Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Creator of Legends



Around the 1990s, I had the rare privilege to become a close acquaintance of O V Vijayan, a legend in every sense of word, stroke and speech. Those were underprivileged days for me: no money, no steady job, Delhi’s gnawing chill, homesickness, nostalgia… Amidst all these, the doors of Vijayan’s Chanakyapuri residence were one of the few that opened for me, offering me food, not just for the soul. As I used to sip tea, or swallow idlis, Pooh, the Siamese cat, the one and only pet Vijayan ever owned and loved more than anything else in the world, would stare at the intruder who had come to spoil her master’s calm and cool afternoon.
I, like most people who have had the fortune to meet this extraordinary gentleman, was really awed by the aura he held. He was not just a contact for me in Delhi, where I could while away my time, but my mentor in several ways; he even edited my first article in English. Parkinson’s disease had just attacked him then: his spoken words stammered, his fingers shook, his vision blurred, but his mind was as clear as mountain dew. I even had the chance to see his last political cartoon, which is to appear in The Statesman, which I had personally delivered to the news editor of that paper — his fingers had since then disobeyed him. But his wide and varied constituency of Malayalam and English readers were fortunate that he could dictate short stories or social commentaries to his two personal secretaries.
My relationship with him continued even after I left Delhi for Mumbai, in occasional mails we used to exchange. Then suddenly there was no correspondence at all, and I realised that Vijayan has already started sinking. By mind silently wept, but no one could do anything about it.


So, who was Vijayan? For the uninitiated (which is really unlikely if you are a connoisseur of Indian literature, political cartooning or journalism) he is, to put it in one sentence, one of the greatest writers the world has ever produced. And what raised him to that pedestal is his first and best novel, The Legend of Khasak, which was published around the same time that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s path-breaking One Hundred Years of Solitude. Hence one could fairly conclude that two of the greatest of writers of the twentieth century evolved at the same time, changing the course of Malayalam and Spanish literatures respectively, making the two individual works the benchmarks in their own respective languages.
The Legend of Khasak, published in 1969, is often poetic and dark, always complex and rich, an extraordinary, breathtaking achievement which took the Malayali psyche (and, to some extent, physique) by storm. The gist of the book is this: Ravi, the protagonist, thanks to a restlessness born out of guilt and despair, embarks on a journey that ends in the remote village of Khasak in the picturesque Palakkad (in central Kerala) countryside. A land from the past, potent with dreams and legends, enfolds the traveller in a powerful and unsettling embrace. Ravi is bewitched and entranced as everything around him — the villagers, their children whom he teaches in a makeshift school, the elders who see him as a threat, the toddy-tappers, the shamans — takes on the quality of myth. And then reality, painful and threatening, begins to intrude on the sojourner’s resting place and Ravi begins to understand that there is no escape from the relentless dictates of karma…
An amazing treat, I personally believe there was nothing that Vijayan wrote since The Legend of Khasak that matched the range and depth of his maiden work. Sample the imagery here:
“Long before the lizards, before the dinosaurs, two spores set out on an incredible journey. They came to a valley bathed in the placid glow of sunset.
My elder sister, said the little spore to the bigger spore, let us see what lies beyond.
This valley is green, replied the bigger spore, I shall journey no further.
I want to journey, said the little spore, I want to discover. She gazed in wonder at the path below her.
Will you forget your sister, asked the bigger spore.
Never, said the little spore.
You will, little one, for this is the loveless tale of karma; in it there is only parting and sorrow.”
Vijayan’s second novel, The Saga of Dharmapuri, is still considered to be the most disquieting novel ever written in any Indian language, but its genre is totally different from his first novel, and hence there is no comparison. It was panned by critics for its scatological depictions but it was a daring attempt, no doubt.
After The Saga of Dharmapuri there was a lull period of a decade and what followed was The Infinity of Grace. Like all his works this, too, was translated into the English by the author himself. It won several awards including the prestigious Vayalar Award (and it baffles one how the literary mandarins decided not to give the Jnanpith, India’s highest literary honour, to Vijayan). The Infinity of Grace, a marvel of course, marked not just the transformation of his craft, but also the evolvement of Vijayan’s ideology itself. From a staunch Communist supporter, he had by that time embraced spiritualism, thanks to his then new-found association with spiritual leader Karunakara Gurukkal. I, though not a Communist, was really sad to see his transformation, but Vijayan told me then: “My health is deteriorating, and what else can I do but to call out to the Almighty?” There was moisture in his eyes.
Apart from his three important novels (he had written three more novels, but they failed to accomplish the status of the first three, especially the first) he was also renowned for penning some of the most beautiful short stories in Malayalam, especially The Story Told by the Wind, Warts, and After the Hanging. They had an uncanny beauty — again — never ever surpassed by any Malayalam writer after him.
Like many regional language writers, Vijayan too had this misfortune: his works were only truly and fully appreciated by Malayalam readers — the beauty of his prose couldn’t transcend the way it should be to other languages. This, despite the fact that it was Vijayan, who could write in Malayalam and English with equal felicity, translated almost all the works into the English.
“Why,” I had asked Vijayan. He said: “The reason is that translation is an act of shifting eggs from one nest to another. In the process the yolk and white are separated, and what you have left with is broken shells.” How one wishes we had an Edith Grossman, Linda Asher or a Gregory Rabassa who made a Marquez or a Milan Kundera a household name across the globe.


