From the Book
KNIT INDIA THROUGH LITERATURE – Volume I – the SOUTH
M.T. Vasudevan Nair
“I have heard about the mighty oceans, and I have been overwhelmed by them. But more than that, I am closer to the stream that flows through my village — that is far more precious to me.” This is what M.T. Vasudevan Nair said when I met him for the first time in 1989 during the Kavirathiri programme organised by the Agni Trust. We met several times after that, exchanged views and conversed for hours. We became close friends. Each time I met him I was frankly overawed by his intellect. His dhoti trails on the ground, and the gold chain around his neck is clearly visible through the carelessly donned half-open shirt. His hair is dishevelled, and he always car¬ries a packet of beedis and a matchbox in his left hand. He is slightly reserved, but when he begins to speak, it is with depth and passion, and they are words of wisdom about the panorama of life. We travelled together to many places to meet the writer Mohammed Basheer, to the memo¬rial of Thunjathu Ezhuthachan, the father of Malayalam literature, and to his village. The river Bharathapuzha flowing through the village Kuddallur was witness to my interview with him and to our soulful conversations on knitting India through literature. He was thrice the recipient of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, Central Sahitya Akademi Award, Vayalar Award, all of them the highest honours for literature. “M.T.”, as he is popu¬larly called was awarded the National Award four times for the best film script, and he received the Kerala State Award fourteen times for the best screenplay. A walking encyclopaedia, he has world literature at his fingertips.
Research indicates that among the South Indian languages, there is a close relationship between the languages Tamil and Malayalam. Can you explain this and also elaborate on the birth and growth of Malayalam?
According to scholars, the Malayalam language as it is spoken today came into being about 700 years ago. In comparison with Tamil, it is somewhat young. The Ramacharitam written in the 12th Century, based on the epic Ramayana, is one of the oldest written works in Malayalam. It is true that there are close links between Tamil and Malayalam. Parts of today’s Kerala state were once part of Tamil Nadu. So, what was referred to in the ‘Sangam’ period as ‘Pazhanthamizh’ was spoken there too. Not only that, scholars like Neelakanta Sastri point out that Keralite festivals like Onam have found mention in the literature of the Sangam period like Madurai Kanchi. While speaking of the growth of the Malayalam language, the ‘Manipravala’ age when Malayalam had a liberal mixture of Sanskrit words, can be described as a significant period. In the period of ‘Bhakti literature’ that fol¬lowed, the writer Thunjathu Ezhuthachan who lived in the 16th Century deserves mention. Though born into a family belonging to the oppressed class, Ezhuthachan grew to be a scholar in the Vedas and Upanishads. To him goes the credit of simplifying and translating the epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavatam into Malayalam. He also deserves credit for simplifying the Malayalam language, which until then bore strong influences of Sanskrit, and for making the Malayalam literature comprehensible to the common man. The 20th Century marked the evolution of modern Malayalam literature.
Tell us something about the novels, short stories and poetry of this century.
Kunniraman Nayanar’s Vasanavikriti, written in 1881, is the first Malayalam short story. The first Malayalam novel is Chandu Menon’s Indulekha which was published in 1889. Three literary giants, Vallathol, Kumaran Asan and Ulloor, who lived in the first decade of this century and produced won¬derful poetry, were referred to as the ‘Trinity’. Following in the footsteps of Sri Narayana Guru, who brought about social reformation through his poetry, Kumaran Asan also wrote poetry on untouchability and other similar topics. Vallathol can be described as a poet with a nationalist outlook. On the whole, the time when these three lived can be described as the period which brought about a renaissance in Malayalam literature. Chandu Menon’s Indulekha is avidly read and is very popular even today. In one of the chapters, the characters are shown to be engaged in a highly intellectual conversation, spouting the theories of Darwin, Huxley and Bradlaw. Considering all this, I would say that modern Malayalam literature had evolved even in Chandu Menon’s time.
How would you classify the works of writers like Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai, Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer, Karoor Neelakanta Pillai and S.K. Pottekat?
The literary works that they created after 1930 were built as works that brought about a renaissance in Malayalam literature. Although I believe that there is no need to make such classifications as mod¬ernism or postmodernism, in each period, writers have undertaken to create experimental works.
