Basheer and the freedom struggle

Published : Jan 24, 1998 00:00 IST

Vaikom Muhammad Basheer's works were published as "fiction", but they represent profound truths about freedom struggles and the feelings aroused when the goal of such struggles is achieved.

VAIKOM MUHAMMAD BASHEER (1908-1994), whose life spanned most of the twentieth century, is without doubt one of the major figures in modern Indian literature. His literary activity covers the decade preceding Indian independence and the greater part of the half century after this landmark in world history, though indifferent health led to much-reduced activity in the 1980s and 1990s. His total output in a long life was not large. Thirty-two titles were published between 1943 and 1992 (another one was put together from papers left behind on his death), but many of these were very slim volumes and it was possible to publish a collected edition in 1992 within the scope of two volumes. The reason for this has been explained both by critics writing about his work and by Basheer himself: most of what he wrote was subjected to painstaking revision, with several rounds of rewriting.

Almost all of Basheer's writing can be seen as falling under the heading of prose fiction - short stories and novels, though there is also a one-act play and volumes of essays and reminiscences. Basheer's fiction is very varied and full of contrasts. There are among his output realistic stories and tales of the supernatural. While many of the stories present situations to which the average reader can easily relate, the darker, seamier side of human existence sometimes finds a place, as in the novel Sabdangal (Voices, 1947). There are sad situations and happy ones - and commonly both in the same narrative. There are purely narrative pieces and others which have the quality of poems in prose. In all, a superficially simple style conceals a great subtlety of expression.

One contrast is between works that are primarily autobiographical as far as events and characters are concerned and those that are the product of the author's imagination. This is not to say that a novel or a story will always fall clearly into one category or another; the percentage of factual truth varies considerably. Whatever the case, a book published as fiction is to be read as such, in contrast with one published as 'memoirs'.

BASHEER was born as the eldest child of his devout Muslim parents in the village of Thalayolaparambu in northern Travancore. His father was a timber contractor, but the business did not flourish sufficiently for his large family to live in anything approaching luxury. After beginning his education at the local Malayalam school, he was sent to the English school in Vaikom, five miles away. While at school he fell under the spell of Gandhi, whom he saw at the Vaikom satyagraha, and he resolved to join the fight for an independent India, leaving school to do so while he was in the fifth form. Part of his purpose in joining the Congress was to help ensure that there was some Muslim representation in the pan-Indian movement. Later he went to Kozhikode to take part in the salt satyagraha and was arrested; he served a period in prison. Freed from jail he organised a terrorist movement and edited a revolutionary journal, Ujjivanam ('uprising'). A warrant was issued for his arrest and he left Kerala, returning only seven years later, when he was arrested again and condemned to a spell of rigorous imprisonment. Once India achieved control of its destiny, he showed no further interest in politics. Nor does he appear to have carried any resentment for the harsh treatment he suffered before his country became free.

During his absence from Kerala he travelled over many parts of India, taking whatever work seemed likely to keep him from starvation. His jobs included those of loom fitter, fortune teller, cook, paper seller, fruit seller, sports goods agent, accountant, watchman, cowman and hotel manager. When his second major period of imprisonment was over, he remained in Kerala, where he made a living as a literary man, running a book shop for some time as well as writing. Well into his forties, he surprised many of his acquaintances by marrying and settling down to a life of quiet domesticity in Beypore, on the southern edge of Kozhikode.

All these periods and aspects of his life have provided material for short stories and novels. The richness of the material, however, only becomes fully apparent through his skilful handling of it. Here again, there is enormous variety - of narrative style, of presentation, of philosophical content, of social comment.

AMONG the stories that refer to his political activism is Janmadinam (Birthday, 1944), in which the core of the material he uses is his attempt somehow to obtain a cup of tea on a day when, behind with the rent in the very poor lodgings in which he lives, he does not have a single anna to his name. The day is in that part of his life when he was under fairly constant surveillance by the police, and at intervals as he moves about the town he catches sight of a member of the CID. At one point he is taken along to the police station and interrogated for an hour before being released. This, however, is only incidental to his portrait of a day in the life of a man who is hard-up. Other stories take much more from this aspect of his early life.

For the clearest and fullest expression in his work of what an active patriot risked and from time to time suffered, one turns to Amma (Mother, 1937). This, published in book form with other pieces under the title Ormakkurippu (Jottings from memory, 1946), could just as easily have been considered a fragment of an autobiography in short story form but for the fact that other pieces in the collection more clearly fall into the category of prose fiction. It begins:

The mother writes to the son eking out his living amid the miseries of a distant city. She writes with pain in her heart. "Son, I just want to see you."

