THE summer of 2017 was one of discontent for the noted Malayalam novelist and short story writer K.P. Ramanunni. The winter of that year brought contentment and good cheer. The intervening period was a lifetime; during the month of Ramzan, he had penned a series of articles for Madhyamam daily in Kerala, aiming to build bridges between Hindu and Muslim communities, pointing out the shortcomings of both, and urging them towards communal harmony. But not everyone was pleased. Ramanunni found himself being the target of much online and real-life abuse. It did not stop with that. Soon, there was a letter asking him to stop writing the series or join Islam within six months. Ramanunni brought the letter to the attention of the local police. Beyond that he kept his own counsel. His earlier experience of writing a novel like Sufi Paranja Katha (What the Sufi Said) stood him in good stead—the novel dealt with the love story of a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl who converts to Islam but is unable to resist the tug of her former religious beliefs.
In Daivathinte Pusthakam (God's Own Book), in a first of sorts, he made the Prophet Muhammad the lead character. He brought in Krishna and Jesus Christ too in the novel. Soon, the novel became an exercise at pluralism. And even before one realised, the six-month deadline given by his detractors had lapsed. But six months is all he needed for a complete reversal of fortunes. Harangued about his attitudes, the author experienced the much-needed warmth and acceptance when the coveted Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award came his way for the book. The irony of him winning the award barely two years after some fellow authors had returned their awards to protest against growing intolerance in the country was not lost on him. He warns, “Hindutva fascism will ruin the nation. It will put the safety of Hindus in danger too, as they too have to travel to Christian- and Muslim-dominated countries.”
Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline :
Does the Kendra Sahitya Akademi award vindicate your stand against communalism? “God's Own Book” quashing the devils...
Absolutely. The acceptance of India’s Academy of Letters of my attitude against sectarianism may be an augury that the soul of Indian culture is with me. As a believer, I don’t have any problem in believing that the book Daivathinte Pusthakam could cut the throat of satanic power. Unbelievers, those who believe god as the unconscious mind of the community, also can believe the same about the book.
The fact that the award has come less than six months after extremists attacked your articles in Madhyamam must have made it doubly sweet. Your comments.
“A believer, to Muslims and Hindus”, published in Madhyamam daily, had provoked the terrorists. Actually that article was written in all humility. There is no historical or ideological reason for Hindus and Muslims to fight one another. The British were the ones who created a gap between Muslims and Hindus. They created a feeling that the word Hindu itself is the opposite of Islam. Also, they reconstructed Indian history as the history of Hindu-Muslim conflicts. It was essential for their survival. Yes, the divide-and-rule policy was their key to success. It is really pathetic that we are still following the same ideology of Hindu-Muslim divide long after the British have gone.
Please remember, no country that has nourished racism and communalism has progressed in the world. For example, Iraq, which was once the cradle of human culture. Similarly, if India falls to the conflict between Hindus and Muslims, it will meet with the same fate. Imperialistic interests are waiting for it too. This was the beginning of my article.
Then I proved that there are no historical causes for the enmity between Hindus and Muslims. For decades, Muslims and Hindus lived together in India in complete harmony. The first revolutionary movement, namely the Bhakti movement, was led by Muslim Sufis and Hindu monks for long. The story of Kabir was an example of the harmony between Hindus and Muslims. Both Muslims and Hindus loved him very much. When Kabir died, Hindus and Muslims made a claim for his body out of love.
Amir Khusro and many other Muslim scholars tried to create a strong bond between the ideologies of Islam and Hinduism. Dara Shikoh, the Mughal prince, was the first person who translated the Upanishads. Muslim poets like Jafar Khan wrote poems about the goddess Ganga. The fusion of Hindu-Islamic music, paintings and architecture has created new streams of art. The wars between the rulers were not on the basis of religion. There were many occasions when Muslim-Hindu rulers came together and fought Mughal or Rajput rulers.
Temples which had huge amounts of wealth were looted not on religious considerations. More than Muslim rulers, Hindu rulers looted many treasuries of Hindu temples. The Delhi Sultans and Mughals established their rule in India and settled here. At that time our country was prosperous. An Indian officer got higher salary than the officers in Paris. As Shashi Tharoor mentioned in his book An Era of Darkness , the British ruined our country in a period of 200 years. They made conflicts between the major religions and created a new history.
