About the Book
Athiranippadam-the land peopled by a mesmerising variety of men and women, is not a mere geographical coordinate, It holds within its embrace the stories of its inhabitants, their sorrows, love, laughter, sighs, strokes of fortune, and bitter destruction, Sreedharan grows into manhood in this land, He is both a witness and a participant in some of the, momentous events that at times change, and at times twist, the fortunes of Athiranippadam.
Tales of Athiranippadam, translated from the Malayalam Oru Desathinte Katha, is the fictionalised autobiography of S.K. Pottekkatt, the acclaimed Malayalam writer, Sreedharan, the protagonist, offers us a glimpse of the author’s personal reality enmeshed with the unsung saga of a little corner of the earth, Athiranippadam, where he was raised, The narrative uses an interesting mix of street gossip, fairy tale and recorded history and filters it through a perspective that is at once involved and detached, The characters that enliven these pages hold within them likenesses of people we have met, conversatious we have had, places we have seen and events we may know.
Oru Desatlthinte Katha was first published in 1972 in Malayalam. It won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1972, and the Jnanpith award in 1980.
About the Author
S.K. Pottekkatt-Born in Kozhikode, Kerala in 1913, Pottekkatt was an illustrious novelist, short story writer, dramatist, travelogue writer and teacher. He travelled widely, visited eighteen countries, wrote interesting accounts of all his travels and was the pioneer of travel writing in Malayalam. He has to his credit ten novels, twenty-three collections of short stories, seventeen travelogues, three collections of poems, one drama and three memory sketches. The Government of India honoured him with the highest literary prize ‘jnanpith’ in 1980 for his marvelous novel Om Desathinte Katha (translated here as Tales of Athiranippadam). The work also won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1972 and the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award in 1977. S. K Pottekkatt was elected Member of the Indian Parliament in 1962. He passed away in 1982.
Sreedevi K. Nair-Associate Professor of English, NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, she is a well-known translator. In 2004, she received the Kerala State Lalita Kala Akademi Award for the Best Translator of an Art Book, and in 2011 won the International Translation Grant Award from the International Center for Writing and Translation (ICWT), University of California for the joint translation with Radhika P Menon, of Tales of Athiranippadam. Associate at the Nida School of Translation Studies, Italy in 2011, she is also the chief editor of the Sahitya Akademi project Indian Discourse on Translation. Her major areas of interest are Translation Studies and Women’s Writing.
Radhika P. Menon-Associate Professor of English, Fatima Mata National College, Kollam, she takes keen interest in translating works of Malayalam fiction and non- fiction into English. Some of her major works are: Karoor Neelakanta Pillai: Selected Short Stories (Co-translator: Chitra Panicker); Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboothiri Woman (Co-translator: Indira Menon); and, On the Banks of the Tejaswini.
Modern Malayalam literature has flourished through the works of succeeding generations of distinguished authors. Among those born during the first two decades of the twentieth century ii, particular were several literary giants, among whom was S. K. Pottekkatt. A prolific writer, he was also one of the most versatile. His output includes novels, short stories, dramatic works, essays and reminiscences. He is also credited with the introduction of the travelogue as an important literary genre into Malayalam through his accounts of his extensive travels in Europe, Africa, Ceylon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal and northern India. His distinction as a writer was recognised by awards at both state and national levels. Particularly, and justifiably, celebrated in this respect is the novel, Om Desathinte Katha, of which an English translation is presented here.
The smoothly flowing translation succeeds in transferring into English the qualities of the original. The translators’ skill is evident not only in the narrative as a whole, but also in the chapters involving complex word-play in Malayalam. The thoughtfulness displayed here is also evident in the solution for the translator’s first problem, the translation of the title. Recognising that, whatever equivalent of ‘desam’ is chosen, a word-by-word rendering does not quite work in English, they have boldly, but rightly I would say, moved away from ‘The Story of a Locale’ to ‘Tales of Athiranippadam’.
