Genius Extraordinaire- Reading VKN


My brother had praised VKN. For me, that was recommendation good enough. I got a 1400 paged treasure trove of his selected stories in Malayalam.

How do you define this particular writing? Satire mixed with erudition , scoop in lust and learning and wickedness, add liberal doses of human relations, bureaucracy, politics, wordplay, languages , world travel, quaint Kerala humour, food , and I am still fumbling for words. Ok, Start again:  Men, women,  alcohol, courts, religion,  journalism, youth, old age, all sorts of pranks..

This is brilliance of a spectacular order, an art of writing that deserves to be preserved…I must have captured less than one percent by now. Who do you compare him with? Incomparable. Maverick.

VadakkeKootale Narayanan Kutty Nair, aka VKN was born in 1932. He worked as a journalist in Delhi for around ten years. In the introduction to his works, DC Books quotes Paul Zacharia:

( Translating) “He rebuilt the language in the workshop of humorous modernism, having a universal appeal. The ingredients he used were unique: a sense of history which was razor sharp and deep, a very modern world view with an intelligence rather ineffable; the intellectual brilliance of an enfant terrible to overturn  and expose the hypocrisies of traditional literature styles, a skill to meld in spoken language into the modern architecture of language as precisely as a  time bomb ticking away , the pleasant ingenuousness of a good journalist- that is how VKN created this wondrous home for Malayalam. Like a master of warfare, who realises that the body itself becomes the watchful eye, with the efficacy of a historian knowing the nerve centres, VKN showed how to turn upside down, a  conforming traditional language like Malayalam, by toppling the very culture itself…Travelling through VKN-territory,is like stepping across a veritable minefield: one does not know where the hidden explosives are spread out- to devastate the reader…

( Malayala Manorama Annual Issue, 2000)


Excerpts from the interview with VKN by Paul Zacharia: (Which brings to mind that great minds are truly global in perspective… And are true raconteurs!)

* Our conversation turned from Richard Armour to James Thurber. VKN told us that when Thurber was writing the column, “Talk of the Town” in the NewYorker , the famous Indian dancer Balasaraswati visited NewYork.She stayed in Waldorf Astoria. Thurber went to interview her and she ex posited in great length on Mudras. Thurber wrote in his column, “Finally the Mudras were too much for us.So we exchanged polite Mudras and left.”

VKN narrated a famous sentence from Malcolm Muggeridge, who also worked in Calcutta as the Assistant Editor of Statesman. On daily news papers, he said, “Edited, processed, printed, folded, rushed to the readers- only to die on the breakfast table.”

Apparently Muggeridge had worked with Kingsley Martin in the ‘ Manchester Guardian.’ Martin asked Muggeridge, “What’s our line on capital?” Muggeridge, who was once a part of M.15, said, “The same as on capital punishment.”

On his writing: “My turning  point was when I went to the Moor market of Madras and bought ten kilos of old issues of Punch magazine. Then I understood that all that I had read till then was not English.E.V.Knox was writing for Punch then…”

On  writers: “Hemingway said  that  he went through Time and Newsweek to better his English. And the Bible. He got the rhythm of language from these apparently…Hemingway refused to visit Stockholm for his Nobel prize. He was fishing in Havana on that day. When Kennedy invited him for dinner at the White House, he apparently retorted,’Washington is one hell of a long way to go to eat.’

VKN quoted a sentence from John Gunther’s book Inside South America:’In Chile, you have to walk carefully, because you are likely to fall into the sea.’ The average width of Chile was apparently 35 km!

On Keynes: Once Bertrand Russell and Keynes were playing cards when Keynes was summoned to the PM residence. Keynes cycled his way there. Reaching there he said, “The only solution is to print paper  money and give jobs to the labour.”  Then someone asked, “But what will happen in the long run?” That provoked Keynes’s famous retort: ” In the long run we are all dead.” Keynes knew philosophy very well.


I muse on the intellect extraordinaire, who speaks of topics from Lord Lytton’s Famine Code to Kalidasa’s Meghasandesha, from Pali language to intricacies of Chola empire, skips from Walter Scott to Karl Marx, Bertrand Russel and Keynes with ease. The skills of language, humour , erudition and an ability to appreciate life!

In a world where we are increasingly limiting ourselves to narrow perspectives ruled by not-so-admirable human traits showcased by the visible and the celebrated, perhaps it is time to dip occasionally into the  rich vintage of brilliant minds that lived in every country of this beautiful world of ours.

Their minds were truly world class and humane-every other difference that the eyes might perceive: of colour, creed, religion, nationality, language, gender, political affinity et al, merely superficial. They were inspirational.





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