A sage and an iconoclast

Print edition : April 22, 2005


O.V. Vijayan, 1930-2005.

Now the knowledge dawned on Siddhartha: the love of one's country demands the killing of children... . Siddhartha sat in contemplation with no papal tree to stretch its merciful canopy overhead; and the Judge finished the last cantos of the judgment, and all around were the sounds of the people... God, God! Siddhartha reflected, what voice is this which is not of man nor animal, neither of the mate nor of the offspring? I know now! He listened with the seeker's alertness and heard its echo down the centuries through the dark valleys of memory. It is, Siddhartha realised, the eunuch voice of history.

- O.V. Vijayan: The Saga of Dharmapuri

A PROFOUND anguish over a world turning absurdly violent day by day cast its sombre shadow on whatever Vijayan did: his novels, short stories, political columns, why, even his cartoons. His was the trauma of an intellectual who had witnessed the irrationality of a sanguine age that had revolutions stand on their heads, wars waged on the most irrational grounds, tragi-comic conflicts staged in the name of God and religion, caste and race, language, region and nation and the endless exodus of refugees fleeing the soil that had once nurtured them and was now turning into minefields: he was caught between weeping for the children ever under the scimitar on the sacrificial stone and laughing at the cruel Sisyphean absurdity of human history and the fragility of the protagonists it had thrown up over centuries. Not that he lacked faith completely: he had faith in Marx and Gandhi, in transformation through compassion, and as years went by, even in some unnameable cosmic presence whose radiance illuminates the loneliest of minds: but his faith only deepened his agonised concern for the strange destiny of Marx and Gandhi reflected in their painfully comic afterlives and for the poor human mind fighting over the self-created illusions. This double awareness gave him a kind of detachment that was the source of his laughter that was closer to that of a Vyasa than, say, of a Mark Twain.

Vijayan happened in Malayalam much before Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Saramago had become daily bread for the reader in Malayalam. It is ironic that the translation of Khasakkinte Itihasam (The Legend of Khasak) in English happened much later and those who knew him through the English version identified his unique narrative mode with the magic realism of the Latin American masters. The other end of the absurdity was that a fiction writer in Malayalam accused Vijayan of plagiarising an ordinary realistic Marathi novel as that too had a teacher in a one-teacher rural school for its protagonist, like Ravi of The Legend of Khasak.

This novel literally revolutionised Malayalam fiction. Its interweaving of myth and reality, its lyrical intensity, its black humour, its freshness of idiom with its mixing of the provincial and the profound and its combinatorial wordplay, its juxtaposition of the erotic and the metaphysical, the crass and the sublime, the real and the surreal, guilt and expiation, physical desire and existential angst, and its innovative narrative strategy with its deft manipulation of time and space together created a new readership with a novel sensibility and transformed the Malayali imagination forever.

The characters of the novel have now become legendary: There is Ravi, the protagonist who lives at two levels, a mundane, instinctive level of lust and longing and a transcendental meditative level of detachment and spiritual quest. He is haunted by a sense of guilt for his past incestuous relationship with his stepmother and his desecration of an ashram by committing a sin with a yogini that prompts him to leave the peace of that shelter and walk into the blazing sun of Khasak to run a single-teacher school in that remote village. An intellectual who had tried to correlate astrophysics and upanishadic metaphysics and was all set to go to the United States for higher studies, Ravi was driven by his shame and came to Khasak to expiate his sin: he is an alien among the rustic folk, seeing them with a kind of philosophical detachment, even while mixing with them at the level of everyday experience. But here too, desire overwhelms him and at the end of a series of events, facing the threat of suspension, he keeps his word to his beloved Padma to leave Khasak: he lies down in calm detachment in the white monsoon rain, waiting for his bus, affectionately watching the blue-hooded serpent that had struck him withdrawing content into its hole surrounded by the newborn grass.