I commend this translation as being destined to add to the renown already deservedly enjoyed by Malayalam literature outside Kerala.
Literary enthusiasts in the Malayalam-speaking province of Kerala feel that there is a suggestion of magic attached to the name of S.K. Pottekkatt. The man possessed indubitable personal charm. The few of his remaining acquaintances and friends would love to recall the small-built, handsome guy with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eyes, whose suave rhetoric saw him through a keenly contested election to the Indian Parliament in which he was pitted against a formidable opponent with demagogic appeal.
The writer carried with him the romance of long distances. Prompted by a wanderlust which he pursued till his last days, Pottekkatt journeyed far and wide and brought back with him tales and anecdotes about the people whom he met and lingering impressions of the teeming cities and far-flung villages at the outposts of civilisation which welcomed him with warm hospitality. Pottekkatt was unarguably the most widely-travelled writer of his generation. A singular contribution for which he is still remembered is that he helped to liberate a quintessentially provincial literary culture from its narrow confines by opening it up to the secret wealth of experience residing in unfamiliar places and unexplored continents. The best of his short stories are lit by an exotic quality which derives from the voyages he undertook under strange skies, sometimes in a spirit of adventure. This often finds expression in a refreshingly vigorous prose outlined by its metaphoric texture.
Pottekkatt was firmly rooted in his native soil and he had a superb understanding of its culture and an unfailing sympathy for the voiceless people whom he encountered in his public life. At the same time, there was a restless seeker in him who easily grew impatient with the ordinary and the insipid. Travel widened his imaginative horizons and extended the scope of his human sympathies and provided him with a fresh lens to look at contemporary reality as it unfolded at a turbulent point in history. Alien cultures and distant civilizations held out a perennial attraction for him and the manner in which he imparted this charmed feeling in the finest of his short stories serves to explain a unique aspect of his literary reputation.
A full-time writer, Pottekkatt had an uninterrupted career spanning across four decades in the course of which he tried out almost every important literary genre. His first love was verse which he soon gave up for prose. His poems, cast in a romantic idiom, were derivative in their use of diction, even though he sounded different in his choice of setting and atmosphere. (There is one poem titled ‘Premasilpi’ based on a harrowing love story heard during his stay in Uzbekistan, which still arouses interest in readers.) Perhaps Pottekkatt’s early aspiration to become a poet is reflected in his prose style, brought home to the readers by some bold flash of similes and sudden leap of metaphors which lend a distinctive flavour to his descriptive art.
Pottekkatt almost pioneered travel writing in Malayalam. His travelogues, which are set in landscapes as varied as Indonesia, Japan, Russia and countries in Africa, possess an intimate quality which has endeared them to generations of readers in Malayalam. An interesting mannerism which distinguishes his travelogues is his irresistible tendency to connect the fresh discoveries he makes in the far-off places on earth where he has set his foot with remembered scenes from his homeland.
The medium of the short story lent itself to him with remarkable ease. His keen eye for detail and his habit of reflecting upon the queer ways of men and women combine to make his short stories eminently readable. Pottekkatt himself looked upon the short story as his most favoured form of expression. Perhaps he did not do much to expand the frontiers of the art of the short story as his narrative method was of a traditional kind which has a realistic core to it. Patently he never carried out any experiment with the use of point-of-view and irony and symbolism. What he possessed in abundant measure was the magic of story-telling, the familiar yet elusive gift that comes from the patiently crafted method of unravelling a short story with a beginning, a middle and an end, in which the climax sometimes holds the key.
Pottekkatt lavished a great deal of care on the execution of his major works. Three novels which belong to his most creative period-Vishakanyaka, Om Theruvinte Katha and Oru Desathinte Katha-still provide a secure basis for his literary reputation. While Vishakanyaka has a separate existence, Om Theruvinte Katha and Oru Desathinte Katha appear to complement each other, marking a progression in the world-view of the author, though they are not necessarily connected by virtue of their subject matter or technique.
A trap which Pottekkatt wholesomely avoided was that of propaganda, a bane of most of the writers of his generation who found themselves in the so-called Leftist decade. Pottekkatt seldom concealed his political convictions. His humanism drew him close to the Communist movement. At the same time, he had too much regard for the vocation of the artist to allow it to subserve any ulterior purpose. Either by conscious choice or by virtue of his aesthetic orientation, Pottekkatt remained somewhat distant from the slogan-shouting, message-driven progressive writers of the 1930s and the 1940s. In fact, the radical political belief which he held throughout his life does not appear to have been a shaping element in his approach to fiction. Ideology filters into his artistic world in the form of a broad concern for the underdog and an instinctive rejection of all forms of social injustice and political oppression.
It was with the publication of Vishakanyaka (The Venomous Enchantress, 1948) that Pottekkatt emerged as a front-ranking novelist in Malayalam. Critics made allusions to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, hinting at Pottekkatt’s indebtedness to the Depression masterpiece. The case was perhaps overstated. It is quite possible that Steinbeck’s novel provided a distant model to Pottekkatt as he was searching for an appropriate fictional form for the rendition of his rhetoric of migrancy but the parallel stops there. Vishakanyaka charts the reversal of dreams that overtakes the first generation of Christian settlers from Central Travancore who migrate to the hills of Wayanad in the northern part of Kerala. The virgin soil up there which lures these hard-working and ambitious people soon reveals its brutal nature and starts devouring their patience and energy. Nature and weather almost conspire to ruin their project and most of the characters in the novel who had hoped to start a new life in pristine surroundings end up either defeated or dead. Adding a romantic twist to the disastrous story of migration, the novelist introduces a voluptuous maiden named Madhavi who seduces a meek and god-fearing Christian boy in the community of settlers. The novel derives its title from the perceived linkage of the spell cast by the enchanting female and the insidious magic of the virgin soil in the forest areas of Wayanad which was sought to be upturned. Vishakanyaka marked a departure from the fictional practice of the day in the sense that it had no central character worth the name. Here, the migrants as a group take the place of the protagonist. The absence of the conventional hero figure and the near disappearance of a well-organised plot (the novel unfolds in the form of a series of sketches imbued with a scenic quality) lend a peculiar touch to the design of Vishakanyaka.
Oru Theruvinte Katha (The Story of a Street, 1960) again has a loosely held story structure and here too the novelist does away with a central protagonist. The novel presents the goings-on in a street located in a familiar spot in Kozhikode town, choreographed when daylight fades and nocturnal reality takes over. It is a street inhabited by men and women who belong to different strata of society. Here we come across pimps and prostitutes, criminals and businessmen, loveable eccentrics and vagabonds, people who wear masks of respectability and those who are on a defiant course of self-destruction. Tenderness and cruelty, bonhomie and betrayal, jostle with each other as events follow in speedy succession to render outward appearances suspect and expose the raw and jagged sides of the citified reality.
One of the seemingly inconspicuous figures in the novel who grows in stature in the course of the narration is Krishna Kurup. He earns his living by selling newspapers. A widower, Kurup sees it as his mission in life to bring up his little daughter Radha, whose innocent ways draw even strangers close to her. Towards the end of the novel, Radha dies of fever, leaving her father suddenly emptied of any purpose in life. Kurup, who is in’ the habit of shouting aloud sensational headlines in the newspaper as part of his selling technique, finds that he has lost the urge to move on. But then, as he picks up the bundle carrying the newspapers, he comes across an explosive news item. He is back in his elements and his droning voice which announces the havoc caused by floods in Assam is heard echoing through the street. It is with this image of the ordinary man-as-hero, whose shouts provide the wake-up call to a world which is asleep, silhouetted against the creeping daylight, that the novelist closes his panoramic portrayal of the clamorous reality of the street. There is a hint for perceptive readers here. Kurup could be seen as a surrogate artistic figure whose job it is to inform and alert his fellowmen. He must go on with his calling in spite of his private misfortunes. Using the street which is the locus of action in the novel as a sort of microcosm, Pottekkatt seems to arrive at a sense of the uninterrupted flow of life despite the change of actors and costumes. Admittedly The Story of a Street does not move beyond drab realism in a major way and the novelist takes recourse to melodrama towards the end. Yet, the understated truth regarding the surge of life, unhampered by the losses and gains of individual actors who play out their roles on the thoroughfare and dark alleys, points towards a new turn in the novelist’s apprehension of human reality.
