Oru Cheru Punchiri. That is the name of the film that has just won MT Vasudevan Nair Kerala’s best director award for this year. The title translates to mean: A Petite Smile. A likely expression on his face on hearing the news, because the man’s no stranger to awards (having won 16 state and six national film awards).
That petite smile, however, is a rarity. To many he is a sullen, aloof and arrogant individual. To those who have known him professionally, he is Vasudevan Nair. Those close to him and his works fondly call him Vasu. But universally, he is just MT.
Malayalis see him as the Malayalam sun shining on Indian literature. His forte? Redrafting myths into deft amalgams, using worn images as facilitators to advance familiar themes -- love, family, and village life. Malayalam literature has not seen similar stories that interrogate their own irony, that question aphorisms, and twists, in ambiguous meanings into the world we already know. Says writer Kamala Das (oops, Kamala Surraiya) who belongs to the same village as MT, "The grace of a paradise lost lingers on in MT's stories."
Born in Kuddalur village of Palakkad district in Kerala on 15th July, 1933, Madath Thekkepat Vasudevan Nair was the youngest son of Ammalu Amma and Punnayurkulam T. Narayanan Nair. He came into this world despite his mother's attempts to abort the child.
MT grew up watching the misery caused by the famine, cyclone and cholera that struck the sleepy village on the banks of the Bharatha river. His first published article was Prachina Bharathathile Vaira Vyavasayam (The Diamond Trade in Ancient India) in 1948. Vishu Aghosham (The Celebration of Vishu) was his first published story. He published his first collection of short stories Raktham Puranda Mantharikal (The Blood Stained Sand) with the help of his friends while he was just a chemistry student at Victoria College, Palakkad. And he won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award when he was just 24.
Surrounded by controversies, MT has spoken very little in defense of himself. "Just write whatever one has to write. Forget the rest," is his standard reply.
Outlookindia.com's Manoj Nair caught up with him when he was in Delhi as the chief guest at a literary fest. Here’s MT -- the writer, the filmmaker and the man who may not have been if his mother could help it.
Can you chart your career from your beginnings as a poet?
I was born in a village. It was one with none or very few books. We didn’t have any tradition of reading. It was considered a wastage of time. I belonged to a middle-class family. And in those days if you had read Ezhuthachan’s Ramayan the education was considered to be complete. The local refrain was that if you could drive a cattle across the field without allowing it to graze even once then, and, only then, were you an accomplished individual. Otherwise, you still had a little bit of learning to do.
I was the youngest of the four sons in my family and my brothers who went to school used to bring back books. I had an inclination towards reading. I used to run after all the special issues of the periodicals. I used to cut out the photographs of writers -- S.K. Pottekat, Basheer, Karoor ... -- and paste them on the walls of my room. Then I started writing poems in 1946-47.
I was in the high school at that time and the school had a library. There were number of home libraries in the neighbouring villages too. During vacations I would walk six miles in the morning and six in the evening to borrow books from those libraries. Unlike other boys of my age I was not very interested in playing. There was only one game I could play alone - writing. I went on scribbling and I got involved.
Sending materials to different publications cost three quarters of an anna by book post. I continued sending though I seldom expected or got any reply. Boys float paper boats. I was floating paper boats too. Then there was an announcement in the newspaper … Chitrakerlam was holding a contest. I sent a short story in one name and a poem in another. I was 14 at the time. One had Kudallor Vasudevan and the other V.N. Thekeppat. Later I sent a non-fiction under a different name. After two months I got a bundle of magazines. All the three were published under different names.
Much later, I met the editor and reminded him of the trick that I had pulled off. I asked him why as an editor he was not able to detect the similar handwriting in the three manuscripts. ‘You should have noticed,’ I told him. ‘I am glad I didn’t,’ was his reply.
Then there was a gap of one year. My brother went to study in Mangalore and the family couldn’t afford to send me to college. My mother spread the rumour in the village that I was underage. I was very sad and I found solace in my books. I used that one year for reading. At that time Akitham lived in the next village. I used his library at home. It was at that time that I began reading English.
Later I depended on the Victoria College library where I went to study. When I returned home during vacations I would carry trunkful of books borrowed from the library using all the tickets that I could manage from friends. And most of them were very obliging. During that time Jayakeralam was being published and was an important Malayalam magazine. It used to carry works by P. Bhaskaran, Basheer. They started publishing my works regularly. At least, once in a month a story would get published. I began sticking to short fiction. And it stuck to me.
Do you still write poems? Do you still envy poets?
