Trendsetting fiction

Print edition : April 12, 2019
Modernist Malayalam short fiction by Kakanadan, set in the avenues and gullies of Delhi of the 1960s, now in English translation.

The writer Kakanadan holds a unique place in the over-120-year-old history of the Malayalam short story. In the earliest phase of the social, cultural and literary renaissance in late 19th century Kerala, the short story was the most favoured form of fiction, for its brevity and quick appeal, published in newspapers and magazines of that time. The works of the earliest of the realists both heralded and reflected the rapid social reforms in Kerala society. The stark realist stories of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, P. Kesava Dev, Ponkunnam Varkey and others in the 1930s, during the Jeeval Sahitya (Living Literature) movement, were inspired by the socialist awakening.

By then, the Malayalam short story had come of age. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, who began writing during this period, did not get stuck in the stark realist phase like most of the others did but kept evolving, writing stories that employed diction and techniques similar to that of 21st century Malayalam writers. Lalithambika Antharjanam, who pioneered women’s writing in the stark realist mode, had K. Saraswathi Amma and Rajelakshmy for successors. S.K. Pottekkatt, Uroob, T. Padmanabhan and M.T. Vasudevan Nair followed, in the romantic-realist mode. Around this time, Kamala Das entered the scene and contributed unique stories under the pen name Madhavikutty, elevating the genre to world standard, like Basheer did before her. Both practised an economy of diction imposed by their limited vocabularies, which eventually worked to their advantage.

It was in this scenario that O.V. Vijayan arrived, with the earliest modernist short fiction and his novel Khasakkinte Itihasam (The Legends of Khasak). Soon, Kakanadan followed, with his power-packed stories; M. Mukundan and M.P. Narayana Pillai, too, joined the bandwagon. All of them were regulars at Kerala Club, located at Connaught Place, New Delhi, where they read out their stories in the weekly “Sahitya Samvaadam” events moderated by Professor Omchery N.N. Pillai. They would discuss the stories threadbare, and this was often followed by heated exchanges. V.K. Narayanankutty Nair, popularly known as VKN, the doyen of satire in short and long Malayalam fiction, also participated in these literary discussions, though not often at Kerala Club. M. Mukundan remembers Kakanadan’s singular role in bringing modernism proper into the world of Malayalam fiction. I quote Mukundan: “Arguably, more than any other writers, Kakanadan was instrumental in bringing about modernity in Malayalam fiction-writing in the sixties which was until then under the reign of romanticism and communism. True to the rule of modernity, the first step he made was to move away from romanticism and sentimentalism” (Indian Literature 267, Jan-Feb 2012, pages 37-38).

Kakanadan lived in Delhi only for seven years, from 1961 to 1967, after which he left for Leipzig, Germany, to pursue a research project. But the seven years he spent in Delhi turned out to be an important period in the history of Malayalam literature, specifically Malayalam fiction. Waves of change revolutionised the writing of Malayalam fiction, thematically and structurally. Kakanadan and his associates were destined to be the leading revolutionaries.

Six of the 14 short stories presented in the collection Blue Eclipse and Other Stories, which Kakanadan’s son Rishi Kakanadan has translated, belong to this seven-year Delhi period—“Harkishanlal Sood” (1964), “The Rogue” (1964), “House of Glass” (1965), “Seventeen” (1964), “Death of Mascarenhas” (1965) and “Sunshine” (1966). Although “Yusuf Sarayiyile Charas Vyapari” (“Hashish Peddler of Yusuf Sarai”) was written in 1971, it is clearly about this Delhi period. Kakanadan had experienced life in the nooks and corners of Delhi, from the grand avenues to the gullies. The historical and aesthetical significance of these stories stems from the fact that they were trend-setting and defined modernist short fiction in Malayalam.

The opening story, “Harkishanlal Sood”, is, at first look, the portrait of a dissolute drunkard and shirker. But at a deeper level, one understands with a shudder that Sood’s dying wife, Sulochana, whom he dreads facing on her deathbed, is his real lifeline. Sulochana’s brothers have been supporting the family because of their bond with their sister, which will snap once she dies. This is the reason behind Sood’s drifting, at least on the present occasion. He does not know how to face the situation.

