Monday, Oct 18, 2021

'I Am Ready For a Fight To The Finish'

Crossword Book Award: the Malayalam writer on his writing, memories, death, awards... and Rushdie.

'I Am Ready For a Fight To The Finish'
| S. Gopinath
'I Am Ready For a Fight To The Finish'

A verse from a chapter in V.K. Madhavan Kutty’s collection of gleanings Southern Discomfort makes a hole in the balloon called governance in Kerala:

These twentyfive years
Of Kerala’s history
Was one long lie!
In the name
Of the people
For the people
By the people’s representatives!

As a veteran journalist, V.K. Madhavan Kutty has been known for such pinpricks made from his newspaper’s bureau in New Delhi for many decades now. His crackling voice on the phone from Delhi, on Asianet’s evening news, has, in a short time, come to be recognised and noticed - making politicians, administrators and other big wigs in the capital, especially Malayalis, wonder who among them will be that day’s target.

And he seems to have hit the bull's eye when it came to venturing in the realms of literature too, proving many a sceptic wrong with his first novel The Village Before Time (titled A Feast of Memories in Malayalam). As writer M. Mukundan put it:

"The ability to write a book in simple language and in a candid style is a feat in itself elsewhere, but not in Kerala. Whatever subject you are delving into, however simple it is, when you start writing you should intentionally make the narrative complex and intriguing. It should sound cerebral. If you fail in your effort to transform the simple into the complex, you are no good writer. You are not entitled to any literary award. Critics will look down upon you and your book with contempt.

It is in such a scenario that Madhavan Kutty wrote this book in Malayalam with utmost simplicity. Each word is crystal clear. He is not bent on intellectual pretensions."

The clear language, sans any frills and shorn of any intellectual pretension, and the "simple yet not-so-simple narrative" of his first novel has charmed many a reader in Kerala. The critics seem to have liked it too, which is why the English translation of the book is on the shortlist of Crossword Book Awards

A man who dips his pen in the inkpot of his remembrances, he declared that death is a word found missing from his diaries, when Manoj Nair met him for an interview. Later, in the course of the interview, Manoj learnt that he's never kept a diary. Excerpts from the interview:

Why did you change the title of the book from Banquet of Memories to The Village Beyond Time?

I had nothing to do with it. It was the decision of the publishers. When Tarun (Tejpal of India Ink) suggested the title I agreed. Who would be interested in the obscure memories of a Malayalam newspaper journalist, I asked myself. The village beyond time sounded more melodious and captured the essence of the work.

Some critics have expressed reservation against the explicit use of sex throughout the book?

They have not been able to differentiate between sex and sexuality. I got very good reviews but some reviewers (even in Outlook) read my book wrongly. I was not happy with the review your magazine published even though it had only nice things to say. They brought my book in close proximity to pornography. I object to that. My book explored the inherent but hidden sexuality in people living in a joint family system and in rural areas of Kerala. Pornography, even the kind shown in our popular cinema is anathema to me. My writings explore the aesthetic side of sex. It ventures out to that shade of human emotion. N. Ram (th editor of Frontline),a non-Malayali, on first reading the manuscript of the translation was very impressed.

Why just the sexuality in the rural milieu...

No. My book was about other things too. I laid emphasis on this because I had been greatly disturbed by these bare truths that no one dared to speak of. When the book was published in Malayalam there were two kinds of reactions from my relatives. There were some who questioned the need for writing such things and there were some others who said with a smirk on their face: "Not all! There are even far more outrageous things than what you have illustrated." Well, To both types my reply was: thank god those things escaped my eye. As for sex, I wrote this piece for for their erotic reader section. It is all about the aesthetics of sex. I am not interested in the graphics of the term, the physicality...when I talk about sex I have in mind some images — like that of a village woman bathing in the temple pond illuminated by a thousand lamps.

Was the tehelka piece written to clarify this?

No. They came and asked me. I don't have to clarify anything. In the same section of the website Paul Zacharia has written a short story (Illuminations). That, I felt, was purely pornographic. I told him what I felt and asked him why he had written such a stupid story. It created such a furore when translated into Malayalam because nobody expected this from a writer of his stature. He replied that he had taken the craft as a challenge. I told him that is a wrong approach towards writing. Your art should be your accomplice and not your foe whom you challenge to a duel.

When the book was serialised in the Malayalam periodical Kalakaumudi there were mixed reactions in Kerala. I recall, there were some who scoffed it off with disdain questioning your literary credentials...

