The passing of Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, popularly known as T.P. Rajeevan, on November 2 in his hometown of Kozhikode, Kerala, after battling a prolonged illness was of seismic consequence for me, both from a personal and from a literary perspective. He was an acclaimed bilingual writer, poet, essayist, and screenwriter of popular films and one of the key figures in Malayalam poetry in the period that it transitioned from modernity to post-modern sensibilities.
Born in a Nair household in northern Kerala towards the end of the 1950s, his college education gifted him an exposure to the English language and literature which, I believe, was instrumental in the development of a sensibility that was rooted in the cultural landscape of Malayalam but informed by global cultural shifts. This catapulted him to a stature that transcended his time, place, and contours of language. It also exposed him to a tradition of modernist Malayalam poetry invigorated from the interaction with English and Latin American poetry (through translations).
Although I did aspire to build a literary bridge to him where we could walk to the midpoint, his diabetic-foot (literally) did not permit him to embark on such an endeavour. Nevertheless, he was a mentor and a friend to many young poets aspiring for a toehold in the world of letters.
A life of adventure
He did live a life of adventure, strewn together with many vices, and travel widely around the globe for poetry festivals and literary residencies, but he held on to the security of government employment as the Public Relations Officer for the University of Calicut and, for a brief period, as an Adviser to the Minister of Cultural Affairs of the Kerala government.
Through his relentless pursuit for a universal citizenship as a man of letters, he was able to blend the exposure, experience, and wisdom of the Western world with the cultural inheritance of his mother tongue and the cultural history of his hometown. He was an unconventional cultural critic with a raw and visceral take on many aspects of life, but he did not fit the mould of a left-leaning socialist that was popular in Kerala during his time.
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He was a staunch critic of the leftist cultural establishment of Kerala and India at large and did not mince words when calling out the hypocrisies of his fellow writers, cultural critics, and public intellectuals. This trait earned him many enemies and prompted Kalpetta Narayanan, an acclaimed poet writing in Malayalam and a friend of Rajeevan, to observe, “If it can be perceived that T.P. Rajeevan was not bestowed upon with recognition that he rightfully deserved, then it is because of the depoliticised political ethos and dearth of sensibilities of the times we live in.”
Though he was not much feted in the Indian English literary ecosystem, he was an Indian English poet of repute, with three full length poetry collections to his credit and one of them published by Poetrywala publishers, Mumbai, who I believe has the reputation of publishing only “distinctive” poets. The poet Hemant Divate, publisher of Poetrywala remarked: “A great loss to Malayalam as well as Indian literature and my personal loss too. He was a great friend and a great human being”.
He is part of a tradition best represented by Kamala Das, Jeet Thayil, C.P. Surendran, Karthika Nair (author of the much-touted Until the Lions), Gopikrishnan Kottoor, Syam Sudhakar (winner of Sreenivasa Rayaprol Poetry Prize), E.V. Ramakrishnan, N. Ravishankar, Anupama Raju and others who have roots in Kerala and have distinguished themselves as acclaimed poets writing in English.
Another singular attribute of T.P. Rajeevan was that he wrote in both English and Malayalam, and possessed a bilingual soul. He was probably the only writer from Kerala who wrote both poetry and fiction in both languages, though writers such as Kamala Das wrote poetry in English and fiction in Malayalam and writers such as K. Satchidanandan have written stellar poetry in Malayalam (he translates his poems into English himself) and writes essays and non-fiction articles in English.
T.P. Rajeevan had the unique honour of having read at the prestigious Struga Poetry Festival at Macedonia. The icing on the cake was that Rajeevan’s poems were voted as among the best poems of the Struga Evening that too during his younger days at the beginning of his foray into poetry.
Critique of the Left
He was successful in incorporating his critique of the Left brigade in Kerala in his literary works. First, his much-acclaimed novel Paleri Manikyam: Oru Paathirakolapathakatinte Katha presents a deeply informed critique of the rise of the Left parties in northern Kerala veiled in the guise of a crime thriller. The movie adaptation of the novel was both critically and commercially acclaimed, though it earned him the wrath of the Left.
An interesting trivia about Paleri is that it was first conceived in English as Undying Echoes of Silence and later “self-translated” into his mother tongue, but the English version was published after the Malayalam version. His other novel, KTN Kottoor: Ezhuthum Jeevithavum was also adapted for the big screen.
Second, his most recently published novel to the best of my knowledge was titled Kriyashesham (After the Ritual). It is a sequel to the iconic novel Sheshakriya (Funeral Rites) by writer M. Sukumaran, though this book has not been scrutinised by critics in Malayalam. It is a scathing attack on the reactionary elements permeating mainstream communist parties of Kerala. His close friends lament the fact that he was writing two more novels when death visited him a bit earlier than expected.
Third, he curated a collection of poems titled Third World: Post Socialist Poetry, along with a Croatian, which has an added political dimension after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin wall.
T.P. Rajeevan had foreseen the current renaissance in translated literature, mainly from South Asia, garnering international acclaim when he championed the cause of “Basha” literatures, seeking greater visibility for them than Indian writing in English, when he was the convener of various smaller literary festivals in Kerala. He was against corporate-controlled literary festivals and opposed the very idea. He had even ventured to formulate a cultural policy for the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government when he was a Cultural Adviser to the Ministry. His literary activism during his heyday included instituting a poetry publishing house based in Kozhikode as well as organising an international literary residency, with acclaimed Israeli poet Amir Or as the first resident.
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He was perhaps a unique writer with the distinction of having attended many international literary residencies, including the prestigious International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa in the US; the Ledig House International Writer-in-Residence Fellowship in New York, US, in 2008; and an international residency in China.
The poet Christopher Merril, who is also the director of the International Writing Programme, recalled: “Thachom Poyil Rajeevan was a kind man, with a ready laugh, who conjured whole worlds in the space of a poem or a fictional scene, which readers do not soon forget. I’ll miss him.”
T.P. Rajeevan was a man with his own set of flaws, but he will be remembered in the hallowed portals of both Malayalam and English literary traditions.
Chandramohan S.is a Dalit poet writing in English and is based in Norwich, UK.
- Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, popularly known as T.P. Rajeevan, passed away on November 2 in his hometown of Kozhikode, Kerala, after battling a prolonged illness.
- He was an acclaimed bilingual writer, poet, essayist, and screenwriter of popular films and one of the key figures in Malayalam poetry.
- He is part of a tradition best represented by Kamala Das, Jeet Thayil, C.P. Surendran, Karthika Nair, Gopikrishnan Kottor, Syam Sudhakar, E.V. Ramakrishnan, N. Ravishankar, and Anupama Raju.
- He had the unique honour of having read at the prestigious Struga Poetry Festival at Macedonia.