Vijayan was born in 1930 and has published six novels, seven collections of stories, six collections of political essays, a book of selected cartoons and one volume of satire. Vijayan took a Masters degree in English Literature from Madras University in 1954. After a short stint of teaching at the University, he began his career as a political cartoonist with the Shankar’s Weekly in 1958. He left the Weekly and joined the Patriot in 1963. After four years, having resigned from the Patriot, he began freelancing for various publications including The Hindu, Mathrubhumi (Malayalam) and Far Eastern Economic Review. In 1979 he joined The Statesman.
Vijayan lived a double life, in the right sense. If Vijayan the story-teller was world-class, so was his role as a political cartoonist who took Indian journalism by storm by his deft caricatures of the people in power. Indira Gandhi feared his strokes, so did her son Rajiv. In the foreword of Vijayan’s book, A Cartoonist Remembers, a collection of his best cartoons and writings about cartooning, Ashish Nandy wrote: “I belong to Vijayan’s tribe, comprising those who have betrayed their class, and I have watched in rapt admiration the demolition job he has done for our generation. It covers not merely targets that are easy and fashionable to attack, but also the ones that are politically incorrect to touch. The latter include the slogans which have helped our class to establish its stranglehold over the culture of Indian politics and the media…. Vijayan [was] one of the foremost social critics and chroniclers of our times.”
Vijayan was a true political cartoonist, a rare breed, unlike an unnecessarily eulogised R K Laxman, who doles out syrupy caricatures on a daily basis. Vijayan’s lines never gave anyone a hearty laugh; it always left a sour taste — a taste of reality. A worst critic of Emergency, Vijayan’s wings too were clipped. What was his reaction? “When on June 26, 1975, I told my editor in Madras that I was quitting, he was concerned and asked me to stay on and comment on innocuous subjects; I did not leave in a spirit of bravado but in humility, at my sheer inability to locate the innocuous subject. Brothers in the profession did apparently manage to locate some: in the first weeks of censorship, in its abjectness and debasement, I found our newspapers carrying cartoons on the Lebanese crisis. One might as well have drawn cartoons on the Wars of the Roses.”


Ottupulakkal Velukkutty Vijayan died on March 29, 2005, aged 75. And it is sad that his wife (Theresa) and son (Madhu) had to slug it out with Vijayan’s nephew (Ravi Shankar) over performing the last rites — Vijayan wouldn’t have approved this mudslinging match.
Let his soul lie in peace.
— Sunil K Poolani

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