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Pantheon Revisited


BasheerThe rains had muddied the track leading up to the house. Fathomless puddles and slippery slush confounded the route, recalling the harsh emotional terrain of a Basheer story.

The sense of fun, his other vital characteristic, waited just ahead; a dog lay curled at the gate. "Watch out", Basheer warned me. The dog was apt to tear a leg off visitors but spare the other for them to hobble around on. I didn't know whether to take the warning seriously or not.

Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer was seated crosslegged on the polished black stone sill in his stately tiled home in Beypore, in the outskirts of Kozhikode in Kerala. He surveyed me with a friendly patriarchal air. I couldn't help thinking that, bare-bodied and wizened, he evoked the stark image of the characters who inhabit his stories, men gnarled by harsh experience, braving adversity with tenacity and hope.

I was to discover in the course of my visit that under the rough exterior lurked an expansive sentimental spirit, a warm vulnerable man governed by a humanist code that transcended the divisive hierarchies of caste, creed and religion. A writer with a quicksilver imagination that soared beyond the walls that separate men and cultures, walls that interrupt the dialogue of hearts stranded in solitude's dungeons.

The irony was almost sadistic. Mathilukal (Walls). Basheer's popular novel of prison life, had drawn the author into the vortex of an unseemly controversy twenty-five years after it was first published. A recent work of criticism had accused Basheer of lifting bodily from Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon to portray jail life. Basheer readers reacted to the plagiarism charge with cries of blasphemy. And for a while all hell appeared to break loose as the state's local dailies frontpaged intense debates on the issue conducted by noted intellectuals and writers. The literary establishment was in ferment.

I had gone to Beypore to hear him out. Relaxed in his private habitat, Basheer met the charge with equanimity. "There is no similarity between my book and Arthur Koestler's. I vaguely recall reading it once. It is absurd to say that the two novels are alike because they treat the same theme of prison life. Man has one head, two arms and two legs. Does it mean all men are therefore similar?"

Basheer's logic was compelling. Mathilukal does deal with prison life but not even the distinguished Malayalam professor Guptan Nair, who wrote the foreword to the controversial book of criticism, accepted the claim that Basheer had pilfered jail sequences from Koestler. But there were those who felt the overlaps were uncanny.

For example, Koestler's main character Rubashov asks the warder why he was left out at breakfast. Basheer's character asks the same question of his warder. Then again, the preoccupation of Koestler's character with the "scent of a woman's body" finds echoes in an obsessive concern with the same thing in Basheer's character. Both novels refer to the bright light shining in the corridor at night outside the cell door.

It might be argued that jails everywhere have certain common features that are inescapable when prison life serves as a writer's theme. It is unrealistic to rule out overlaps in physical detail when two writers depict the same setting. The pivotal sequence in Mathilukal, which represents its denouement, is the voice behind the wall, the faceless woman who becomes the focal point for the convict leading a solitary cell life.

The secret code of communication between the man and the woman separated by a wall, the branches and twigs that waft over it to indicate her presence, the fixing of a rendezvous at the prison hospital, the release of the man on the crucial day, the desperate futility of the branches floating over the wall in the end.

None of this occurs in Arthur Koestler's book. This is the core sequence in Basheer's Mathilukal, the one that lifts the story to its highest emotional pitch, that gives the tale its distinctive haunting quality. 

Perhaps there is a need to exercise caution when sticking the plagiarism tag on established writers whose contributions have weathered the test of time and critical scrutiny. There is as much a need perhaps to redefine 'plagiarism' in the context of literature. As one critic put it, Bernard Shaw owes a debt to Shakespeare, as indeed do most playwrights. An idea or theme contained in a literary work can fertilise the imagination of another writer to be born anew in a different form, a different milieu. The transmutation takes place largely in the subconscious. Which writer does not have echoes of other works in his writing? An unscrupulous brandishing of the plagiarism charge would see T.S. Eliot being accused of stealing from French symbolist Jules La Forgue, or Saul Bellow from William Faulkner. The list goes on.

In recent times, lesser novelists in Kerala have been exposed for virtually paraphrasing chunks from works in other languages and passing them off as their own. Since then, literary scalp-hunting had become something of a pastime among ambitious fledgling critics. The danger is that this indiscriminate lampooning could threaten the literary legacy of major writers and impoverish culture.

I felt the onslaught on Basheer was a sympton of this heinous trend. As a chronicle of prison experience, Mathilukal is vindicated by history. Basheer was jailed in the early 1930s for writings that the Diwan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, described as secessionist. He was arrested at Kottayam and languished as an undertrial for the next year and a half in a police lock-up in Kollam.

As a ploy to expedite his case, Basheer had staged a sit-in. It worked. The court fined him one thousand rupees and sentenced him to two years in prison in Trivandrum Central Jail, which became the setting for Mathilukal.

As we spoke, Basheer relived that period: "The jailer and the superintendent became my friends. I was interested in horticulture. They gave me a knife. In front of my cell was a rose garden."

And how did the idea for a book come to him? "One day I was trying to catch a squirrel. Suddenly a woman's voice from beyond the compound wall asked: 'Who is whistling over there?"

Basheer continued: "Her name was Narayani. She was 22-years-old and serving a life sentence. I fell in love with her."

They never came face to face. On the day they planned to meet at the prison hospital, Basheer was released. He never had a chance to tell her.

This episode in Basheer's life became the theme of noted filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan's award-winning film, a fact that possibly drew disproportionate attention to the critical work that called Basheer a plagiarist.

