A craft of his own

Print edition : July 02, 2010

V.V. Ayyappan, Aka Kovilan. In him, Malayalam writing eventually found the triumph of the life, sorrows and language of the marginalised over the literature of the elite-VIPIN CHANDRAN

AS statements about writing craft go, Kovilan's was unique, startling in its deceptive simplicity: The wolf pounces and grips the doe by the scruff of its neck, a vigorous shake, blood spouts.... I wouldn't know if [Vaikom Mohammed] Basheer had taught me with those very words. But during the many conversations that we had together, I had learnt to catch hold of the crux of a story and to shake it fervently, just the once. A story, a beginning and an end for it I have no interest in any such thing. I should have its spine in my grip.

Vattomparambil Velappan Ayyappan, aka Kovilan, the grumpy patriarch of Malayalam literature, freedom fighter, soldier, a great human being and a searing commentator of the reality of hunger, poverty, marginalisation and gender and class bias of his age, no doubt had a defiant hold on his readers with his piercing, real-life themes and unpretentious, earthy language.

He had usurped a pan-Indian canvas for his Malayalam audience right from the days when he bloomed as a writer in the early 1940s until his death on June 2 and retained a crabby, provocative non-conformism throughout, which was frustrating to those who sought to confine him within familiar literary frameworks.

Kovilan instead believed in surprising his audience, among other things, by easing the story out of the confines of a plot, breaking the barriers of the language, discarding romanticism and daydreams from his works, making his prose rub shoulders with poetry and unmasking the human being again and again all of it, to make his stories more intense and, yes, true to life.

When many of his peers were passionately experimenting with modernist trends in fiction writing, drawing inspiration from popular English and European writers, Kovilan sought his roots and soul, the traditions, culture and language of the common people, the soulful tales and tunes of the community that he lived in, and the countless characters that he encountered in his speckled life.

As an author he had a rich armoury of his own life's stories, characters and points of view of a child born into misery in a peasant family in pre-Independence Kerala; a student who experienced the pain of the death of his starving, toiling mother; an aspiring Sanskrit scholar who wanted to be a poet (and had the skills for it) but who soon realised poetry was an insufficient medium to convey the misery of the weekly throng of beggars at his village market; a school dropout inspired by communist ideals in a feudal, casteist, patriarchal and clearly unequal social order; a young man drawn prematurely into the tumult of the freedom movement; a brother for whom his sisters would willingly forgo the only helping of the day's rice porridge; and a progressive writer who therefore sought a livelihood in the British navy (and later in the Indian Army) at a young age, and eventually, after 23 years of a hazardous, dual existence as a disciplined soldier and rebellious author, returned to his native village (Kandanasseri) with a heart full of stories, a popular pen name and a rapturous cry: It's a great miracle, I've come back to my nest.

Literature is the trick of finding human beings in human beings, Kovilan used to say. Typically, his stories' were all raw human life, vividly retold in true severity and set on a pan-Indian canvas that extended from the rustic settings of his native village, to the harshness and urbaneness of a soldier's barracks and to the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. He would snatch a slice of life from here and there, dwell on it for a while, and lo! there was the story. At times he would tease his readers: The characters have all lived with me. Both Unnimol and Chennappan are alive. Narayanan is no more. Vijayakumar is not an engineer but a schoolmaster. At least some of you might have seen him walking briskly towards the western gate to catch the bus. You would not have noticed him because you did not know he was my inspiration for the character in Thottangal (the novel that won him the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award).

His technique

People wondered, what was his technique, really?

Kovilan would answer: What is technique? I can't make a story for technique. Story is life itself. And life is the sum total of all emotions and agitations. Many of my stories would not have a beginning or an end. Something will get into my brain and create a storm. That storm will last for a number of days. I wouldn't have peace of mind. I walked for 14 days before I wrote Boardout. Soles burnt under my boots. Fingers and heel broke. (That itself is another story.) .... I wandered for 10 months before I started to write the small novel Taravadu from my home.... Once I finish a story, my brain would become as thin as a full moon. I have even had the fear that I would not be able to write again at all. I have fallen into such a vacuum. Then I might sleep, day and night. But these days I am unable to wander as I may want to. Yet whenever I want to write, my custom is to walk a lot.

In a 1977 article titled Modernism in the Novel, he talked about one of his most important concerns as a writer: To put a live human being on the post-mortem table in his fundamental state, without his clothes or make-up, to open him up like a frog in the zoology lab, with his chest and abdomen nailed flat, and his heart pounding still, even after the studies we have not had many such instances in our novels, to show the beats of human character in the raw like this.... Hunger is a human being's primary craving.... And the war pangs of hunger are the true nature of human beings. The ruckus that happens here in the pretext of modernism' is enough to drown these pangs of hunger. This is not literature, but literary vulgarity.

In another article written nearly a decade later, he said: Dialogues will never become literature. A writer cannot realise the vagaries of human life merely through dialogues. But, human being! It is never a single being. More masquerades than a chameleon. Never-ending masks. As the masks fall off one by one, the story touches you more and more deeply.

Kovilan was thus constantly in conversation with himself and his audience, perhaps to bring them out of the furrows of humdrum literary perception. For him art begins when you catch hold of those tiny moments of an eternal, endless and rapid life, study them and then recreate them, offering them a permanent form. But the tiny moments that caught his eye were all brimming with tales of hunger and tears of the ordinary folks, soldiers, villagers, urbanites or their women, their cries for liberation and their incomplete aspirations. He was constantly at war with the forces of domination, trying to break them with the clout of everyday reality, ensnared and chiselled to perfection in his mind's eye, rather than with artificial imagery or trite romanticism.