You will always find critics with very high standards in Kerala. We, Malayalis, are far too aware of the happenings in world literature for our own good and as a result very demanding of our writers. But I remember the number of people who had good things to say about it outnumbered the ones who dismissed the effort. For a Malayalam work translated into English it got a fair amount of reviews. And I never imagined it would be a work of literature. I never wrote it with that end in mind. I just put down all the images that were stored in my mind. It has been made into a TV serial which was very well received by viewers in Kerala.

When did you begin writing and why did you choose to write fiction?

I must have started in 1987 and I was through with it by 1989. At that time I was an editor with Mathrubhumi group of publications. I and began dabbling with this fictionalised account of images from my childhood as a deviation from my routine work. I used to show whatever I wrote to O.V. Vijayan. He was a great inspiration. Sometimes I would read out what I wrote over the telephone. He would then ask me to go over to his place where he would sit together and polish the stuff. 'Talking over the telephone is not enough. Come here', he would say. Vijayan used to devote lot of time to me. He even said once " I have enough time for you." That has been the greatest compliment I have received in my life. When I began writing I never intended to hurt anyone. Neither did I intend to write a novel. But Vijayan egged me on. If the novel had many dark characters then curse the circumstances that created them. My book was fictional to the extent that I had changed the names and situations. But the characters were all real. The village boy can be identified (smiles mischievously).

Had you been carrying this novel in your mind since long?

The images that I have shaped with my words which you get to read have been there since I learnt to remember things. Each time I went back to my village in Malabar, after coming to Delhi and working as a journalist, my memories were refreshed. I would see them all over again. This continued for quite some time. And a pattern set in. I had to put them all down at sometime or the other. Else, I would have gone bust. My professional life did not allow me to pen them earlier. I could sit down at only at night after 11 p.m. and write as much as I could. Since it was being serialised in a periodical, the writing part was easier. I mean the physical act. I had to finish one chapter after the other. Putting a chapter behind me would give me a breather till the next week.

...And then what happened?

Once I had finished writing, I showed it to Prof M. Leelavati, critic and my teacher. Leelavati teacher's reaction to the manuscript was incredible. She sat down and made some overnight corrections. Then she asked me to go ahead and publish it.

What were the other reactions?

People were surprised with my capability to recall from memory. They asked me if I had been taking down notes. I replied I don't do that. Even my forthcoming book about Delhi's 50 years — the events and experiences that I have come across during my stay here — is written straight from my memory. I have never written anything in my diary. In fact, I don't keep one. Never had one. The first time I came across that word was when I came to Delhi. Even now I depend on my memory. People who have read the manuscript of Delhi have been surprised by the precise details and their accuracies. I write when I travel too. I keep a notebook not a diary to write and not to keep notes. Even in my journalistic life I never kept notes. Interviewing people, reporting events all have come from my memory.

Apart from Vijayan, Leelavati who else helped you with The Village...

N. Ram. When I showed him the manuscript he said: "I'd like to go through the book again and make some corrections. He meant editing. Copy editing you know. And he did it in an incredibly short time. That also helped me.

Why? Was the translation not upto the mark? Were you unhappy with it?

Not at all. Nothing of that sort. Ram had actually volunteered to do it. Because he felt he could improve upon it. The translation was excellent. In spite of the fact that it all came about perchance. I met her somewhere and we talked. We discovered that we belonged to the same area in Kerala and she could identify with the situations and events in the original. She asked me if she could translate it into English. I asked her to go ahead and sent her a copy. We never met after that.

The translation took its own time and I had almost forgotten about it when it landed one day in the post. She completed it and sent it to me. We sat down together for two hours after that and the translated book was ready for press. I am very pleased with her translation. She has captured the feel of the book entirely. Nothing has slipped between her fingers. She has done an excellent job.

Good enough to win the prize...

I can't say that. Winning prizes and awards are things you imagine, dream of. If that has to happen it will. You cannot sit down and wait with crossed fingers... It will come on its own.

What do you think of the other shortlisted writers? Have you read them?

Mahashweta Devi is a great writer. To share a platform with her is a great honour. I have'nt read this book (Tuti Mir) of hers. Neither have I read the others.

>Do you think it is important enough to win this prize? Let me put it this way: would you be disappointed if you did not get the prize?

It is a prize still in its infancy. But slowly it is gaining the stature of Jnanpith and the Saraswati Samman. But if I don't get it I will not be disappointed. Its a good thing that they have prize for translations. I am happy about that.

Why do you say that?

