The Tamil Nadu Governor has cleared an ordinance to allow the alpha-male sport jallikattu. This gives reason to those protesting against the ban on the sport, on Marina beach in Chennai and in other places in Tamil Nadu, to stop their protests. This also paves the way for man to once again pit himself against beast, after a brief lull. With all these quick developments, I find myself rereading Vaadivaasal: Arena , a 1948 classic by C.S. Chellappa. The book, which has been translated into English by N. Kalyan Raman, weaves the magical tale of a young man out to avenge his father’s death in the horns of the Kari bull. There can be only one victor in the novella: man or beast. Vaadivaasal is a primer on the culture of the sport and on an agrarian economy. Hemingway comes easily to mind while reading the book, and Vaadivaasal , according to the author, was inspired by the American novelist’s writing. As the debate rages over the rights of animal and man and raises questions on whether in an ideal world this sport involving goading bulls into anger, periodically pulling their tails, and daring to tame them should find a room in the modern world, Chellappa cautions us against ignoring the cultural space that the sport has traditionally occupied.
A young man, Picchi, comes to the arena to tame bulls. He is the son of a bull-tamer who was killed by the fearsome Kari bull, who appears unvanquished and whose ferocity is a matter of pride for the local zamindar who owns it. In the end, the bull is tamed but shot dead by the zamindar.
The sport is a social marker for agricultural communities such as the Thevars, and indicates their symbiotic relationship with the land they till and the beast they seek to tame. In a swiftly changing world, it is perhaps understandable why the loss of the sport translates into a loss of identity and social standing. Tamil cinema has dipped into the sport for inspiration. So it would be foolish to ignore the sport’s cultural moorings. Yet, questions raised by animal rights groups too cannot be ignored. There is no denying the underlying violence in the sport. In Vaadivaasal , neither the bull nor Picchi is the villain. There are only the victor and the vanquished.