Apart from Tamil and Sanskrit, which other languages have had an impact on Malayalam?
English. In 1921 when Vallathol’s good friend Nalapadu Narayana Menon published a translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, it had a tremendous impact on the writers of that period. I would say that this work inspired us to think differently in terms of the subject, craft and the format of the novels. Malayalam readers deserve praise. Since they have always welcomed translated works from other languages, they have developed a good appreciation of other language literature. As long as this healthy trend is perceived among readers, writers will also continue to think from new angles and look in new places for inspiration.
Tell me about your first few years of writing.
I was born and brought up in a remote village without any electricity. Newspapers and magazines were rare. It was only occasionally that we came across a magazine, but somehow I have never aspired to be anything else but a writer. I used to gaze at photographs of famous writers who inspired me. Changampuzha was a great influence on Malayalam poetry in his day. He died prematurely in 1948 when he was only 33 or 34. Many poets were influenced by Changampuzha. My first work was published when I was only 14. I was interested in poetry and won prizes in school competitions. I wrote an article, a story and a poem under three different names for a new magazine, and they were all published. Later my problem was the area to concentrate upon. It was my ambition to become a poet but I got the feeling that something was lacking and that I had not got a grip on the medium, though the poems I wrote were published. The feeling that this was not really my forte per¬sisted, and I gradually began writing short stories.
Did you keep writing whilst you were in college?
Yes, I wrote short stories, but never let the magazines know I was a commerce student! I used to get ten rupees for each story. It was only after two years that my friends in college discovered that I was a writer. As a consequence they insisted I should stand for the college elections in the final year. Though all my contributions were published, I was highly critical of them. I used to reject them myself!
Which magazines were in circulation when you began writing?
There were Mathrubhoomi and Jayakeralam to which Basheer and Changampuzha contributed, besides several others. There was no dearth of magazines really. I widened my horizon by writing partly of my own experiences, using childhood memories as well. I delved into my characters and allowed them to express themselves. If you have to find out about a man, you cannot go by his outward appearance or his words, which might be a facade. In order to unmask him, you have to peep into his mind, and I was trying to do this. I wandered into the interiors of the minds of my characters. This was my method. It was distinctively different from the kind of writing which existed at the time.
Which of the writers influenced you?
My favourite writer was S.K. Pottekat. He was a highly romantic writer. As a small boy I used to read all the magazines in which his stories appeared. When I was in the ninth standard, I got a scholar¬ship of Rs. 72 for the previous year. My brothers and sisters advised me not to disclose this to our mother, and we spent the money on books — S.K. Pottekat and all the masters. I was familiar with the writings of all of them. Changampuzha and Shankara Kurup reigned supreme in those days. I had great admiration for Basheer — for his style and manner of presentation. Despite my admira¬tion, I have not consciously or unconsciously followed anyone’s style of writing. My themes were different. I was fond of my village idiom which came to be used in my style of writing.
Who were the masters in Western literature that inspired you?
I liked all of them. In time I was introduced to the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. I have read Hardy, Turgenev, all the short stories of Anton Chekhov, the Russian masters, Maupassant’s stories, Sartre and others as well.
Which novel had a lasting impact on you?
The Brothers Karamazov is one of the greatest works the world has ever seen. I have also enjoyed reading Sherlock Holmes, and much later Agatha Christie.
Since you have been nurtured in the village milieu, would you call yourself a rustic writer?
Rustic, in the sense of the village, yes. Even today, 70% of my writings stem from my village experiences.
What were your first novels about?
Padhi Raavum Pagal Vilucchu was based on a Hindu-Muslim love story. Naalu Kettu was my first novel. Naalu Kettu was planned in my mind, so also my short stories. I can even visualise the para¬graphs in certain areas. The mental process has to be perfect in order to write. I was happy with Naalu Kettu, and the work I had done for it.
What is your method of writing from the moment of conceptualisation? How do you function as a writer, and how long do you take to complete writing?
