A Preface To Man: Manushyanu Oru Amukham, Subhash Chandran

I am at Page 155 of a 407 page best seller in Malayalam called ‘ Manushyanu Oru Amukham’ . This book has won the Kendra Sahitya Academy award along with scores of other awards. It has been translated into English by Dr E V Fatima and published by Harper Collins, India as ‘ A Preface To Man’.

The story of a few generations of a family, along with those of related social and cultural milieu, and sharp political observations: this narrative structure has been used by many brilliant writers across the world. Marquez and his One hundred years of solitude is often a favourite reference point in such a case.  How the Kerala cultural ethos changed- influenced by stalwarts in  political, intellectual and spiritual arenas-along with the clear repercussions in the lives of the many members of the Ayyattimbilly household, of the Thachannakara village, forms the binding thread of this grand novel.

The thoughts that had powered the best men and women to become  great human beings and responsible citizens, are revealed in different pages. We meet Kuttipuzha KrishnaPillai, the communist leader and poet, as a warm and unassuming guest in a chapter, who with piercing wit handles the venomous prejudice of a petty mind. The reader is forced to reflect on how various forms of prejudice continue as eternal monsters in society. They might change shapes and hues, but the underlying devils are the same. Intolerance and ignorance. Closed eyes and closed mind. Arrogance and Self centerdness. Lack of compassion and greed for power. And a way of encouraging life styles which give birth to many living dead.

In the first few chapters, we find that the protagonist Jitendran is dead. It is through snippets of his letters ( when he was a young man who thought for himself) to his loved woman, that the chapters unveil themselves. One striking paragraph which I liked earlier on went like this ( my translation:)

‘The first half of his life was one in which he ardently believed in something within: that would impart light to those coexisting with him in the world. That belief had been nurtured by certain assumptions built in his childhood about human greatness. However, unable to find a  conducive medium for that light to express itself, his inner self had been set aflame in that period.

The second half was rather simpler in nature. The job he had habitually done-in  utter disregard for misspending one’s human life- with the facade of an inappropriate severity, a marriage and marital relationship which started with debts and continued in debts, the shifting of a few houses with household materials stuffed into a mini lorry, the partitions of  anscestral property which caused much  mutual hatred between brethren and made God laugh, a few extramarital affairs  he indulged in -which had nothing to do with physical pleasure- for the exclusive and ineffable thrill of  committing a secret sin, a few bursts of hearty laughter hither and tither, a few pains extended in the form of gifts by friends and relatives, a few accusations and wrong doings-neither of  which had  any circumstantial excuses, the tonnes of medicines he swallowed for curing those diseases which would have healed by themselves, the boring scenes which occurred twice or thrice in a life time when it became imperative to  pretend that one was acting responsibly…’

**

I am at the chapter which says – ( in translation) ‘A petty man never lets go of an opportunity to showcase his inherent pettiness.’

‘Chetta’ in Malayalam has many connotations: a small hut,  a person of obnoxious meanness, a man or woman possessing aggravating pettiness….

I laughed out loud on realising the absolute truth of that statement. Oh Lord, how many times, how many times….one has witnessed that!!!

However, the author suddenly pulls the mat from under your feet. He makes you reflect on the etymology of the word and whom you are  actually rendering unworthy in the process of thoughtlessly using such words.

Beautiful book. I am so happy to have another 250 odd pages to relish!

**

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Walking By The Village On A Rainy Day…P.V.Shaji Kumar’s Memoirs

This book- Itha Innu Muthal, Itha Innale Vare- was thrust into my hand by the manager of the bookstall. ‘You will enjoy it Madam. It is written very well,’ He said.  My reading habits are erratic like the monsoons of my birth land. Sometimes, it is furious in its intensity. Sometimes, it is serene as a twilight rain which will smile at one and disappear. Most times, it is just there. I encountered this book in the furious reading phase.

If the hall mark of a good writer is that he or she forces a reader to sit and read, this book is a winner. The writer P.V. Shaji Kumar is a software engineer by training and a lover of literature and movies by passion; and he  writes extremely well. In fact, I felt no wonder that he has already won a series of the most coveted awards in  Malayalam literature at this young age.

