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Pantheon Revisited

freshly harvested rice fieldsThe rice fields wear a shorn look; the paddy stalks have been freshly harvested. Only the scalp remains, vacant green lots stretching to the far horizon. Lily-clogged streams, once obscured by rampant foliage, bask in the evening sun. Wind and water achieve a new communion here this time of year. Mid-field, banana plants huddle in close clusters. Bordering the road, where the fields begin, coconut trees arched over a canal stare unblinking at their images mirrored in the water. Abruptly, the air is freckled with raindrops, gentle and translucent.

Thakazhi This is Thakazhi country. The waterlogged setting that forms a continuous metaphor in his writings; the verdant backdrop against which Kerala's turbulent social history plays itself out. The fields of Kuttanad, its meandering waterways, rustic ethos and burgeoning political consciousness have fertilised the imagination of an epochal writer whose works have been acclaimed as much for their lyrical power and penetrating insights as their avowed social content and rootedness. Thakazhi's novels calibrate the movement of history across a landscape at once placid and eruptive, where dualities coexist and the poles of paradox yield sudden luminous meanings like the arc between two electrodes.

Thakazhi was besotted by Kuttanad and its people. The Thakazhi persona - his clothes, conversation, concerns, lifestyle - drew upon a distinct farmer tradition. "I come from a long line of farmers," he liked to say.

In a sense, Thakazhi's demise on 10th April 1999 was the death of the Malayalam novel itself. On my last visit to the writer at his home in Kuttanad, I found him reclining in an easy chair in the living room, facing the doorway, filling his eyes long and deep with a view of the paddy fields. It was late afternoon and Thakazhi articulated his commitment to his roots: "Kuttanad is the place I know intimately. If I am asked to portray the dining hall of a great industrialist, I would not feel comfortable doing it. But ask me to describe the hut of a poor villager, I will readily do it." The words were loaded with conviction. His reflex for the milieu was near filial.

I remember vividly the chronology of events of that late afternoon several years ago. A man had appeared on the doorstep. "I heard they are making a film about you, Thakazhi chettan," said the stranger, umbrella in hand. "Where is the shooting?" Thakazhi offered directions and the man left. He looked pensive: "I have a special relationship with the rural people. I live with them. All my dealings are with them."

That special relationship was the writer's lifeblood. Thakazhi spent a lot of time with the common folk of the village near his home, listening keenly to their problems. Many of them inhabit his pages. The identification is complete: the writer entrenched in an agrarian milieu, snug in a symbiotic relationship with its people, drawing from their lives with clinical objectivity for his themes ("I have no personal commitment with my characters") and in turn bestowing them with a voice. He was their great articulator who, ascending to allegory, turned their little village into an epic stage to enact the history of the multicultural people of Kerala.

In many ways, his award-winning book Kayar (Coir) can be said to symbolise the pinnacle of Thakazhi's evolution as a writer. True, his oeuvre of 40 novels and several volumes of short stories boasts books that have achieved a higher scale of popular success. Chemmeen (Prawns) made him a household name and the film ran to packed houses. Harper and Row brought out an American edition. The book has been translated into several European languages. Other less familiar novels too have earned recognition abroad. Thottiyude Makan (Scavenger's Son) has been translated into the Japanese; Jeevitham Sundaramanu Pakshe .. (Life is beautiful but .. ) is read in Bulgaria.

Kayar's trajectory has been less dramatic. It still awaits a competent English translation (an early effort lies bogged in controversy). Its readership appeal is subdued when gauged in terms of Chemmeen. Yet, Kayar has an authority and magnitude that sets it apart from Thakazhi's other books, indeed most contemporary Malayalam novels.

The revolutionary aspect of Kayar is that it breaks away from the conventional mode of story-telling that leans unabashedly on Western narrative techniques. "Why are we after the Western writers? Why must we borrow their methods?" Thakazhi repeated to me the questions that he had posed some time ago to a seminar audience in Delhi, brought together by the Sahitya Akademi." Indian life must be portrayed the Indian way. To recreate our lives we must employ our own forms. We have them in the Panchatantra, the Kathaprasamgam, the Mahabharata. We always had our ways of telling stories but we abandoned them for Western techniques."

This is the key perspective from which Kayar must be approached. It also represents Thakazhi's most significant contribution to the Malayalam novel form. By falling back on indigenous narrative modes, he gave the novel genre a new individuality and a culture its own voice. "The French called Chemmeen an Indian fable. The reason is that the form is Western. Kayar is different. It is told in an Indian way. Every culture has its own form," Thakazhi told me.

