Marquez and Butterflies in March…

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Like many Malayalis, my introduction to world literature began with the weekly literary magazines in the mother tongue. M.Krishnan Nair’s Sahitya Varabhalam aka ‘Weekly predictions of literature’, a pun on the astrological  weekly chart,  introduced me to names like Umberto Eco, Fuentes, Toni Morrison and Marquez.

In an era when Internet was unknown and the foreign editions of literature in English/ translations cost high, here was an erudite professor, who purchased books and reviewed magazines ( Paris Review and TLS included) and in Malayalam, taught everyone from the fish seller to the auto driver to a school teacher and a college going girl, nuances of World literature through a weekly literary column. His pen was acerbic and acidic- often burning holes into the aspiring careers of budding writers; by comparing their novice like efforts to the effortless grace of an Eli Wiesel or of a brooding Virginia Woolf. “I lost my appetite after going through his short story…” Or something to that taste, would be his pithy take on some unfortunate  amateur writer.

Once in the capital of my home state, I remember standing dumbstruck in admiration, as this tall and charismatic critic in pristine white, slowly made his way to his favourite book seller. My father, one of the greatest readers I have ever seen in my life, commented: “Yes, it is he. Look at his dedication in reading the latest books of the world. But he sets too high a standard for our writers, sometimes…”

Bengali literature, Gujarati literature, Hindi literature- all travelled to Kerala homes through translations in Malayalam. We had many brilliant translators who brought Rajagopalachary , Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and AshaPoornaDebi alive to us, and this tradition started almost a hundred years ago. The first books released in Malayalam, were translations by foreigners, of books in Bengal and English as early as 1850s. The first Malayalam novel  that came out  in 1887, written by Appu Nedungady, called Kundalata was about the daughter of a Kalinga King. The  eponymous heroine of the next novel in Malayalam, Indulekha by Chandu Menon, was learned in both English and Sanskrit.

Anyway, these are asides. The vernacular magazine I spread out before me had an article on Marquez, as his ‘One hundred years of solitude’ reaches fifty years of enriching the world. There are unique photographs of Castro with Marquez,  of Carlos Fuentes with Marquez, of  Mario Vargas Llosa and Marquez with an interesting page dedicated to why Llosa hit Marquez! It is a translation of Paul Elie. It also shows the first cover of the Spanish original with the anecdotes of  the total number of cigars smoked during the writing of the classic. 30,000 , if you may like to believe it.

( Magical realism is coloured yellow like butterflies and cigarettes…)

On a warm March afternoon, leaning against my sofa, I indulge myself in the peccadilloes of Latin American publishing industry.  I read about Carmen Balcells, his Catalonian literary agent and a great woman known as ” La Mama Grande”… I am inspired by that story. As I smile at the photograph of the translator, Gregory Rabassa, the  Professor and translator of Marquez’s Classic, I am drawn again to another great life. How many spirits come together to spread the word of genius!  Apparently Marquez commented that Rabassa’s translation was greater than the Spanish original!!

I thank my parents who packed and sent the magazines in the North bound train along with red rice and papad and pickles. Love is translated as both food and books in my household. And I am the blessed one, undoubtedly. So much in this beautiful world- to learn, to appreciate and to be thankful about. First of all, my mother tongue.

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The Night of the Grand Mothers…. and Other Ramblings

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M.T. Vasudevan Nair or M.T. as we know him, call him, love him is a great figure of Malayalam Literature. His memoirs in the series of Kashu, Kanji, Kuppayam, Kallu, Kamam ( Money, Rice gruel, Shirt, Drink, Lust ) is being serially published- with one chapter coming out every  year in August-September during Thiru Onam in Kerala!

Being a Non-Resident Keralite, I have been depending upon the assiduousness of my father’s book packing and the punctuality of the Trans India Kerala Express, to deliver me my annual nirvana aka his memoir, for the last three years. The fourth year has not disappointed me either.

In this chapter on Drinks, M.T dwells with childish glee upon the strong, self dependent Nair  women and its matriarchal culture – a group of old grannies who relish Chicken curry and local Arrack/toddy/drink during the Puja rites to appease the Family Goddess!

In deft lines, he portrays the women- the hassled mother who has to coordinate the whole goddess business, the cantankerous old women who arrive in threes and fours with their pet peeves and desires; the all-efficient aunts who manage puking children, deceptive local men, catch and cook aggressive roosters, narrate stories of haughty Goddesses who pick fight with one another…the home becomes a hub of activity, the narrator falls ill, grannies share stories, and enjoy a good meat and toddy break, the goddess is hopefully appeased.

Incidentally, all happened because ill timed things started happening in the family- basically the cow being discovered upside down in a small pond and it obviously being the “push” of someone thirsty for appeasement!

Magical Realism might have been introduced to the Kerala reader via translations of Marquez! Remedios the Beautiful ascending to the heavens with white sheets ( For those who want to know how Marquez struck inspiration after suffering from writers’ block on that one, please read the book :  The Fragrance of Guava- Conversations with Marquez in the Faber Caribbean series) but a series of incidents like the above, aided by a rooster killing, the dance of the grand mothers in the dark night into which three other mysterious dark figures join in from the night..M.T. took me right back to a rainy night in Macondo!

Artist Namboodiri has delighted Malayalis with his blessed sketches for years now. His sketches (of which I have tried to copy one!) of the women especially- flawless, fluid, spirited, beautiful, adds a special beauty to M.T’s charming reminiscences.

I have to wait another year for the last episode, (and I do get vexed with the publisher who decided to pen a five year agreement with the genius!) but hopefully the Kerala Express will chug its way to my heart again, next August.

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After a long time, I had cried on seeing a movie. I was late to see it, and a flight saw me fiddle around with the choices. Between a re watch of  Casablanca and a first look at Celluloid I meandered; and then my mother tongue won out.

I was treated to an excellent movie by Kamal. It was based on the making of the first silent movie in Malayalam “Vigatha Kumaran” by a great soul called J.C. Daniel – and the travails and agonies an insensitive world subjected him to! The passionate young man sells his acres of ancestral land, his beloved wife’s jewellery to make the first movie. He tries to get a female actress from Bombay but it ends in wastage of money. Finally, a woman from a lower caste (the movie is a pointer on the atrocities of the caste system too) enacts the role of the heroine. The film triggers disastrous responses from a prejudiced, narrow minded society which chases the woman away and destroys the visionary’s dreams.

The fall of J.C.Daniel, and the insensitivity he faces from bureaucracy, the film world, his own close circle, the struggle with penury and later…the much wonted recognition which arrives after his death is the theme of this beautiful movie.

I ended up reading a series of criticisms and letters to the editor on the whats and whys and why nots and who’s and whose and blame games which were enacted out after the movie was appreciated by ordinary viewers.

The movie made me think of pioneers in every front of this world- who battled deep seated prejudices and oppression- from Galileo to Alan Turing to Caroline Herschel, because  the society in general just cannot tolerate dreamers! We are after their fault-lines, their perceived defects, their imperfections and ignore their great capacity to advance the cause of human excellence.

As Brutus ranted, ” As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition.” (Julius Caesar, Shakespeare)

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Or maybe the answer to the conundrum is in Jospeh Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers

( Jospeh Campbell, The Power of Myth, 1988; Chapter: “The Hero’s Adventure, pg187)

” That each of us is a completely unique creature and that, if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s.”

That summarises what I felt after meandering through M.T, smiling about Marquez, brooding over J.C.Daniel and wondering on the golden thread of it all…

More power to creativity!

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