Disclaimer: The English translations given here are personal interpretations of the Malayalam text, not written in consultation with the author. Any possible flaws or misinterpretations thereof are my responsibility.
Poorna valarchayethum munpe marichu povunna ore oru jeeviyaanu manushyan.
“Man is the only animal that is fated to die before reaching maturity.”
Subhash Chandran’s multiple-award winning Malayalam novel, Manushyanu oru Aamukham (DC Books), roughly translated as ‘A Preface to Man’, begins on that profound, yet admittedly pompous, note.
I found myself frowning at that line: we Malayalis have a penchant for the profound and pompous, and the more p-and-p something sounds, the more elite and intellectual we consider it. I suffer from a reverse chauvinism that makes me sceptical of anything that sounds polysyllabic, metaphorically speaking.
The book had come to my hands quite casually – a friend passed it on because he happened to receive an extra copy – and I was not familiar with the author or his writing. If I persisted despite the unexciting cover and the opening line, it was out of curiosity – there must be a reason the book gathered all those awards! That plus a renewed determination to explore contemporary Malayalam literature.
It took me but a couple of pages to realise what I had taken on.
Reading Subhash Chandran’s debut novel was no picnic. It was more like what I imagine a week-long trek through the Amazonian rainforest would be: excruciatingly demanding and exhausting in turns, yet every step a discovery. In the end, what you feel is an overwhelming sense of wonderment; you are elated and humbled at once, and richer for the experience.
Manushyanu oru Aamukham unfolds itself as an extended flashback that lasts most of the narrative. It does not merely tell the story of its central character Jithendran, his immediate and extended family, and the community he is a part of; rather, the story ‘stands within the time constraints of a hundred years to play out the emotions, traditions and experiences (certainly not history) that are quintessentially Keralite’ on the stage of a fictitious village named Thachanakkara in central Kerala.
Most of the chapters begin with excerpts from the countless letters that Jithendran wrote to the love of his life through the course of their six year long courtship – pointers to the personal and social issues that haunt Jithan. Though the author explicitly states that he has not made any attempt to record history, the book draws heavily on the social, political and cultural evolution that the little southern state of India undergoes in the course of a century or more.
You must be aware of a modern phenomenon among the so-called upper caste revolutionaries. When they meet someone new, they somehow manage to reveal, quite subtly, their ‘upper-casteness’ within the first five lines they speak. I think that today our society is full of idiots who, when they have no personal achievements to speak of, resort to the ‘if nothing else, I come from a higher caste, you see’ sentiment. You once told me that from my demeanour you assumed I was a Nair. My love, allow me to say this: I hate myself for having those affectations which made you think so.
Complex, detailed and vast, the narrative of Manushyanu oru Aamukham relentlessly dissects the vagaries of human nature, and without any attempts at judgement, presents the findings in 372 closely printed pages. Jithan’s village could be the microcosm of Kerala, or the world itself; its people, randomly collected samples of mankind.
The vacuum that the death of a fifty-four year old named Jitendran left behind on this earth encompassed, at most, his silent, vacant flat. It had nothing in particular to do with either the other twenty-seven flats in that building, the countless such apartments in Thachanakkara, or the arrogantly independent houses that rubbed shoulders with them. For inside each of them was its own master, whose life could not have been so very different from the one that Jithan had lived since he was twenty-seven. The same life that he had calmly, dutifully, carried out for the past twenty five years, in a different city: gossiping, bragging and judging, being incapable of offering a sincere compliment to another, blaming the society without any attempt at introspection, worshipping the mother goddess while vilifying one’s own mother, revelling with blind pride in the achievements of one’s children and sneering at those of others’, smiling widely at neighbours to hide the intense resentment one carried, secretly enjoying the humiliations that befell respectable members of the community, drowning one’s own guilt in loud remarks about the moral decay of society, taking refuge in the insecure religiousness of ageing, deeming vulgar the sexuality of another, holding on to a sense of entitlement and spouting the disgust that comes with that belief, and above all, deriding every human being outside of one’s immediate family of four…
Subhash Chandran’s language is powerful yet poetic – the work of a master craftsman who knows exactly where and how to place each word. The resultant narrative is a linguistic treat, to be read, re-read and savoured at leisure.
Jithan had not yet reached the age that divided the world by lines of ownership. Mine and Yours were concepts he had not grasped. His naive belief that, like the sky and the river and the wind, everything belonged to everyone gave a strange sense of clarity to his days. To him time was a celebration of today, unencumbered by yesterdays and tomorrows. Noon was when he became hungry, evening began when the school bell rang, night fell when he felt sleepy, and morning dawned when he woke up.
There are good books that you read and pass on. There are great books that linger long after you have read them. And then there are books, rare ones, that grab you by the jugular and refuse to let go. Books you feel privileged to read, like Manushyanu oru Aamukham.