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The art of remembering

Print edition : Jun 24, 2000 T+T-
M. MUKUNDAN

The Village Before Time by V.K. Madhavan Kutty; translated from Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty; India Ink, New Delhi; 180 pages, Rs.250.

I HAVE just finished reading V.K. Madhavan Kutty's The Village Before Time. But I think it would be wrong to say that I have read this book. I was rather remembering the book. For, above all it is a book of remembrance. While flicking through T he Village Before Time I learnt that remembering is a synonym for reading. In the fictional work of the modern time, we find that memory plays a great role, very often a role that is greater than that of the hero or heroine. Memory is the new fiction al hero.

In the opening pages, the author says: "Not all the events in this book happened exactly as I have described here. Nor are they entirely creations of my imagination." What makes the book interesting is that it is neither a book of fiction nor a book of f acts. Its place is somewhere between imagination and reality. The author recounts events he has witnessed, talks about people he has grown up with and, of course, about himself, and yet it is no autobiography. The Village Before Time is a biograph y of memory. Past a few pages, you are convinced that V. K. Madhavan Kutty, a veteran journalist, is a master in the art of remembering.

A book has a body like all of us. It has a physiology. In witness to its biological denouement, I have had the rare opportunity and privilege to go through The Village Before Time as early as at its formative stages. I had seen how the author conc eived the book, let it grow organs, and in the final act how he delivered it. I had witnessed all these phases. If I walk along Amrita Shergill Marg from my office at Aurangzeb Road for about ten minutes, I can reach Madhavan Kutty's flat at Rabindra Nag ar. There I had spent many lunch-break hours watching the book grow up. Before he brought himself to write the book, Madhavan Kutty had told me about the idea. And then one day in his study, stonewalled by countless tomes authored by Mahatma Gandhi to Mi khail Gorbachev and the poet Kumaran Asan to the novelist Uroob, he fished out a sheath of papers dotted with hurriedly written and disjointed texts in Malayalam. That was the foetus of the The Village Before Time. In its original version, it had another title - A Feast of Memories.

When the book was complete. I went through it again. It is exciting to see how an author, working on his book, puts in order scattered thoughts, broken images, blurred dreams, splintered history. The most interesting phase in the creation of a book is th is act of putting together shards and splinters. Writing is a kind of weaving, a dexterous work akin to that of a spider weaving its transparent and sticky web.

Admittedly, for these reasons, I was always a little anxious to see how Madhavan Kutty has succeeded in this art of producing a text. He is a super journalist who has for over 40 years brought the news and news analyses to the masses through his reports and columns in newspapers and periodicals. That is fine. But has he ever written a book of fiction? Then how can he write about his village Paruthipully in Palakkad?

Paruthipully is no ordinary village. Well before the advent of feminism, woman had ruled the tharavad there thanks to the now extinct matrilineal system prevalent only there. Women controlled the economy of the family and therefore controlled the economy of the village as well, while their men whiled away their time loitering in the temple premises or watching Kathakali. Above all, Palakkad is known for communist exuberance and poetic violence. The legendary E.M.S. Namboodiripad hails from this r egion. Great poets and novelists such as Idessery and Uroob lived and died on the banks of the Nila river that runs through Palakkad. Age-old customs and rites, fertile poetry and communism co-exist in Palakkad. Only a wordsmith with a profound imaginati on and sense of history is therefore expected to venture upon writing about Palakkad.

The unassuming Madhavan Kutty with his disarming modesty will not claim to be an author of this genre. But he is an imaginative wordsmith. He has a profound sense of history. When you finish reading The Village Before Time, you know it for sure.

My problem with the book is that, since I have already read its original Malayalam version, I cannot read it in a single language now. While reading the English translation, I was simultaneously reading its original Malayalam version as well. For each ph rase in English, there was behind it its hidden original Malayalam phrase.