From the generalised nature of this and succeeding opening paragraphs, it appears that the author has in mind the class of mothers who long for the sight of a son who is in faraway places. So he makes clear that he is being specific: "I am saying this about my mother. Whatever I intend saying hereafter is about my mother." Yet almost immediately he says: "I am going to talk about the freedom struggle. It has no direct relationship with my mother." Gradually the apparent contradiction is resolved as one realises that the word amma refers not only to his own mother and the generality of mothers whose sons are far from home, but also to India, his motherland (and there is another piece in the same collection entitled Bharatamata (Mother India). It is significant in this respect that throughout the story he uses the unmarked amma rather than the explicitly Muslim kinship term umma, except when he portrays himself as speaking directly to his mother. In the narrative parts, when he wishes to refer specifically to "my mother", he uses an equally non-restricted term, ende matavu.

The core of the story is "how I went from Vaikom to Calicut to take part in the salt satyagraha," but with great skill (despite his claim that "I am jotting down what happened without any aim") he touches on all the essential incidents and elements in his career as a national activist, and in doing so tells the story of countless other young people involved in the same struggle. We read of the time when he was beaten by the headmaster of the Vaikom English High School for wearing khadi, of the occasion of the Vaikom satyagraha when he went home to tell his mother proudly, "Umma, I touched Gandhi."

On his way to Kozhikode to join the Congress, he was questioned by the police several times, but not detained. At the Congress office, he was faced with another problem:

They suspected me of being in the pay of the CID! Their doubts were strengthened by my diary. I had jotted things down in different languages - English, Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and Arabic. I left it on a bench while I went to the toilet. When I returned I found that the secretary had picked it up and was reading it. He could not have understood much of it. But it gave him reason to suspect me.

The following morning, when they were preparing to go to the beach, he and 11 companions were arrested. At the police station, they were taken in succession by a "hefty policeman with long arms... (and) ...bulging red eyes", identified only as 'Constable No. 270', and soundly beaten.

Two violent blows fell on my neck! Then he caught me by the shoulders and made me bend down. He began beating me. It sounded as if he were beating a copper pot. I counted up to seventeen, or perhaps it was twenty-seven. After this I stopped counting. Why keep count?

Nine months' rigorous imprisonment followed, in Cannanore Central Jail, where there were six hundred political prisoners. On release he was possessed by a wish "to kill No. 270", but was persuaded by an older man that this was futile:

"Are you a satyagrahi? And if you want to kill, remember there is not a single policeman who deserves to live. The policeman is an indispensable part of the government. The poor people are mere instruments. What is the use of blaming them? Have patience. Go and see your father and mother."

Thus the conclusion of the story takes up the opening theme:

At home, when I entered the yard my mother asked. "Who is it?" I stepped onto the verandah. Mother lit a lamp, and asked as if nothing had happened, "Son, have you eaten anything?" I said nothing. I was shaken, unable to breathe. The whole world was asleep! My mother alone was awake! Mother brought a vessel of water and asked me to wash my hands and feet. Then she placed a plate of rice before me. She asked me nothing. I was amazed. "How did you know, Umma, that I was coming today?" Mother replied, "Oh... I cook rice and wait every night." It was a simple statement. Every night I did not turn up, but mother had kept awake waiting for me. The years have passed. Many things have happened. But mothers still wait for their sons. "Son, I just want to see you..."

POWERFUL feelings often underlie Basheer's writing, but he rarely intervenes in his telling of a story to express them directly. There are, however, exceptions in this one:

Why is India so poor? I cannot say with pride, "I am an Indian." I am but a slave. I detest the enslaved country that is India. But... is not India also my mother? I cannot record here the feelings that fill my heart. Like the chains that bind my hand, I see before me police lock-up rooms, prisons, gallows and in front of them policemen, soliders, jailors!

Not all of his stories that are inspired by his participation in the independence movement are so clearly autobiographical. One, Polisukarande Makal (The policeman's daughter, published in a magazine in 1941), tells of Jagadishan's escape from the police, his being helped by a young woman sympathetic to the nationalist cause who turned out to be the daughter of a policeman, and his subsequent capture followed by two years in the police lock-up. On his release a question raised by his mother is that of his marriage and he eventually admits that the only person he would really care to marry is the policeman's daughter. The flow of the narrative is nowhere interrupted by overt expression of nationalism, but there is an undercurrent of restrained passion, as when the harsh treatment meted out to members of his family is described in the context of the police search for the "traitor" with a five-hundred-rupee price on his head.

Some stories emerged only indirectly from Basheer's involvement in the freedom struggle. The story of a brutal policeman who routinely tortured suspects and who was killed by one of his victims is one such. In this account of how Idiyan Panikkar (Bully Panikkar, 1944) met his end, there is no actual mention of the offences with which his victims were charged, but the story is generally read as being related to the author's own experiences while in police custody.