By the time Pottekkatt came to the writing of his magnum opus Oru Desathinte Katha (Tales of Athiranippiidam, first published in 1971; English translation in 2013) he had lived a full life, judging by all appearances. His literary fame had touched its zenith. Even his dabbling with party politics had yielded rich rewards. His wide- ranging travels had extended to five continents. Now at the threshold of old age, Pottekkatt must have experienced the urge to address a fundamental concern which catches up with us as we enter the twilight zone, namely, who and what he is. It was not that this successful writer passed through any visible form of identity crisis. In fact, the habit of metaphysical reflection, or questioning of an existential nature, had never formed part of his artistic search. Now, like all sensitive artists who had crossed their middle years and started grappling with the paradoxes of old age, Pottekkatt too might have felt that it was time for stock-taking, for rewinding in memory the paths he had traversed, picking up trails which had started fading. Unlike some of the major Malayalam writers of the day like M. T. Vasudevan Nair for instance, Pottekkatt had never used himself as his subject matter. As he now stood decidedly at the vantage point in his life, he in all probability gave in to the impulse to lay bare before the reading public facets of his private reality which were enmeshed with the unsung saga of the little corner of the earth where he was raised.
Tales of Athiranippadam has about it an aura of nostalgia, of looking back. It is like a fictionalised autobiography. Sreedharan, the central character in the novel, is a thinly disguised portrait of the author and almost all other characters associated with the story of his development have traceable roots in the author’s life. Apparently Pottekkatt has drawn heavily from his personal life while sketching his protagonist’s evolution, from infancy though adolescence to adulthood. This is a bildungsroman in which the pangs of the protagonist’s growing up are treated occasionally with a macabre sense of humour but more often in a sympathetic spirit and the narrative trails off at the point of his maturity with some crucial choices seen to be awaiting him. Pottekkatt here resurrects the intimate surroundings of his boyhood and early youth, putting on the appearance of a bemused spectator even as he delves into the delicate yearnings and minor disappointments which he carried with him while he slowly equipped himself for the call of destiny to emerge as a cultural hero in his home turf.
Perhaps the main challenge experienced by the author in writing the novel was how to integrate the coming-of-age story with the larger, colourful reality of the ‘desam’, or locality, which provides the setting for the hero’s attempt at self-definition. The ‘desam’ in question is rather limited in its scope; it does not occupy any special place in the country’s history. Yet the coastal district called Kozhikode of which Pottekkatt’s ‘desam’ is a part, can boast of a hoary past. The Zamorins of Kozhikode had once occupied pride of place among provincial monarchs. Traders from far-off lands and also prospective conquerors came to this land through the sea route thus setting in motion a complex process of assimilation and resistance. In fact, this place carries with it one of the early memories of occupation in the form of the arrival of the Portuguese. In the first half of the twentieth century, Kozhikode was astir with nationalist sentiment and went on to become one of the nerve centres of the anti- colonial struggle in the northern part of Kerala. The novelist has tapped some of the nuances of the fabulous traditions of this place while illuminating the setting of his protagonist’s early meanderings.