And there are the rustic folk: Allapicha, the maulvi who considers modern schools the devil's institutions teaching the king's angular script and the kaffir's sciences and is a potential foe for Ravi ending up as the school's peon; Nizam Ali, an orphan brought up by Allapicha, now a khaliyar supporting Ravi, the self-appointed representative of Syed Mian Sheikh, the ghost of whose lean horse still gallops in the wheezy east wind and helps invalids and widows, carrying them on his back across the valley; Madhavan Nair, a tailor by profession, a Communist with Vedantic training and Ravi's confidante, Maimuna, the village beauty, once Nizam Ali's beloved and now Ravi's, but married by her father to the lame and ugly Chukra Rawthar; Appukkili (Appu, the Bird), a dull and deformed man-boy ever hunting for spiders and butterflies in Khasak's valleys; Kuppu Achan, a toddy-tapper, a victim of prohibition; Kuttadan, the temple-priest whose oracles twice a week were God's words to the villagers, trying hard to convince the educated Ravi of the authenticity of his revelations; Sivaraman Nair, a Hindu fundamentalist who `found' a conspiracy between Madhavan Nair the Communist and Ravi the anarchist out to destroy Hinduism....

Vijayan's visionary energy converts what could easily have been an ordinary naturalistic rural narrative into a magical experience of mythical proportions. The novel that came out in 1969, after 12 years of drafting and redrafting, became an instant hit with the young while infuriating the conservatives and the progressives alike, though for different reasons, the only common reason being its `sexual anarchy'. It was `anti-status-quoist' in every sense; and readers with orthodox sensibilities charged it with obscurity, partly because of its new idiom and partly its play with space and time that went against the familiar, chronological narration. But as years went by, resistance cooled down, and the `elitist' novel has now crossed 30 editions and is still one of the bestsellers in Malayalam.

C.V. Raman Pillai, the author of historical romances like Marthanda Varma, Dharmaraja and Ramaraja Bahadur, had in the early decades of the 20th century created a world of myth and used the Malayalam language like a polyphonic musical instrument and Vaikom Mohammad Basheer had shaped a simple yet philosophical idiom out of everyday speech: Vijayan had learnt from both and striven to go beyond them to transform the very texture of his people's imagination. I still remember how we, the young, used to wait for the thrill of imagination that the novel gave week after week when it was serialised in the weekly Mathrubhumi.

Vijayan's next novel Dharmapuranam (The Saga of Dharmapuri), however, demanded a different reader. Here was a savage political satire that reminded one of Swift and Voltaire at the same time for its fierce loathing of what unethical politics has made of India and its outrageously hilarious ridicule of public postures and ideological pretensions. It revealed Vijayan at his incisive best as it pressed into service even scatology in its utter contempt for an immoral leadership that had abandoned Gandhian values in its unscrupulous pursuit of selfish power. The novel was to be serialised in Malayalanadu from July 1975; it was advertised too but the Emergency declared on June 25 that year intervened. Neither the writer nor the editor was eager to be a martyr. The novel appeared only in 1977, after the lifting of the Emergency. What was originally a dark prophecy now appeared to be a report of what had happened.

This novel also met with disapprobation from the allies of the state in different garbs; no publisher would dare touch it as the memories of the dark days of the Emergency were still fresh and they were afraid too of the possible public disapproval of its sexual-scatological language and imagery. It found a publisher only in 1985 when the tempers and fears had cooled a little. Its English translation, done by Vijayan himself and published by Penguin Books in 1987, created a storm anew on a national scale. David Selbourne, writing in The Times Literary Supplement, referred to it as "...dangerous stuff and cut close to the bone", while Khushwant Singh remarked: "Not the kind of novel you forget in a hurry." Vijayan himself described it as a cleansing act that he had no desire to repeat.

THERE are many who believe that with these novels Vijayan the sceptic ceased to be and Vijayan the believer took over. The words of V. Rajakrishnan, an admiring critic, reflect the feelings of many of his readers: "His quest took on a serene affirmative tone in his later writings starting with Gurusagaram (The Infinity of Grace, 1987). It looked as though he had found some temporary solutions to the perplexing problems of human existence through the spiritual order of affirmation. Personally I prefer Vijayan the doubter, Vijayan the questioner, to Vijayan the man who had found his answers."