The controversy left no dent on Basheer's stature. Even his fiercest critics acknowledge his overwhelming contribution as a chronicler of Muslim mores in Kerala. His best works deal with the lives of Muslim families but this by no means limits their appeal. On the other hand, the Muslim component in his stories has ensured for them a wider audience curious about an unfamiliar ethos.

The Muslim milieu that forms the backdrop in Basheer's stories heightens their universal human content. The Muslim underclass, stranded in poverty and illiteracy and shackled to superstition, is a repository of pathos. Basheer taps this source to produce some of the most heart-wrenching stories of human suffering ever written.

He captures the psychological traumas that ravage impoverished Muslim families. Sometimes, it is a slice of his own life that he unfolds. The moving story of star-crossed lovers Majid and Sudhra in the autobiographical Balyakala Sakhi (Childhood Friend), first published in 1944, packs in a simple straightforward narrative such considerable emotional intensity that the novel as a genre transcends its cerebral frontiers and acquires the passionate power to move, to churn the consciousness of the reader into a new awareness. Basheer's understanding of the working of human emotions puts him ahead of the class of intellectual writers who employ the novel form clinically as an instrument of social analysis.

Basheer steered clear of ideology. He kept his distance from the progressive writers movement with its distinct leftwing tilt which threw up a whole generation of writers in Kerala proclaiming their social commitment.

I listened as he proclaimed his critique of communism: "I am not attracted by Marxism because I don't see the world that way, Marxism is okay to preach. It cannot be practised in the true sense. Who does not wish to own property? Besides, man is not the only inhabitant on earth. Is there class struggle among animals? They live by nature's code."

Basheer liked to see himself as a humanist. The communist ideology repelled him because love, faith and compassion seem to have no place in it. "When a man is hungry, he says "I" am hungry. He does not say the communist party is hungry."

Hunger was a theme Basheer had experienced first hand. "When I first started to write fifty years ago, I had no money to buy the ink to fill my pen. You could get a meal those days with four annas. I could not afford a meal. I became bald because of hunger. Later, I bought this land with the money I earned from my writing."

Clearly, I was in the presence of a writer who stood firm in the conviction of his own life experience. That social equality is a myth the communists perpetuate to ensure their own relevance, that mankind is not equally endowed in terms of talent and attributes, that economic equality will never happen as long as men are governed by self-interest, that the innate selfishness of man is a fundamental of human history.

This is not to say that Basheer ignored social reform as a theme in his writings. In Inteppuppake Oranaendarnnu (My Grandpa had an Elephant), published in 1951 and widely regarded as his most outstanding work, the worldlywise young poet Nisar Ahamed seeks to wean the na´ve Kunjupattumma out of her superstitious beliefs. The novel is a critique of antiquated Muslim customs.

But this is only one strand in the book. It is integrated with several other elements, including romance and comedy, which invest the work with a complex structure when compared to the linear narrative mode of Basheer's other stories.

Author with BasheerBasheer's style has a misleading simplicity; misleading because it hides the effort of craftsmanship that has gone into it. As a writer, Basheer was ever at pains to be simple and varied in his approach. The short sentences of Balyakala Sakhi give way to more complex sentence structures in Inteppuppake Oranaendarnnu or, his other acclaimed novel, Pattummaayde Adu (Pattumma's Goat), published in 1959.

The love theme is a recurrent concern in much of Basheer's writing, yet his approach to it is far from sentimental. In the emotionally charged story of Majid and Sudhra, humour is used at critical junctures to save the narrative from becoming maudlin. Indeed, most of his tales pulsate with humour, as indispensable an item to Basheer as a walking stick is to a blind man. "Laughter is God's special gift," he liked to say.

There is in literary circles a crisis of definition as to whether Basheer is primarily a short story writer or a novelist. To which Basheer replied that he never planned the structure of a story when he sat down to write it. The publisher decided its form. In any case, when Basheer was elected a Fellow of the Sahitya Akademi of India, the citation referred to him as an eminent Malayalam novelist.

Basheer led a varied life. His early years were marked by struggle. His father was a timber merchant who spent long periods away from home. His mother often accompanied him, leaving young Basheer in the care of sundry women. Basheer liked to jest about his secular credentials while recalling that phase: "I have suckled the breasts of Hindu and Christian women as a baby. So I'm told".

As a young man he travelled extensively around the country, spending time in the exotic company of Hindu ascetics and Muslim sufis in the Himalayan foothills. Basheer attribued a shaping influence to that interaction. He started his writing career around 1937 while in his early thirties. His Malayalam was weak when he began and his early writings were in Hindi and English.

Today, Basheer is acknowledged as the master of an earthy conversational style that stays close to the colloquial idiom of the common Muslims of Malabar. That is his strength. Combined with his skills as a humorist and a tragedienne, it invests Basheer with classical stature as a writer.

The man was singularly free from pomp or ostentation. The doors of his home were open to the wayfarer. The local folk referred to him as guru. The media dubbed him the Sultan of Beypore.

Basheer was unaffected by all the attention. He liked to savour the flora and fauna around his home. When the muse beckoned, he would draw his easy chair out in the garden and write under the shade of his favourite tree with music playing from an old gramophone. The way he had done it down the years.

His oeuvre is not large, 35 slim volumes, but his readership is multitudinous. The people who came to his doorstep often interrupted his writing, but he did not mind. He was as brilliant a reconteur as he was a writer. And love was an important word in his personal lexicon. He had a request as we parted in the disintegrating dusk: "Please make this your last line: I love the whole universe."

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