And his bravado, presented in stream of consciousness, of being one who has “experienced” life, unlike his other lower-middle-class associates, is typical escapist jargon. He borrows money from a friend on the pretext of medical treatment for his wife and spends it on booze and a game of cards. When he reaches home, he finds his children crying in front of the house, the elder daughter because “Mom is not well”, and the younger one because she is hungry. Sood gives water to the dying Sulochana, and when she breathes her last, he slides to the floor, puts his head on the side of the bed and weeps like a child. Yes, he was but the waif who depended on her! A story such as this, with the kind of diction it employed in the original Malayalam, was mint-new and put to devastating use.

Language as story

The story “Srichakram” was written in 1971, at the height of the “tantric art” movement in Kerala. The protagonist, a painter, tries to portray the image of the Great Mother of the universe in her form as Kali, using a nude female model. He spreads the goddess out in the 43 triangles of the Srichakram in the classical tradition of Srividya worship, attempting to reach the “9th chakra” (four chakras of Siva plus five chakras of Devi) which is supposed to be beyond the earthly chakras and is moksha itself. He pursues the worshipful concentration with extreme passion in snatches of lucidity that he is steadily losing in the onrush of madness. However, he is pushed into total insanity as his guru appears on the scene all of a sudden and announces that he has achieved “the 9th”. The thottam (invocation) chanting of incantations to the Great Mother unfolds as the stream of consciousness of the painter, which also bursts out now and then as invectives against the all-too-human model for making him misconstrue her, at least momentarily, to be the goddess.

Next, he exhibits in his rants and outbursts towards the guru all-consuming jealousy and rage. All of this is accomplished in different tones and registers. The whole treatment gives this story an extraordinary cult status in the history of the genre in the modernist phase, and is considered one of the greatest ever despite its simple and bare plot structure. In fact, this is one of the few instances in which the language becomes the story, in the best of the post-structuralist tradition.

The story, “Blue Eclipse” is set around the worship of a local deity, Neeli, the “blue goddess”, by her vassal, Chathan, a local male deity. The locale is Anangamala, a hilltop that is supposed to be the haunt of Neeli. The protagonist imagines himself to be Chathan, her slave, positioned there in his vision, trying to merge with the goddess. At the same time, he is obsessed about a female being who had taken him sexually around the time he had turned eighteen; blue, also the colour of sin, had pervaded his being ever since. It is a litany of blue that predominates the story; grey, the colour of rain and dry coconut fronds, precedes the advent of blue. Blue has enveloped the universe and the protagonist is in its embrace, the blue of the great goddess whom he invokes—“My Lover, My Woman, My Mother”—in a seemingly tantric invocation. As in “Srichakram”, Kakanadan has employed the atmosphere of thottam in goddess worship through lyrical prose in a heightened tone in this story as well, building the chants to a crescendo in a probably tantric union with the female principle. Here, too, the story lies in the language. Kakanadan is revealed at his best yet again.

“Hashish Peddler of Yusuf Sarai” is very much a Delhi story, based on his personal experiences in the gullies of that part of the city. It traces the story of Muzaffar Khan, the hashish peddler who gets caught smuggling hashish (possibly at the Nepal border) and whose fingers are severed by a rival gang. The blood that covers the whole story originates from this severing. Through the narcotic-induced hallucination of blood that covers everything that he sees, the speaking subject portrays recollections of the past and projections into the future. For the protagonist, the cannabis sellers Bhaskaran, Govindan, Muthuvel, Wilhelm Timmerman and himself, all are rolled into one, that is, Muzaffar Khan. Any harm done to him is harm done to all the others. Therefore, his spilt blood becomes the protagonist’s blood as well. This is another unique accomplishment in the realm of wordcraft by Kakanadan.

Other stories, such as “The Coming of the Saviour”, “The Rogue”, “Time-worn,” “Death of Mascarenhas”, “Siddhartha’s Axe”, “Madness” and “Babel”, showcase the master craftsman’s oeuvre at its energetic best.

Being able to carry the spirit of the original in translation is the best test of a good literary translation. Stories such as “Srichakram” and “Blue Eclipse”, whose layered meanings require a high level of understanding, would intimidate any translator. But these two stories, and undoubtedly the others as well, have come out at their lyrical best in Rishi’s translation. Rishi Kakanadan has done his father proud.

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