When Malayattoor Ramakrishnan faced his IAS interview 60 years ago, the panel asked him a naughty question: How many baskets of earth will make that hill in your village? (Mala in Malayalam means mountain.) The reply was instant: “Just one, if the container is huge enough.” The apocryphal story may not be untrue, going by the sharp wit the bureaucrat had always retained. Ramakrishnan quit civil services in 1981 to become a full-time writer.
Aaram Viral, a novel he published three years before his death in 1997, has now found a good English translation. The Sixth Finger, portraying 1970s-’80s south India, reads all the more relevant today, when the country has its burgeoning babas effectively competing with Hindu gods in number. An extra pinkie rustic Ramankutty has to his left hand earns him a godman status by late teenage, bringing in a brief spell of fame and prosperity that he ends abruptly, seemingly for no reason. In the bathtub of his plush ashram in the metro where people thronged to see their swami, known for his instant miracles and right prophesies, Vedan Baba bleeds to death by cutting the inconvenient digit that “floated in the water and foam like an incandescent worm”.
Yes, the finger used to glow. Especially when the baba was readying for a magical act that is intuitive (and thus least burdens the novelist with a need for explanation). Rather, some of them are a tacit result of tricks played by a coterie around the baba. The handsome youngster is basically a mere puppet in their hands. Even the ‘Vedan’ prefix is their clever idea, as it’s only a cue from his pre-baba days.
Well, Keralaite Ramankutty also had the name Vedaraman. That was because residents of his native Kottoor on the banks of Periyar had a divided opinion about the lad’s parenthood. Was his father Sreedharan Yajamanan of the Mulamkunnam Nair taravad, where he was born, or was it Tamil Brahmin Krishna Swami Bhagavatar, who had briefly taught the boy’s mother vocals? After all, the music master, too, had a sixth finger. The beautiful lady soon dies under mysterious circumstances, and it is the maid Kozhukatta Paru who breastfeeds the infant. Sreedharan had an affair with dark Paru, who later nearly seduces an adolescent Ramankutty. The father stumbles upon the scene, and suffers a stroke that cripples him.
Beset by existential pangs, teenaged Ramankutty frequently drinks with schoolmate Mukundan, who is three years senior. Together, they once steal a bronze vessel from the local temple that had been repaired out of funds that chiefly came from Mulamkunnam. Ramankutty overcomes the disastrous phase; sheer intelligence and hard work enable him to emerge a class X topper.
Ramankutty would have continued to shine academically, but for certain ‘wonders’ that get attributed to his sixth finger. A dowsing attempt he was assigned finds success, soon a night dream he casually mouths turns out to be incredible premonition (reminiscent of 1990 Malayalam movie Iyer The Great, for which Ramakrishnan wrote the story). Well-meaning admirers act as sponsors for the youth, who gets translocated to Madras. The big city woos Vedaraman with pelf, power and popularity—all of which, he eventually realises, has led him into an inescapable trap. A jailed survival aggrieves him.
At no point does Vedaraman or the baba come across as wicked. A streak of the Oedipus complex, derived from high-libido Paru than his biological mother, seems to haunt the character. There are two women who alternately sleep with the baba, but it’s not just because Surekha and Nina Hyde are elder to him that the man occasionally calls them his mother (having seen Paru die as a mad woman). Even as this ‘love triangle’ evolves amid intoxicants, luxury, cheating and pilferage by other core inmates as well, the ashram revels in high political connections. The netas are fixed on their career, while the initial promoters of ‘Vedanji’ believe in his ‘divinity’. In a still far cry, the third strand comprises folks back in Kottoor—they only have had pure love for Ramankutty. (He has fondness for them too, like Raghu has in Ramakrishnan’s 1966 novel Verukal.)
Ashram debauchery comes so loaded with wry humour that vignettes of ‘spiritualists’ blur with that of the morally-corrupt politicians and sensation-seeking journalists. Bids for another anti-Hindi agitation by Tamils and early phases of LTTE rebellion by the Tigers dot the narrative, that has its climactic build-up intact by translator Prema Jayakumar. Lastly, Vedan’s sixth finger as a ‘sacred relic’ in the lotus mandap, where the Yogini Mata (old Surekha) tells people Bhagwan’s story, is much more than good metaphor.