Reading a literary work in its original and reading its translation is an entirely different exercise. In the original text, each word has its extensions in its cultural references which in turn give the word connotations and resonances. In the translati on, this is totally absent. There is nothing more lonely than a translated word.

The ability to write a book in simple language and in a candid style is a feat in itself elsewhere, but not in Kerala. Whatever subject you are delving into, however simple it is, when you start writing you should intentionally make the narrative complex and intriguing. It should sound cerebral. If you fail in your effort to transform the simple into the complex, you are no good writer. You are not entitled to any literary award. Critics will look down upon you and your book with contempt.

It is in such a scenario that Madhavan Kutty wrote this book in Malayalam with utmost simplicity. Each word is crystal clear. He is not bent on intellectual pretensions.

In Madhavan Kutty's place, any other writer might have made an attempt to turn Paruthipully into a Marquesian terrain. For, Palakkad with its serpent shrines, its palm trees perpetually caught in wind, its sensuous women capable of seducing men and gods alike, is no less magical than Macando. But Madhavan Kutty is not a writer in this mould. Instead of turning the real into the magical, he turns the magical into the real. Here, the magical Paruthipully is laid bare to its naked bones.

There is no story line running through The Village Before Time. Just a host of characters and vignettes. But even a vignette speaks volumes. For instance, in the first chapter the author recounts the arrival of Abraham, the village postman. Abraha m, a Christian, gently entered the village that had been rendered impregnanable by Nairs and their caste customs and rituals, settled down there, bought a piece of land, planted tapioca, married, brought other family members. Very soon Christians and the ir rubber trees began to multiply. They formed the Kerala Congress and wielded power. For the author a few words suffice to paint a vivid picture of the great migrations of the Christians from southern Kerala to the virgin forests and villages of Malabar where they began an economic revolution with rubber and tapioca - above all with their hard work.

As the brief history of Abraham's life and death is a pointer to the untold greater stories of Christian immigrants in Malabar, an anecdote or an over-simplified narrative here and there could reveal a deep insight into the Malayalee's mind-frame. We, Ma layalees are born rebels. We are bent on questioning everything. Fifty years ago, when plans were afoot to bring electricity to the author's village, all sections of the population irrespective of their caste and creed protested against it in unison. Rec ently Malayalees protested vehemently against the proposed construction of an expressway in Kerala. Even a child knows that a large expressway connecting the entire width and breadth of the State would accelerate its overall development. And yet Malayale es tried to sabotage the project. Although half a century has gone by, Malayalees remain the same.

Most of the events narrated in the novel took place nearly half a century ago. Even then, we very often feel that some of the characters live in the present, with us, in tune with our time. Subhadra is such a person. There are many other young ladies in the book, but she is the one I would like to fall in love with, if ever I have to, and this has nothing to do with her elemental beauty. She belongs to an extremely conservative family. One day she simply runs away with a low-caste young man. But this is not a romantic escapade. She is not in love with him. She takes him to a hotel room in the city, sleeps with him and quietly returns home when found out. Remember, this happened before Simone de Bouvoir wrote her Second Sex and Wilson Gordon his Third Sex.

There are all sorts of people living in the author's tiny village - casteist Hindus, Christian immigrants, Congressmen, musicians, courtesans, homeopaths, poets, Kathakali artists. There are low-caste Hindus who pollute, but who, in the time of elections , realise that their votes are not polluted. There are cart-drawing bullocks and snakes that strike in the pupils of your eyes. There is sex and romance. There is freedom struggle. All this is recounted in a very austere manner.

In all Indians there lives a village. Wherever we are in the world, we carry the village within us. That is why we love V.K. Madhavan Kutty's book.

An afterword: Gita Krishnankutty's translation is as good as its original.

P. V. NARASIMHA RAO

MADHAVAN KUTTY has revived innumerable memories of rural India - never mind where - in his book. I was simply immersed in the memories. For anyone so completely lost in the book, I am not sure it is possible to analyse it, to describe it or appraise it c ritically.

