When did Vijayan first break into the Malayalee mind? My guess is it was with a cartoon and not one of his stories. In 1966 (he hadn't come out with a novel yet), India was experiencing a food shortage, and the historically cereal-deficient Kerala suffered most. Malayalees, overly dependent on ration shops for their daily diet, were numbed when they heard the government had reduced the fortnightly ration to six ounces of rice per adult. Meanwhile, in faraway Soviet Union and the US, they were competing to launch artificial satellites. A couple of days later, readers in Kerala woke up to a cartoon by Vijayan in Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi: a man perched on a satellite in outer space, peeping through a telescope at the earth, tells his friend: "On that planet, there exists a form of life that lives on six ounces of rice."
It was one of the earliest intimations of Vijayan's genius. He wasn't entirely unknown even then, being part of a group of very gifted Malayalam writers, all of whom happened to be living in Delhi in the sixties. Together, they fashioned what was later reckoned to be the Golden Age of Malayalam fiction. They used to meet at the Kerala Club in Connaught Place to read aloud from their work and listen to some probing criticism.
In 1968, Mathrubhumi Weekly began serialising Vijayan's first novel, Khasakinte Itihaasam. The novel challenged the reading habits of the day and it wasn't until the fourth or fifth instalment before its strangeness gave way to awe, and readers realised that they were witnessing a classic in the making. Around the same time, a not-so-successful Colombian novelist, with four novels to his name, was trying his luck for the fifth time. The Legends of Khasak impacted Malayalam fiction in the same way
Khasak was a novel of its time, zeitgeisty, yet imbued with writing qualities that transcend decades. It's an imagined village in north Kerala where the protagonist, Ravi, arrives to start a school. During his brief stay, Ravi experiences all the intense passions of life: sex, politics, religion. The novel wove a magical web around readers. A story goes that a young collegiate, with dishevelled hair and angst-ridden eyes, once went to a railway station asking for a ticket to Khasak. Nothing could persuade him that there was no such place—he insisted he belonged to that place. Khasak had become the imagined homeland for many in Kerala.
In his second novel, Dharmapuranam, Vijayan broke the Khasak mould, and went on to write an allegorical—and at times scatological—tale of a decadent despot. In all, he wrote six novels, nine collections of stories, a book of cartoons, and a few collections of essays. He was unique in his inclusive outlook. His power to fuse, his ability to build bridges over vast chasms—like a village ration shop and the Soviet cosmodrome—and his gift of divining patterns in apparent chaos were the signatures he left on Malayalam literature.In writing, these qualities showed in an amazing ability to invent portmanteau words and syntactical brilliance. Vijayan was also one of the first Malayalam writers with an international outlook. Auschwitz, typhoons in Hong Kong, the assassination of Soviet dissidents like Hungarian Imre Nagi were as much subject matter as life in little towns like Irinjalakuda or Chengannur.
In another avatar and in another language, Vijayan drew cartoons. In English. He started his career as a teacher of English in a college in Calicut, but later, in 1958, the late Shankar invited him to join his weekly as a columnist. Though he left Shankar's Weekly to join dailies like The Patriot and The Hindu, Vijayan kept in touch with Shankar's till it closed down during the Emergency. Vijayan didn't draw cartoons in English in the same period. But the iconic cartoon on the Emergency in Malayalam is by Vijayan. It showed a train running with compartments which looked like police lock-ups. The caption: "Oh, here comes the train that runs on time."
Vijayan drew stand-alone cartoons that did not compete with or complement news analyses or edits. He avoided flavours of the day, was ardent in his pursuit of history. Coincidentally, he stopped drawing—he was with The Statesmen then—when the Soviet Union collapsed. Though he picked up the Soviets for special treatment, he was never a Cold War creature. Those cartoons were, I suspect, Vijayan's way of teasing the Left orthodoxy back home. Nor did Uncle Sam escape unscathed. He was fairly even-handed in declaring plague on both houses. Vijayan stopped cartooning when the physical rigours of the craft got to him. He continued writing—dictating, rather—fiction in Malayalam.
In the beginning of his career, Vijayan's writing brimmed with energy, biting humour. Khasak presented for the first time characters with rich internal lives. As he grew older, his writing became more contemplative. Now that his writing is done, it's clear: he started an epoch in Malayalam.
(N.S. Madhavan is an award-winning Malayalam writer)