Remembering O V Vijayan – Lost in Translation

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Ootupulackal Velukutty Vijayan, Born: 2 July 190, Died: 30 March 2006; Most significant works – The Legends of Khasak, The Saga of Dharmapuri, The Infinity of Grace, Generations, The Way of the Prophet.

O V Vijayan, Born: 2 July 190, Died: 30 March 2006; Most significant works – The Legends of Khasak, The Saga of Dharmapuri, The Infinity of Grace, Generations, The Way of the Prophet

Najeeb SA remembers the Malayalam literary genius, journalist and cartoonist O V Vijayan who died 10 years ago and whose death anniversary recently passed off  largely unnoticed

NAJEEB S A | Caravan Daily

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hy is it that the wavered lamb’s road to redemption has to be doomed? Why is it that all true arts have to be endurance drills of torment? Why is it that most great works of art outlive the artists who have actually created them?

Such accidents occur from time to time in history. In the early 60s a brat pack of Keralite intellectuals used to meet in the Kerala Club in Connaught Place, New Delhi. As the evenings wore out and the full-bodied aroma of tobacco and lemon tea hung in the air, each one of them would read out their works while the rest slouched in cane chairs lent their ears, and more often than not, as if from a tin drum, an uproar either in favor or against would tear through the hesitant night that waited patiently beyond the veranda for the club lights to go out.

Those boisterous moments eventually sow the seeds of the renaissance movement in Malayalam storytelling. V.K. Narayanan Kutty, Kakkanadan, M. Mukundan, O.V. Vijayan.. they brought about arguably the most glorious era in the Malayalam fiction, the benchmark of which isochronism turning out to be a debutant’s escapades into a forlorn South Malabar hamlet that took 12 years in the making.

Vijayan’s story ‘Appukkili’ had appeared in a 1958 issue of ‘Mathrubhumi’ weekly, long before the Spanish edition of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece came out in 1967. It took another good 10 years for Appukkili, the village Falstaff who collects butterflies and spiders from the valley of Khasak, caricatured in a darker, yet funnier shade of Indian Ink, to reappear in the disarmingly charming ‘The Legends of Khasak’ (TLoK). Perhaps magic realism has been dormant in Vijayan’s psyche much longer than we have come to realize.

More than 48 years after their first release, One Hundred Years of Solitude and TLoK continues to inspire gifted minds which is why we come across passages like the following in contemporary fiction:

“I had always felt that Maya’s breath was distinctly warm resulting in her tears to evaporate and rise up to form a condensate cloud that the westerly wind floated past the group of bamboos, the deserted yard of the electric crematorium, the uneven long graveled road and then lowered the altitude of its flight path over the Bougainvillea branches that nested over the gateway of our house before sneaking through the window pane of my room. As if hit by a splash of silver iodide it cooled down abruptly to reinvent itself its original liquid form descending over my left cheek with a thud prompting my eyelids to open.”

Many people still look at magic realism only half way through, considering the first part and conveniently ignoring the latter. Magic is of a whimsy world where nothing is real, whereas the “magic”in magic realism is firmly rooted in the “real”. The magic here comes across as an augmentation of the real, letting the reader wander over his own imaginative clouds.

Magic realism neither starts with Márquez or Vijayan nor ends with them.. Borges, Kafka, Gogol and Rulfo came before them. The determinants of time and distance may have come in between these great masters. Yet they formed parts of an extended family.

That is exactly why Appukkili, Mollakka, Kuppu Achan, Gopala Panicker and Kunjamina of Khasak would not find themselves out of place in Kafka’s ghost town of Comala in ‘Metamorphosis’. I have no doubt that Gunter Grass’s Oskar, who decided to stop his growth and stay three years old forever by falling down the stairs and succeeded, would have had no trouble feeling at home among the 60’s brat pack in the Kerala Club. More than anyone else Márquez understood the dimensions of this trajectory and once remarked, “..in Mexico surrealism runs through the streets..”

