A lone traveller

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, also known as the Sultan of Beypore. His writings were woven out of the warp and woof of his varied experience. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

VAIKOM MUHAMMAD BASHEER was very much a loner on the Kerala literary scene. In the simplicity of his writing, in the themes of his stories, in the humour and satire which cloaked the profundity of his observations on life and living, Basheer could be compared only to Basheer. The uniqueness of his ebullient genius stands out like a resplendent star on the horizon.

Basheer’s writings were woven out of the warp and woof of his varied experience which few writers could match. Born in a lower middle class family which had fallen from affluence, Basheer ran away from his central Travancore home when he was studying in the fifth form to take part in the freedom struggle which was more active in the neighbouring Malabar, then a British territory, than in his own state ruled by the Maharaja. He was tortured by the police as well as imprisoned in both British and the Maharaja’s jails. His prison life inspired great stories, starkly real but devoid of malice.

After some spells in prison, Basheer left Kerala and wandered all over India and even some neighbouring countries. The only resources at his disposal were a young and healthy physique and a receptive mind. He has been a mendicant, a Muslim fakir and a Hindu sanyasin, and took to many callings—as a street magician, a roadside card player, a vendor of quack specifics, a waiter at restaurants, a khalasi on tramp steamers and so on—as fancy and the dire needs of eking out a living took him. He never set out his experiences at length or in a chronological order even in his conversations, but his early wanderlust does find a place in his writings, very much so. By the time he returned to his native Kerala he had learnt to put pen to paper, and he decided to earn his living by writing —a near-impossible task in those times.

Basheer was inspired into taking part in the freedom struggle by the visit of Gandhiji to the Vaikom temple, very near his home, to offer satyagraha against the rampant untouchability there (‘outcastes’ could not use certain roads; even their shadows ‘polluted’ the upper-caste beings). He was able to hold Gandhiji by the arm, a fact which he proudly told his mother. He was at school then. Later on he became an admirer of Bhagat Singh and advocated terrorism as the way to gain independence, and even edited a journal which was promptly banned. These early sorties into writing came to nought.

After Independence, Basheer was disillusioned by the behaviour of political leaders who were after power and position and did not care for the people’s suffering. He showed his resentment by discarding khadi, which he had been habitually wearing, and shunning all political parties though he never made a secret of his support for the underdog. His greatest friends were  leftists, including staunch Communists such as the late K.C. George and Prof. Joseph Mundasseri who became Ministers in Kerala’s first EMS Cabinet.

Like his well-known contemporaries of the late 1930s and early 1940s, S.K. Pottekkat, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Ponkunnam Varkey and Kesava Dev, Basheer wrote spoken Malayalam as against the Sanskritised bookish language used till then. Basheer went the whole hog in this direction, and his use of common colloquial speech endeared him to the reader. His style of narrative, of detailing daily events and incidents with a running thread of humour, was another factor that made his stories catch on. He never philosophised, never sermonised against oppression but, all the same, man’s inhumanity to man came through with telling effect. Readers who chuckled at his way of telling found that tears were not far behind. This quality of Basheer’s writing is what made him unsurpassable as a storyteller.

Basheer was not a prolific writer. Over a writing span of 50 years he published less than 30 titles. The reason was, perhaps, that he was a perfectionist. He would write and rewrite to achieve the maximum economy of words. He was sensitive about anything shoddy or verbose coming out in his name. The master narrator that he was, he could make a story out of any incident that he came across, but he would brood over it for days, perhaps months, before he put it down. He would then chisel it to shape and polish it like a precious stone before offering it to the public. In this lay the genius of the man.

It is now 50 years since his first novel Balyakalasakhi (Childhood Friend) was published. It took Malayalees by storm and went into three reprints in as many months in 1944. It is the simple tale of two next-door neighbours, Majid and Sohra, who grow up together deeply attached to each other and then find themselves estranged due to social circumstances.

Two other novels are of great significance. Ntuppoopakoranundarnu (Me Grandad ’ad an Elephant) is the story of a lovable, innocent young girl, Kunjipathumma, who is brought up in the lap of luxury. Though she is unlettered, as befitted the aristocratic Muslim girls of those days who could not be sent to the “kaffir ishkools”, her imagination is awhirl with the myths and legends of Islam dinned into her ears. She has a pompous mother who goes about bedecked in her gold and finery boasting of the elephant which her father had once owned. The family loses all their wealth in the course of litigation and are forced to move into a hut. Their neighbour happens to be a young Muslim college lecturer who lives with his sister and parents. The young man falls in love with Kunjipathumma when he espies her having a bath in the nearby pond; she is having a one-way dialogue with a leech which has bitten her (“Why don't you go to your mate instead of biting a poor girl’s thighs?”). The entire story sparkles with wit and satire which makes one laugh right through; the contrast between the superstition-ridden family of Kunjipathumma and that of the lecturer, who are staunch Muslims, is driven home with thunderous impact. This is perhaps the only Basheer novel with a clear social message to his fellow Muslims: “Educate yourself or perish.”

The other major novel of Basheer is Pathummayude Aadu (Pathumma’s Goat) which, believe it or not, is devoid of any theme. Basheer comes to his village and joint family home to convalesce after an illness. He spends most of his time sitting in a canvas deckchair in the front yard under a fruit-bearing tree and interacting with the members of the family and passing pedestrians, mostly schoolgirls.

His family includes his mother, sisters, two brothers and the children, and then of course there is the goat and a stray dog. The narration is hilarious—the minor chicaneries of the family members to extract money from their prosperous writer ikkaka (elder brother), the endearing rivalries of the children, the depredations of the goat which gobbles up not only the food meant for humans but also copies of Basheer’s books (with a preference for the first editions of certain titles) are all etched out with the deftness of a master craftsman. There is never a dull moment or a spell of boredom. The utter penury of the family is evident throughout the narration, which is in first person singular, though not a word is spelt out.

These three novels have been ably rendered into English by Prof. R.E. Asher of Edinburgh University. ( Me Grandad ‘ad an Elephant is now available as a Penguin paperback.)

Among the other long stories—novellas which hardly run into more than 60 or 70 pages—the most noteworthy is Sabdangal (Voices), though many prudes turn up their noses at some of the incidents described there.

Mathilukal (Walls) is another long short story that has evoked admiration for its sheer craftsmanship. It focusses on the primordial yearning of the male for his mate, seen through the mind of a political prisoner lodged in the men’s jail adjacent to the women’s prison next door, the two separated by an unscalable wall.

Two hot Basheer favourites with readers have been Premalekhanam (Love Letter) and Poovan Pazham (Poovan Banana) by reason of their delectable comic touch.

Basheer’s outlook on life is perhaps typified by what one of his characters wrote to his lady love: “All too brief phase of existence when life is bubbling with youth and the heart is fragrant with love.” He also believed that “humour is the fragrance of life”. He was very much a believing Muslim, but poured scorn and ridicule on the superstitions and misguided teaching put out by the mullah and the moulvi. His youthful companionship with Sufis made a Sufi of him though he would never talk or write about it. His interaction with many rishis meditating in the Himalayas made him, according to the present writer, imbibe the true spirit of Advaita. This wholesome combination fashioned a harmonious unity of faith within him which shows in his writings. Tolerance and understanding were part of his very being.

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