Vijayan always had a spiritual streak in him that is evident already in Khasakkinte Itihasam that had followed his first book Moonnu Yuddhangal (Three Battles), which belongs to his `progressive' phase. Certain agonising experiences in his personal life along with the torments of his doubting self, his instinctive diffidence and feelings of insecurity and his horror at the violence he witnessed all around must have deepened this aspect of his subjectivity. His visits to ashrams, particularly to Shantigiri where he was impressed by the teachings of Karunakaraguru, became more frequent now.

However, it is wrong to dismiss his later novels like Gurusagaram, Madhuram Gayati (Sweet is the Music, 1990), Pravachakante Vazhi (The Way of the Prophet, 1992) and Thalamurakal (Generations, 1997) as mere exercises in metaphysics. First, because many of the great writers of modern times from Dostoyevsky to Kafka and Kazantsakis have a strong metaphysical streak in them that in no way diminishes their greatness. Second, Vijayan kept on reacting actively to the events around him through his political columns and his powerful cartoons. And third, all these novels have a profound human and social content: for example, Gurusagaram, set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh war, dramatises the grief of a broken family and delves into the meaning of human relationships; Madhuram Gayati is an allegorical fable of the post-Holocaust world with its lovelessness and disharmony; Pravachakante Vazhi reveals the illusory nature of man-made differences and Thalamurakal, an autobiographical novel, is full of political and moral overtones.

But one must admit that these novels did not create the kind of impact that Khasakkinte Itihasam did. His six collections of short stories also show him as a master of the genre. The stories, which range from the comic to the philosophical, show an astonishing diversity of situations, tones and styles. His own translations of his stories into English - After Hanging and Other Stories and Selected Stories and the novels, The Saga of Dharmapuri, The Legend of Khasak and The Infinity of Grace - have had a pan-Indian appeal, though fellow-writers like N.S. Madhavan have been openly critical of the freedoms he took with his own works as well as his English style and would have them translated again.

AS a political commentator, Vijayan always showed his firm commitment to democratic values as revealed by his six collections of political articles. At times, he was criticised by friends like Paul Zacharia for his suspected right leanings: but he never compromised his secular credentials. Even while having unsure thoughts about spiritual politics, he always distinguished between the Haindava and the Atihaindava (the Hindu and the extremist Hindu), to use his own words. His criticism of the Left as well as the Right was done consistently from an ethical, liberal democratic point of view.

Vijayan was easily one of the greatest cartoonists of India. His cartoons were not for the passive spectator who wanted just to be amused or vicariously appeased, but for the thinking, polemical viewer who wanted to be provoked and challenged. His style was economical to the core: simple, terse, geometrical, mercilessly minimal; and his comments always sharp, cerebral, subversive. He stopped cartooning during the dark years of the Emergency; he refused to draw under constraints. Still, the series he drew for the weekly Kalakaumudi during that period, Ithiri Nerampokku, Ithiri Darsanam (A Little Amusement, A Little Philosophy) said all that had to be said in its wordless lines.

The son of a police officer born prematurely in a village in Palghat, Vijayan had a chequered career as a lecturer and as columnist and cartoonist with Shankar's Weekly, Patriot, The Hindu and The Statesman though he drew also for Malayalam dailies and periodicals as well as for The New York Times and Far Eastern Economic Review. He won the Padmabhushan, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award and the Sahitya Akademi Award, besides all the prestigious literary awards from Kerala including its highest prize, the Ezhuthacchan Award.

Vijayan was a true visionary intrigued by the paradoxes of history that he went on turning into words and lines. He represents a break in the history of Malayalam fiction as well as in that of Indian cartooning. His defiant creativity was full of a primordial energy that drew equally from the sage and the iconoclast in him.

K. Satchidanandan is Secretary, Sahitya Akademi.

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