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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 Legacy

It was Shiva who suggested I write about this in my blog.  He has been my sounding board for the past more-than-twenty years, my eternally patient husband.  As usual, I’d been going on about seemingly random topics that connect with each other only in my head, and the talk came to my friend Radhika, and her role in my life.  That was when Shiva asked me why I did not write about it.

Well, why didn’t I?

I have always been exceptionally rich and fortunate when it comes to people.  I cannot honestly say I know many, but among those I do know are some incredibly beautiful people.  And each of them has left her/his mark on me.  Maybe I’ll write about each of them some day, but today it’s Radhika’s turn, for whatever reason.  She and I meet once or twice in a decade, at the most.  We hardly keep in touch in between – she’s not yet been seduced by the social media as I have been. But we pick up where we left off with ease, each time we meet.

Radhika has been a major influences I in my life, and she is not even aware of it. Good friends are truly God’s gift, and she came to me nicely wrapped, around the time I was in middle school – and changed my life forever.  Maybe my penchant for books was the result of a lonely childhood, but it was Radhika who introduced me to good books at that young age.  Not to mention good movies and music.

She would recite lines from a poem she had read the previous day and explain the meaning with such pleasure that poetry became a thing of joy to me, to be unraveled lovingly and cherished, kept close to the heart. Through the years, she would insist on correcting the way I pronounced Malayalam – ‘Not achan Mini, say acchhan’ or ‘Radhika, not Radika’ till those sounds became so much a part of me that even get annoyed when hearing those young RJs spouting heavily accented, badly mispronounced, Malayalam.  I conveniently forget that I would have been as good or as bad as any of them had it not been for my friend. In a sense, Radhika is partly the reason I pick up nuances in languages quickly.

Let me put it this way – Radhika, in her own quietly insistent way, took me out of the shallow little world of my displaced childhood, and showed me the sky and the stars in all their cosmic glory.

Not that we’re in any way similar.  Radhika is the cheese to my chalk, to say the least.  She’s the salt of the earth, and I am – what am I?  That wild ingredient which ought to be handled with utmost care? I guess.  She was the one that, in high school, used to run behind Sreekumari (another friend I’d have loved to meet again) and me, struggling against the pouring rain and wind with three open umbrellas.  Sreeku and I would run gleefully into the rain and Radhika would be behind us, calling out, “Sreeku, Mini, take your umbrellas, here…you’ll get wet and catch a cold or fever…here, please, take this…Mini…Sreeku…”

She is Malayalam at its most pristine, and I’m an awkward mix of languages, with English at the top.  No, don’t get me wrong – we come from similar backgrounds, but she has strong roots, and I am a weed adrift.  So it is English for me; English, the language of the rootless.  She has a daughter who sticks close, and I have two sons almost as wild as me.  She is an engineer content to be working for an insurance company, and I’m the eternally restless seeker still trying to find the right niche.

And I’m still her big worry.

When we met up the other day, we started talking about our respective childhoods and she started telling me about her father, and how blessed she had been on that count.  “We didn’t have much to go by, with my parents mere school teachers at a time when salaries were low, but Acchhan (Dad) gave us this incredible gift of time.  In the evenings he would sit with us and talk about books and music and art and culture and so many different things…”

I listened, imagining the Radhika in school uniform (I could never imagine her in any other dress), holding forth with her father.  The next day, without fail, she would have related those snippets of wisdom to us, her bunch of avid listeners… I’m happy for her, but I’m also envious of her childhood and parentage.  Despite what the self-help books tell you, there are things no amount of positive thinking can change.

I relate the conversation that Radhika and I had with my husband, and it strikes me that in a strange, incomprehensible way, I too had partaken on her legacy.  That this father of my friend, whom I have never met, has been the reason for my life-long love for books, movies and music.  That through his daughter, he had given me much more than I could ever have asked for.  And my husband asks me, “Why don’t you write about it?”

So here I am.

What I’d like to add is this: I’m profoundly grateful to all those people that life had placed in my way – people I am close to, people I have parted ways from, people I have not even met, but are oh-so-important to me…people who mean a lot, though I’d all but taken them for granted.

Thank you, all of you.