INDIAN writing in English has received due recognition in the recent past, thanks to the brilliant works of well-known authors. But better quality books in the regional languages tend to remain unknown outside the realms of local readership. This is largely because of the difficul-ties that one encounters in translating the idioms and nuances unique to the regional culture, language and literature. Thus the large mass of the best of regional literature remain unnoticed. A typical example is M.T. Vasudevan Nair. He has won more awards both for literature and films than any other living writer in Malayalam, but till he bagged the Bharatiya Jnanpeeth award, his writings were largely unknown to the non-Malayalees. The book under review is a representative sample of the best of his writings. It contains one of his early novels, six of his best short stories and two literary essays. It largely brings out the versatile genius who has mastered the art of fiction. It is comparable to the best of original writing in English.
Demon's Seed (Asuravithu in the original Malayalam) is a well-crafted novel with the lingering favourite theme of Vasudevan Nair's early writings: the crumbling joint family system of Malabar. While the backdrop is familiar, it is also a forthright portrayal of the crisis of identity of an unemployed youth in a joint family. His charac-terisation as usual is marvellous, with intense, tender evocations of familial chords, and the social vicissitudes that brought about a sea change, especially among the lower middle class of Kerala, is abundantly reflected in the novel. It has a universal appeal and relevance in thematic and stylistic imageries, craft and techniques and flow of the narrative.
The main character, Govindan Kutty, whom his mother rebukes as "demon's seed", is idle as he has nothing to do; soon, however, there comes a glimmer of hope when he is employed by his wealthy brother-in-law to look after his properties and is married to a distant relative who was a domestic help at the brother-in-law's house. But Govindan Kutty's world is shattered when he finds out that his wife is already pregnant from the rich man's university educated son and that he was only used for a cover-up. Unable to cope with the resultant despair, the hero literally runs amuck and tries to find acceptability by converting to Islam. Initially the rich Muslim families in the village look after him, cultivating him as a showpiece, but slowly he is shown his place. He becomes a stranger in his own village and is not accepted by anyone. He sets out on journey back to his dear ones.
Nair's strong bond of nostalgia and affin-ity to his native village of Koodallur (this aspect has often been singled out by his critics) are manifest in the novel. Despite being ostracised, the hero wants to return and even when he is treated as an outcast, he musters the courage to pick up and bury corpses when epidemics claim a large number of lives in the village. The narrative is gripping and the themes thrown up are pertinent to any society in transition. The strong thread of harmony and unity among the Hindus and Muslims of Kerala is also vividly brought out.
The six short stories included in this collection were written between 1954 and 1995. The evolution of the author in perfecting his techniques of fiction is distinct in these stories. Two of the recent stories, Vanaprastham (1990) and Sherlock (1993),K.V. could be rated among the best in any international collection. In both these narratives, Vasudevan Nair moves out of his beloved village to life in highly mechanised and largely inhuman American landscapes and to a serene village temple on a mountain peak, believed to have been established by Sankaracharya on attaining supreme knowledge. The strong fetters of spirituality and sublime love are powerfully brought out in Vanaprastham—the meaning of the word itself is a period of life spent in penance and as a recluse in the jungles. The other four stories also highlight Vasudevan Nair's credentials as a gifted storyteller. There have been better stories like Deluge and one wonders why they were not included.
The two essays included indicate the scholastic side of the writer. Vasudevan Nair is the most sought after playwright in Kerala (he has nearly 50 to his credit) and his mastery over the medium is reflected in the essay on visual literature, where he details the links between cinema and literature. He also writes of his younger days when he visited the native place of the famous Malayalam poet Changampuzha whose lyrical poems influenced generations of writers.
The translators, V. Abdulla and Gita Krishnankutty, have very competently brought out the original charm of Vasudevan Nair's writings. The translation of the novel published earlier has been revised and improved upon. Vasudevan Nair is known for his apt use of evocative words in his writings and perhaps it would have been too much to expect the same standards in translation for an alien readership.