For this he created an idiom of his own, a language, style and rhythm more rustic and soulful than those of his gurus and peers, drew his inspiration from all over India and from contradictory sources of poetry and stark reality, broke the rules of grammar, blew life into meaningless words and brushed aside criticism that his works were incomprehensible, at times. Indeed, it was on a second or third reading that his stories would start haunting the souls for whom it was meant. I draw my inspiration from poetry, he said. But you will not accept me as a poet. My stories are not written in prose.

Kovilan did not bother much about fan mail. And he had taken a vow never to lower his art for popularity or to imitate himself or anyone else, but to constantly update his skills, polish his creations and to cling to his roots and thus be different and be noticed for those among the marginalised and the downtrodden for whom he wrote, without ever pretending to do so. Many of his readers loved him more for his later novels such as Thottangal (Incantations) and Thattakam (The Terrain) than his earlier novels such as Army Tales and A Minus B, and the trilogy Himalayam, Tazhvarakal (The Valleys) and Ezhaamedangal (Wives), which, when they were published, had in them terrain, pan-Indian characters and narrative concepts that were quite new to Malayalam literature. When readers and editors growled or grumbled, he did occasionally express the doubt: Would the Malayalee give me up? Who should I be writing for?

The Kerala government honoured Kovilan with its highest literary award, the Ezhuthachan Puraskaram, in 2006, in recognition of his contribution to Malayalam literature. He had already won the State Sahitya Akademi Award twice in 1972 (for Thottangal) and in 1977 (Sakunam, a short story) and the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award in 1998 (forThattakam). Thattakam also won several other honours, including the prestigious Vayalar Award in 1999.

The Sahitya Akademi made him a Fellow in 2005. Thattakam, a grand narrative of epic dimensions that won the Akademi's award, was described in the fellowship citation as a saga of a land and its people, its mythical genesis and long sojourn to reach a civil society. The novel unfolds itself through innumerable anecdotes sprouting from legends, oracles, revelations, fantasies and historical events. Its structure closely follows the magic of loosely connected episodes being integrated into a meta-narrative, reminiscent of the great Indian epics. The narrative invents its own time and space that allows free passage of countless generations across the past, the present and the future. In this mission, Kovilan develops a linguistic symphony that blends the dialects and language of myriad social strata. Thattakam will certainly leave its reader spellbound to muse over the super-human imagination and artistic stamina that its author is endowed with.

Kovilan published over a dozen novels, 10 short story collections, a play and three volumes of essays. Many works were lost, or destroyed by the author himself when they did not meet his high standards. Several early versions of successful later stories had been burnt in disgust. Thottangal, an enchanting novel thus distilled, won instant acclaim for its inventive use of language, sense of time, symbolism and conflicts. It was all about the rambling reflections and nightmares of an aged, disadvantaged woman on the night of her delirious death.

First Indian writer in Malayalam'

There were innumerable other human models that Kovilan gleaned out of his village and army life, including, as in Ezhaamedangal, several facets of female dominance that he came across in military camps.A Minus B and his celebrated trilogy novels were all a miniature India bound by a common thread of struggle for existence and survival. Kovilan was the first among his peers to recognise (in the novel Bharathan) how technology and its dominance would impact common people and their lives, and also to declare: Many artistic symbols and techniques that we have nurtured for so long will have to wither away before the light of objective knowledge. The Sahitya Akademi had aptly described him as the first Indian writer in Malayalam.

In Kovilan, Malayalam writing eventually found the triumph of the life, sorrows and language of the downtrodden and the marginalised over the literature of the elite.

Decades before Kerala society began to notice the cries of its women, doubly abused, first for their caste or class and then for their gender, Kovilan had heard their piercing ring and had carved them for eternity in his novels and short stories. I have vowed to say only that which would touch the bones.... I also cry. I was never able to write a story without crying, he used to say.

In his later years Kovilan really looked the part that he had been trying to perform all along before strangers: an ill-tempered, grouchy old man. But behind the mask was the real V.V. Ayyappan a compassionate, gentle, humane being, his associates vouchsafe.

There is an amusing anecdote that summarises Kovilan's philosophy, as he himself described in an essay in 1985: An old woman in my neighbourhood hides whenever she sees me. She's shy. She claims that Pappan (Kovilan) stares only at her midriff.... Why do the old women in my neighbourhood keep crossing my path with their shrivelling tummies? Isn't it a belly that has given birth? It could be a little big. But there is no food. Not enough food. When you see a woman, what all does her body adorn that a curious eye can look at! Me, I see only the stomach.... Poor soul! She wouldn't have had her meal.

Kovilan emerged as a writer in 1946 with his first (published) novel Thakarnna Hridayangal. He had been writing ever since, though not for a while because of ill-health.

But, at 87, it was unlike him to leave without a poignant remark. A few days before his death, he said in an interview to Madhyamam, a local daily: The world has changed a lot. They call it the posh life', or some such thing. It has come to that. Today, (it seems), there are few people who are struggling to live, without money. You cannot write a story with old realities in mind. The world has changed. It is loneliness that I experience now.

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