Visions of Hinduism and Islam do not have many contradictions, but have more combinations. Even in multiform, basically Hinduism is also monotheistic. Like purity, fasting; honestly most of the rituals of both religions have similarities. A mythical text like Bhavishya Purana predicts the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad. Pandit Veda Prakash Upadhyaya of Bengal proves that Kalki is no one but the Prophet Muhammad. Sri Narayana Guru, who sang “Karunavaan Nabi, Muthu Rathnamo” (Muhammad, a Pearl), and Swami Vivekananda had much respect for the Prophet.
With my articles, my intention was to make Muslims and Hindus join hands. That is why some people got provoked and threatened me. Their complaint against me was that by showing fake love and sympathy I was trying to misguide Muslims and that as atonement, I should become a Muslim within six months. Otherwise, they threatened to slash my legs and arms. The letter that I got was like one written by Islamist terrorists. But a Hindu terrorist also can send such a letter. As we all know, these types of tricks are very common. I don’t want to relate this to any community. That day I told the media that a criminal sent me the letter, not any Muslim or any Hindu.
Your novel is arguably the first in an Indian language in which the Prophet Muhammad appears as a lead character. How did Muslim readers react to the novel?
Not only in Indian languages, but in any language across the world, the Prophet Muhammad has not been featured in a novel. I wanted it to happen in Malayalam. Even in the field of spiritual practices, people of Kerala come together without the boundaries of religion. It testifies the tagline of the State—God's Own Country. There is a book named Sacred Kerala by Dominique-Sila Khan, a Jewish scholar who researched on the “shared spaces between religions”. She opines that Kerala is a holy place in the world.
Many educated people approached me with their fears when they came to know that I was going to write a novel on the Prophet Muhammad. But common believers from Hindu-Muslim communities didn't find any problem with that. Some said that I may convert soon. Someone warned me that I would be killed. “What makes you write such a piece?” some wondered. I retorted, Hindus of Ponnani were not afraid of Mappilas. Because, fear comes from strangeness. In Ponnani, we grew up together, mingling in all walks of life. In my childhood, I spent more time at my friend Qayyum's home. His father always expressed his love and care for me, an orphan whose father passed away when he was only three. When I was in college, I happened to learn about the Prophet's tradition of treating orphans. The Prophet asked everyone not to show love and compassion to their own children in the presence of orphans. This knowledge also strengthened my love and respect for him and inspired me to write the “Nabibhagam” of the novel.
Before featuring him, I encountered many problems because he is not a simple historical man, but one whose life is registered in detail. And it would have been no use if I only wrote history in a novel. So I needed to use imagination in every situation of his life. But how? And to what measure? This was the main problem. I used my imagination in different situations of his life. But such imaginations could not be against his personality and principle. For instance, the Prophet Muhammad said one should respect one’s mother first, then one’s mother, then again one’s mother. And he said heaven was at the feet of the mother. So I depicted him in the novel as a child taking care not to give any pain to his mother, Amina. Muslims from different fields of life congratulated me.
Your novel runs into some 700 pages. Is that not a huge risk in the age of e-books and the limited attention span of readers?
I never think about the marketability of a piece of writing. For me, writing is synonymous with lovemaking. I never think about the after-effects of the same. Portraying the theme effectively is my only aim when I write. There are plenty of readers who enjoy reading big books. The fifth edition of Daivathinte Pusthakam has been released. It would be easy to carry it digitally when it is turned into an e-book.
A few months before you got the award you were accused of misleading the Muslim youth. Now so many Muslims praise your work. How do you react to these two extremes? Also, what happened to those threats for you to adopt Islam within six months?
People who sent me threatening letters alleging that I ruined innocent Muslims are the ones who don’t desire Hindu-Muslim friendship. I don’t want to identify them with Islam or Muslims. Even those belonging to Muslim fundamental groups wished that people who had sent blackmailing letters to me weren’t their members.
The government investigated the threat I received. The Chief Minister extended his solidarity. I think writers of other States don’t get as much respect as in Kerala. Since it’s a handwritten letter it is difficult to find the source unlike what appears on electronic media. But still, the Crime Branch is investigating. The police gave protection to me for two months. The ultimatum of the letter was that I should embrace Islam within six months. I believe in Gandhi’s thought that a good Hindu is a good Muslim too, so that ultimatum never worked.
Your book has, besides the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ and Krishna as important characters. Does it not make it an overtly secular novel, almost like the secularism lessons we learned in school?
