Hungry Humans is the translation of Tamil writer Karichan Kunju’s only novel Pasitha Manidam (published in 1978) by journalist Sudha G Tilak. According to the introductory essays, the original text pioneered transgressive fiction in Tamil literature and was the first novel in the language that “shows the gay community as part of its social composition”.
The narrative follows the loosely connected trajectories of the two troubled central characters Ganesan and Kitta. The former, an orphan, is taken in by a powerful, rich man. What follows is a life of luxury and pleasure, but, decades later, when Ganesan contracts leprosy, it compels him to rethink his past. He speculates whether it is divine payback for his “indolent pleasures and aberrations”.Kitta, on the other hand, was an indolent school dropout, who eventually mends his ways and darts up the social ladder to become a businessman. Despite his wealth, however, his domestic life is in a shambles, leaving him distraught. As the narrative progresses, the author offers a solution for their plight—detachment from the world by extinguishing all desires, as the Buddha had prescribed.
Thankfully, Hungry Humans is not a moral tract, despite a few pages that read like a primer on how to achieve nirvana. This reviewer found the observations of the author on the Thanjavur region’s Brahminical milieu and sex in a puritanical society intriguing.The novel portrays a picture of how a caste-driven network facilitated education, jobs and entrepreneurship. There are also bits about the social flux the Dravidian movement ushered into the region. The religiosity, rituals and people who constantly smear sacred ash on their foreheads are often enmeshed in, rather than opposed to, the world of hedonistic excess.
Modern readers might occasionally find the novel’s language and sensibilities jarring or politically incorrect. For instance, it refers to an effeminate man as a trans man, though it is unclear if that’s the case in the Tamil original or an aberration introduced in the translation. The author glosses over a character “violating” his sister-in-law as if it were a minor misdemeanour while dwelling at length on other less heinous acts. Ganesan was a child when the much older Singam coaxed him into a sexual relationship. Kunju seemingly puts this on the same footing as his later consensual liaisons. Art imitates life, and in these aspects, Hungry Humans is as much a product of its time as it is a trailblazing text.
Its plot, however, is weak in parts. Things just happen, rather than one event leading to another, so the narrative seems disjointed. For instance, Ganesan barging into a house for shelter during a riot, instantly leads to sexual encounter with a stranger woman. Just as suddenly, he becomes a doctor’s secret lover.The reader is not privy to how he feels about these relationships or his motivations at the time. The story’s non-linear structure stokes curiosity, only to deflate it with makeshift, simplistic resolutions. At times, the dialogue is stilted.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, certain aspects of Hungry Humans are remarkable. Even when its queer characters are in the wrong, they are not merely predatory or malevolent—a typical representation found in pop culture. Their social ostracisation has been brought to light in nuanced details. It is interesting to note that when the book was first published, its sympathetic depiction of non-normative sexualities and gender expressions had scant parallels in world literature, let alone in Indian fiction. Hungry Humans was truly ahead of its times, and perhaps, even ours.