I have always envied poets. I am jealous of those who can write poetry. They can easily satisfy a reader with a few lines. But a fiction writer cannot do that. To satisfy a reader he has to put down at least a 1000 words. When the periodicals demand something for their specials or annuals all the poet has to do is write a few words but a fiction writer or a prose writer has to labour hard. Poets have it all in their mind all the time. They don’t require much mental preparation. They are poets ’cause they can create in a moment. Writers are not so. Later they have to face flak too.
Tell us about your early years in writing. Which Malayalam writers influenced you?
I covered the works of all the writers at that time and before me. Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, S.K. Pottekadu, Thakazhi, Ponkunam Varkey, Lalithambika Antharjanam ... I always felt that Karoor was a genius. He was a simple class teacher who was not exposed to Western literature but came up with gems. Basheer also wrote from his own experiences which was an unbelievable expanse. All of them were my heroes. As a writer, still learning his ropes, I adored them all.
The first English novel I read was Thomas Hardy’s Under The Greenwood Tree. I could read only slowly. I could understand one sentence at one time. It was about a village with a forest and a sprinkle. It caught my imagination. Reading it was a great revelation to me. I used to borrow lot of classics from the library. I read the complete works of Ibsen. And in that juvenile spirit I translated The Enemy of The People - just for the fun of it.
Did you try to imitate the writers you admired?
No. Never. In my case I analysed them all. My evolution as a writer was gradual. True that there has been a change in my style since the initial period. Earlier, I was obsessed with style. I was adamant that like all beginners my style should be different from that of my contemporaries. Later, I discovered the folly of pursuing individualistic style alone. The stress should be on the material. I discovered that each theme requires a different way of narration. But much of it was according to the demand of the material I was using. The material (pause…) the theme dictates the style.
Tell us also about your method of writing. Is it true that you carry two or three themes at the same time? Do you conceptualise all of them simultaneously? How do you arrive at a theme and develop it?
The theme comes to you accidentally. At the time when an idea strikes you it is not mature. But if it is strong enough and disturbs me very much I sit down immediately to put down the first draft. There are certain stories that I have written at one go and there are some others that have seen completion after many years. But I have seldom been able to finish a story in one sitting. Or been satisfied with what came out in the first attempt. In the first draft, I can get my first thoughts out. The outline is framed. My second writing is actually an editing stage. I start deleting most of what I write and look at all the missing ends. I only leave those sentences on the paper that are absolutely necessary to the theme and then I try to link them all together. On many occasions this process is repeated several times till I have attained satisfaction or have resigned to abandoning the project.
Of the number of themes running in my mind concurrently, I concentrate on one at a time. I do not take up too many themes at the same time. When I am writing the concentration is only on one and this goes on for a while.
Writing in the beginning was very difficult. Even as a student and later as an editor of the magazine night was the only time I had for myself. It was only at night that I was able to write. Sometimes I would be able to leave office only after 8 pm. An undisturbed day was a rarity. After the day's hassles, I found it difficult to go back to writing with a clear state of mind. I found this very difficult especially when I had to revert to the first draft and had to rewrite it. But those are the obstacles one has to encounter. I have been successful on that front in that my personal life, or professional life, has not bogged me down and upset my writing. It has only enhanced.
What makes a writer successful?
He should be able to reject. A writer should not be carried away by the success he gains initially. Several things appeal to you. As a writer it is your ability to go back to what you have written and rewrite all that you have written before. If you can be brutal with your own work then you leave no chance for others to fiddle with your creation. That is important. You should never be happy with your first draft, even if it gives you immense pleasure. That joy is deceptive. First, you should be able to satisfy yourself and be in a position to analyse and distill the factors that satisfy you. Lot of people take up great themes, present excellent ideas but cannot convey. That has never happened with me. It will never happen to me. Once I am through with a work I see myself reading it out to me. And if it conveys to me, strikes a chord within me then I am satisfied with it. Else, I get back to work on it again till it appeals to me. Or I abandon it completely.
The writer should also not compromise in anyway. Take Asuravithu for example. The protagonist is an uncle of mine. He was a bad character. I underwent a lot of mental torture and had to overcome a great conflict inside me while working on the resemblances. But I went ahead. I did not want to change an inch. I hate that.
Often you have talked about Faulkner. Was there an unexpressed desire to create a ‘Yoknapatawpha county' -- from Kudallur for example?
Faulkner was a difficult writer. Emulating him is a difficult ask. Though I spoke about him a lot, admired him a lot and, to a certain extent, was inspired by him, I never wished to write like him. Not that it was possible. There was never any urge. Yes Kudallur was material. But I did not make any conscious effort to recreate it. To tell you the truth, I was more impressed by Hemingway. The way he used the characters he met as material for his writing. I yearned to do something similar. I don’t think I have met with much success. But I wanted to explore the different aspects of life the way he did. Later in my career I gave up that pursuit because I think I chanced upon my own way of doing this.
