Vedakke Koottala Narayanankutty nair (1932-2004), better known as V.K.N, straddled across the Malayalam literary scene like a colossus over four decades beginning from the early 1960s. He has published over forty fictional works among which are Aarohanam (available in English in author’s own translation, Bovine Bugles), Pithamahan (The Great Grandfather), Adhikaram (Power), Payyan Kathakal (The stories of Payyan), General Chathans, Kaavi (Saffron) and Anantharam (Hereafter). He stands apart from his contemporaries like O.V. Vijayan, Kakkanadan, M.Mukundan and M.P.Narayana Pilliai in the prodigious inventiveness of his narrative style marked by pervasive word-play, subtle wit, scathing irony and incisive satire. V.K.N viewed the contemporary world with a critical eye, exposing the pretensions of the intellectual elite, the delusions of the political class, the philistinism of the affluent, the fallacies of the believers and the fantasies of the radically-minded, in his double-voiced idiom that bristles with wit and sarcasm. He spared none and brought into the fluency of his fictional language the classical and the modern from Kalidasa and Valmiki to Bertrand Russel and Ogden Nash. His deep awareness of history could locate the contradictions of contemporary life and his decolonized cosmopolitan sensibility could see through the burden of colonial baggage that haunts the present.
The present volume brings together nine of his short stories, two of his long stories and a novel, all in the author’s own inimitable translation that testifies to his felicity with English language.
E.V. Ramakrishnan, who has written an introduction to the volume, is a bilingual writer in Malayalam and English and also a translator, with six books in Malayalam and ten books in English.
V.K.N. whose full name is Vadakke Koottala Narayanan Kutty Nair (1932-2004) defies easy categorization. Despite being widely recognized as a path-breaking writer of Malayalam, there is hardly any serious critical writing on him in the language. Few contemporary Malayalam writers of fiction can equal him in creative use of language. That has also discouraged translators from taking up his works. This volume of self-translations, thus, comes as a reminder of the range and subtlety of a highly acclaimed Malayalam writer.
V.K.N. spent about a decade in Delhi as a journalist. Before that he was an employee in the Kerala government. To be more precise, he worked in the ‘Devaswam Board' of Kerala which dealt with the temples. It is difficult to imagine two worlds more disparate in nature and content. V.K.N. has been exposed to the two solid 'leisurely' classes in the twentieth century the rural feudal lords and the metropolitan bourgeois. He was quick to discover that our ruling elites came from these social strata. The felicity with which he straddles these worlds of contradictions and paradoxes explains his compulsive need to use a variety of strategies that range from irony and satire to parody and pastiche. To describe him as a humorist may not do justice to his prodigious inventiveness. It is true that he can be savagely satirical like Sanjayan (who was a great writer of prose) and profoundly and irreverently irrational like Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer. But V.K.N. has internalized and transcended their traditions to shape a language of his own. Hegel's observation that form is 'nothing but the transformation of content into form' and content is nothing but 'the transformation of form into content' can be relevant to any reading of V.K.N. Here there is no content which is not inseparable from its form.
To gain an entry into V.K.N's fictional world we need to convert ourselves into his ways of seeing. The story is not so much in the episode as in the manner of narration. Two of his stories included here, `Hanuman in Hamburg' and 'The Bird Messenger' both of which happen to be about Kathakali artists may help us understand his narrative perspective. The Kathakali artist who is used to the liquour brewed in the village imbibes a bottle of polish vodka of 1850 vintage while on a cultural tour of Europe, only to pass out instantly. Finally he is physically carried and displayed on the stage. What saves the day is the awe-inspiring resplendent make-up of Hanuman the role he is to play. The audience is relieved to know that he was asleep. In the other story, the Kathakali actor helps himself liberally to the free hospitality aboard a flight. While enacting a piece for the benefit of a fellow passenger who happens to be a white lady, our artist walks out into the sky through the emergency exit and flies ahead of the aircraft. The lady's husband wryly comments: "Alcohol, too, is aviation fuel, my dear." Such negations of narrational gravity are very common in V.K.N. When Sonny boy Kishen enters his father's hardware shop disguised as a cowboy and aims his pistol at his father Mool Chand's temple, his father calmly says: "Easy, you fool. The gun might go off."
These stories allow us to see the semiotics of V.K.N.'s fiction more clearly. Kathakali artists, legendary for their talent, are also known for their addiction to liquour. It is this popular perspective that helps V.K.N. to bring the elitist art of Kathakali down from its pedestal. If we look closely there is a foreigner in each of these stories mentioned above. Kishen, of course, is only a native disguised as a Cowboy. These stories stage East-West encounters in different theatrical situations. The pomp and pageantry of Kathakali can only be rivalled by the spectacular Hollywood western. Both have a penchant for celebrating the heroic and the masculine. Behind their respective illusory worlds is the reality of their ideological affiliations. When the metropolitan capitalist meets the feudal snob in the deliberately exaggerated stylized movements of masked, costumed figures, they reveal what they are - mere projections of a set of attitudes, assumptions, habits and manners. In V.K.N. stories words reveal their meaning through their tones and textures because they partake of the performative logic which, in the first place, occasions them. It is the undercurrent of the absurd, the deliberate rejection of the real in the above stories that helps us grasp the ideological component as part of the content.
A typical V.K.N. story begins as an encounter but soon develops into a contest or even a combat. V.K.N. uses dialogue almost in every story as the mode of narration. As mentioned above, it is through dialogues that he stages the story. The element of play is central to this performative structure. The word 'play' reflects the power play at a deeper level because the real contest is between two mutually irreconciliable ideological positions. The most well-known character of V.K.N. is Payyan (which literally means 'a lad' or 'a boy') who never misses a chance to challenge and vanquish the opponent. These verbal duels which sparkle with wit and hilarity use agressiveness as a strategy. Here it should be remembered that Payyan is not a character in the real sense but a mode of visualizing reality. Payyan is the feudal arrogance superimposed on the metropolitan extravagance. In other words, Payyan is a transaction between two structures of power, and can be revealed only in a situation of combat or contest. Payyan ignites the ideological content of daily lives to reveal himself in a flash. Payyan is an 'effect' of the discourse of contest and combat V.K.N. employs.
In the novella The Week, Tom takes over the role of the combatant and dumbfounds Payyan. Tom Varghese who lands in Delhi on his way to the U.S. has only a vocabulary of thirty-three words in English, 'almost a word a year for his 36 years.' But that never inhibits him from taking on his opponents. Tom is to the point when he speaks to the Russian embassy official in charge of publications:
"See you again," Isky said rising.
"No see," said Tom, "Give books to Payyan or I go to Americans."
That knocked the whitelander over.
"Please don't do that," he said, "we'll push the deal somehow."
"You thief now," Tom said, "Say America and you afraid. No trick on Tom, see?"
"Call it a deal then", said Boccaneesky.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
Children’s Books (474)
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