The Legends of Khasak was published in book form in 1969. It is still the highest selling novel in South East Asia and has had over sixty reprints. It was translated into English by Vijayan himself in 1994. In an afterword to the English translation of his novel he wrote:

“It had all begun this way: in 1956 my sister got a teaching assignment in the village of Thasarak. This was part of a State scheme to send barefoot graduates to man single-teacher schools in backward villages.

Since it was hard for a girl to be on her own in a remote village, my parents had rented a little farmhouse and moved in with my sister. Meanwhile, I had been sacked from the college where I taught. Jobless and at a loose end, I too joined them in Thasarak to drown my sorrows.. Destiny had been readying me for Khasak.”

Resulting from the guilt of an illicit affair with his own step-mother, and subsequently that with an inmate of an áshram’, the protagonist of the LoK, Ravi, becomes a social dropout, turning down a research scholarship from Princeton and abandoning his girl friend Padma. His spiritual journey in search of himself lands him in the bus stop at Koomankavu, the gateway to Khasak. Was the spiritual wanderer Ravi or Vijayan himself? We would never know.

In Khasak Ravi starts a single teacher school, though it formed part of the District Board’s educational initiative. Here Vijayan introduces us to Allappicha Mollakka, Appukkili, Shivaraman Nair, Madhavan Nair, Kuppuachan, Maimoona, Khaliyar, Aliyar, and the students of the school Kunjamina, Karuvu, Unipparadi, Kochusuhra and many others.

Like the layers in an onion Vijayan exposes us to numerous myths interpolated with superstitions and disbeliefs that are in absolute contrast with the modern world outside. The school comes across as a metaphor interfacing the disparity between Khasak and the outer world offering endless possibilities.

More importantly, by the close of the novel, the radical haunted by an anarchic past journeys through landscapes of the last vestiges of feudalism to the contemporary, the pastoral and the urbane, time and the timelessness, real and the unreal, evolving himself into a spiritual vagabond seeking infinitude and appeasement.

Was he overcome by desire disregarding whatever he was trying to seek out in Khasak, by considering to return to the world of his girl friend, Padma? Yet he is overwhelmed by his yearning to perhaps seek solace in the embrace of death. In the end a snake-bitten Ravi lies on the ground drenched in the monsoon rain watching in detachment the snake that bit him withdrawing into its grassy hole, all the while waiting for the bus that would exit him from Khasak.

TLoK found acceptance with the Malayalam readers almost as quickly as it did with ‘….Solitude’ elsewhere, and became a cult classic soon after its publication to the extent that a post-TLoK timeline came into being in the history of Malayalam fiction.

The script Vijayan re-invented for the narration held the heady flavor of the dry Palakkadan wind whistling through the pass in the ghats gracing the Palmyra leaves and the slangs and dialects. Was he influenced during the process by the authenticity that underlined the works of his predecessor Vaikom Muhammad Basheer?

In the English translation that Vijayan himself had carried out of his magnum opus 25 years later, there is a notable metamorphosis in its fundamental premise, from that of the radical (TLoK) to a transcendentalist (Infinity). Would TLoK have offered us a different dimension in its narrative, as Styajit Ray had spoken of his debut effort in later years?

Vijayan had lived over 35 years in Delhi as a political observer and a cartoonist. When he had received the Sahitya Academy award for Infinity, a remark by Vijayan that he had actually deserved the honor for TLoK did the rounds in some journalistic circles.

In a 1998-Rediff interview Vijayan said he was misquoted. However, he also revealed that some members of the academy had told him in private that when TLok first came out, they couldn’t relate to it or understand it, but that Infinity was very much acceptable. That was undoubtedly an unheard lament from the sidelines. After the genius’ passing, U.R. Ananthamurthy had commented that the literary establishment had not been quite fair to Vijayan.

Lost in translation, may be.

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