Are there any stories left in Kudallur. Or has it dried out completely?
The Kudalloor legends are a part of me. They are still in me. I think to tell them all I will need more than a lifetime. Which would remain the greatest disappointment of my life. That I would not be the only one to reveal them to the world. But there are a few I am still working on. If I get three months just to myself I will finish one - the VITAL one. Maybe, it will see the light of day after March.
Your characters have all suffered neglect and yearn for revenge - a romantic outsider whether it is Appuni, Govindankutty, Sethu, Vimala or Bhima. Is there still a dormant rage against an exploitative system lurking inside M.T?
In a way, yes. All my life I have been chasing some questions that have upset me. I am confronted with a big question mark when justice is denied, when innocence is ignored. We seldom get answers to such questions. We have to go on asking. And as long as those questions remain unanswered in me, the rage will burn inside me.
Randamoozham (Second Turn) was a novel I wrote with lot of passion. I was intrigued by the treatment meted out to Bhima by everyone. The fact that there was no mention of his qualities by Vyasa actually upset me. He was deliberately silent about certain things. Those pregnant silences perturbed me. I was pained to see that. Especially the two incidents that outline the basic strength of Bhima’s character have been completely ignored.
There are two very obvious instances. One is the Saugandhikaharanam episode, a popular one in Kathakali, where Draupadi sends Bhima to fetch a flower. But there is no mention later of how Draupadi reacted to Bhima’s accomplishment of the task or what ensued after he offered the flower. We all know that he successfully plucked the flower.
The other one is that of Draupadi expressing the wish to see the world from the top of a mountain peak. Bhima kills a number of demons and overcomes lot of hurdles to scale the peak. But the epic is silent about what happens thereafter. What was Draupadi’s reaction to this act by her lover? Did she see the world from the summit? No. Not a word. Human mysteries, human situations. They have always puzzled me. And I have wondered at the various actions of people in these situations. Why do people do these things? And this is what a writer is always… the essence of any writer.
Do you think you have done justice to the depiction of the Nair community?
I have portrayed the last stages of the matriarchal society in Kerala. And towards the end the ideal joint family system was not there. What remained was a parody with lot of evils. And living in that kind of environs had its bearing on me. And I have shown the society as it was and commented on it too. My mother was a great influence on my character. Which is why I have written two important stories based on my memories of her.
The short story Sherlock was a departure from the usual M.T. story. Both in flavour and colour. Why?
I have made numerous trips to the US. But it was only several years that I got myself to writing a story in an American background. Shelock (published in the India Today special in 1993). I was very careful from the very beginning. I didn’t want to write about the American life. I began with the cat as that was the first thing that caught my attention during that particular visit. I began by just making casual observations about the behaviour of the cat and its relationship with the inmates of the house. The story turned out very well in the end. And I agree it has certain political undertones. The most obvious one is that of the Big Brother watching us all. And this is one of my few stories that is multi-dimensional.
You also go back to your past as a sabbatical. Kaduganava was the latest. Why is that?
Nostalgia has had a special place in my life. I live for my memories. The past holds a lot of meaning for me for my present and my future is built on them, there is no denying the truth of my past. So I have to keep going back to it in search of meanings for the present. Generally you go back and forth in time. But most of my trips to my village have been to see how a village can be cruel. As in Sukratham, Shilalikhitham…
The month of Karkidakam has a special place in your works?
I am obsessed with nature. I won’t say I have captured all aspects of it. But the monsoons have charmed me a lot. And I have tried to capture every possible droplet of the rains in Kerala. I have reserved a special place for rainfall in my fiction. Sometimes I have attempted to make it a character.
The concept of fear and darkness in the months of Karkidakam that come with the advent of dark rain clouds have always fascinated me and fermented my imagination. It is the lean month. The month of deprivation.
And birthdays; you have written a story based on it. You spent one of your birthdays at Avon? How old are you and how important is age to you?
Diseases are reminders of age. The moment you fall ill you are conscious of age catching up with you. It is then that you really begin worrying about not being able to complete all that you have decided to do. Birthdays have a special place for me. Especially the ones I have written about. Because they are reminders of love and loss. What was present there then and what is not now. Age is important to me because the older I grow the wiser I get.
Does writing also age with you?
That is a difficult question. Because writing is so erratic. Certain things come out better when expressed while you are young. Other things are better if expressed with age behind you. The later holds true in majority of cases particularly when you are expressing your worldview. I don’t think I became a better writer because I grew old. I still write the same way I did when I was twenty four and anyway my most accomplished works are the ones that I wrote between the age of 20 and 40.