sent him back.”

Aiden laughed.

“But sir, the British doesn’t have an iota of idea on how to go about it. There are numerous steps. And each step has ten sub-steps. If you start counting the steps, it would even go beyond the entire population.”

“You are an interesting person. What do you do in the Church?”

“Trying to be a Christian.”

“I don’t understand.”

“To be a Christian is a big responsibility. It is almost like a full-time job. I am still trying.”

“Christ might like you.”

“Oh, I am sure he will. He was trying when he was here. We are co-passengers”

So that is how conversation flows and going by this light-hearted conversation, don’t mistake this book to be a breezy read. The very next page has the following passages.

“You can see the first scenes of famine here,” Joseph said.  Aiden opened the door just a bit to see the banyan tree nearby. He felt like someone poured a drop of acid in his life and it jumped up and down feeling the irritation and pain and threatened to leave his body. There were piles of dead bodies under the tree as if someone had scooped them out of the ocean and set them there. More than half of the bodies were children. There were four five dogs pulled the bodies with their teeth. The sound of the low growl, the tearing of flesh and the sight of the intestines which were visible now gave knots to Aiden’s stomach… Aiden’s thighs shook like a moving freight train. There was a small kid, probably five or six years old. She came crawling out from the pile of dead bodies. She carried a baby who looked two years old. They were all malnourished, so one cannot be sure. They were intertwined like worms. The dogs growled with new found energy. Joseph yelled from the coach “You cant help them all. Come back before the dog gets you” Aiden couldn’t take his eyes of the crawling kids.

The characters are well defined and developed. The introspection of Aiden doesn’t seem like he was the man of that era. I am not from that era, so I cant comment about it. But it looked like he borrows the voice of the writer from time to time particularly when he laments about the caste system or the indifference of the ice house workers after they learn about the death of their colleague.

The novel moves along the path of guilt. Sometimes even I felt guilty. I also felt that I may be immune to a lot of struggles that people go through when I type this review sitting at home. But can we judge an entire generation for their inaction? Probably we can. But what does it make our generation? I can only wonder.



  1. Mahesh Ramani

    Hi BP,

    Good to be back after a long hiatus – with FB every comment gets posted there itself and no traffic or comments here and on FB comments thread gets hijacked and we lose focus. Well-written review of an intriguing book. Good job. Don’t forget the short story translation project please!

    Keep smiling, keep writing!


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      We shall meet and discuss on how to go about it. And how do we select is also a question. These are just teething issues, we can do it.

  2. vijee

    wait the “vellai yennai” in question was not the big blocks of ice? How much of a role does that ice house play in this novel?

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      Bragadeesh Prasanna

      Oh yes, If you get a chance listen to him tell Sotru Kanakku from Aram collection. Amazing story teller he is.

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      The content is harrowing. It is very similar, perhaps in a small scale of holocaust. But the flow of the writing takes you through effortlessly. This warrants multiple reads too to uncover the layers. Give it a read when you get time.

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