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Soulful and cerebral

Print edition : May 25, 2002 T+T-

Twilight Encounters: The Fourth Nail and Other Stories by Anand (translations from the Malayalam by the author, K.M. Sherrif and A.J. Thomas); Rupa and Co., Delhi; pages 202, Rs.150.

ANAND'S new book of fiction in English translation is a body of 12 stories. The best stories in the collection are "The Fourth Nail" and "The Sixth Finger". Both the stories bear a number in their title and they are featured at the beginning and end respectively of this collection. This gives the book an air of numerical ascendance. Typically for a collection of Anand's fiction, on finishing this volume the reader would feel a chill in his bones. Reading Anand is always an experience that chills the bones, though not perhaps the heart.

Today, Anand is perhaps the most widely read living Malayalam writer as also the best-selling. A week after his new novel The Stolen Gods appeared in print, this reviewer failed to get a copy of it despite visiting all the major bookstores in and around his hometown in Kerala. This might give the impression that Anand is the CEO of a pulp-fiction production factory. But this view would be completely erroneous. Pulp fiction has no takers in Kerala apart from housewives - who would not buy books. This variety of fiction is serialised in popular periodicals and rarely comes out in the form of a book. So, interestingly, in Anand's State Harry Potter will not sell, though Umberto Eco would.

The literary space in Kerala is thoroughly politicised, what with more than three decades of sustained writing on political and social issues by pioneers of social realism like Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and, more recently, by the not quite larger-than-life writers like M. Sukumaran. Even during the reign of modernity, a period known for its subjectivity and inwardness, O.V. Vijayan was engaged in relentless political resistance. Writers who stayed apolitical were generally frowned upon.

Anand is a novelist and essayist of immense political dimensions, but he is not a writer of any usual genre. His political commitments are different and a far cry from the dreams of yore. From the 1980s, politics in Kerala as elsewhere has taken new forms and explored new directions. There is today an intense concern among writers in Kerala about certain major issues: power and politics, the plight of the Dalits and, above all, the rise of Hindu fascism.

Anand's is the most articulate voice in Kerala today, which questions the moral premises of politics and most importantly, resists Hindu fundamentalism. His essays and novels unmistakably establish a metaphor of resistance. While political parties degenerated into merchants of power and farmers of organic corruption, Kerala's political conscience sank in despair, retrieved only by the efforts of the literary community. Writers in Kerala have traditionally played this role of redeeming popular faith in circumstances that would normally induce despair.

The prose in Anand's novels is taut - no moon will ever rise in it, nor flowers blossom or river breezes waft through. His language, stripped to the bone, sometimes challenges the reader to go through it.

Twlight Encounters is different in that some of its stories are written in beautiful prose. The themes they deal with are the usual ones that Anand is known for. In long intervals these stories breathe free of the persistent conceptualisation of politics and power that Anand is so fond of.

Although his stories and novels have common features, it is possible to demarcate how they are often at variance. Anand's novels embody his unflinching political stand and his unfailing power of resistance, not his stories. Arguably, his stories are often qualifications to his major novels. This is because Anand needs vast fictional space to reflect on the subject he is writing about. Short stories, with all their constraints, perhaps do not provide him enough space. But in the process his stories happily free themselves from the enormous burdens of social responsibility and accountability and become fine pieces of writing.

The stories in this collection are indeed fine pieces of writing. "The Fourth Nail" is the best example. Four nails were needed for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ - one each for the palms and the feet. But his tormentors could procure only three nails. Domba the blacksmith withheld the fourth nail because he was not adequately paid; which is why Jesus' feet are clubbed and nailed together with three nails. What happened to the fourth nail? Anand sets off in search of the missing nail. Jesus tells the blacksmith: "Placing nails on my palms, when the soldier struck the hammer, since they were not carpenters, once or twice the hammer slipped and hit their own fingers and they uttered a cry. But my pain was greater than theirs. Twisting my head and legs, I cried more loudly: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'"

This may seem somewhat reminiscent of Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ. But Anand is a writer of precision and clarity, not given to verbosity.

"Meera" is altogether a different kind of story since at its very beginning the two protagonists, Meera and Raidas, shed tears. Anand's fictional personalities never cry; they are known for their inner strength and their cold, metallic stances. However, surprisingly and in a very uncharacteristic manner for Anand, "Meera" turns out to be a lyrical story, interspersed with songs and poems. The story ends on a note of sheer lyricism: "Meera turned into a song. Turning into a song, she disappeared again from his vision. But he could still hear her, the song called Meera, wandering into eternity..."

Usually, Anand's narrative is linear, but in "Dimensions" he surprises us by charting a different path. Deliberately, he turns the story into a reflection on the art of writing a story itself, and wonders, "Who knows where the story ends and the essay begins?" Indeed, while reading Anand, you hardly know where the brain meets with the soul.