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Volume 25 - Issue 02 :: Jan. 19-Feb. 01, 2008
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
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TRIBUTE

Sultan of story

TEXT BY K. SATCHIDANANDAN
PHOTOGRAPHS BY PUNALOOR RAJAN

A birth centenary tribute to Vaikom Mohammed Basheer who picked up his tales from life’s poetry.



Vaikom Mohammed Basheer loved the world with all its imperfections.

Vaikom Mohammed Basheer belonged to that rare genre of artists who love the world with all its imperfections rather than to those who go on trying to change it since they can love only a perfect world. It was this understanding of evil as an organic part of creation and the identification with the outcastes, even those the world considers clowns, idiots, cheats and villains whom his magic wand converted into lovable human beings that helped Basheer redraw the map of Malayalam fiction many decades ago.

He used to say he was never sure about the Malayalam alphabet; this apparent inadequacy compelled him to invent an idiom that is closest to the everyday life of Malayalis that revolutionised the art of storytelling in the language. He could make his fictional world possible only by radically altering the status quoist vocabulary. Ordinary words picked up from the streets and the inner courtyards of Malabar homes gained a new vibrancy and artistic aura when Basheer employed them in his fresh narrative contexts. His seemingly artless manner had behind it an unarticulated yet profound theory about the use of language in contemporary fiction that taught different lessons to future writers.

While the detached humour in O.V. Vijayan, V.K.N [V.K. Narayanankutty Nair], M.P. Narayana Pillai and Paul Zacharia belongs to Basheer’s lineage, the stylistic simplicity and lyrical quality of Madhavikkutty (Kamala Das), M.T. Vasudevan Nair and M. Mukundan – writers very different from Basheer – can be traced to the same unique narrative heritage.

Of the many stories Basheer told, his own, as told in his autobiography, Ormayude Arakal (The Chambers of Memory), is perhaps the most exciting. Trained in Arabic at home by a musaliyar, he learnt his Koran by the age of eight. Then he studied Malayalam and English, and read his first storybooks from a friend, one Potti, which might have stirred in him the desire to tell stories. The names of Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders of the freedom struggle excited the young boy. Basheer has given an account of him literally touching Gandhiji during the Mahatma’s visit to his land for the historic Vaikom Satyagraha in March 1924 demanding, for the so-called lower castes, the right of entry into the temple.

The call of freedom took Basheer to Malabar, the centre of the nationalist activities in Kerala. He joined the Al-Amin newspaper run by the patriot, Muhammad Abdu Rahman. Basheer participated in the Salt Satyagraha on the Kozhikode beach that landed him in jail. Now he began to feel that Gandhi’s peaceful ways would not earn freedom for India; he was fascinated by Bhagat Singh and his comrades and moved over to Ujjeevanam (Rejuvenation), which had now turned from a Congress journal into the mouthpiece of the armed struggle against the colonisers. Basheer had to go underground to evade arrest. That was the beginning of seven years of wanderings in a variety of disguises: as a Hindu mendicant, a palmist, a magician’s assistant, an astrologer, a private tutor, a tea shop owner.

He also went to meet the film-maker V. Shantaram in an outlandish outfit hoping to join the film industry. Shantaram asked him to learn Marathi and come back. Before he could learn Marathi, a certain Gajanan, impressed by his language skills, employed him as a tutor. He was asked to teach mathematics, and Basheer had no choice but to leave the job and move to Bombay (Mumbai) where he became a physician’s assistant in Kamatipura, the haunt of sex workers, transgender persons and thieves. Next he ran a night school in Bhindi Bazaar, teaching basic English. It was then the sea called him and he found himself sailing as a khalasi on SS Rizvani carrying Haj pilgrims to Jeddah via the Red Sea. On the way back he landed in what are now parts of Pakistan. He served in a hotel in Karachi and then as a proofreader’s copyholder in the Civil and Military Gazette.



Basheer and Ronald Asher, who translated his works into English, with visitors. Basheer wrote little in the last three decades of his life; he would sit sipping "sulaimani" (tea) under the shade of his pet mangostein tree, listen to ghazals and keep talking to the "pilgrims".

Basheer had also a pilgrim in him; he visited several holy places of Hindus, Muslims and Christians during his wanderings that made him truly secular. He lived among Hindu sanyasins and Sufis while in North India to discover, in his own words, that “aham brahmasmi” and “anal haq” pointed to the same Truth.

