‘The Poison Cure’ by Kalki R. Krishnamurthy: Short Story Analysis
This story titled ‘The Poison Cure’ is set against the backdrop of the Indian Independence Movement. It was penned by Kalki the famous Tamil fiction writer in the year 1925, around the time Mahatma Gandhi gave the call for a Non-Cooperation Movement against the British rule in India. Kalki was a true nationalist and took an active part in the freedom struggle. He was also a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and opposed all the social and cultural evils highlighted by Gandhi. One of these was the social evil of untouchability. Untouchability was practiced by the higher caste Hindus in the Indian scenario. They opposed the lower caste and treated them as sub-human entities in the Hindu social structure. ‘The Poison Cure’ is a direct hit at the social evil of untouchability where Kalki proves through a parable-like tale, that every person is made in the image and likeness of God and there should be no discrimination against anyone on any grounds.
I have penned my thoughts about the caste system in my bookish memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer and Reader of Mumbai and I have even written a short story called ‘Caste Metal’ which has casteism as its main theme. It is available on Kindle. Please check them out for a deeper reference to the Indian Caste System.
‘The Poison Cure’ is the story of Narayan Iyer, a man who was religious, devoted to children, and had the skill to chant a mantra or a series of mantras or incantations to draw the poison from a person afflicted by snakebite or a scorpion sting. This was something connected to his piety and his religious lifestyle. However, he believed that if an untouchable crossed his path or was in the vicinity while he was chanting his incantations, everything would fail and the person with the sting or bite would surely die.
Already we get the idea that the story is a parable to teach us a moral. Here is a pious man who also happens to be an ardent Gandhian. He admires Gandhi and approves of all of Gandhi’s statements and stands, except Gandhi’s stand on untouchability. Narayan Iyer indeed believed that the untouchables were of a lower breed of human beings! Nothing can be more incorrect and that is proven in the story through the presence of the Postal Inspector Pedda Perumal Pillai. Pillai was present when Narayan Iyer was saving a young twenty-year-old man from a deadly snakebite. The Postal Inspector was a person of a higher social class than Narayan Iyer, who was a plain postmaster and teacher. He was more educationally qualified than the narrator of this story who was a student of Narayan Iyer. However, because Pillai was an untouchable or from the untouchable caste, his position in Indian society was considered to be lower than that of Iyer who was a Brahmin, despite the clear social class difference.
Mahatma Gandhi was totally against the caste system and so is Kalki. I would like to add here that this whole scenario seems very similar to even modern-day Indian society where we still practice untouchability. Also, this ‘odd feeling’ of an untouchable still being recognized as one despite his education, his elitist decorum, et al., is something which every Other Backward Class (OBC), Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and other Dalit classes face even today in twenty-first-century India. Well, here we have a twentieth-century Kalki trying to teach us very bluntly through subtle satire that the twenty-year-old man was saved despite the presence of Pillai. Notice that Pillai stays where he was as a superior officer despite Narayan Iyer ordering that no lower caste person should be present while he conducted his peculiar, but effective ritual. Pillai does this because:
- He is not a believer in superstitions and is sure that the boy will be saved despite his presence in the area.
- That the Divine Powers do not segregate between humans so they will not thwart the incantation.
- He was a superior officer and so had to be present during the incantation.
As the story goes, naturally the youth is saved. Moral of the parable, in a very satirical fashion with a direct hint of sadism, is that that the presence of untouchables doesn’t thwart incantations. Notice that there are two superstitious acts present in this story:
- The practice of untouchability.
- The incantations of Narayan Iyer.
From these two, the first is unfounded but the sad part of our society is that we feel the second one is more bogus of the two. Kalki through his satirical story tries, using a double ‘superstitious’ angle, to bring out the hypocrisy of the caste system and the system of untouchability. The reaction of Iyer at first is immediate justification which is then thrown out of the window for a clear understanding. The scales fall from his eyes and he now believes in the brotherhood of humankind as preached by Gandhi.
Thus, the ‘cure’ for the ‘poison’ of untouchability is deftly handled in this story by Kalki, one of the greatest Tamil writers of the previous century.
There are a few takeaways from this short story titled ‘The Poison Cure’ which are as follows:
- Narayan Iyer knew a lot about sacred literature which is filled to the brim with banal ideas about the lower status of certain sections of the Hindu population.
- Kalki had no good word for the bureaucracy especially when he mentions how Narayan Iyer is harassed by them. The bureaucracy was a product of the British.
- After Narayan Iyer would cure victims of snake bites and scorpion stings, he would be left with terrible migraine headaches indicative that he took on the pain of the bite in a distilled form on himself. This is a very ancient art practiced by witch doctors across cultures.
- The ‘poison’ in this story could be the British Rule and the ‘cure’ on a larger surmise could be Indians giving up old superstitious beliefs and instead, following Gandhian ways.
- Narayan Iyer was a lover of Mahatma Gandhi, but one cannot be a true Gandhian if one still holds on to the caste system.
“Our struggle does not end so long as there is a single human being considered untouchable on account of his birth.” —Mahatma Gandhi
I hope you manage to get a copy of this wonderful story, ‘The Poison Cure’, and read the lucid prose style of Kalki, one of my favorite Indian writers. I hope to review more short stories and other books by Kalki soon.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then you can visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan