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April 30, 1998


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Rajeev Srinivasan

The Great Malabar Novel

With this tour de force of a book, a sweeping family saga reaching back centuries, O V Vijayan reinforces his claim to being one of India's foremost novelists. It is a remarkable, if flawed, masterpiece, and a compelling read that is so engaging that it is almost unputdownable. This is the Great Malabar Novel, expansive in scope and elegiac in tone, almost the antithesis of Vijayan's debut novel, the tightly focused and existentialist Legends of Khasak.

I have been a fan of Vijayan's work for years, especially his powerful short stories. His collection, After the Hanging and Other Stories is a must-read, in particular for the extraordinarily lyrical language -- it appears the author is equally at home in English and Malayalam, and his own translations of his work, especially when there is a Victorian sense of doom -- are sometimes better than the originals.

In Thalamurakal, the author reaches back to his roots in Malabar, to his own Ezhava community, and fictionalises the real life story -- or so it appears to me -- of his landed-aristocracy ancestors. The Ezhavas need an introduction --Kerala's single-largest community, they are considered OBCs, and have been severely discriminated against based on caste. Yet many have been landlords, pundits, ayurvedic doctors, etc, and the religious and social reformer Sri Narayana Guru was one of them.

Ezhavas also have a martial past -- they were the heroes of the Vadakkan Pattukal (Northern Ballads), the brave Chekavars of myth and legend. By the Ezhavas's own reckoning, they were Buddhists converted to Hinduism somewhere in the vicinity of the 6th century CE, and 'demoted' in caste; they form the backbone of the peasant classes in Kerala, although there are many aristocratic landed families amongst them.

Thalamurakal traces the decline of the House of Ponmudi, apparently loosely based on the author's own ancestral family. Ponmudi definitely has a 'past' by turns sordid and heroic. Despite its great wealth, it is doomed by the weight of its sins: sins of hubris, sins against women. The central character is the compellingly human anti-hero and patriarch, Chamiarappan, sometimes seen through the eyes of his grandson Chandran, the author's alter-ego.

This must be Vijayan's magnum opus; there is an outpouring of a lifetime of memories and stories: enough material here for three or four books. Because of the lush vividness of the author's language -- invoking the claustrophobia of the landscape and of the declining household -- and his ability to evoke a time and aplace with great power, this is also one of the best books in Malayalam in years. Vijayan deserves a Jnanpith for his body of work; this might be the epic that finally gets the Akademi's attention.

Without in any way suggesting that the work is derivative, I am reminded of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, insofar as there is a plethora of stories and characters; nothing is as it looks: there is the enchanted just beneath the surface of the seemingly mundane; and there is indeed sorcery, and spells, in the Theyyam and Odiyans, shape-shifting magicians, of Malabar. The disembodied flying head of the ancient magician Kandath Nair, which foretells the decline of Ponmudi, seems entirely in keeping with the flavor of mysterious Malabar.

Further, I am reminded of the epic Yoknapatawpha tales of William Faulkner, for here too some of the major themes are manumittance, miscegenation, the decline of the aristocracy. The Ponmudi landlords -- and everyone else in medieval Malabar -- are obsessed with caste, as well as with the conflicts between their Aryan and Dravidian pasts. The ancestral deities of Ponmudi, the Adi Dravidas, ensconced in ancient family shrines, haunt their descendants.

Some of the deep, dark secrets of Hindu culture are explored here. The Ezhava landlords bid for brahminhood through various means, both fair and foul -- one of them, the intriguing ancestor Krishnan Somayagi, borrows a sacred thread from his Namboodiri friend, and goes to medieval Benares and becomes a scholar; early one morning, he finds himself on one of Benares's famous ghats, consigning his palm-leaf copy of the Manusmrti to the waters of the Ganga.

Other Ponmudi ancestors, less intellectually inclined, purchase Brahmin women for mistresses; through humiliating and impregnating them, they try to indulge in what sociologist M N Srinivas calls 'sanskritisation'. As in the blurb, "the minute differences and conflicts between castes are explored in three stages: the fight to gain brahminhood; but when acquired, the sheer uselessness of it; and then the disdain for the brahminhood achieved through so much struggle..."

There is much more on caste and religion: with the backdrop of the Temple Entry struggle in Travancore in the 1930s, Chamiarappan leads a march to a temple in Palakkad, demanding entry for himself and his peers. Severely beaten, he converts to Christianity and becomes Theodore; but he really is an agnostic rationalist, who doesn't find Christianity particularly meaningful either. He keeps the name Theodore, though.

His nephew Gopalan goes to England to study. He too follows the path of conversion, to escape the tyranny of caste: he becomes Imtiaz Hassan. He marries a Jewish woman named Jessica Bloom; and far from escaping from caste, he is jailed, and presumably executed, by Nazi Germans for refusing to denounce his wife.

The author seems to be pointing out the utter uselessness of external acts like conversion to get the better of casteism; it really needs an act of will, an internal act, to develop the self-respect to combat casteism. Somewhat along the same lines, there are episodes that trace burgeoning trade union movements, particularly an incident at the Golden Rock railway yard in Tiruchirapalli.

