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Khasakkinte Ithihasam: an epic of forgotten dialects

Among the many items I had left behind of my childhood are some dialects. About half a dozen of them, in fact. Very peculiar to the times, micro-geographies and cultures of the places I grew up in. Dialects that smelled of green fields and steaming paddy. Of cow-dung, rain and persistent anxiety. Of palm-trees and claustrophobia of the wide open spaces, and a loneliness that stuck to your clothes like yellow, gluey mud you scratched off the sides of the lotus pond.

“Enthinaanu thambraatti agiranathu? Namma ippo veettilethoolle?”

At the time I’d not even noticed the peculiarity of the lingo in which almost every vowel sound began and ended with the close-mid sound of ‘ɘ’. It was just a part of the landscape, like the greenness of the field or the blueness of the mountain, like the humid heat and the dark, lean bodies with their stench of sweat.

I’d just nod, not really sure why my eyes had filled up in the first place. Was I missing home or was I anxious about reaching it? I still don’t know.

Somewhere along the way, I made a choice – that of selective memory. Which meant that I let go of a lot of my childhood, including its dialects. I chose my memories in the order of their sunshine, and wove my narrative around them. I carefully picked the vocabulary, tone, and semantics of all the languages and their variations that had flowed past me, and created my own lingo. So now I have a set of streamlined memories that I can look back on and smile, and a language that rarely prods sleeping dogs. Malayalam with a hint of Tamil, which could have originated anywhere between the banks of the Nila and the blue shadows of Western Ghats. Liberally peppered with the English of all those cities I have lived, loved and read in.

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Perhaps that was why rereading Khasakkinte Ithihasam (Legends of Khasak) was like a punch in the gut.

True. Like any self-respecting Malayali teenager with intellectual aspirations (pretensions?), I too had read O.V. Vijayan’s epic while still in school. But what I had never admitted to anyone was that most of what was in there had flown right past me without leaving a dent. I had understood little, and I remembered even less. When people spoke so highly of it, I would nod in agreement, embarrassed that I had nothing to contribute to the conversation.

The other day, while browsing through the collection in a tiny DC Books store in Karama, I picked up Khasakkinte Ithihasam again. A burst of enthusiasm triggered as much by the prices, as by the cover illustration. And of course, sheer curiosity.  What is in there that has triggered so much dialogue for so many decades?

Life comes back to where it started – in one way or the other. The world I had eased myself out of enveloped me again like a quagmire, oozing out of the 168 pages of the O.V. Vijayan’s classic novel. Only now, with almost half a century of life behind me, there is no way I can escape the vagaries of Khasak.

There is little I can say about the book that has not been said before.

Ravi is familiar – a young, literate, well-read man from a reasonably well-to-do family in the throes of existential crisis. The quintessential protagonist of Malayalam literature of the time. I have met him in various forms and names between the pages of the many novels I have read. Vijayan, however, does not make any concessions for Ravi unlike some other ‘heroes’ of that era. He is what he is by choice. Or compulsion – take your pick. But the last thing he needs is your sympathy.

What Vijayan narrates, however, is not Ravi’s story – it is the history of Khasak in all its myriad yet dark hues. Madhavan Nair, Appukkili, Mollakka, Nijaamali, Mymoona, Chandumma, Kunjaamina…. the list of Khasak’s children is endless, and each one plays a vital role in taking the narrative forward. Even the ghosts, gods and folklore of Khasak are living, breathing entities in Vijayan’s eerily familiar world, as real as it is imaginary. A world that is raw, primal and open to the elements.

Which, like life, brings me back to where I started – the dialect. It was the Malayalam that Vijayan has chosen for his epic that took me by the scruff of my neck. And it dropped me right in the middle of a world that I had safely stayed away from for decades. A very Khasak-like universe where a third of my memories (because my idea of ‘home’ was split three-ways during my growing up years) are set in.

“Ootareelu Jayettande padau odunundu. Namukku puggua thambraa?”

Pazhanimala would tether the bullocks to the cart and we would go to the theatrein Oottarawith its thatched roof and stained screen to watch Jayan seducing married women with his pecs and biceps. Mutton biriyani from Rahmania Hotel after, and a return journey under the starry, starry sky, with the tinkle of little brass bells lulling me to sleep…

If all was well that is.

A stray memory that drifted in.

There is a Khasak napping inside me, like there is in so many others. And it has now become restless.

