The BS column: O V Vijayan

(First published in Business Standard as SPEAKING VOLUMES FOR APRIL 5, 2005)

O V Vijayan, god or Marx rest his soul: we invoked his name every time someone accused “regional” Indian writing of lacking imagination. Not Vijayan, we’d say, pointing to the Legends of Khasak, pointing to the wart that grew larger than the face it rested on, pointing to the obscene foetus he used in order to cariacature Sanjay Gandhi. If I had one complaint about Vijayan, it was that he came out with a pallid translation of Khasak; one of those where you can sense the original, robust text making strangulating noises behind the translation. Anyway, this was my tribute.

My idea of heaven is a vast, beckoning continent divided into separate segments: here is Shangri-La, over to the left you’d have Macondo, somewhere in between would be Faulkner’s Yokhnapatawpha County and so on. If we get to choose our afterlives, this is where I’d spend mine.

An entire swathe of this imaginary continent would be taken up by a place called Khasak. Like all the best countries of the mind, Khasak not only exists, but has been growing and changing for each reader ever since 1967, when a cartoonist and teacher called O V Vijayan set down its legends. Vijayan passed on last week after a long, hard bout of illness, deeply mourned by all those who knew him and those who knew his books: the funeral drew thousands. He had fewer laurels than he deserved. The Sahitya Akademi award to him was made for Infinity of Grace , not for the monumental Legends of Khasak , and it is a disgrace that he was never awarded the Jnanpith. Few writers, after all, can claim to have changed the course of the history of writing in a language with their very first book.

Khasakinte Itihasam was serialized in the late sixties, and by the time the fourth or fifth installment came out, readers had begun to grasp that something was being born in their midst. Vijayan said once that the book grew out of an image and a landscape; he wrote it, he said, with the sound of the winds whistling through Palakkad in his head. He was often compared to writers like Manuel Puig and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it is interesting to read The Legends of Khasak in the light of a comment by Garcia Marquez.

He was speaking of returning to his village after an absence; like Vijayan, distance brought a kind of clarity. “I felt that I wasn’t really looking at the village,” said Garcia Marquez, “but I was experiencing it as if I were reading it. It was as if everything I saw had already been written, and all I had to do was to sit down and copy what was already there and what I was just reading. For all practical purposes everything had evolved into literature: the houses, the people, and the memories.”

The Legends of Khasak begins with Ravi, the outsider who comes to Khasak in order to be the first teacher the small place has ever had. There are echoes of Vijayan’s experiences in Ravi’s life, but Khasak was much more than a semi-autobiographical first novel. Through Ravi’s eyes, Vijayan presented a shifting view of a small town in flux, where each inhabitant has a story to tell. There is Appu-Killi, the local idiot affectionately known as the Parrot, whose decision to convert Islam has repercussions that are rapidly sorted out: “The Parrot was to be allowed the freedom of both religions. For certain days of the week he could be Muslim. For the rest he could be a Hindu. If necessary, Hindu, Muslim and Parrot all at the same time.”

Ghosts and spirits co-exist with district administration officials, smallpox epidemics and outbreaks of lice infestations are treated with equal seriousness; religious dilemmas and personal dramas make up the ebb and flow of life in Khasak. He could write about infinity and the most domestic of trials in the same breath. Vijayan packed so much into the relatively slender space of this first novel that, over three decades later, we are still discovering new epiphanies in Khasak . He made a comment once about his work as a cartoonist that could also serve as a writer’s explanation: “An indescribable sadness permeates the reality that I am supposed to describe, but nonetheless the prevailing superstition about my profession requires that I make people laugh.”

Readers took to Khasak; the establishment took a while longer, not quite sure what to make of it—one critic tells me that The Legends of Khasak was dubbed “ultramodern” because the term “postmodern” had yet to make its way into the lexicon of discourse in Malayalam. There are apocryphal stories about readers who badgered puzzled men at railway station counters, demanding a ticket to Khasak. It was useless to tell these souls that Khasak did not exist, or to fob them off with stories about Khasak being based on Palakkad; Khasak, to the faithful, was even more real than Palakkad.

It was in the next few years, just before the Emergency cast its shadow across India, that Vijayan wrote some of his strongest, most scathing work. He was by then a disillusioned man: his faith in communism as an ideal had been shaken, his faith in humanity was steadily eroding. He didn’t believe in civilization any more, or in revolution: these concepts and ideals had failed too many, too often. Dharmapuranam , translated as The Saga of Dharmapuri emerged from this period, a time when modern India appeared to have betrayed its idea of itself. It opens with a meditation on the Presidential bowels, with the ministers and the subjects of Dharmapuri engrossed in contemplation of the products thereof. They discuss the Presidential shit; they reflect on the meaning of its form; and finally, the more assiduous of the courtiers eat shit. And that was for openers; The Saga of Dharmapuri is a satire so biting that Jonathan Swift would have been proud to have been its author.

Dharmapuri was to begin serialization in early 1975—in June, the Emergency was imposed, and the book “went into hiding”, to use Vijayan’s phrase. He rewrote some parts, intensifying the satire here, toning it down there, and it was eventually serialized again in 1977. But it was only published in 1985 in book form; as with Khasak , Vijayan was writing well ahead of his time.

There were other books, including gems like Generations and brilliant short stories. Most writers would be content to write one immortal work, but Vijayan had begun his career with two. And of his short stories, the one that resonates most in our times is a piece called The Wart . Like The Foetus , it was inspired by Sanjay Gandhi’s excesses, but it is an allegory that applies to the powerful anywhere, in any age. The Wart is about a man who discovers a wart on his face one day; the wart grows until finally it encompasses the man. It is the perfect image, from a man who could translate awe, terror, compassion and human frailty into great writing. Towards the end of his life, friends reported that his hands shook almost too much from illness to allow him to take up the pen and write or draw. But by then, he had said more of importance than most writers will say in a lifetime.





2 responses to “The BS column: O V Vijayan”

  1. Anand Avatar

    That was a well-written piece on Vijayan. No doubt, he was a great writer, but I do think a part of the Vijayan image is a bit hyped up. For instance, no sentence of Marquez that I read, I found indigestible. That definitely wasn’t the case with Vijayan. For instance, the Princeton professor of ‘The Legends of Khasak’ looked completely out of place in the context of that work. Did Vijayan really need the Princeton endorsement for Ravi’s philosophical pursuits? Looked odd, to say the least.I also disliked the philosophy that ‘the Legends’ seemigly tried to project that death is the only supreme truth. Vijayan in fact killed his characters the way Pedro Camacho killed many of his characters! If one is allowed to nitpick, Vijayan has committed trivial mistakes too in Khasak. For instance, the character Nizam Ali is counted, in the beginning of the novel, as one of the 10 workers of the bidi company for which he started working only much later. Now mistakes of this kind are really silly and most of our good writers do make such mistakes. But it’s more unpleasant to see such dark spots in less than two hundred pages, (claimed to have) written and re-written over a decade’s span.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Anand, the princeton part could have been done without, actually. Vijayan was following the fashion perhaps- subconsciously, that western education is every thing. Or more seriously he was not confident about his otherwise sublime depiction of his protagonist. He must have thought the address of Princeton might enhance the image.But still I rate this as the most brilliant work in Malayalam. The one scene where he narrates the suicide of Munghankozhi is etched into the collective consciousness of Malayalis, I am sure.

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