Many memories are related to  the writer’s childhood in Kasargode. The language has the vibrancy and authenticity of a true native. There are palpable memories about being a  rather ignored goalie  in his childhood  and from a light mood, a sudden turn into sobriety with an analysis of the Nazi atrocities on footballers in their concentration camps. There are reflections on phantasmagoric imageries of his childhood where he saw a dead girl enjoying a savoury dish of jackfruit curry in a dream sequence, on trains and the melancholy of journeys in those, on his story teller grand aunt who  spun the most magnificent horror stories and ended up killing herself in depression, on reading the Russian children’s classic in  Malayalam translation : When Daddy Was   A Little Boy by Alexander Raskin and on getting to know of Mayakovsky, Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe from that little gem,  and love notes on his own  land Kalichampothy…

I related best to the frustration of doing computers when the heart was elsewhere. The writer narrates a suicidal point when the worthlessness he felt on facing an examination for which he had no natural aptitude drove him to the brink of ending it all. It was a sudden rain which danced around him that inspired him to live another day.I was left wondering on the young man who came back from death multiple times. Once, after losing his friend, he  had tried to jump down from a  moving train . As if his deceased best friend stopped his death,  he found himself narrowly escaping  the train wheels.

The language, the ethos, the words,  and the memories are so original and refreshing. In my next round of greedy reading, which is  usually abetted by a visit to my own state, I will surely be picking up more of his works.

****

‘ He chatted with me until the darkness around  felt sleepy. There was a pathway into him, which was accessible to any human. This man will exist forever because of his love and care, I found myself thinking…’ ( Who will complete the story of a Man who failed in his life?)

‘The wind was everywhere- in the classrooms, in the canteen, on the rocks, on the paths…it never abated. Like a frustrated lover, it could not sit still and wandered around. When I reached the campus, I was like a leaf in the wind. ‘( The Wind Blows Still)

A bald head rose up from the shrubs, taking the photograph of the sun… He touched my arm. It made a bracelet of water on mine.

( The Frog)

Kalichampothy refers to the land of Kalichan trees. The leaves are huge, and it shivers around like an intoxicated person, this lonesome tree. ( Kalichampothy)

In her eyes sad clouds started camping. Her memories  pierced into a silent darkness….It was known to the villagers that when you have nothing to do, memories start hunting you like a fox  emerging out of his den.( Enaru)

**

The small public libraries ( called vayanasalas- literally reading rooms) that were found in every nook and corner of Kerala villages  had world classics in innumerable languages translated into Malayalam. That luscious reading culture in India’s most literate state  has created many writers and readers.  There isn’t a  vernacular writer who has not enjoyed Marquez’s Macondo and its rain in  his or her mother tongue.The return of the native- in all writing glory- is a tale worth Thomas Hardy himself.

**

The title is replete with puns which only a true born Malayali gets to enjoy! Now the translator stands stunned as to resolve the conundrum. Perhaps a footnote cannot do justice! It puns on a cult movie title, with wordplay on the present and past. (Perhaps it  also hints at a funny scene in yet another movie my brain snarkily comments.)

‘Here, From Today; Here, Till Yesterday’ seems too weak a translation. Yet here it is😁

 

Two Beautiful Books- Deepa Nisanth, Paul Kalanithi

What is common to  a book written by an extraordinarily gifted young  neurosurgeon in Stanford during his fight with lung cancer, and the memoirs of a young professor who teaches Malayalam in a verdant campus in Kerala?

Both are breathtakingly endearing.

Paul Kalanithi’s book, ‘ When Breath Becomes Air’, stuns the reader with its beautiful prose, its penetrating observations, and the sheer magnificence of a well lived life. The author, who had done formal studies in both Literature, Philosophy, and Neurosurgery from some of the world’s top Universities, lost his life while writing his book. It is dedicated to his  little daughter, Cady.

As soon as I finished the book, I found myself rushing to give it to a colleague who appreciates fine writing and thoughts- especially on life and death. “Please read this today,” I said, “it is simply amazing.My only thought now is- Thank God for a healthy life. It is the most precious gift  granted to me but denied to many who probably deserve it much more than me.” We had been discussing stupidities which entrap our life energies earlier that day.

Certain books have to be read. With a pencil in hand. The poems and philosophical quotes which liberally glitter in almost every page of this small book, showcase an incandescent mind. With his surgeon’s hands, Paul saved  many, many lives. With his poet’s mind he observed and tucked away memories to recreate a beautiful philosophy of living for his readers.

I was struck by an anecdote when Paul describes a patient saying,’ Everything is so sad…’ as he puts an electrode in his brain. Certain areas of our mesmerising brains, apparently cater to feelings of overwhelming sadness and melancholy.Could it be, I wondered later- on  reading about his  doctor friend Jeff’s suicide after a failed surgery on a patient – that relentless toil without any rest,  overwhelms that particular part of the brain? Another memory flashed: of a top graduate of a Japanese University hurling herself to a similiar death after working overtime for three days in a row without any rest. Could sleep, that much eulogised nectar, be truly a life giving breath? That angel stroke which will release the pressure building  due to overwork and lack of rest on that  spot of brain attuned to melancholy ?