Kayar derives its narrative method from the Mahabharata epic. The mode is episodic: history encapsulated through a series of narratives flowing from a gallery of characters. Thakazhi described the book as a social document that embodies the "evolution of Kerala through human stories." Its sweep covers 250 years of Kerala life hinging around six generations of characters.

The novel has one identifiable pivotal theme: man's hunger for land. The complexities of this relationship - its joys and traumas, its dialectic-- form the fabric of the narrative. "My book has no hero or heroine in the conventional sense. The land is the heroine. And society the hero." 

"Malayalis have always had a hunger for land," he explained, going down the ages to an era evoked in the book's early pages. "They wanted to own it, till it, grow things on it, fight for it. There was a struggle to produce more and there were land disputes. So the Maharaja brought in land classification, the first land reform measure. Tax was paid in kind then. There were no banks at that time. The rich people of the village loaned out paddy, not money, which was returned in kind with interest."

Kayar is thus an index of social change. It begins from the time the first land legislation was promulgated 150 years ago and leaves off in the aftermath of the 1970 land reforms law, two landmark events that span a period of momentous and cataclysmic change, when the picture of society never looked the same again.

It is a splendid parade of images. Of benevolent monarchs tempering a hedonistic legacy with social commitment, dissolute feudal overlords who represent cesspools of decadent caste consciousness; great bustling temples that serve as the vortex of the politics of the day; the heyday and gradual collapse of the Marumakkathayam family system of the Nairs which accorded pre-eminence to the female; the hills of central Travancore crested with the first rubber trees and tea bushes, precursors of the flourishing plantation economy that was to be; the onset of mechanisation as the Kuttanad farmer, stranded below sea-level, besieged by encroaching waters, watched in awe the magic of the motor that de-watered his field; the harijan heroes who lay themselves down to be entombed under mud and clay as part of the ritual that attended the construction of barricades to stave off the belligerent backwaters; the filling up of the water tracts to form the first roads. Kayar teems with vignettes of a society in transition.

Perhaps the boldest image, the one crafted with fine precision and in graphic detail, springs from the phenomenon that altered the face of society in Kerala. Kayar mirrors the communist movement from its origins - the first stirrings of consciousness among the coir workers of Alappuzha and the agricultural workers of Kuttanad - to the formation in 1957 of the first elected communist government in the world and on to the early '70s which marked the decade of progressive legislation. On the way it looks at the Naxalite movement, that turbulent footnote in the state's history, outlining the lives of its early protagonists.

Thakazhi does not pussyfoot around the grim historical ironies that the communist movement came face to face with. The land legislation of the '70s changed the class structure of society. The feudal order had been dismantled. The landless became landed. Organised labour began to emerge as a force. The middle class had become a nebulous entity. The caste elite of yesteryear - the Namboodiris and the Nairs - were going into the fields to till. The proletariat of yesterday had become the bourgeoisie.

And here was the rub. The cruel irony of the land reforms movement was that the poor peasant, who responded to communist stimuli, achieved an upward social mobility that led him squarely towards the stereotype of the rich peasant. Thus, the prime beneficiary of communist influence had now been alienated from that influence and turned instead upon the agricultural worker in an unexpected reversal of historical roles. A paradox that remains unresolved through the pages of history.

At the heart of the maelstrom is one explosive issue: land. Thakazhi plots the convulsions of history with patient zeal. In his later writing Thakazhi continued to explore the dilemmas that challenge the land reforms movement and the human contradictions that dog the communist impetus.

The land laws were aimed at pushing productivity. What the law framers did not foresee was the stagnation that eventually set in following the legislation. One reason for reduced productivity was the fragmentation of land, a problem raised in the closing chapters of Kayar but explored more fully in  his subsequent writing

"Individual reality is seldom taken into consideration by political ideology. It may not be totally advisable or possible to take it into account. But it must be borne in mind that the individual makes up society, that without the individual, social life is impossible," Thakazhi explained.

It would be grossly immature to perceive these explorations as an onslaught on the communist establishment. Thakazhi's leftwing credentials dated back to his youth when, as a lawyer gripped by ennui, he picked up a copy of Das Kapital at the public library in Trivandrum. "It was during this period that I developed my leftwing ideas. I respect Marxism as a system of social analysis and a yardstick to assess social change. My stand is definitely Marxist. But I am not a slogan-shouting party member," Thakazhi was at pains to point out to me. 

As a student, Thakazhi pursued law and, after a brief stint of journalism, set up practice in Trivandrum where he frequented the public library. In addition to Marx, he felt drawn by Freudian psychoanalysis. "Freud and Marx opened up new worlds to me, though this is not reflected in my major works," he pointed out. It was also then that he acquainted himself with the French and Russian classics.

