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The end of historiography?
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
"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.
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.
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
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,