Looking at a patient as a human being vs looking at him as a problem to be solved (tick off boxes) : Paul elaborated on that aspect from two angles -when he himself became the perpetrator , as when he became  the sufferer. By describing his brilliant, empathetic oncologist who epitomized what an ideal cave giver should be, he made me reflect on the  ineffable ways of healing.

Paul’s wife Lucy completed the epilogue in this book.

Reading about people who knew what to treasure, and how to treasure -that is always eye opening. When we live lives fraught with pettiness, dealing often with hollow men all around, such books come as a refreshing breath of air.

*

Deepa Nisanth’s book, ‘ Nananju teerta mazhakal ‘ is the second in her series of memoirs.  I was new to her writing but immediately felt a close affinity. The childhood scenes, the adolescence, the waking up of a young woman into a sensitive observer…the book made delightful reading.

I admire her simplicity, lack of pretentiousness, her scalpel sharp observations, her truly liberal soul confident of deep love from those who matter.

The death of her cousin brother who taught her cycling, the memory of escaping a brutal man in the nick of time, the realisation of toys being denied to children in some repeated pattern of ‘storing away’  that we learn from our own parents, the hilarious episode of bingeing during family visits, the episode of falling sick and yearning for one’s mother…I finished the whole book in one sitting.

What a loss it would have been if Deepa had studied engineering instead of Malayalam. When K R Meera recounted in a channel, her story of intentionally derailing her father’s plan of making her an engineer, and escaping into the world of literature and journalism  albeit through a convoluted study path of Chemistry and Communicative English, I had felt the same relief! Professor Leelavathy had been guided to study Malayalam by her professor when she had topped Science in the whole jurisdiction. I recollected that too.

Or perhaps, I am wrong. I adore Dr.Gangadharan’s writings and he is a renowned oncologist. Paul Kalanidhi was a scientist and surgeon. Dr Abraham Verghese who wrote the foreword for Paul’s book is again a very successful doctor who is also a brilliant writer. And Priya A.S. who wrote the foreword to Deepa’s book, is working in a University in the administrative side. Ah, the  lovely lines she writes!  So a formal education in literature may not be imperative to becoming a great writer.😁

As for me, it is a truly blessed day, when I get to be in the company of dazzling minds-expressing the best of what we can be.

**

Vatsala’s Brilliant Preface:Her Favourite Stories…continued

 

img_1830Preface…….continued

**

‘The stitching machine’ is  a story about my own stitching machine. It is not just a source: the whole narrative is about the different experiences that it has gifted me. I still use one. The predecessor was taken away by a trader last year. He forced the new one onto me. No woman can let go easily of an appliance that she has been using for a while. The fate of both a spoon with its  edge broken off or a dilapidated stitching machine is the same. The grief of the woman is very genuine in both the cases. It can be seen as the holy remnant of an old culture. It is not applicable to today’s throw away culture- because, nothing is allowed to reach the satiation point at all. Hence there will not be a story related to a modern day consumer good- of having touched a human heart.

There is a special episode behind the writing of ‘ Vidyadharan.’ Once DC Kizhekkemury had told me that the dirtiest place in the world was Kashi. The stain stayed in my mind till I reached there. Once I saw Kashi, my whole life perspective changed. On one evening, having seen enough of other sights, we rented a boat and went along with MahaGanga’s flow. Gangaji was resplendent : a sea which removed all the dirt of the world.The flow swallowed all the agonies and kept the river eternally pure. A school of fish played alongside the boat merrily; like toddlers in a playpen. They raced back and forth touching our boat. Then, as if that was not enough, came the floating corpse. It would have terrified me had I seen it so in my home state.

Here, it was different. First I thought that a trunk of aloewood -chopped down by someone- with four branches on its sides, was floating on the waters. Soon it came near and travelled along the boat, occasionally caressing it. The fishes played hide and seek through the ruptures on the face. They emerged as a procession at times. ‘Who was this faceless one in his just concluded birth?’From this thought came the story,  Vidyadharan.’

From that day, I  have been able to look at death with equanimity. It is a miracle. My first encounter with death had been at twenty six, when my grand mother passed away. That was a serene experience: granny’s ending was like the  natural snuffing out of a lighted lamp. Probably this incident was a part of the treasury of experiences that I relied upon while writing this story.

What we see by the light of the sun need not be the real sight. The insight gleaned by the experience of the inner eye- that would be the truth. I recognised that. That is all. Here, I am stopping.