Ajmer, Peshawar, Kashmir, Kolkata: the vagrant’s travels ended at Ernakulam (Kochi) in Kerala where he became an agent of sports goods for a firm in Sialkot. The family had gone bankrupt by now as his father’s timber business had declined. An accident saw Basheer deprived of his job too; on recovery he began writing stories for a paper called Jayakesari. His first story Ente Thankam (My Thankam/darling) was typical: it had a dark-complexioned hunchback as its heroine. He also wrote patriotic essays in Rajyabhimani (The Patriot) besides indignant articles and satirical narratives against the Dewan of Travancore.

Still unsatisfied, he launched a weekly, Pauranadam (The Citizens’ Voice), to vent his ire against the system. Again the police were after his blood; he went underground along with K.C. George, a Communist leader. By now he had befriended some major writers of the period, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, S.K. Pottekkat, Uroob [P.C. Kuttikrishnan], Joseph Mundassery and Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, among them. Finally, he surrendered to the police on the suggestion of a friendly police officer. The experiences in the lock-up at Kollam gave him plenty to write about. His Premalekhanam (Love-letter), a love story in the lighter vein, was a response to the requests of his fellow prisoners, bored to death reading the Ramayana and the Bible umpteen times. Mathilukal (The Walls), an intense narrative of love and desire in the prison that even forces the protagonist to demand in vain an extension of his jail term, based on which Adoor Gopalakrishnan later made a film, was another product of this jail life.

After a stint in Madras (Chennai) with the Jayakeralam weekly, he came back to Ernakulam to run the Circle Book House, later renamed Basheer’s Book Stall, and to write a popular column for the cartoon magazine Narmada. He had already established his fame as a novelist with Balyakalasakhi (The Childhood Friend), a poignant story of childhood love that won praise from critics such as M.P. Paul. Then followed a break of six years caused by “acute insanity”, to use Basheer’s own phrase.

Pathummayude Adu (Pathumma’s Goat) was written in 1959 while he was still under treatment for nervous breakdown. He now found an understanding partner in Fatima Bi, “Fabi” to him, and shifted to Beypore, where he lived, earning the affectionate nickname “Beypore Sultan” – his own usage turned into a cliche by his readers – until his demise at the age of 86 in 1994. He wrote little in the last three decades of his life; he would sit sipping “sulaimani” (tea) under the shade of his pet mangostein tree, listen to ghazals and keep talking to the “pilgrims”, who found this frail “icon” easier to handle than the restless full man in his creative frenzy and wrote endlessly and monotonously about their trip to meet him.

Basheer’s fans would not permit any interrogation of the details of the hagiography built around the cult figure as was proved when N.S. Madhavan, one of the finest contemporary fiction writers of Malayalam and an admirer of Basheer himself, once dared question, on the basis of chronology, the veracity of some of the stories woven around the “Sultan” in an article.

Fictional discourse

Basheer’s fictional world is almost indistinguishable from the factual world in which he lived: an autobiographical subtext is always inherent in his fictional discourse. The author himself has traced Anuragathinte Dinangal (The Days of Intimacy) to the diary he had kept of a Hindu girl’s love for him frustrated by the objection from her parents and Basheer’s refusal to hurt them; Balyakalasakhi to a real childhood friendship; Pathummayude Adu to people and incidents at home and around; and Mathilukal to an experience in the prison. His works are autobiographical not merely because they recount real episodes from his life, but are the honest records of the turmoil of his mind ever beset with conflicts that he refused to yield to.

Outwardly, most of his stories deal with the lives of Kerala Muslims, but it will be a grave mistake, as some foreign scholars such as Ronald Asher, his first English translator, has done, to reduce Basheer’s fiction to its ethnic content. At the deeper level, they are tales of men and women everywhere, trapped in the ironic irrationality of the human condition. That is why even the English translations of Basheer’s stories done by various translators from Asher to Vanajam Ravindran, while retaining little of their dialectal poetry, still manage to capture their ultimate human appeal. Asher himself has spoken about the structural and stylistic challenges posed to translators by Basheer’s narratives – which the author used to revise and polish even after publishing them – with their quaint humour, expressive use of the spoken language, understatement and suggestiveness.



Ramdas Vaidyar, V.K.N and Basheer. The detached humour in the writings of O.V. Vijayan, V.K.N, M.P. Narayana Pillai and Paul Zacharia belongs to Basheer’s lineage.

