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The Rediff Interview/O V Vijayan
The lion in winter
March 31, 2005
Rajeev Srinivasan's interview with O V Vijayan, the great Indian writer who passed into the ages on Wednesday, was published in rediff.com in 1998. We reproduce that interview as a tribute to an unusual genius:
O V Vijayan is without a doubt one of India's finest novelists; his work is noted for its lyrical beauty and distinguished by its many layers of meaning. His debut novel, The Legends Of Khasak, created a sensation in Malayalam, marking the arrival of modernity in a literature that had hitherto been dominated by romanticism. Khasak is arguably the most influential work in Malayalam in the last 50 years, the seminal opus that liberated fiction writing there -- the works that followed were much more willing to take risks in form and content.
Later, The Infinity Of Grace (Gurusagaram) won the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award. His 1997 novel Generations (Thalamurakal) is a towering masterpiece, a superb family chronicle, yet to be translated into English.
Several of his works, including The Saga Of Dharmapuri, Khasak, Infinity and the short story collection, After The Hanging And Other Stories, are available in English from Penguin India. Viking Penguin recently brought out an omnibus edition of these works in English, all translated by the author: Selected Fiction.
I met Vijayan at his modest home in Secunderabad. On the gateposts it says simply, 'Theresa' and 'Vijayan' -- one on each post. I was afraid I was disturbing Vijayan and his wife -- they had expected me earlier in the day, and here I was arriving at around 10 pm. But they were most gracious.
Vijayan (OV his wife calls him) is tall and slender and slightly stooped, with a long, white, narrow beard. He tells me, apologetically, that he suffers from Parkinson's disease, which makes his voice weak. And he cannot control a pen. How ironic, I think, for a cartoonist and writer!
He asks me about the US -- his son is in Los Angeles. I ask him if he has visited there; he smiles ruefully and admits that he almost went, he even bought tickets but didn't go in the end. I tell him about San Francisco and Stanford and the Silicon Valley.
He is a charming host: attentive, thoughtful. I ask him about his political cartoons -- and he insists on showing me his portfolio from the 70's and 80's. Bitingly satirical, incisive. And oddly enough, some of them could be published today and would still be meaningful!
You have been writing for many years now and you have written a number of books. Do you have a favorite? For instance, I understand that when you received the Sahitya Akademi award for Infinity, you said you had deserved the honour for Khasak?
I may have been misquoted about this. I didn't exactly say this; but it is true that some members of the academy told me privately that when Khasak first came out, they couldn't relate to it or understand it, but that Infinity was much more acceptable.
Khasak was, of course, the book that I poured myself into. As my first novel, it will always be special to me. I had written a chapter and given it to the editor of Mathrubhoomi (a Malayalam weekly) for his review; but it ended up being printed as a short story in the magazine.
Generations is very close to my heart because it talks about places and people that are no more. I also wrote it with the foreboding -- my health is indifferent -- that I might not be able to complete it.
Weren't you also a journalist during your time in Delhi?
I have been writing for almost 40 years; I spent 35 years in Delhi as a political observer and a cartoonist for The Statesman, The Far Eastern Economic Review and other publications.
In looking at your work, you seem to have metamorphosed from a radical in Khasak to a transcendentalist in Infinity to perhaps a nationalist in Path Of The Prophet; and then you wrote the story of your ancestral family in Generations. What has influenced you and caused these changes?
The influences on me have changed as I myself changed and perhaps grew. When I started, I really didn't know what I was writing about, except that I experienced a great joy in the wild spaces of my native Palakkad and the solitude of the countryside. I was not even particularly conscious of it, but it certainly influenced the language and the very words that I used in Khasak. The sights and sounds were so powerful: the wind whistling through the Palakkad gap in the Western Ghats; the clattering of the black palm trees. As a writer, I was concentrating on the story and not on myself; and I have not analysed it much further.
Among Malayalam readers, a certain group, especially young men, has always been your biggest fan. Do you have a cult following, sort of like The Catcher In The Rye appeals to rebellious young Americans? How has Khasak been a consistent cult classic?
I acknowledge that there might be a similarity in the effect; but then, unlike Catcher, Khasak is not a rebellious book. It may be slightly dangerous to say this in today's charged atmosphere, but it has a subconscious Hindu framework. But the experiences of Khasak also incorporate and ingest the Muslim folk experience of Malabar.
Khasak is a difficult book.
It moves along, if you will, in a deeply emotional mode, in a constant search for cosmic mystery.
In the context of the sacred and the profane, let me ask about another book, not in the present collection: The Path Of The Prophet. The treatment of Sikhs, the story of the Gadar Party, of the Komagatu Maru -- it is stunning in its historicity and its emotional impact.
It became almost a theological essay; but it is transparent and an easier read. I lived through the 1984 riots in Delhi, when Sikhs were targeted. I termed it the lament of the first-born innocents -- they, who have done so much for India! People didn't understand it, branding Sikhs as terrorists.
Was it not a statement of protest? As are your other books?
Not really. In Khasak too, I was an anarchist, but there was no protest; if anything it was a soft and muted anarchy.
But Saga is definitely a novel of protest -- a predetermined offensive about the whole concept of the state, against war, consciously written about a future where the rights of the plant or the vegetable will be upheld. In some ways, it is anti-civilisation. As in some of the short stories, especially the ones about dystopias.
Saga was written before and after the Emergency; it was reacting to the Soviet-Indian left wing and its efforts to prop up both socialist-communist leaders and a political dynasty. My friend S K Nair agreed to serialise it, and started to before it was to be finished in July, 1975; of course, the Emergency was imposed in June, 1975, and the book went into hiding. Not knowing how long the Emergency would last, I meddled with the story a lot. They serialised it after the Emergency ended. When it was to be made into a book, I corrected some of the excesses and restored its aesthetic professionalism.
Saga was written in anger; it was a cleansing and catharctic experience.
You return to the Emergency in many short stories.
Yes, especially in those allegories of power: The Foetus, The Wart, The Examination and Oil. I kept them in cold storage until the end of the Emergency. I looked at tyranny in various forms; one as an organic quantity, as in Oil, then as allegory in The Foetus and The Wart and as comedy in The Examination.
In addition to the allegory, I quite liked the decent protagonist in The Wart, under attack from an implacable and omnipotent evil force in the form of a wart; one of the things I remember is the protagonist's memory of his ancestors and their Ayurvedic knowledge.
It was the story of one who could only resist in the spirit and that had a connection to the satvic past, which is what Dhanvantari indicates. Good triumphs over Evil eventually; The Foetus is redeemed with a lot of love; in The Wart, the triumph is more ambiguous.
The Foetus is a thinly veiled story of the excesses of Sanjay Gandhi and his cronies. Is it fair to say that you object to the Nehru dynasty?
No, that would not be accurate. The story should not to be reduced to the level of personal animosity towards anybody. It is only a take-off point to indicate human evil, evil in the state, evil in negating nature. There is no calling for retribution.
Speaking of evil and weapons of mass destruction, how do you react to India's entry into the nuclear club?
It baffles me; and I am neither for nor against. One cannot react to a Hiroshima, because the magnitude of the evil is so great that one's reaction inevitably comes across as false. In India's case, one could possibly say that the bomb has come to implement a certain part of one's destiny. Somewhat beyond the scope of one's understanding -- powers that we are not able to comprehend. Not necessarily divine, but great, unseen forces. I sometimes also wonder if the rich nations would like to incite atomic warfare amongst the poor nations: it would be a bizarre ethnic cleansing; easier and cleaner and more final the nuclear way.
Infinity, and some of the short stories of transcendence (such as Airport, Little Ones), surprised me because this is not what I expected from the author of Khasak. Did it surprise other people too?
Not many (laughs). Only those obsessed with ideology. You see, I was once a card-carrying Marxist, a candidate member, a coffeehouse type.
What caused you to break away from the left?
It's a long story; it began with the experiences in Hungary and Imre Nagy. I had always been a little uneasy about Stalin. And Czechoslovakia completed my disillusionment. That also made it difficult for me, as a writer, because my very words were associated with my left wing self-image. A brief period of stasis and then it was a simple act to walk into the realm of the spirit: it happened naturally and I have stuck to it ever since.
You moved into your transcendental mode before you wrote Infinity. Was this the influence of Karunakara Guru, whom you dedicate the book to? In Infinity, I expected that Kunjunni would find a guru, but he finds it in surprising places and in himself. It is a happy ending to a long quest.
There are elements that I am not able to understand fully -- in the search and in the transcendence there are elements of bhakti that cover and overcome the element of ideology in fiction. It is not necessary that I have become a religious person, but I have experienced in my own life things that must be termed magical, for want of a better word. My own search for a guru was perhaps effect, not cause: as my views changed, I felt the need for a guru to guide me.
You have written some of the most surprising short stories, such as The Little Ones, about invisible beings, benign spirits.
This was based on a dream I had, where I saw thousands of cowrie shells, illuminated as it were from inside. I believe there is magic around us; we just have to look for it.
Is Malabar magical, with its theyyams (folk dances with mystical connotations) and odiyans (shape-shifting wizards)?
We didn't actually have theyyams in Palakkad, but certainly there were odiyans who, it was believed widely, could cast spells on you.
I hate to even bring this up, because it is sort of the kiss of death, but have you been influenced by Latin American magical realism?
I wrote the surreal story of Appukkili (the retarded man in Khasak) in 1958, long before Gabriel Garcia Marquez was even published in English, which was in 1975. People have the tendency to suggest derivative work, so it makes writers defensive when you make such statements.
In reading your short stories, occasionally with the English and Malayalam versions side by side, I have sometimes thought they were actually better in English.
I am not sure they are better in English -- wouldn't you miss something of the background? Perhaps since you are already familiar with Kerala's cultural background, you find the English version appealing. It might be less so for others from outside the culture.
Are any of your books being made into films?
Some have been; I am willing to work with a director if we could really see eye to eye, and the essence of the work can be captured.
Someone like an Adoor Gopalakrishnan or an Aravindan, perhaps?
I worked with Adoor on one of the Film Festival committes; a very great artiste, one who is fully in control of his material. I knew Aravindan, of course, as a fellow-cartoonist. But we never actually worked towards filming one of my books.
I am astonished that you live in Hyderabad. Why did you move here from Delhi, and why aren't you in Kerala?
We moved here because my wife has family property -- this house. I felt Delhi was becoming meaningless; and, in Hyderabad, I feel out of place. I am seriously thinking of moving to Kerala. There is a problem -- I do get mobbed in Kerala, but it is home. Or it is one of my two homes, to be precise: Delhi being the other. But even when I was in Delhi, I wrote about Palakkad, remembering the dry Palakkadan wind whistling through the pass in the Ghats.
I have some problems of privacy in Kerala. People come up to me constantly -- it's sort of a celebrity status that is hard for me to deal with. But it's a humbling experience too. I find all kinds of people come and talk to me -- not just the middle class. Even when I travel by train, people come and tell me, 'Vijayan saar', how much they enjoy my work. It is gratifying that people in all walks of life are reading my books.
You were bereaved recently.
My sister passed away; and I could only go there to see her dead body. I cannot travel much. She was more than a sister, a playmate. We were very intimate. Her death affected me very much.
How about your work as a cartoonist?
I am thinking of publishing my old cartoons in book form; I am not doing any more at this time.
Perhaps you can recycle your old cartoons from the 1970s -- the things you said about Sonia Gandhi then seem to be coming true.
I must have been prescient (laughs).
What are you working on now?
A sequel, perhaps, to Generations; and I have begun the effort of translation into English. Unfortunately, given my inability to physically hold a pen, I must dictate my writing. I used to have a secretary who did this well, but he has left. This makes it very difficult and my progress is very slow. I am sort of struggling with the technology -- my son suggests I should get a dictaphone to do my dictation, but I am a bit of a technophobe.
How was Generations received in Kerala?
With very high regard: I read a number of appreciative reviews and the reading public liked it too, not only the critics. Although it was considered a little heavy, and some of the Marxists didn't like me poking a little fun at them. There were underlying levels and it was a multi-layered narrative, although structurally it was a very simple story.
How much of your own life and your ancestral family are in Generations?
There is a certain element of autobiography, including some stories that are family legends, but there is a significant element of fiction and imagination. The House Of Ponmudi is based on my ancestral family, the tharavad. Even when I was a child, the family home had been alienated. It was a magical house. But I remember how I found the deity from the family temple, a non-anthromorphic deity, shaped like an inverted pyramid, sort of thrown in the trash.
One of the primary themes in Generations seems to be caste.
I was not even aware of caste and prejudices until I went to college, because I had a privileged, upper middle class upbringing even though I belong to the 'backward caste' Ezhava community. But caste is still a major part of our lives: I have come to that realisation. It certainly was a major factor in the lives of my ancestors.
Moreover, I think caste will persist; not the rigid, inflexible system we have had, which is really casteism. But, because of inherent differences among people, we will always have these differences which become institutionalised in caste.
You sort of gave the book a happy ending, even though it is a tragic story.
It was not a contrived happy ending; it made me feel good. It was a vision of a non-racial and compassionate future. It was optimistic and pessimistic at the same time.
I wrote in a review of Generations that you deserved the Jnanpith for the body of your work. How do you react to that?
(Laughs) I accept all statements that are nice to me. But U R Ananthamurthy said recently that the literary establishment had not been quite fair to Vijayan. So maybe there is hope...
How about the Nobel Prize?
Well, I haven't lobbied for it. Do you know how one goes about lobbying for the Prize (laughs)? I know Vaikom Mohammed Basheer got nominated for it, but I also understand there were many derogatory comments made about him at the time.
And Vijayan indicated the interview was over. As a parting gift, he gives me two of his books -- Khasak and Prophet in Malayalam. He inscribes them, with obvious difficulty in holding his pen, "To Rajeev, with love." I am touched by his kindness and I leave, wishing I could somehow help him with his problem of transcription. I intend to return to Hyderabad to speak some more with this charming and extraordinarily interesting man, one of the greatest living masters of Indian fiction.