Vatsala, 2007

 

Her Favourite Stories: (Translation of Vatsalaji’s Preface)

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Ente Priyappetta Kathakal: Preface to her favourite stories

Translated From Malayalam

***

When I admit that certain stories of mine are dear to me, it is akin to admitting that I love one child much more than the others -among my  own children. Among stories, each differs from the other in terms of ‘craft’.

Every story is the preface to the life experience it holds within. That is because the space inside a story is restrictive. That which is unsaid is more than what is said. Consequently, some readers query – whether the story actually ended with the end of narrative. The truth is that every story ends in the mind of the reader.

The writer is a creator only when the story is being told. It is similar to human life. The poor fellow moves forward with certain aims: but what happens finally is beyond his control. Neither his desires nor his wishes have much role to play in it. I believe in ‘reaping what one sows.’

My beloved stories are those which were written when the mind was at its creative peak. Certain coincidences were the deciding factors of such experiences.

Let me elucidate on the process of conception of certain stories. ‘Panguru’ is a flower. It is seen at the Karnataka border of Tirunelli.I have never seen it with my eyes. Yet, I know a forest-healer, who made me feel its living presence. He is a vaidyan ( healer ) by tradition. When I met him, he used to disappear into the forests- not simply to gather medicinal herbs, but because he had nothing better to do.

He arrived at my cottage by the forest side, after such a wild sojourn. Just to see me. One cannot expect such gestures of affection in today’s city life. That is why I banish myself into the forests occasionally.

The young healer had the gift of narrating tales. Typically they were about his facing the wild tuskers. All fancies. Randomly there would be a gleam of truth. Once he narrated about climbing the Panguru creeper- while escaping from an elephant. His story would usually stretch into a series of stories. The cost would be around two hours of my time.

The Panguru blooms in spring. The creeper- thick as a human hand- climbs the most magnificent of the trees around. It will ascend to the very top on its quest to touch the sun. There it will burst into blossoms. It resembles the flowers of a palmyra tree. In our culture, the palmyra tree flowers are symbolic of a yakshi’s tresses. ( yakshi: a gorgeous and lethal female spirit). From this spark , my story was born. From a phantasmagoric seed sprouted a phantasmagorical story. Many years later- while reading a Kannada story- I found out that the flower in my story was actually real.

**( To be continued)

The Meat Of The Moon : Madhavi Kutty ( Story Translation From Malayalam)

Chandrante Irrachi ( The Meat of the Moon): Madhavi Kutty,1969

**

Her lover continued to sleep even when it turned eleven in the night. She felt no inclination to wake him up and send him to his home. Whenever he removed his glasses, the natural intensity of his face seemed to diminish. As he slept, she noticed the loneliness of a little boy on his face. A lost soul- no, a soul who had forgotten the way-a lonely little boy, was  tied inside the forest of mortality in that  aging body. She knew that she was deeply in love with him: the one who had witnessed his father’s death, the one who used to go to school in a bullock cart- wearing a sailor’s costume.

Outside that house- situated on the outskirts of the town- the rain was pouring down heavily. Through the ventilators, a breeze from yonder- crossing  the thorny plants and trees on a hillside-entered the room, moaning like a wounded creature.

‘Beloved,’ she called bending low, ‘ It is past eleven- should you  not be getting up?’

He woke up startled: with a wide eyed gaze. ‘ Eleven? Why didn’t you wake me up earlier?’

‘Don’t go tonight. Stay with me,’ she said.

He got up and wearily sat down at the edge of the cot.

‘I am so groggy. How will I drive all that distance?’

Gazing at his body- gleaming like a flame in the light- she gently closed her eyes. Her heart sang: ‘Your body has reached my pyre- no, bed-carrying its secret destiny…I cannot escape now, Your body is like a golden harvest of  ripe grains. It has been created from the meat of the full moon…’

‘Now it will be past midnight when I reach home. What excuse shall I give today?’ He asked her.

‘Why don’t you stay the night with me? Won’t you give me one night?’ She asked him.

‘You know very well that it is impossible. I cannot act so irresponsibly.’ He said.

Seated on the stool before the mirror, he wore his socks. Tied  the laces of his shoes. His hair- a mix of steel and black  curls- reflected on the mirror.

‘Don’t you feel any obligation toward me?’ She asked.’ I am your kept woman, your slave: do you feel no obligation towards this unfortunate woman?’

‘I love you,’ he said mechanically, ‘ I love you even when you tell me about your colleague. I will love you even if you marry him. You know that very well.’

‘What is the cost of such a love?’ She asked.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied.

‘Shall I marry him? Shall I become his wife with your permission? Tell me, do you have no objection at all?’