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai was perhaps a better surveyor of social reality and a more analytical student of the history of communities, but Basheer far excels him as a stylist who insisted on the propriety of each word and chiselled his sentences to perfection – a quality one notices in later writers such as O.V. Vijayan, Zacharia and N.S. Madhavan and in some stories by their younger contemporaries such as V.R. Sudheesh, Subhash Chandran, Sitara and Santosh Echikkanam.

Basheer’s language is not literary if literary means deliberately sophisticated and packed with Sanskrit words; it is not philosophical if philosophical means filled with strained thoughts and ideas and references, as exemplified by some writers celebrated as philosophical. But it is precisely by being non-literary – easy, natural and deceptively simple – that Basheer distinguishes himself from ordinary writers who strain after effects even while saying the most trivial things. It is by appearing non-philosophical that Basheer achieves a visionary quality that is inaccessible to those who pack their fiction with borrowed or inane ideas. Basheer’s optimism comes from a robust acceptance of tragedy, and not from the avoidance of confrontation with the embarrassing contradictions of existence.

Basheer’s humour too springs from his grasp of the paradoxes of existence. He combines a cartoonist’s eye with a philosopher’s vision in portraying his characters as in Ntuppuppaakkoranendarnnu (My Granddad had an Elephant), Sthalathe Pradhana Divyan (The Most Important Holy Man of My Place), Mucheettukalikkarante Makal (The Card-Sharper’s Daughter), Aanavariyum Ponkurisum (Aanavari and Ponkurisu – nicknames for Raman Nair and Thoma), Viswavikhyatamaya Mookku (The World-renowned Nose) and other stories. He was one with the “progressive” writers in empathising with the hapless and in upholding hope in man and the possibility of change, but he went beyond them while looking at the human condition in its many hues and dimensions, including the spiritual that remains an unstated undercurrent in his narratives of life.

Basheer belonged to a generation fed on rigid ideologies and arid experiences, but he picked up his tales from the throbbing warmth of life’s poetry. During about half a century of his creative career, he published only 30 books from Balyakalasakhi (1944) to Sinkidimungan (1991) but every one of these 2,200 pages is world-class literature. He created his own language within language (having abandoned English in which he had attempted his first novel), polished, edited and re-edited each line he wrote until it shone like crystal: clear, sparkling, many-faced.



Basheer found an understanding partner in Fatima Bi, “Fabi” to him.

Basheer was a modernist who perhaps never knew he was one. He broke new grounds quite casually and unselfconsciously, just by recounting his varied experiences of the world in his own crisp and inimitable style. He shunned the big canvas; what mattered to him was the sheer depth and intensity of the narrated event. He hated none; thieves, gamblers, homosexuals, pimps, sex workers: everyone had a seat in Basheer’s heaven. The fallen, he knew, were the victims of unkind circumstances. They are also the chosen in his world illuminated by the beams of a sacred love from the other side of material life.

Critics have compared Kafka’s A Hunger Artist with Basheer’s Janmadinam (The Birthday) as also Jimenez’s Platero and I with Basheer’s Pathummayude Adu in an attempt to prove he is both modern and universal. But Basheer’s modernism and his transnational humanism came from his intense rootedness in the soil of his land and community and the hells and heavens he came across in his gypsy-like wanderings.



Basheer initiating a child into education. He used to say he was never sure about the Malayalam alphabet; this apparent inadequacy compelled him to invent an idiom that is closest to the everyday life of Malayalis and revolutionised the art of storytelling in the language.

Basheer, while having ardent admirers such as M.T. Vasudevan Nair, M.N. Vijayan and M.A. Rahman, who has done a beautiful documentary on him, was not without detractors either: they stamped his Sabdangal (Voices) and Pavappettavarude Vesya (The Prostitute of the Dispossessed) obscene; they objected to his Ntuppuppaakkoranendarnnu being made a textbook; one even went to the extent of publishing a book to prove the whole Basheeriana trite and insignificant. Basheer met all of them with his Sufi detachment and refused to immortalise them by not taking up the gauntlets.

Basheer has narrated an experience he once had in a frontier province. He had his lunch in a restaurant and found his wallet missing while preparing to pay. The shop owner had him stripped and would have gone further had a man not suddenly emerged offering to pay the bill for Basheer. Afterwards, the man showed Basheer several wallets and asked him to pick up his – he was a pickpocket. Here is the source of Basheer’s unflinching faith in man’s basic goodness. While a prisoner, Basheer used to cultivate roses on the jail courtyard. This dispassionate activity of generating fragrance for the unfortunate trapped in their dark destinies is symbolic of his whole oeuvre, his great human – he would say divine – mission.



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