Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Of Vijay and Vijayan

Sunil K Poolani

Vijay Tendulkar passed away last month. I have never met a person of such integrity in my life. Tomes of tributes have been written about him since his passing, but I just want to acknowledge him for the contributions he had made to upset many an applecart, that includes Mr Bal Thackeray and Maharashtrian Pune Brahmins. He used violence as a theme in most of his plays and also the film scripts he did, but I have never seen a person who is quite serene. Hope he has a nice time there, up.

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. Let his soul lie in peace.

The other day, a lady landed up in my office. She has written a novel and she has been searching for a publisher for the last four years. With no results. And she came and told me her biggest ambition in life is that she wants her magnum opus in print: “I have two kids, and I love my book than both of them. I will do anything. You just have to ask me.” Need I say more? No, I did not sleep with her.

-- Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle

Monday, June 30, 2008

Frog Elephant to Tiger

By Sunil K Poolani

White Tiger

Aravind Adiga


Price: 395; Pages: 321

Behram Contractor, one of India’s legendary editors, once said that writing simple English is the biggest challenge a writer often faces. He was right. He wrote well. He won thousands of admirers. And when I read Aravind Adiga I was reminded about the Contractor’s famous words.

Adiga, through his reportage and columns in the venerated Time magazine, always amused me. He packed much punch in simple words and sentences and it did wonders. He still does that; he is quite young, too. And when I opened his debut novel to savour, I knew what I was expecting.

The novel in question, by now discussed to death, is treatise to the condition the Indian nation is in. Adiga searches for the impossible. He takes the last mile, where none of today’s journalist (if you can call anyone by that moniker) would tread: in a hard way; the weather-beaten way. And, thus, exploring a story he wanted to narrate — in an inimitable style not many a scribe-fictionist in India could easily achieve to do.

Like the writing, the story of White Tiger, too, is reasonably effortless. Born in abject poverty (a pig’s life is much better than him), Balram Halwai (whose age is unknown) is the son of a rickshaw puller. He was taken out of the school to work in a teashop and through various meanderings he somehow gets a break when a rich village landlord hires him as a driver for his son, his daughter-in-law and their two Pomeranian dogs.

From behind the wheel of a Honda he explores the metropolis of Delhi with a gleeful eye. And since then his life is on a rollercoaster ride. He learns English. He sees the dark façade behind the life of many rich people in Delhi and their moral debauchery. Balram’s language and his scorn for the rich only increases as time passes — so does his ambition to become a rich man at a time when the country is going through a new-fangled economic boom, primarily BPO operation.

To cut the story short, Balram eventually murders the landlord’s son (by then the daughter-in-law has left the son) and steals the son’s money to start life anew in another booming, glitzy city: Bangalore.

Balram kicks off an entrepreneurial venture, of hiring vehicles to ply BPO employees, and he has to grease several palms to achieve a dream of a big man in these times.

The novel is a telling tale of two Indias: Balram’s journey to achieve his goals is totally amoral and at times very nasty; it shows both the good and bad sides of today’s make-belief world. Nevertheless, most of the times the novel is uproariously funny, too, and Balram keeps a bold face even when he learns his entire family has been massacred by the landlord’s goons.

White Tiger is written in a novel way: in the form of letters to the Chinese Premier from ‘The White Tiger’, which is Balram. This debut work explores and defies all conventional norms of feel-good writing and comes as a cruel testimony of today’s murky world where only money counts.

Adiga’s is a voice to be watched and White Tiger is a worthy addition to your bookshelf. I am deeply impressed.

-- Deccan Herald

Books and Crooks

By Sunil K Poolani

First things first. While contemplating what I would write for the maiden column about books, reading and publishing for this paper, the car in which I was travelling came to a standstill at one of Mumbai’s traffic signals. A street urchin (ahem) knocked at the window, with a tome of pirated books in his furtive hands. I bought one; I never encouraged piracy, though. But the book in question was Polyester Prince, a (so-called) biography of Dhirubhai Ambani. The book was banned, once, in India due to Sr Ambani’s ‘interference’ (so the story goes) when he was alive, and was resurfaced (only on the streets) when the Reliance kingpin’s kids battled it out famously after their papa’s demise.
I always wanted to know why the Ambani patriarch was so infuriated that the Indians should not read this book. I got the answer in few minutes — after I rescued the pirated book from its safe cellulite folder. Except for the initial pages, the whole book was empty. Empty? Yes. Filled with blank paper. (I later learnt that that is the case with almost 50-75 per cent of the books sold on Mumbai’s mean streets.)
By then the car had crossed two more traffic signals, and of course no sign of the kid genius who extracted my 150 rupees. I admire his (or his boss’s) audacity and entrepreneurship.

As an old (by today’s standards) journalist who is in publishing today due to some unforeseen reasons, it has always amused me that almost all the ‘great’ Indian newspapers and magazines published in English have this tendency to equally promote and denigrate authors they think are mediocre. And who are these ‘mediocre’ authors? Shobhaa De, Chetan Bhagat, Robin Sharma… Ok, they are a nuisance to a thinking man’s vocabulary. One might admit.
If that is the case, why are all these prestigious magazines carrying reviews of these best-selling authors’ books (for info: most of the above trio’s works have hit the shelves recently and are still on bestseller lists), and also devote full-page interviews with them? And in the end denigrate them, saying, their works are a tease to intelligence?
The answer is simple. The readers of these books are sizeable and a major chunk of these publications’ readers are also those readers.
So who is complaining? No one, except the ‘intelligent’ books page editors and the failed authors who are commissioned to do the reviews of these mediocre writers’ books.
Publishers gain. Readers are not complaining. And publications gain from pain. But that does not mean I do not rue the brain drain that these authors are causing our newly-started, English-reading generation. Do you?

Blogs and social networking websites like Shelfari are trying to promote book reading habits, I have been told. To an extent it is right. But do you really care who is reading what? I mean someone from Kakinada? No, at least I am not interested. The Internet, of course, has helped promote reading habits, but in an equal measure it has killed them, too. Why? You, if you are a moron, form an opinion based on some jerk sitting at one end of the world who would say Dan Brown is bad. So be it.
Nevertheless, think about those golden times, those pre-Internet days. Those where the days when a Camus or Marquez was refined and whetted down our throats by at least five aficionados who used to discuss their works (say, existentialism or magical realism) for days together. And we never complained. And we were never disappointed. Now, it is a free world, and there is no time for intelligence — passé. Take it or leave it. For good or bad.

One interesting thing I observed as being a publisher is out of the three book proposals I get, two of them are poetry collections. And, needless to say, they are not even worth the A4-size papers they are written upon, forget publishing. Nonetheless, each one of them thinks that s/he is the biggest poet ever to be recognised after Kamala Das or Dom Moraes. That’s not their problem alone. Most mothers think that their children are the greatest ever born.
More interesting stories of my publishing experience in the next columns — that is, if you and the paper’s editor allow.

— Deccan Chronicle / Asian Age