The end of historiography?

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, 1912-1999.

WITH the passing of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai on April 10, 1999 at his native village in Kuttanad taluk of Alappuzha district at the age of 87, a certain phase of Malayalam fiction with a good deal of emphasis on historiographic documentation may be said to have come to its logical end. That the novel should hold up a mirror to life in the raw, cooked rare and showing the red, was almost an axiom with the generation of writers who grew up under the tutelage of the redoubtable intellectual Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, whose unorthodox views and cosmopolitan outlook had a substantial influence on them in their formative years. It was perhaps Thakazhi who benefited most from it in his creative work.

Hailing from an underdeveloped village, where he had his early education, he went to Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) to study law, which later helped him work as a pleader. The years he spent in Trivandrum in the company of Kesari made him familiar with world literature, especially with the novels of Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Hugo, Zola, Tolstoy and Gorki. In a sense this contact with the Western masters of the narrative opened his vision, both in terms of content and the technique of story-telling, which in his last years he was eager to unlearn.

Thakazhi's first short story (The Poor) was published in 1929, his first novel (Reward for Sacrifice) in 1934. In the 1930s and 1940s he was active in the Progressive Literature Movement, and his early stories and novels reveal the twin influence of Freud and Marx. His involvement with leftist politics has left its imprint on his early novels like Thottiyude Makan (Scavenger's Son, 1947) and Randidangazhi (Two Measures, 1948). The trend began to change slowly towards the publication of his popular classic Chemmeen (Shrimps, 1956). This evolution of his perception of art and life continued into his later masterpieces such as Ouseppinte Makkal (Children of Ouseph, 1959), Enippadikal (Rungs of the Ladder, 1964), and Chukku (Dried Ginger, 1967), culminating in his magnum opus Kayar (The Rope, 1978).

One can see two things in this trajectory: one, the relentless, though slow, development of his creative powers; the other, the indifference with which he pushes off pot-boilers in between irresistible masterpieces. But it cannot be denied that, whatever be the final assessment of the aesthetic quality of his individual works, there is a fierce and sustained concern for the suffering of the underdog - beggar, prostitute, peasant, factory worker, fisherfolk, scavenger, shopkeeper, the downtrodden, the impoverished middle class, destitute women, orphans, and what not. He was no sentimentalist, although he could portray human sentiments with sharp objectivity and precision. All his 600-odd short stories, his novels, his innumerable articles, speeches, biographical writings and travelogues throb with concern for mankind. They run through the whole gamut of human emotions.

ON April 11, a grateful village bade farewell to the man who had put their tiny spot of land forever on the map of the world. The crowds had their last look at him, whom they had grown familiar with in their routine daily activities, but got dazed as though they were seeing him for the first time that afternoon. The village was appropriating to itself the writer who had appropriated its name to himself for nearly seven decades, meticulously recording the history of its people in all its lovely and ugly nuances, its joys and sorrows, its petty quarrels and aching dreams. The village historian himself was becoming part of history.

Trying to write in the past tense about Thakazhi, the chronicler of the eternal present, is an unenviable task. Which reflects only the limitations of our understanding of human mortality, for, by writing one's age, one becomes ageless.

"He's gone, gone away, leaving us all behind," murmured his wife Kathamma to herself, as I moved over to her by the side of the hero whom she had looked after, silently and wistfully, for over sixty years. "He'll never go away, he's always with us, will be so, in our hearts, for all time to come," I whispered to myself, for it was what everybody there felt. They had all, it seemed, walked out of his stories and novels, the humble and the lowly, the little men and women, who could never aim at superhuman proportions. Here was life indistinct from the literature that grew out of it and in turn created it. He is now part of the memory of the land, which memory he himself had enshrined in his immortal writings.

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. Through the microcosm of Kuttanad, Thakazhi emerges not merely as the chronicler of his village complex, but by exploiting the puranic mode of narration, as the historiographer of mankind.-H. VIBHU

AS a story-teller Thakazhi was an artist to his fingertips. His short, crisp sentences narrate the tale with controlled breath. There is no trace of bombast anywhere. In his best stories, one can almost hear the sound of breathing as if it were orally told. His imagination was down to earth, and his grand theme was the earth, man's attachment to the earth.

Kayar weaves it into a massive symphony, fully orchestrated with landscape and watershed. In more than a thousand pages, it unfolds the majestic tapestry with scores of tales that a village loves to remember and recount. In slow movement it unfolds the tragicomic chronicle of individuals and families and groups that integrates and disintegrates this imagined community. Kayar may be read as an epitome of Kerala history, told from the perspective of a tiny village. There are recurring images of a familiar historian, a raconteur, like Achoma Kurup, who cannot take rest unless he passes on the tradition of story-telling, along with the inherited and accumulated stories of the community to the new generation, both the tale and its telling, both the history and its historiography. Thakazhi has gone on record that he learned this dual art from Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata.

The documentary aspect of Kayar is brought out by the very topography of Kuttanad, which is Thakazhi's home tinai (region). Kerala is proverbially thought of as land reclaimed from the sea by Parasurama - perhaps a rubric for the tribe or tribes that worked the miracle before history and historiography started. So is Kuttanad an entirely man-made land, where the annual flood still acts as a reminder of the primordial dominance of water. Small plots of land made of mud dug up mostly by the landless Pulayas and Parayas from the placid waters at the meeting place of rivers like the Pampa and the backwaters of the Vembanand lake. But those who created this fertile delta owned no part of it; and this alienation of man and the fruits of his labour is a focal theme of the novel.

The craze for landed property has for long been a fundamental feature of humankind's character, until in the post-industrial age people left the fields to take up other enterprises such as tea and rubber plantations or go abroad for more lucrative jobs. The rise and fall of Kuttanad is retold in Kayar from the time of the first land survey and settlement about 200 years ago. Land had then functioned as the counter for all financial transitions, and continued to dominate all human concerns and relationships, till the Land Reforms Act changed everything. This historic transformation of man's relationship with land, as also between man and man, men and women and even man and God, forms the staple theme of Kayar.

As the simple sentences form little paragraphs, tiny episodes, snatches of dialogues and reminiscences, and echo across the vast paddyfields and the expansive backwaters, they swell into epic dimensions, and tarawad after tarawad collapses in the flood tide of socio-economic and political upheavals. Through the microcosm of Kuttanad, Thakazhi emerges not merely as the chronicler of his village complex, but by exploiting the puranic mode of narration, as the historiographer of mankind.

The horizontal and vertical mobility of the speaker and the listener and the subject of speech is subtly suggested by the image of the coir yarn, homespun, multi-layered, strong and resilient, but never monological: the land survey and settlement, the Nair Regulation Act, the spread of Western education, the Moplah rebellion, the freedom struggle, all the earth-shaking events dovetailed into a fine sequence, and a finer consequence. Randidangazhi is concerned with the struggle of the agricultural labourers of Kuttanad and their ruthless masters; Thottiyude Makan with the scavengers of Alappuzha; Chemmeen with the fisherfolk of Ambalappuzha and its surroundings; Enippadikal with the ambitious politicians and bureaucrats of the State Capital; Kayar is a blend of all these, including and transcending all these, with a narrative sweep, imaginative vision, and spiritual insight, unsurpassed by any other contemporary novel in Malayalam.

Dr. Ayyappa Paniker is a writer and literary critic. He retired as Professor of English and Chairman of the Institute of English, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

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