When Ayyappa Paniker, barely 30, published his masterpiece, Kurukshetram, in 1960, critics called him the 'T S Eliot of Malayalam' to denigrate him as a copycat.
Earlier, the doyen of Malayalam literature, the sentinel of traditional poetry and the editor of the leading weekly, Mathrubhumi, Krishna Warrier, had returned the poem as he found it lacking in features essential for poetic creations.
But by the time Paniker passed away last week, he had been recognised as 'the forerunner of Modernism in Malayalam poetry and an unblemished writer in Indian literature of all times.' He had taken Malayalam poetry beyond the oceans and introduced to Kerala readers poetic geniuses from as far away as Cuba, Senegal and Mexico.
He had also written a comprehensive history of Malayalam literature and an authoritative volume on Indian Narratology. For black humour in poetry and narration, he had no parallel in Malayalam or in any other language.
To me, Paniker was a teacher par excellence, not just when he taught me such unpoetic subjects as English phonetics and old English at the university, but also when he spoke to me on exotic subjects whenever we met in Tokyo, Moscow, New York, Thiruvananthapuram or elsewhere.
Every word he spoke was pregnant with meaning, often double meaning. It took me many years to follow his thoughts and to understand his black humour. He spoke haltingly and often left sentences incomplete, but no word was wasted.
After every conversation, there was much to think and laugh about, much to learn and comprehend. Without being a spokesperson of social issues like poverty and the environment, he made scathing attacks on social evils and unprincipled politics. The sharpness of his comments made up for his lack of activism.
At a time when Malayalam poetry was still in the grip of its most popular romantic figure, Changampuzha, and the classical masters, Asan, Vallathol and Ulloor, Paniker burst on the scene with his Kurukshetram, bold not only in terms of form, but also in terms of substance.
Initially, his poetic experiments were dismissed as imitations of English literature by an English teacher. It took some time for readers and critics to realise that the images in his poetry were rooted in Indian myths, legends and classics and that they were discovering an indigenous genius.
He used free verse and articulated the collective despair of a generation as T S Eliot had done before him, but his Kurukshetram was very Indian in its essence. Dhritarashtra's question to Sanjaya as to what the Pandavas and Kauravas were doing on the battlefield was a good starting point to Paniker to lay bare a different wasteland of his own. The anguish was intense:
"It is the bones that eat the marrow here
And the skin preys on the bones"
The poem that attracted me most in that early period in Paniker's poetic career was 'Hei Gagarin', another anguished lament, this time that science was striking at the very roots of poetic imagination. To him, Gagarin's journey into space jeopardised the dreams and flights of fancy, which characterised poetic creations over the centuries. He wanted Gagarin to get away from the path that he and his poetic colleagues had traversed as there was the grave danger of his discovering that the whole cosmos, as nurtured in the fertile imagination of poets and sages, was nothing but a huge void. At the same time, he called on poets to go even beyond the world explored by Gagarin to create new myths and new legends to give hope and solace to mankind:
"The pioneers have hoisted their flags on the heights
Break the idols, poets, to grow god enough to bless."
Paniker wrote on grave themes throughout his five decades of creation and delved deep into matters of life and death. There was no shortage of quotable quotes on death and life after death when he passed away. Here is a sample:
"A moment: it splits apart
To reveal infinity
Everything flows into that infinity,
Eternity. Immortality. Death.
The moment comes together again."
Yet, Paniker will be remembered more for his own brand of humour, the black humour, which permeates his poetry from beginning to end. His cartoon poems dealt with serious issues with his characteristic wry humour. Consider this:
"Just because I have stolen a few things
Why should you call me a thief?"
He stole clothes to protect your sense of shame, he stole a chicken to fry it and eat it, he stole a cow to drink milk. He concludes:
"Whenever one steals something good, something good,
You people raise a clamour for nothing
And dub him a thief, a thief."
Also consider these two snippets:
"...this ancient newborn land
Where we grow corn and PL 480
And make colour tv sets in plenty
Till our chests are nearly empty
And brains spout tons of TNT"
"Do not ask about caste
Do not talk about caste
But do not do anything forgetting our caste."
This kind of humour was part of Paniker's very being. His conversations were studded with these gems, which could be easily missed if the listener did not have trained ears.
Paniker was not content with enriching Malayalam poetry with his own creations. He was acutely aware of the wealth of literature out there on other continents, which was largely unknown to Kerala audiences. He took care to translate a number of poets from abroad and also took his own poetry to distant lands. His mastery of both English and Malayalam placed him in a unique position to fulfill this important mission. He gave no interviews, but interviewed several poetic geniuses and provided insights into their personalities and poetry. He traveled extensively in search of great minds and great poetry.
I realised only after his death how many poets and writers are indebted to him for not just inspiration, but for encouragement and calls to create. He held workshops, published representative selections of new poetry and translated other Malayalam poets into English. He was the guru for modern poets, some directly and others indirectly. Those who came to offer obeisance to him after his death came from all walks of life as he had touched everyone deeply, even politicians, for whom he had scant respect.
When his first major poem was published, the editor remarked that Paniker had deliberately hidden himself away from fame. He did that for half a century thereafter, but his work could not be hidden and recognition came to him from far and near. He cared for some of them, I know, like the Saraswathi Samman, the last award he received, but he received others not to offend the award givers.
On one occasion at least, he declined an award altogether and literally closed his doors to those who went to give it to him. He may have declined some of the other honours like a state funeral Kerala accorded to him, but by then he had risen above all that to become a star to shine eternally on the literary firmament.