Tell me, how else would the world get to know that writers like us do exist? Look at Malayalam literature. It is so rich but how many Malayalam writers does the world know? You can count them on your fingers. How many Malayalam poets does the world know? None. To be recognised as a writer in India you have to be published in English and preferably by a foreign publisher. Else you have to suffer the utterances of people like Rushdie. Great man that he is, for him the only literature produced by Indians between 1947-1997 is in English. That man is ridiculous. How can you write 1,500 words about Indian literature or even Indian literature in English for that matter or any literature and then in the write-up be dismissive about things you are not aware of? You can write about the books that you have read but not ignore the existence of those you have not even come across or bothered to find out about.

So you must be happy that Amitava Ghosh withdrew his book from the Commonwealth Prize...

Yes. I feel vindicated. It's high time somebody took that bold stand. Why should we accept all that they dish out to us. Even the word vernacular which they use is a colonial term and very demeaning.

Why is this happening?

To a large extent the writers in other Indian languages are responsible for this situation. They themselves feel inferior to those who write in English. They put them all on a pedestal and look up to them from down below. This should not be happening. They should have some pride, self-esteem, self belief. Some of them do it for places of position in institutions and others are too humble to realise that they could perhaps be better writers. I remember an instance when Malayalam poet Vallathol (known to Malayalis as Mahakavi) was invited to a function where the governor was the chief guest. There were three chairs on the stage and the one in the middle was reserved for the governor. Vallathol arrived at the function earlier than the governor. He looked at the stage and on spotting the empty chair in the centre went up without hesitation and sat on it. Nobody dared to say anything. The governor, when he arrived, had to occupy the chair to the left. That is self-belief. There is a poem by Vayalar in which he hints there may not be a better versifier than he in this world. True that the lines may smack of arrogance but that is ok if you are extremely talented. when it comes to talent in our Indian languages, there are umpteen writers who could be miles ahead of any of these Indian writers writing in English, whether it may be in their vision, canvas or sheer writing skills. Tell me has Rushdie produced anything as genuine and intense as Midnight's Children?

How do you think writers in other Indian languages can claim their place in world literature?

Well. There are bad times and good times. These are bad times. We had better times when Tagore won the Noble Prize. So if a work deserves attention it will get it, albeit belatedly. A writer if he is strong will withstand all opposition. Take the case of poet G. Shankara Kurup. There were three important works in Malayalam literature criticising his works, ripping him apart. All the works were great and written by very credible writers. But were they able to even inflict a minor scar on G's works? He went on to win the Jnanpith award.

What happens next now that your book has been shortlisted for an important prize?

My book about death. I have tentatively called it Curtains not yet. But the title could be decided by my publishers. I don't know. It is a book about survival. Death is the main character and I am the other.

Why death?

I have been amused by the way death has chased me time and again. After a number of attempts it tried to trap me once in mid-air. There was this air crash on May 31st 1973. I survived that miraculously. I vanquished him. Then 20 years later he caught up with me again. But again I slipped out from his clutches. Before I was through with celebrating that triumph of mine, he appeared yet again, ambushing me from behind the bushes. But am I going to give in that easily? I am firm in my resolve. This one thing in my life that I (and only me) am going to decide. Not Him. The book is all about my battles and victories over the arrogant and obstinate character called Death. I am, in fact, very excited about the project

Do you mean to say you will remain immortal?

No. I mean the time to die will be decided by me. Till as long as I can.

On dying, when that happens, how will you like to be remembered? As a writer or as a journalist?

I have always been a journalist and I would like to be known as a journalist. Look at world literature. there are so many writers who were journalists. Hemingway, Marquez....

But we call them authors and not journalists...

I don't believe in categorisation. My first editor, N.V Krishna Warrier, had once told me that you write and it will make you a writer... My works in journalism are also literature so how does that leave me out. I have the instincts of a journalist. From my childhood I have been observing things around me and reporting them in my mind. Perhaps those instincts stood me in good stead later. When the Sahitya Akademi gave me an award for my work Pathrapravarthanam Oru Yathra (Journalism, a journey) they gave it to me in the category of Miscellaneous. That was amusing. They could not bracket it in essays because there was semi-fiction involved here; they could not call it a travelogue though the title suggested so — and it was mostly written in a vein of travelogue — because unlike others whose travelogues are about places they visit writing about the people and culture, mine was reportage — about the events and experiences in my life while I accompanied leaders like Lal Bahadur Shashtri, V.K. Krishna Menon...on their tours in India and abroad. I was a witness to the Tashkent Declaration. But I didn't write about the monuments of China. I told the Akademi: as long as you don't categorise my work as homogenous it is alright by me.

My writings, like my memories, are an assortment of images printed in my mind. They are a collection of words, sentences and paragraphs formed with the little abilities that I have at my disposal. Let the readers decide the rest. For the time being it is a battle. Death! here I am. Ready for a fight to the finish.


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