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Review of Kriben Pillay's Three Poisons PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 21 May 2015 10:35

Review by Rasvanth Chunylall

There is something intriguing about Kriben Pillay’s short story collection, Three Poisons (2014). Inspired by the writings of David Loy, the short stories thematically addresses each of the three poisons of life as conceived by the Buddhist scholar. These include “An Unethical Clearance”, “The Threefold Tamil Rule” and “Imagining John Lennon” which examine the poisons of greed, ill will and delusion respectively. The results are flawed, yet often touching and thought-provoking.

“An Unethical Clearance” explores how nepotism, bureaucracy, ignorance, poor policy creation - and ultimately greed - derails the academic endeavour of a doctoral student. Lucky Zulu is informed that he hasn’t received ethical clearance for his submitted doctoral thesis and finds himself unable to graduate. The fate of his graduation is placed in the hands of self-serving and often corrupt authority figures. The Dean, for example, is less concerned about the value of Zulu’s research but more about how the reduction in funding and impact one less graduating doctoral student would have on his performance management agreement. As an academic himself, there's a knowing touch to Pillay’s story which readers will appreciate.

“The Threefold Tamil Rule” was inspired by family stories which were reshaped to fit the narrative. Perhaps more of a novella in length, it features three generations of the Pillai family and their experiences with the titular ability. Described as “extraordinary but little-known”, the Threefold Tamil Rule functions as a retributory evil eye of sorts that empowers the narrator and his ancestors. In the mid-1890s the narrator’s grandfather (referred to primarily by his surname ‘Pillai’) works as an accountant in the British Cantonment in South India. Pillai, together with a group of trusted associates, steals tax grain from the British and redistributes it to the poor with Robin Hood-like subversiveness. It is during the time that the Rule manifests. After a near capture one fateful night, Pillai is forced to leave on a ship carrying cheap Indian labour to South Africa. In a country where he has few resources, the Rule is put to good use. A rude man comes down with a “mysterious ailment” that leaves him a “babbling wreck” (33). Another with unsavoury intentions is struck with a virulent flu. Racists within and across the colour barrier find themselves victim to this strange power and are punished for their actions. It manifests within his son and, later, his grandson - the narrator - who continues his ancestor’s legacy by targeting the racists and hypocrites he comes into contact with during the Apartheid era.

One of the best aspects of “The Threefold Tamil Rule” is Pillay’s depiction of South African Indians. They have traditionally been portrayed as a homogenous group idealised for their unity and comradeship. While this is true to a point, Pillay rightfully complicates this belief. He reveals the tensions within the race from the sustained caste system that Pillai comes into contact with on the ship and the slurs Indians uttered against each other. There are also Indians present in the narrative who profited from enforcing Apartheid laws which affected their kin detrimentally.

The final short story, “Imagining John Lennon”, deals with a man receiving psychiatric treatment for not believing that he is John Lennon despite evidence to the contrary. In its attempt to interrogate identity, “Imagining” comes off as pretentious and sits uncomfortably with the other two stories in the collection.

That short isn’t the only misstep by the writer. While noble in sentiment, Pillay’s short stories often suffer from poor characterisation – particularly that of his main characters. He practically bludgeons you over the head with how good-looking, popular, intelligent and virtuous the characters of Zulu and Pillai are. Neither character seems to battle with their respective obstacles nor are their actions given any shades of grey. This makes them difficult to empathise with and, ultimately, somewhat tedious to read about. A further point on problematic characterisation is his depiction of the women that are linked to these men.

The volunteer who accompanies Zulu at his graduation is merely notable for her “low cut dress” (16) and attractiveness to him. Worse still, Pillai’s wife is little more than a damsel-in-distress: a beautiful, chaste woman who “silently glowed in the shadow of her handsome saviour” and was “simply content to go wherever he went” (38).

Fortunately, there is a lot more to appreciate than criticise in Three Poisons. This is a worthwhile read particularly for “The Threefold Tamil Rule” which will interest anyone drawn to literature dealing with the South African Indian experience.  Three Poisons is published by Non-Duality Press.