He shifted base to Alappuzha and the proximity to Kuttanad perhaps kindled his instinct to write. During this phase he pursued three vocations - law, farming and writing - side by side. The genesis of Kayar can be traced to this period. 

Thakazhi recalled the event: "A big property dispute case was on and I was deputed by my senior to look for a record of land legislation that happened 135 years ago. I scanned the records at the taluk office and found what I wanted. Along with it a world of over 200 years was revealed to me through the records." The dust-choked documents contained scintillating case histories of fraud and avarice, of charlatans acquiring wealth, of whole families disintegrating, of people in authority demanding bribes. A human saga spanning two centuries lay buried in those records. And land was the driving force. 

The theme for a novel suggested itself. "Two hundred and fifty years of Kerala life flowed past my mind's eye. But I needed a form. I could find no help from the Western classics," Thakazhi reminisced. For years he carried the "germ" inside his head.

One night, as he lay sleepless in bed, the Mahabharata epic with its episodic structure drifted to his mind as a possibility. The next day he started work on Kayar. It took him three years to complete the book. With Kayar, Thakazhi gained a vantage point in history. As an innovative novelist conscious of evolving forms and techniques, he stayed close to contemporary concerns. As a writer who had travelled the distance between epochs, who had known the claustrophobia of monarchy and the anarchies of latterday democracy all in one milieu, Thakazhi possessed a vision that is best described by the novel's title word Kayar… in the author's words: "It can be twined in any direction, to any length, like man's history, either forwards or backwards." This could well be a description of Thakazhi's vision as a writer.

Thakazhi's corpus of work covers a broad spectrum of themes from wayward adolescence to the problems of old age. His recognition as a writer rests largely on novels with a strong social or ideological content or which explore the lives of society's fringe characters. Randidangazhi (Two Measures)  charts the development of the agricultural workers movement in Kuttanad. Noted for its craftsmanship, the novel celebrates the "march of the Red Flag" and the onset of awareness among impoverished harijan workers. It has been translated into several Indian and European languages.

Thottiyude Makan (Scavengers Son) made waves when it appeared because of its unusual theme. It is set at a time preceding the advent of modern
sanitation when human excreta was carried away on the heads of 'scavengers' who went from house to house. The novel emphasises that love blossoms even in such dire environs and, in a scene that possibly shocked middle class sensibilities, depicts a scavenger couple making passionate love inside a night soil depot.

Chemmeen is a romantic tale laced with tragedy, set against the coastal belt and centred around the lives of fisherfolk. The storyline derives from the folk superstition that a fisherman's survival at sea is linked to his wife's chastity while he is away. The plot deals with the clandestine love between a fisherman's wife and a fish trader. The novel ends with their bodies being washed ashore. It is a simple unpretentious tale that was lapped up by the public, but treated with some reservation in literary circles. 

Kayar is arguably Thakazhi's most audacious work. Several features separate it from the rest. Its apparent patternlessness is a departure from the carefully crafted structure of the other novels. Many describe the book as cumbersome and fatiguing, with a proliferation of characters hard to keep track of. But these are the traits that draw it closer to life, that invest it with an authenticity and earthiness that constitute its appeal. As Thakazhi said: "To make a story is easy. But to make a story out of life - that is the real challenge. It is truer to portray life as it is."  

In his 1983 preface to Kayar, Thakazhi says his novel is not the product of conscious planning. The characters and events are not preconceived but take birth at the moment of writing. The author's life was touched by this randomness. He  wove no mythology around himself, projected no writer's idiosyncrasies as his trade mark. He betrayed no signs of infatuation with his public image as one of the dominant writers of the literary scene in Kerala.

The author at work conveyed an image of simplicity: a board placed across the arms of an easy chair provided his writing surface. He did not belong to the school of hard-driving writers who must put in a quantum of words each day. Thakazhi carried a theme around in his head, allowing it a long period of gestation, picking up his pen only when the urge to write came. The act of writing was more a visitation from within.

Towards the end, Thakazhi  consciously narrowed the precincts of his life. His hands and feet had  started to trouble him. He preferred to spend his time under the watchful care of his family. But he still made his round of the locality each morning. It was a call he had to answer. The common folk of Kuttanad flocked to his door. The smell of the fields was ever at his nostrils.

But poignancy lurked within. Towards the close of Kayar, nobody turns to the land as the season for cultivation draws near. "Nobody wants it?" a man asks. Cultivation had become a losing proposition.

"Kayar is a love tragedy," Thakazhi told me wistfully as I got up to leave. "Society is the lover, land the beloved. They separate." The irony hit me hard at that moment. As Thakazhi gazed out across the rice fields, the communion was palpable and profoundly moving. Thakazhi's relationship with Kuttanad was triumphant. And Kayar celebrates that triumph.

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