Into the story of a stray dog, Tiger, that had taken up residence at a police station, Basheer weaves an account of the harshness faced by prisoners in a police lockup, compared with which life in jail was "paradise".

Neither air nor light entered any of the rooms. Pale beings with overgrown beards resembling human figures wrapped up in old rags lived in the damp darkness of those rooms. They had to bear the stench of human urine and excreta and the bites of innumerable bugs. The stench emanating from the lock-up rooms was enough to burn up all hope in the human heart. But the inmates were not affected by this at all. Their predominant thought was of food.

Food, in spite of the fixed daily amount allowed by the government for each prisoner, was always in short supply for prisoners, though there was an abundance for Tiger. Even when given the leftovers from the Inspector's meal, the dog fared better than a prisoner. Requests for more food simply resulted in "blows from policemen and kicks from the booted feet of the Inspector." Bribery and corruption were part of the standard pattern in anything to do with the police. We learn that Tiger (and therefore, by implication, the police) "did not make any distinction between the prisoners," whether murderer, thief or political agitator. "To the dog, forty-five prisoners looked alike."

IN these various ways do experiences as a freedom fighter penetrate Basheer's prose fiction. Although it is not always possible to be certain when works first published in book form in the late 1940s and early 1950s were written, we can say that after 1947 there was a change in this respect. Basheer, like so many of those deeply involved in the movement to have an India that was free, did not fight battles that were already won. His later novels and stories do not typically attempt to recount or to comment on past oppression. Echoes of pre-independence days become more subtle in fiction written in later years. Already in a story published as part of a book in 1952, Oru Manushyan (A man), Basheer's years of wandering, which were also to some extent years of exile, are alluded to, but no more, in the opening paragraph:

You have no definite plans. You are wandering around in distant parts. You have no money on you, you do not know the language of the region. You can speak English and Hindustani, but very few people there know either of these languages. So you land in many a fix: you have many adventures.

Then follows a story of a "Fine man" who turned out to be a pickpocket - or a pickpocket who turned out to be a fine man.

"The walls" of the novel of this name (Mathilukal, 1965), are those of a prison, but the atmosphere of the place is very different from that of the story Amma discussed earlier. That it is autobiographical is evident from the fact that the first-person narrator is addressed as Basheer. That one must expect some modification or embellishment of historical truth is made clear in the opening sentences:

Have you ever heard a little love story called "The walls"? I seem to remember speaking of it earlier. I thought of calling it "The smell of woman".... Listen carefully. It all happened quite some time ago. In what we usually call the past. It comes from the far side of the river of memories. Remember that I am on this side. From this solitary heart comes a sad song.

One of the walls is that which divides the men's prison from the women's. One day the narrator smells the scent of a woman coming from the other side. He begins to converse with her, and he finds out that she is Narayani, a Hindu woman of twenty-two, who has completed one year of a fourteen-year sentence. A relationship develops and they plan a meeting - in the prison hospital. Unhappily, the order for Basheer's release comes the day before the rendezvous. So much for the plot. What of life in prison? Warders are sympathetically portrayed. There is no mention of beatings or ill-treatment. Basheer is allowed to make a garden. He gets advice from thieves and murderers, including "an old friend of mine," the hospital orderly, who had been found guilty of robbery with violence and with whose help "I experienced no trouble in getting tea, sugar, liver, bread, milk, beedis, and so on."

Another story recalling his activist youth displays Basheer's ability to speak humorously of the seriousness with which he entered so wholeheartedly into the fight for a free India. In this, Pazhaya Oru Kocchu Premakatha (A little love story of long ago, 1954), he seems almost to be making fun of the earnest young men of two decades earlier who were willing even to resort to terrorism in their efforts to make the world a better place, though he manages to do this without any hint of scorn or distaste for these acts of extremism.

Basheer's novels and stories may have been published as 'fiction', but they nevertheless represent some very profound truths, among them the truth of what it means to fight for freedom and for national pride - as well as the truth of feelings that replace youthful passions when the goal to which they were directed has been achieved. He was somewhat unusual among writers in being so strongly committed to the struggle, and half a century on from 1947 such of his narratives as the one referred to above can be seen as forming a very precious historical document.

Professor R.E. Asher is on the Faculty of the Department of Linguistics, the University of Edinburg. This article is based on a paper presented at a symposium, "The Refashioning of Identity in Post-Colonial South Asian Literatures", held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, as one of the events organised to mark the 50th anniversary of Indian indepedence. This revised version is published here by kind permission of the School's Department of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia.

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