Perhaps Pottekkatt had a delicate task at hand while negotiating between his hero’s dreamscape and the crowded reality outside. It would seem that the novelist’s references to external happenings are of a minimal nature. The events in the public domain come to occupy our attention only to the extent to which they filter through the fragile sensibility of the all-too-precocious boy who occupies the centre stage for most part of the novel. The story spans the period between, say, 1910 and 1930, after which it registers a sudden leap towards some of the happenings in the hero’s adult life which take place in the post-Independence decades. One of the traumatic events which sends out its reverberations in the narrative is the Mappila Rebellion (1919) which leads to a bloody communal disturbance. We catch a few references to the freedom struggle which was in its incipient stage when the protagonist graduated to adulthood. The novelist-narrator seems to define his role chiefly as a local historian, a chronicler of the destinies of ordinary men living in a small community who, unknown to themselves, stand as a witness to the momentous awakening of a subcontinent which had lain in stupor for centuries.
Pottekkatt has penned a moving piece of thanksgiving at the opening of Tales of Athiranippadam. He says that this novel is dedicated to the ‘people of Athiranippadam, who are now dead and gone, who revealed to me through my infancy and adolescence and youth the truths and delights, the marvel§ and moral precept§, the little idiocies- and the tragic realities of life, and vicariously sacrificed their lives to make this work possible’. For him, the writing of Tales of Athiranippadam amounted to an act of paying homage by means of which he redeemed the bond that tied him to a world which had all but vanished. As we respond to the ‘spirit of the place’ which permeates this novel, it is worth recalling that at the time when Pottekkatt wrote this novel, the notion of the region writing itself simply had not caught on in literary discourse at any conceptual level. To be sure, we have had earlier examples of the ‘regional novel’ in Malayalam. But the idea of a region inscribing its story, with an interesting mix of street gossip, fairy tale and recorded truth, using the author as a receptacle, was new at the time of the publication of Tales of Athiranippadam.
At the start of the novel, Sreedharan is seen revisiting Athiranippadam after a long interval. (We learn much later that he is a successful writer and an elected member of the Indian Parliament, who is now in his advanced middle years.) The novelist has lent a suggestive caption-’The Reservoir’-to the opening section which begins with Sreedharan staring at a new object, a huge petrol tank, which stands at the corner of the road where his first love, Ammukutty had lived once upon a time. For Sreedharan, the whole place is a storehouse of fond recollections which lie half-dormant, ready to resurface at the merest provocation. What follows is a long, extended flashback, which is interrupted only towards the end of the novel where we are brought back to the present moment. Sreedharan’s trip down memory lane is presented as a neat curve, in conformity with the temporal flow of events. Readers who are familiar with the modern novelist’s daring experimentation with memory and time may find this method of story-telling somewhat passe.
If one were to set Pottekkatt’s protagonist beside the central characters in some of the best known European, British or American novels of the bildungsroman genre written in the first half of the twentieth century (those by Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse and D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce and Thomas Wolfe and]. D. Salinger), one obvious inference will be that he has a relatively undisturbed childhood which is free from any serious kind of emotional injury. His rites of passage follow a more or less smooth course. The novelist observes Sreedharan in the familial setting, in his private solitude and as being caught in a web of social relationships. His learning process which knows no rupture is dealt with in a sympathetic fashion, relieved by occasional flashes of gentle mirth.
At the centre of Sreedharan’s moral universe is the idealised figure of his father, Krishnan Master. An unassuming school teacher who lived in the colonial era, Krishnan Master towers above other characters in the novel, almost taking on larger-than-life proportions. Upright and honest in his dealings and a stickler when it comes to standards of public behaviour, he inculcates in his young son ethical values based on traditional Hindu beliefs which had a long-lasting impact on him. Even in his adult life, when he shows susceptibility to the wayward impulses which sway his artistic sensibility, Sreedharan is inclined to pause and look for some moral anchor, a trait which he imbibed from his father. Again, his two brothers, Gopalan and Kunjappu, in their sharply contrasting ways teach him some painful lessons regarding the price one has to pay for departure from the norm. Arguably, Portekkatt’s protagonist is not tested hard in his early and adolescent life. The family ties which bind him are strong and life in the small community around him betrays a basic sense of continuity, despite being jolted by the loud echoes of the momentous struggle which takes place in the country for political freedom. As charged impressions from the past come back to claim his attention, Sreedharan confides to the reader in a spirit of wistful longing that it is difficult to let go the memory of the first sunrise one watched in childhood and the face of the first girl whom one kissed (‘Murmurs V’). Here are two arresting images which reveal to us the flow of his sensibility as it reaches out to grasp the strange wonders of life. The daybreak and the sunset set aflame Sreedharan’s boyhood fancy. In fact the whole of nature holds out a visionary appeal for him. There is a world of birds and trees and plants and flowers that comes alive with unspoiled beauty in the course of the description of Sreedharan’s early years, which are divided between Athiranippadam and Elanjipoyilil. There is something that invites our fond attention about the floral riches presented in the novel which quicken Sreedharan’s sensuous feelings. Pottekkatt seems to possess a Lawrence-like eye for the shape and colour of each flower he holds close to his eyes. He combines the botanist’s urge to dissect with the astonished sentiment of a poet. There is a similar degree of raw feeling on display in the novel for the smell and sound of insects, birds and animals that arouse Sreedharan’s curiosity. There is something that reminds us of the art of the Impressionist painters in the way the novelist captures scenes from the non-human physical world with his delicate brushstrokes which allow for the charged flow of light and colour. One of the delights offered by Tales of Athiranippadam is the novelist’s attempted recreation of a bygone world of rural charm in which man lived in a fair measure of harmony with his surroundings.
Sreedharan’s initiation into the mysteries of love and sexuality is characterised by the same ardour which is free from the element of grossness. A dream-like suggestion, topped by fairy tale motif, runs through the depiction of his first love. The graceful figure of Narayani, who is the sister of his friend Appu, lying paralysed below the waist on the floor of her small hut enveloped by twilight, has an unearthly quality about it. Sreedharan receives his first intimation of the tragic sense of loss and impermanence inherent in the experience of love through his short-lived acquaintance with this sick girl. He passes through a series of infatuations, mostly of a passing nature, in the course of his arrival at manhood out of which one impulsive gesture stands apart for the playful sense of mischief peppered over it. I wish to recall the delightfully comic scene of Sreedharan’s first attempt at physical intimacy with a girl:
Janu was sitting in a corner, her back against him, her head bent over the grindstone, grinding red chillies ... her bangles jingled ....
He stood behind her, and she turned around .... He bent down, and raised her chin her lips looked like big red chillies, and those white flashing teeth resembled pieces of coconut He kissed her with passionate fervour, and, maybe out of reflex, she raised her palms to resist. Those fingers, smeared with chilli paste, grazed Sreedharan’s eyes accidentally ... everything was over in a second.
Before the footsteps from the courtyard reached the door, he retreated quickly, like a flash of lightning. The thrill of his kiss was drowned by the tears that streamed down his cheeks, and the intense burning in his eyes ....
The pungent feel of ‘mirch masala’ getting the better of the sweetness of a stolen kiss could be taken as a clever stroke on the part of the novelist who knows in his heart of hearts that laughter is a sure defence against the vagaries of romantic imagination.
The saving grace offered by the lightness of touch in the scene seems to me more satisfactory than the all-too-solemn note struck in the portrayal of Sreedharan’s encounter with Emma, the woman with flaring blond hair and emerald eyes, whom he meets at a hotel in Switzerland. The Emma episode suffers as a result of the novelist’s attempt to draw a moral point from it, to tell us how the protagonist, with his deep Indian cultural moorings, successfully evaded the overtures made by a passionate European woman. At this point in the narrative considerations involving the protagonist’s public persona might have weighed with the author.
Could Tales of Athiranippadam be considered a fictional work that wavers between bildungsroman and the’ artist novel’? I think one can make out a case like this. Pottekkatt’s novel essentially revolves round the process that leads to the hero’s assumption of the responsibilities of manhood and in this sense it is truly a ‘novel of education’. But it also points in the direction of Sreedharan’s artistic evolution even though this concern is not addressed fully throughout the novel. Right from the beginning, Sreedharan’s aspiration to become a poet catches the attention of the reader. And we are fed on the poems he writes at different periods in his life. Sreedharan’s attempt at versification receives all the attention it merits, as evidenced by long passages from his poems which demonstrate the tenor of his literary inspiration. Then there are long descriptions of his encounters with capricious and unsympathetic editors of literary journals and some mediocre writers of the day. There is an over-stretched account of his acquaintance with a charlatan pen-pusher named Govindan Kutty. What sounds ironic is the fact that the palely romantic poems that Sreedharan pens contain very little promise of any genuine talent. There is nothing in these poems to indicate that he would one day emerge as a writer of distinction. Do we catch here a hint about the reason why Sreedharan’s creator abandoned poetry, which was the medium he chose first, in favour of prose? Pottekkatt could not succeed as a poet; still the art of embellishment which he picked up while learning the craft of poetry stayed with him, helping him shape the surface of his fictional prose.
There is an impressive portrait gallery that emerges in the course of Sreedharan’s remembrance of things past. Starting with members of the teenager-gang who draw Sreedharan into their fold during their night expeditions which form an important part of his learning process, there is a whole range of men and women, some of whom make a quick exit while others stay longer, and contribute to the local pageantry. There are people who arouse our curiosity and pity, none of whom we come to detest. There is one character whose portrayal the novelist seems to paint with harsher strokes. Kunjikkelu Melaan, who was once the richest man in Athiranippadam, hurries through a wanton course of self-destruction. From his physical appearance to the way he spins to death, there are several details about him which belong to the realm of the grotesque. It is the bizarre account of Kunjikkelu Melaan’s last days, as recounted by Velu Moopar when Sreedharan visits him after his long absence, that lends a closing touch to the yarn that the novelist weaves around Athiranippadam with increasing touches of folklore.
In the last section in the novel titled ‘Murmurs’, which is further divided into ten segments, the novelist picks up the threads from the opening scene in which Sreedharan was shown reminiscing about his first love. Sreedharan who has descended upon Athiranippadam after three or four decades appears to carry with him an air of sombre wisdom. Trackless centuries whisper in his ears as he tries to put in perspective the unfolding tapestry of life in this small locality which carries immense significance that would be hard to verbalise. While he tries to make sense of the changes around him, he harks back to one of his father’s general statements about the human condition:
Father used to say that the world was a vast graveyard. We live on top of those who came here before us ... lived, died and turned to dust. Those who come after us too will build their world here. Later on, yet another world will replace that ... graveyards over graveyards!
This image of the world as a vast burial place where generations lie atop one another in hysterical reverence prepares us for Sreedharan’s final act of leave-taking from Athiranippadam. Now we watch him dining quietly at the house of Velu Moopar. Velu Moopar helps him fill in the blanks, telling him in his inimitable style what happened to some of the dramatis personae whose antics added colour to life in their locality. As he bids farewell to Velu Moopar, he carries with him a small gift, the potential value or worth of which its owner is unaware of. It is an old Chinese porcelain jug with the design of a snake head on it, in which buttermilk was served. Sreedharan could sense that a historic memory remained frozen in that antique vase. It was designed by some unknown Chinese artists a few centuries ago and somehow found its way to Velu Moopar’s kitchen. And now it would occupy a pride of place among the various curios at Sreedharan’s house which he had collected from different corners of the earth during his travels.
There is a telling cultural sign that greets him as he is about to make his exit from this patch of good earth. A tall aluminium board with an advertisement for Coca Cola stands near the door of a new restaurant that has come up in the place of an old hotel, once famous for its local cuisine. (He recalls having seen a similar mammoth board of this synthetic drink in front of the statue of Sphinx in Egypt, which stands guard over the ruins of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.) Some centuries ago the-coastal area around Athiranippadam had witnessed the arrival of one of the pioneers of foreign conquest in the country with the stated mission of trading. Now it is the turn of Coca-colanisation, a more subtle and insidious form of penetration devised by multinational corporations which rule over the global market. Sreedharan now encounters a typical, smartly dressed youngster of the newer generation, who looks at him in strange incomprehension. Sreedharan feels like telling tills guy that he is sorry to have trespassed into his territory. He has come as a traveller in search of old artefacts ....