Several stories, repeated almost everywhere, haunted me. Ravana was actually slain by Rama coming from the temple in Tiruvilvamala.... The same thing happened in another village in my area where Narasimha's play was enacted in front of the Narasimha temp le and lo and behold! the Lord came out and, having possessed the actor who played Narasimha's part, slit Hiranyakashya-pu's belly with his knife-like claws and killed him on the spot.

Ever since that day the play has never been enacted in front of the temple, so as not to provoke the Lord even in the name of a play. They say the actor who did the killing as a histrionic feat, cried and cried for his friend and colleague for days toget her. He just didn't know what he was doing when he did it. It is not known if the law of the time ever touched him. Obviously, those were pre-IPC times. Those were also times when you couldn't take any liberties with God even in thoughts if they were bla sphemous - leave alone actions. How could you challenge Narasimha in front of his own holy abode?

Then we have a person who became a guard in the Railways and whether he guarded the train or not, improvised rhymes and sang them to the rhythm of the chugging train. What layakari he must have mastered, indeed! Impeccable, no doubt. He used the t rain as a running drum, with all the six laya kalas in drummery. For such a perfect accompaniment he made no payment to the Railways. It was all free, unlike these days.

The advent of the novel, perhaps of the first generation, is as common as it is interesting. Premapravaham - even the title must have been considered scandalous! Fiction of this kind was frowned upon as vigorously as it was enjoyed - secretly of c ourse. The novel was subconsciously taken as the author's own story. Madhavan Kutty doesn't quite tell us how Sankaran Nair's wife reacted to his Leela, but it could perhaps be gleaned from the fact that he gave up writing after marriage. When recently i t came to political fiction, my own book The Insider evoked a detailed Who's Who in Andhra Pradesh, without many readers caring to examine what I really wanted to convey. When we began reading novels where boys met girls just like that, while we h ad no such luck, we either imagined ourselves as the characters or envied them. It never occurred to us that fiction was not the same as fact.

Madhavan Kutty inevitably takes us to the changing times. The feudal set-up in which the Thampuran has the full right to get the loveliest girl in the locality and wed her - only to die in a year leaving her absolutely untouched. It is amazing how human beings could become collector's items in an acquisitive society.

The narrative has a familiar ring all through, but for names and some local colour. My fascination as I read on consisted mainly in the recollection of parallel experiences. Everything was familiar, no matter where it happened in India. In its own way, t he book brings out unintended evidence of India's unity - in several cases, including unity in absurdity.

Madhavan Kutty is a simple and straight story-teller. That's why perhaps he is effective. But he also hits upon unexpected innuendoes. Look at the following paragraph, for instance:

'The petromax was lit whenever Kunhiraman Nair visited her. Its light spilled on to the road. All the children in the neighbourhood would come and gaze at it. Moths would fly up and give their lives up to it. Some of the villagers were comforted by the t hought that the moths in the village would now crowd around the petromax and leave them alone.'

The book abounds in such simple sallies.

And finally, the rules that someone else would tell a land-holder how much to sow, what crops to produce, how to report his stocks of grain... the worst nonsense a land-holder couldn't even imagine, ever. Then what you produce is given to you on ration c ards. That was the worst affront to a farmer. The unforgettable experience of the Second World War time. These passages reminded me of my father who was irritated no end at these requirements of the Defence of Hyderabad Rules. He was fortunate to die bef ore he suffered further from their tyranny.

In one word, Madhavan Kutty has written the story of a generation - in fact three generations. The bitter-sweet story of rural India. Many characters come in the book; they are flesh and blood and very much visible, albeit for varying durations. B ut there is one - just ONE entirely invisible but persistently palpable character throughout the story: GOD. They say He will vanish in the 21st century, but there seem no signs of that happening - at least so far.

On the whole, a simple and not-so-simple narrative by one who is himself at the tail-end of it. My compliments to Madhavan Kutty.