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Tribute: O.V. VIJAYAN -- 1930-2005

Spiritual outsider

THACHOM POYIL RAJEEVAN

Novelist and cartoonist O.V. Vijayan encountered the incomprehensible meaninglessness of his times with an outward silence and inward alertness.

PHOTO: MAHESH HARILAL

Monumental legacy: O.V. Vijayan restored to Malayalam its narrative potential.

The sinner recapitulates the God through sufferings. All true arts are sufferings.

O.V. Vijayan

IN every language, only a few writers turn out to be really "great", to have the literary history of their language reset into what happened before and after them. O.V. Vijayan, who died recently, is unquestionably one such. In Kerala today, no discourse on literature is possible without referring to him and his work. And, the influence he had on the literary culture of the language and the legacy he left behind as a writer are so huge that anyone who takes to writing after him requires exceptional talent and genius to escape them.

Vijayan's entry into Malayalam literature was in the 1950s with a couple of short stories, which basically expressed the same social concerns of his previous generation. But it was Khasakkinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak), his debut novel, serialised in a periodical in 1968 and published in book form a year later, that earned him the status of a consummate writer.

Engaging with experience

For Vijayan, writing Khasak was a meticulous engagement with experiences, and, at the same time, a "painful and long drawn-out" disengagement with the ideologies he had been subscribing to till then. This is evident in the fact that he took 12 years to complete Khasak. And, a Communist party card holder that he was in the beginning, Vijayan, like his protagonist, Ravi, who comes to the interior of Khasak as a radical hunted by poignant memories of an anarchic past, changing into a "spiritual wanderer", was transformed in to an agnostic seeking spiritual truths and values such as compassion and eternal grace, by the time the novel was completed.

It might be the author's truthful "self-dissent" during the course of the writing that made Khasak, which otherwise would have ended up as a mundane village romance, a seminal work that addressed some of the deeper issues of an enlightened individual's personal and social existence in the post-independence period. Everything in this novel — the theme, the characters, the language, the style, the narration, the way myth and reality, realism and fantasy mix — was ingenious and unprecedented in Malayalam.

Springheads of regeneration

What is unique in Khasakkinte Ithihasam is its persuasive language. Vijayan was aware that a new language was vital for telling something unsaid before. For this, he made use of all that was available in the repertoire of Malayalam: slang, dialects, politically and philosophically charged coinages, metaphysical interpolations, and so on. This was an attempt at refining and equipping the language for reflecting the inner as well the outer. As Vijayan wrote in the Afterword to the English translation, the language of

Khasak gave an assurance to a succeeding generation: "No language, however physically deprived, however historically confined, is left without springheads of regeneration. There is as much narrative potential in Malayalam as in the imperial language."

The underlying ethos of Khasak is its existential angst. Ravi's inner disquiet, uncharted journeys and "search for sarai" become Vijayan's as well. All that he did and wrote from then on look like his penance for redemption from the "sins of Khasak". "Each word you write will be observed. To flee from it is impossible. I love this book: but the very thought of the young men and women this book has made pessimists and negativists makes me uneasy", he wrote later.

Vijayan's creative self often involved in polemical exchanges between the introspective writer and the analytical thinker in him. Before him, as M. Mukundan, another prominent novelist of Vijayan's generation observed, "there were only writers in Malayalam. But, Vijayan is the first to assimilate philosophical and political insights in creative writing". Dharmapuranam (The Saga of Dharmapuri), which was to be published in 1975, but shelved until the Emergency was lifted, is the phenomenal outcome of his apprehensive awareness of the Indian political situation and the ruthlessness of power. In this novel, he had a premonition of the Emergency much before Mrs. Indira Gandhi clamped it.

Dharmapuranam marks the completion of Vijayan's metamorphosis into a spiritual outsider. By then, he had travelled a long way from Khasak's Edenic countryside. He had perfected his language to articulate what is "too deep for verbal approximation". Dharmapuranam, while verbally exposing the excess filth, obscenity and horror in power politics, explores the "concept of the teacher and incarnation", which he carried forward to exalted levels in his subsequent works like Gurusagaram (Eternity of Grace), Pravachakente Vazhi (The way of the Prophet) and a number of short stories and articles.

Vijayan's brilliance lies in his capability to go back and forth in time: from history to mythology, from dates to datelessness, and from the real to beyond what is apparently real. These anachronistic flights, sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, sometimes allegorical, and sometimes darkly satirical and humorous, led him to the realisation that what is propagated as history is a bunch of fairy tales. And, what he searched for was an alternative to the authority of power.

Vijayan was chronicling a period wracked by violent upheavals and made absurd by farcical political games. He encountered its incomprehensible meaninglessness with an outward silence and an inward alertness all through. If, as Roberto Calasso says in Literature and the Gods, the Gods watch what man writes, Vijayan would have kept an eye on the Gods too.

Thachom Poyil Rajeevan writes in Malayalam and English. He is the editor of Yeti Books and can be reached at

rthachompoyil@yahoo.com.

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