Basheer and the freedom struggle

Print edition :

Vaikom Muhammad Basheer (1908-1994). The Malayalam writer is a major figure in modern Indian literature.

From an article by R.E. Asher published in the February 6, 1998, issue on Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s fiction, which represents profound truths about freedom struggles and the feelings aroused when the goal of such struggles is achieved.

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 [Calicut] 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.

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...”