Lately I’ve been reading quite a few books by Indian authors, both in English and Malayalam – poetry, essays and fiction. In fact, I don’t think I have ever read as many Indian books back to back as I have done in the last couple of months. I have also managed to reconnect with Radhika, a very dear friend of mine from school days, about whom I had previously discussed in my blog. She keeps me in touch (albeit sporadically) with Malayalam poetry through WhatsApp – that’s technology for lovers of the written word.
Among the poems Radhika keeps sending me (the last time she did that, however, was on New Year’s Eve; it’s time I reminded her of my existence) were some haiku by Ashitha. They are beautiful fragments that bring to mind watercolour paintings. One of the things that had always stood between me and Malayalam poetry was the fact that I could never really assimilate the ‘literary rules’ (so to speak) thereof. Ashitha’s poetry appealed to me also for its charming abandon of those strictures.
I read a Malayalam novel, ‘Nilaachoru’, written by Shabu Kilithattil. Shabu is a familiar name in the UAE as the news director of a very popular Malayalam FM radio channel, and this is his second (or is it third?) book. Based on the real life journey of Mrs Usha Preman, a housewife turned social activist who has done much to provide medical support to the underprivileged section of Kerala society, the story is one worth telling. The author certainly manages to retain the reader’s (in this case, mine) interest till the very end. While I will not call the book exceptional, it does what it is supposed to do – it captures the extraordinary life of a seemingly ordinary person – and quite well at that.
I was, however, a bit let down by the Malayalam transliterations of Tamil dialogues. Besides hailing from Palakkad district in Kerala where Tamil is practically the second language, I have also lived in Tamil Nadu, and hence have at least a basic knowledge of the language. And a fascination for its nuances and subtleties. Perhaps that is the reason I find the transliteration disappointing. It is practically indecipherable in places – certainly more care should have been taken, at least at the editing stage. Or perhaps the narrative should have been in Malayalam itself.
When it comes to reading Indo-Anglian literature, I confess to being guilty of a vague sense of trepidation. While we have some brilliant writers, we also have many writers with a penchant for the polysyllabic and pedantic (see what I mean?). Maybe I am wrong, but I sometimes feel that, barring a few exceptions, we have a tendency to try too hard, almost to the point of being defensive, when we write in English. And then there are books like something point something…
In that respect, my recent reads have been heartening.
Two of the books I read were by K.G. Subramanyan, a genius unlike any I have come across. Now, I admit to being unashamedly partial to this 92 year old artist/teacher/poet/essayist/sculptor/fiction writer/children’s book illustrator (phew!) with a fantastic sense of humour. My life has certainly become richer in the year I have known him, and he still makes me laugh on the rare occasions I get to speak to him. The fact that I am also equally partial to Seagull Books makes those books a whacking double deal. So pardon me if I rave a bit here.
Titled ‘Rhymes of Recall’, the first is a collection of poems that I find sublime, with the simple aesthetics of the physical book complementing the profound elegance of the words within. In it he ‘reminisces about his childhood, explores the nature of love and longing, touches poignantly upon loss – of time and of friends – on the one hand, and examines the relationship between art and life and incisively criticises the violence inherent in contemporary life, on the other’.
Poetry moves me in a way I find beyond myself to describe – always has. Rhymes of Recall starts and ends in a space that is as wistful as it is accepting – of love, loss and the vagaries of humankind. It is one of those books that, once you put it down, makes you stare unseeingly at a distance for a while, wishing you were lost inside its pages. You don’t ever want to find your way out.
The fact that the words are accompanied by paper-cuts and watercolour drawings by the poet adds to the appeal of the book, certainly.
‘Letters’, again by K.G. Subramanyan, is just that: a collection of letters written by the author to various government and academic entities that sought his opinion/support/both on matters governmental and academic (of course). This was among the first books by him that I had read (this is my second read of ‘Letters’) and those letters are what convinced me about the cause called K.G.Subramanyan.
Reading through them, one begins to comprehend the kind of personality that stands tall and looks at the world without flinching. Through the pages of ‘Letters’, K.G.Subrmanyan comes across as a person with a clear set of priorities, immense wisdom, foresight and courage besides an understanding of human and bureaucratic limitations. Thoughtfully worded, those letters are a lesson on being forthright without being aggressive.
I also read ‘Nelycinda and Other Stories’, a collection of short and long stories by Susan Paul Viswanthan, a good friend and Sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The title story ‘Nelycinda’ was a revelation – it is a fiction set in a time in Kerala history which I had barely heard about. All the stories base themselves on southern Kerala’s Christian community, largely unfamiliar to me and as such intriguing. While it has the potential to be a significant body of work that highlights a chapter in history that is all but lost, the book desperately needs the attention of a good, uncompromising editor who would challenge and question the author.
I was reminded of my own experience in the past when my idealistic vision of the existence of such an editor was shattered. After submitting my first attempt at writing a few years ago, I waited for some interesting edits and comments. I had dreams of some good pointers on how I should be doing this, or not doing that so that the book becomes award-worthy (yes, one had such illusions). But when it came back, the most meaningful comment in there was that I had used too many ellipses through my text. The second worthy one was that the length of my ellipses was too much – I should stick to just three dots in the future.
That aside, I am now completing Susan’s ‘Something Barely Remembered’ – another collection of short stories, very much in keeping with what I have come to recognise as Susan’s style. It is easy to see the academician behind the writing – the lure of museums, travel, history and all things exotic is evident throughout the book.
Once I am through with it, I have a date with the private detecive Cormoran Strike: I’ll start on ‘Career of Evil’ by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling. I badly need the action – and I am forewarned it is graphic. All the better as stress buster.
Radhika has always despaired of my unpredictable taste in books, and I am not going to disappoint her by being consistent.
Post that, I have my set of books from Seagull waiting for me. Books are still my favourite mode of escape, and it feels great to start the new year armed with enough books to keep me going for a while.