Every good prose, I feel, has poetry running through it like a golden thread. It is there in a turn of phrase, a line that you want to utter out loud. Poetry lingers like melancholy in Vijayan’s writing, woven into the harsh overtones of its vernacular, adding to its poignancy, its earthy shadows. Touching you in a way that only poetry can.

If the hallmark of good literature is to disturb the reader, to shake them out of complacency, then it’s little wonder that Khasakkinte Ithihasam continues to revive and thrive, decade after decade.

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A Preface to Man

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. 

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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.

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Subhash Chandran

A Non-Resident Vishu

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have been caught dead doing what I did today.  Why, if somebody had told me in the morning that I’d be standing in queue, waiting for a seat in that over-hyped, over-priced, so-called traditional restaurant, I’d have laughed at their preposterous suggestion.  I’d been inside it only once before, with some visiting relatives.  Everything about the place, starting from its blatantly pseudo-ethnic interior to its silk-clad customers, had filled me with disdain; the only thing that I’d enjoyed about the place was the kappa (tapioca) – though I had serious reservations about the size of the portion they’d served.  I distinctly remember trying to hide my scorn in a momentary flare of my nostrils, as I am extremely fond of my relatives and did not want to express my opinion of the place and hurt their sentiments.

But 2 O’ clock, the 15th of April, found me lined up outside the restaurant – along with my very reluctant husband and cranky ten-year-old – to be a part of the throng that waited for their turn to enter the lofty portals beyond which lay the coveted Vishu sadya – the traditional, elaborate Vishu feast. (Vishu, in case you’re wondering, is the New Year day for Malayalis, who, in case you’re wondering, are the people of Kerala, whose mother tongue is Malayalam.)  I’m sure my almost-eighteen must have been thanking his lucky stars that he happened to be on the other side of theArabian Sea at the time. The men in my life, sadly, have an almost indifferent attitude to tradition, especially when it calls for standing in queues.

It all started off quite innocuously. We were not celebrating Vishu elaborately this year because we were still mourning a death in the family.  However, sitting at home and correcting test papers did not stop my mind from walking down the meandering roads that took me to the many Vishus that had come and gone. Once upon a time, there was a childhood when the wait for Vishu would start weeks before, with each passing day heightening the sense of anticipation.  Back then, Vishu had meant getting up before the crack of dawn to be first ones to start the day’s fireworks.  It had meant large family gatherings and quick wealth in the form of kaineettam – money given by the elders in the family. It had meant brand new clothes and sumptuous sadya on banana leaves. Vishu had meant so much back then…If there were other, less pleasant memories, I had chosen to forget them, at least for the time.  All I wanted was my Vishu back.

My sudden longing for all I had lost in growing up channelized itself into an immediate and compelling need for sadya. It wasn’t just about food – it was about things that I knew could never be bought, even when I was trying to.  I insisted that we go to a Mallu restaurant despite severe warnings about waiting crowds. (I must mention at this point that I refuse to take ‘Mallu’ as a derogatory term for Malayalis – for me it’s a convenient nick name. We Mallus have this habit of reducing all names to disyllabic nicknames that end with ‘u’ – Malu, Chinnu, Achu…) My long-suffering husband tried to tempt me with other interesting options, but I didn’t budge.  My son pouted for all he was worth, but I just ignored him. Nothing but a proper Vishu sadya at a Mallu joint would appease me – I informed them with finality.

And that was how we ended up waiting for a good half hour in front of the door to the restaurant until finally we were allowed entry.  When after another ten minutes the food was served, I ate as if I hadn’t eaten for weeks.  It was the tastiest meal I had had in a long time – or so it seemed.

As we sat waiting for the bill, I looked around. There was a group of youngsters in the table next to ours, kids who wore tradition with supreme urban chic. Another table had a large family, including grandparents taking turns at running behind their grandchild.  Yet another table had a group of young men laughing, talking and eating in equal proportions, and a fourth had a silent young couple, giving the food on their plate more attention than it asked for. Families, friends, colleagues, roommates – the groups were different, but the underlying sentiment seemed common.  All of us were partaking of the sadya with nostalgic relish from the banana leaves on plastic trays in front of us. A non-resident Vishu sadya.

Thinking back, I don’t know if, in real terms, the food was worth the wait or the money.  I don’t know if that one meal had actually satisfied my obsessive craving for all that was lost among the debris of time.  Maybe it had – or maybe not.  But what I do know is that my views on silk-clad customers waiting in line in front of over-hyped, over-priced restaurants with their pseudo-ethnic interiors will never again be the same again. Who knows what childish, nostalgic longings have brought them there?