But above all, there is the struggle for independence, and, alas, the subsequent moral decay. Here is an excerpt:

  • Velappan, son-in-law of Chamiarappan, is a commandant in the Malabar Special Police. His moral dilemma is thus -- as an officer of the British Crown, he has gained status and respect; but that very Crown orders him to do things that are against his conscience.

    A few months ago, Indian National Congress leader Satyamurthy spoke in Malappuram, Velappan remembered. He had been dispatched to the meeting site with orders to arrest Satyamurthy.

    There were but ten steps to climb up to the dais; but it seemed like an insurmountable height to him. He gathered all his strength and climbed the first stair; he stopped. On both sides of the steps there were volunteers, girls. They sang:

    "Vande mataram Sujalam, suphalam, malayaja seetalam..."

    Vande mataram. Its maternal tone seemed to pervade the very air. Velappan climbed one more step.

    "... Sasya syamalam..."

    Velappan climbed another step.

    "...Shubhra jyotsna pulakita yaminim Phulla kusumita drumadala shobhinim..."

    He could not look up at all. The remaining stairs seemed like a climb up a mountainside. Velappan felt buffeted by ancient sorrows.

    "...Suhasinim Sumadhura bhashinim..."

    The moment the gandheeva fell from Arjuna's hands.

    "Sukhadam varadam mataram--"

    When Velappan finally reached the dais, Satyamurthy was awaiting him. When he handcuffed the leader, Velappan's eyes overflowed. Through the haze of his tears, Velappan saw Satyamurthy's smile.

Alas, the Independence thus gained is a disappointment for Velappan -- and clearly for the author, too. The degradation of the Indian enterprise is paralleled by the decline of the House of Ponmudi. And there is the rise of the rootless Fourth Worlder: one of the formerly colonised who has neither home nor scruples, exemplified by the journalist Chandran who becomes an arms trader.

Yet, there is the story of Ratnavelu, for whom independence would have meant something. Chamiarappan asks his friend Sivaramakrishna Iyer:

  • "... Have you heard anything about Ratnavelu Pillai?"


    "We owe Ratnavelu a great deal. He was from a previous generation. One of the pillars of the Empire, an ICS officer. One of the first Indian Collectors in Palghat. I have heard he was a very large man; the color of ebony. One day he invited two of his white colleagues and their wives to lunch. While eating, one of the white women said: 'Four swans, one crow.'"

    She was attempting a joke. After lunch, the visitors left. The servants, who stood quietly in the long corridors of his large house. Ratnavelu asked them to leave. He went upstairs to his bedroom. There he shot himself.

    "This is the story of all of us oppressed ones, Sivaramakrishnan... We must build a memorial to him... In some junction, for instance at the junction near the Fort, let us install a five-way street lamp. Four guests and one host."

There are other threads: the story of those doomed to failure, waiting, as for Godot, for the 'coming of the Russians' and the 'coming of the Chinese'. There is a gently mocking rejection of the gods of Vijayan's youth: rationalism and Marxism, and an acceptance of the Empire of the Spirit: that which marks Vijayan's transition from the anarchist of The Legends of Khasak to the transcendentalist of The Infinity of Grace.

The narrator's alter-ego, Chandran, ends up in Hong Kong; fittingly so, because it is the most rootless city in the world; and his Dravidian consciousness meets the Aryan memories of a Teutonic woman, Rosemary Wagner, whom he impregnates in perhaps a symbolic reconciliation.

Because of its breadth, different readers will view this book differently: nationalists will see the intense love of the motherland; the religious will see the defeat of those without faith; Marxists will see the historical dialectic of the end of the feudal landlord; feminists will see how the assorted sins against women finally destroy the family; those with subaltern leanings will identify with the yearning to 'sanskritise'.

Yet, this is a flawed masterpiece, flawed because of the untidy loose ends: there is no closure to the stories of Krishnan Somayagi or Imtiaz Hassan, for example. Flawed because in the end, the novelist seems to be in a hurry to finish off the protagonists -- who are dispatched in summary fashion. Flawed because the ending, the arrival in Kerala of Chandran's and Rosemary's child, Theodore Vel Wagner, a supposed synthesis of the Aryan and Dravidian, is unsatisfying.

Nevertheless, these are mere nits: Thalamurakal is a towering novel of immense merit. I have never come across anything in the regional literatures that has the scope in time and space of this work: from the remote past to the eighteenth century to the present, and ranging from Kerala to Benares to Europe to Hong Kong.

I look forward to O V Vijayan himself translating the work into English. This deeply poetic and atmospheric work is both a dirge for something that has vanished, as well as a warning against the mechanical rationalisation of modern-day life. Ponmudi, where wealth is sin and knowledge is hubris, is a metaphor for what middle-class India has become, bereft of the simple faith of the past.

Thalamurakal (Generations)
By O V Vijayan
DC Books, Kottayam, Aug 97
Pages 346, Rs 100

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