Lives of Lord Krishna and the Prophet Muhammad were presented in the parts “Krishnabhagam” and “Nabibhagam”. Jesus Christ comes in the memoirs of Krishna and Nabi [the Prophet]. The criticism that Krishna, Nabi and Jesus come in the novel just like [they do] in school textbooks has a cynicism of anti-religious secularism. I don't think it is a bad thing that our textbooks give equal respect to these spiritual leaders. But, I doubt, our false intellectualism was rejecting them and accepting an anti-religious secularism. We forgot that these religious leaders had a democratic and revolutionary face. Actually, communalists and extremists hijacked Krishna and Nabi due to the neglect of the so-called educated modern elite. I didn't think I will have to craft a novel and market it in this chaotic time that secularism is under threat. Daivathinte Pusthakam is a realisation of my emotions in a better world. It is fortunate to have become a politically correct one.
You got the Sahitya Akademi award barely two years after fellow writers returned their awards as a protest against intolerance. Is it not ironic?
Returning the awards and resigning from the Akademi was a smart political action by writers. It corrected the Akademi executive’s stand on the Kalburgi murder. The Akademi wasn’t responding to that. How can it be tolerated? Who else will rise for the right to freedom of speech? But writers won and the Akademi passed a resolution against the growing intolerance and the government's silence over the incidents.
When the Akademi gives an award to Daivathinte Pusthakam , which upholds anti-communalist ideology, it is something very important. Under this situation I consider the award a political victory. And a proclamation that the world of letters cannot be dominated by hate politics. Sometimes receiving an award is the right thing like sometimes returning an award is the right one. Jawaharlal Nehru established the Akademi by giving a self-governing status to empower freedom of expression. This institution can never be a space for those who do not believe in the values of freedom of art and literature.
How do you place this book in comparison with your other works?
Our Ponnani school of writing has a unique feature. It gives importance to the matter to be told. The beauty of literature and even structural decorations come second. I give more importance to this novel than my other works because it contains the Ponnani values better than others. The new novel includes so many different cultural registers. This novel deals with an interdisciplinary narration. As one who has been in the forefront of the fight for Kerala’s mother tongue movement, as the first writer who went on a hunger strike for this language, it's my honour too to strengthen the language in such ways.
In the age of rising Hindutva, we find many artistes, writers and activists toeing the government line. How disconcerting is it for you as an Indian and as a writer?
There are many writers who kneel before rulers. It is suicidal for a writer to cheat his mind for material benefits. But I am sure the best minds in our country are not in the net of rulers and they are not afraid of rulers' ghost toys. Only those who are not sincere will lend their minds and pens to them. That's why we say careerism is the best friend of fascism.
When I got threats from religious fundamentalists, people asked me whether I will stop writing. My answer was I won't commit suicide for the fear of being killed.
With the government systematically targeting a particular community (in the name of beef bans, turning a blind eye to lynching and other hate crimes, Haj subsidy, etc.), are the wheels of our age-old shared coexistence coming off? In the past we had isolated incidents, now there seems to be a tacit acceptance of things from the top...
Now we see a dangerous politics of pleasing some Hindus by targeting and attacking minority Muslims. Islamophobia, which imperialist powers had spread all over the world, is also stoking this fire. It has poisoned our societal coexistence. We may be able to stop political clashes and riots, but communalism is like cancer. It will consume almost everything in society and its propagators too. Hindu communalism tries to mould two types of Hindus. One type comprises innocent but foolish Hindus. They believe Muslims are their born enemies and are hindrances to their development. They don’t understand that there is no logic in their hatred. But Hinduism never stands for hate towards other religions. Remind them what Swami Vivekananda told, that Hinduism is the mother of all religions. Teach them that Ram, while he was living in the forest, asked Bharata who had gone to meet his brother about the welfare of Charvakas who were the minority in the empire.
Teach them the references in Hindu texts that Kalki is the Prophet Muhammad. So how can Hindus hate the followers of Kalki? The second type is Hindus who spread communalism. And they aim for commercial benefit from the communal chaos. Their only aim is power.
Is the politics of Hindutva a danger to the idea of India?
Hindutva fascism is a disaster for the nation and to Hinduism as well. It ruins the beauty of Hinduism. It will destroy the plurality and tolerance that Hinduism inherited. When violence happens, the one who attacks also faces a cultural death.
Today no one resides at one place for long. Hindus also have to travel and stay all over the globe. What if Christians and Muslims who are the majority in those states start to hate Hindus? Fascist people are enjoying their politics of hatred. They are not thinking about the aftermath. Their politics will put every Hindu in big danger.
How do you look at translations? Do they take away the soul of the original or help in getting an author's work to a large number of people?
In translations the taste and fragrance of the original is lost. Translation may especially be challenging for my kind of culturally specific attempts.