Tales of Athiranippadam and The Story of a Street: the symmetry of these titles- is it accidental or is there a design behind it? Pottekkatt never claimed that he was writing a novel of pan-Indian scope or that he aspired to capture an accelerated sense of national destiny through these narratives of a seemingly localised import. But the fact remains that these two major novels by Pottekkatt, when read in conjunction, gesture towards grasping the layered reality of the Indian nation as it emerged from a semi-feudal, agrarian social order into the ever-expanding vistas of urbanisation and modernisation during the first six decades of the last century.
I wish to recall here a fictional work of magisterial import, born of a mid-century feeling of disquiet, with which the Malayalam writers who belonged to the generation of Pottekkatt were presumably familiar. The Bridge on the River Drina (1945; English translation in 1959) by the Nobel prize-winning Yugoslavian novelist Ivo Andric is a novel which defies easy comparisons. Set in the midst of life in a tribal community which has its share of faith and superstitions, and told in an oracular tone by an anonymous narrator, The Bridge on the River Drina dovetails upon the construction of a bridge over the river Drina, which is interrupted by natural and man-made calamities. Here we watch centuries rolling by and whole generations of quite ordinary men and women and those who symbolise power and authority making their appearance and then vanishing as events work towards a grim prophecy. One striking element in this novel is the meditative quality of the artistic imagination which sets to work upon the happenings in a little town which formed part of the Ottoman Empire, associated with the building of a bridge over the green waters of the Drina. As it records and interprets acts which show the resignation, endurance and tragic wisdom of common people and the cruelty and high-handedness of authorities, which impinge upon the fate of the bridge, it hovers around ultimate questions and arrives at a sense of the continuity of a whole population. (‘ ... life was an incomprehensible marvel, since it was incessantly wasted and spent, yet nonetheless it lasted and endured like the bridge on the Drina’). This novel should prove to be an inspiring example to all those writers who have taken upon themselves the challenging task of negotiating between the particular and the universal.
I guess that one of the challenges before the translators was how best to capture the colloquial thrust of Pottekkett’s prose style, rendered livelier by his whimsical use of phrase and metaphor. In this, they have done a laudable job. Presumably fidelity to the text had been the watchword of Sreedevi K. Nair and Radhika Menon, and judging by results, their ‘literal’ approach has worked well in enabling the readers to have an unhindered passage to the master’s realm of pure reminiscence.
Foreword by R. E. Asher
Introduction: Look Back in Tenderness
A Registered Letter
A Birthday Party and a Soldier’s Tale
The Turkish Army
‘Appaanyam’, An Unfinished House, A Cat Fight
At Elanjippoyilil Again
Sources of Knowledge
The Enemy in the Skies
Woman, Gold, Police
The Skeleton and ‘Elanji’ Garland
The Monkey and the ‘Korkas’ 88
In Appu’s Farmyard
The Rebellion Ends
The Death Carriage
Speak the Truth
An Exotic Journey
The Private Book and the Zari-bordered Mundu
A Family in Flames and the Southerners
The Magic Star
Wine and Women
The Story of a Treasure
At School and at Home
The Quill and the Gold
The Well and the Calendar
The New Enemy
Tax and Poetry
The Festival of Love
Ibrahim, the Story-teller
The Sanyasi at the Althara’
Bitter, Sour, Hot and Sweet
Congress Volunteer Kunjappu
The Snake at Kelancherry
Two Stage Plays
Black and White
The Chariot Trip
A New Love Letter
The Lucky Ones
The Secret Arrows of Time
From the Other World
Father Too Bids Adieu
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