I usually have two or three themes lying dormant in my mind. When the right mood comes, I take them out and toy with them, the way a boy does with the marbles in his pocket. I linger over them, turning and twisting them in my mind, and if nothing comes of it I push them back till the inspiration floods me again. I can write when I have peace of mind. The problem lies in distraction. If I am working on a short story, I prefer to write in one stretch. The most enjoyable part is rewriting, editing, pruning, polishing and honing it to perfection. I have always written my articles and stories this way. Sometimes it takes more than two drafts.
How do you conceive of a theme — a theme that should serve to attract?
The writer’s problem is to identify a moment. If that automatically strikes you, you need not search for stories. In the routine course of events, something happens, and your inner voice will say, “There, there, that was a moment, preserve it.”
Do you write consistently?
No. I may not write for one or two years, then suddenly when I feel the urge, I may just disappear to some place to write, where I can write at one stretch without any distraction. This is true even if it is a lengthy novel.
Even if it has taken you 7 or 8 years to write a novel, it is only the thought process that has taken so long…
Yes. I finish the novel in a month or two, maybe a little longer. I completed the first draft of Randamoozham first draft in one and a half months.
Sitting here in your village house, I’d like you to tell me of some of the vibrations and currents that you experience. Perhaps if you tell me about the story of Naalu Kettu…?
The novel is set at a time when the matriarchal system is disintegrating. I have traced the story of a boy — with his pain and anxieties, going through his youth and manhood, who has left his village after he was chased out of the place. His mother was excommunicated from the village. He returns as a mature man to Naalu Kettu (typical architecture of old Kerala houses). I portrayed a changed social order.
Naalu Kettu reflects the prevailing pattern in certain communities of society. Literature does reflect society
Yes. So long as you are part of a society, whatever you write reflects the norms, problems and feelings of that society. In my second novel Asuravithu it was the same. It was the story of communal tension, of existing social problems.
In some of your short stories, your own experiences have come through. One of them, Birthday for instance, portrays your childhood struggle.
Thanks to litigation, the family was fractured. The little money which came in had to be shared by several family members. Often there was very little food, and I never had a decent birthday celebration. Even on that day there was no rice and scarcely any food. I was angry with my mother, and she bor¬rowed paddy from a rich neighbour. By the time she made lunch it was 3 p.m. By then I had lost my appetite and my excitement, and just left the house.
Do you think that the insults and pain suffered by you were instrumental in shaping you as a writer? Did you feel you had to come back with a vengeance as in Naalu Kattu?
Critics say that it was the prevailing mood in my stories. Looking back dispassionately, I did not nurse any grudge as I grew older, and I did grow into a mature person in my twenties. I did not mean to seek vendetta. Only these incidents have provided good material for my stories later.
What makes a great writer click?
A writer should have an obsession to write. He must have plenty of material before him. This apart he must have magnetism and magic. When these two fuse together, good work will come out of it. There are no criteria for good work. It is like a mountain cliff overlooking a deep valley. When you gaze down at the valley, you see many things. You read new meanings into them. It has sometimes the sadness of the vast desert, sometimes it murmurs like a forest. Great work conveys many things to you. You realise you are not alone in the universe. You pass through several situations in life, but realise that it happens not just to you but to several individuals all over the world. Indirectly it forces you to reconcile, and to accept them. It makes one understand oneself better, the people around one, the society one lives in, and the time frame. For instance, I read The Brothers Karamazov about twenty years ago. I read it again last year and it unfolded new meanings, new dimensions. I approach things again and again at every turn of my life and appreciate them differently according to my maturity.
Although you have mentioned it before, I would like you to elaborate. There are some classifications given by some of the critics like modernism, new modernism, surrealism etc. Are such classifications reasonable?
You cannot compartmentalise them. Some of the ancient masters were modern. For the sake of convenience, historians classify periods into ancient, modern and postmodern. Modernism is not a label, it is for everyone. Every writer has to be modern; it is the spirit and the ability to reach beyond.
It is the vision…
Yes. If you want to cut across words and reach beyond, you may be deviating from already explored paths. You are in thematic flight. If you want to go beyond, you have to take a new route to explore new vistas. When a creative person searches for something new, it is off the beaten track. It involves the¬matic development, presentation and a vision. The new writers project reality, and at first the readers are shocked, but later realise that it is a representation of life.
Could you give me a picture of contemporary writing?