‘Why should I stop it?’ He asked,’I am a man who is aging fast. A married man. He is young and handsome.Your colleague. I do not think that you will stop even if I were to object.’

He moved towards the door, while she lay on the bed.

She called out to him: ‘ I will give him an answer tomorrow itself. I am greatly relieved that you have no issues with it.I will have to stop seeing you. But eventually I shall forget that pain. My dear, you are so compassionate.’

‘I will see you next week. Call me tomorrow afternoon,’ he said.

At the  sound of  the door banging  shut, she felt that she had been shattered to bits. She was a woman, she was a fragile piece of  glass. She felt that every tiny shard of glass wanted to hurt her, make her bleed..

She picked up the phone from the table, and woke up the young man who was in love with her. ‘Hello’, he said: ‘ Hello!’

‘Hello’

‘Who is it? Mini, you?’ He asked.’ How come you are awake at this time?’

‘ Today, you asked me if I wanted to be your wife. I thought I will give you an answer now. That is all.’

‘What is the answer?’

‘ It is not possible.’ Putting the phone back into its cradle, she snuggled under the covers and closed her eyes.

She was convinced that for her- who was accustomed to the arms of a man who was successful in all aspects of life-there was no satisfaction  to be gained from  marrying  an ordinary man.

**

Note: For the sheer power of the narrative from the other woman’s perspective: not a whiny, complaining tone, mind you- but  that of a woman in control of her destiny- I found this gem of a short story written by Madhavi Kutty in 1969, an iconic piece of feminist writing.

It was when I read Telugu writer Volga’s interview ( She won the  Kendra Sahitya Academy award in 2016 for her book Vimukta:  Translated as The Liberation of Sita, Harper Collins )that I realised  again that the mind’s freedom to question  everything was the greatest gift of existence.

She mentioned about a classic Telugu short story by a famous writer in early 1920s when Sita jumped into Ravan’s pyre instead of stepping into the Agni Pareeksha.  She was speaking of how intolerance has increased in society nowadays, since Vimukta- a series of stories showcasing Sita’s bonding with Mandodari, Soorpanakha, Ahalya et al..was pilloried by some.

Inexplicably, another memory came: Of reading that great short story , ‘Sunstroke’ by Ivan Bunin. Perhaps it was the nonchalance of the women in both  stories which bemused me.

And then, I could not resist translating this gem!

😁

 

Koladu by Madhavi Kutty (Story Translation from Malayalam)

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Koladu ( The Goat):

By Madhavi Kutty aka Kamala Das written in 1969.

****

When she was forty three years old, her mischievous elder son remarked : ‘Amma, you remind me of a goat.’

She joined his laughter.But on that day, when the rest of them went out, she took up a mirror and sadly examined her own face. She contemplated on the ways of  fortifying her skinny cheeks to make them fuller; thinking that it might end up fortifying her life too. When she had her youthfulness and her lush body, she had never slept alone on a mat laid out on the floor….But she was disinclined to stare at the mirror for long, pondering on such matters. The milk was beginning to boil in her kitchen.

By toiling endlessly from dawn to dusk, she took care of her family. Her body was pale and slim, and  seemed fragile in certain places. But she never complained and never collapsed  with fatigue. Because of that, as she staggered from the bathroom to the kitchen and back -carrying buckets of water-neither her husband nor her grown up sons ever bothered to give a helping hand.

She was neither educated nor sophisticated.Occasionally, they would  loudly praise her famed abilities in cleaning and mopping the house, in cooking their food and in washing and ironing their clothes. Whenever she heard their adulation, she would smile- exposing her deteriorating teeth.

Once her younger son got her a goose berry when he returned from school. That day, standing in her dark kitchen, she shed tears of joy. With the passage of time, she became a disgrace in his eyes too.

When she said that she would accompany him for the school drama, he said: ‘No need, Amma. I will be embarrassed.’

‘But why? I will wear my silk sari- my wedding sari…’

‘No…No need for you to come.’

Two thin legs moved around in that small house constantly; never resting. Finally that machine also became faulty. She caught a fever and  her stomach started aching. Neither ginger nor rasam could assuage that pain. On the tenth day the doctor told her husband: ‘Please shift her to the hospital immediately. She has acute jaundice.’

The children who were reading their school books were horrified. When a helper wheeled her into the hospital room on a stretcher, she opened her eyes wide and cried: ‘Ayyo! I think the pulses are burning on the stove.’

Her husband’s eyes filled with tears.

****

Listen to this story in the original.

http://www.mathrubhumi.com/books/podcast/audio-story-koladu-malayalam-news-1.1472986