Better writing appears in magazines. Some writing is serialised in popular magazines and caters to a particular section of readers. Certain magazines will serialise serious writing, and for others the target audience is different. I find that many of the serials that go into these magazines do not appear in book form at all.
When popular magazines publish 4 or 5 serial episodes every week, why don’t they reserve 4 or 5 pages for some serious writing as well?
Their readership might be different, or the management policies might be at variance. They have to study the market, and note circulation trends. I do not condemn a magazine because its circulation is 10 or 12 lakhs, I do not condemn the readers either. When readers acquire a taste for good writing, they will discard repetitive inane writing, and through this a discriminating readership will evolve. Out of hundreds of titles in a railway bookstall there are some which are light and can be gone through quickly, just to while away your time. Out of these only two or three may be serious writers. You cannot expect a uniformly high level of literary perception, because it calls for a specialised taste. It evolves over a period of time, through the years. How many people can appreciate poetry? Even in advanced countries like America the first edition of poetry published runs only to some 3000 copies.
Only when serious writers win awards like the Pulitzer Prize are they read widely. A dedicated writer has to be true to himself and his creativity, and not worry whether the book will sell 1000, 10000 or one lakh copies. If it does sell, he should be happy.
How do you rate Malayalam literature as compared to other languages in India?
Contemporary Malayalam literature is on par with the literature of any language, even excelling some I believe. In the fifties and sixties, Thakazhi and Basheer were writing, and when harsh realities were thrust before a reader as in Basheer’s Sabdangal it was shocking fare that the conventional reader could not absorb.
Could you give me the gist of Sabdangal!
It is a soliloquy by a man who has witnessed the monstrosities of life and his experiences during the war, which included homosexuality, eunuchs and much else. The puritans were shocked, but Thakazhi and others continued to open up subjects that were taboo. Theirs were fine pieces of writing. It certainly took time for readers to accept this, but in time they did. We writers have to present the good as well as the seamy side of life. Some of the masters were influenced by the naturalism of French literature.
In one of the profiles on you, I read that you made your entry when progressive writing was on the decline, and realism with a touch of idealism got established.
When they say progressive writers they were referring to my forerunners the great masters. They were writing about social problems and concerned with surrogates. In those writings the stomach was speaking more, not the heart.
Is there a definition of good and bad literature? What would be your interpretation of the word ‘literature’?
If there is a good theme or content it is good literature. If the written word goes into the readers’ hearts, that I would say is a part of literature.
So you believe that communication has to be perfect…
It has to be imprinted on the mind. As a writer I would be giving the written word a new rhythm, a new pattern and a new meaning. If it is literature you can write it with a wide space between two words, and yet convey a world of meaning. It is like a piece of music, an orchestra where between two pieces there is a silence full of significance.
Has Malayalam literature been influenced by politics at various stages?
Yes. The Marxist group during Thakazhi’s time. Gandhian philosophy did not have much influence here. People joined political parties. Conditions were so bad and everyone sympathised with the exist¬ing poverty of land labourers. The writers got involved and it was reflected in their literature. It was a spontaneous offshoot of the time.
I want to know about M.T. the film maker..
In 1963 a producer friend of mine wanted to make a film and approached me for a particular story of mine which he said had potential. I tried to persuade them to go to a professional script writer, but he insisted that I should try my hand at it. I began to read books on film making, and on the great masters, and I wrote the screenplay leisurely, and rewrote it in Madras. The director Mr. Vincent, and the pro¬ducer Mr. Paramasivam liked it. The shooting took place at Calicut. I watched the film shooting and editing, and once filled in for the director. I gained vital experience and went on reading up all aspects of films. From 1963 to 1972, I wrote scripts, then I decided to do a film on my own. This was Nirmalyam which won the President’s gold medal.
You have been writing for 43 years from the age of 15. And you have been called a person who has brought poetry and romanticism into prose.
I do not write poetry deliberately. I use a lot of the village idiom with rustic images. I have intro¬duced village lore and imagery into my writing. I am conscious of the rhythm of words, as all building material creates a rhythm. The architect builds brick by brick and I build word by word. Every person is as much a romanticist as I am.
— December 1992