The BS Column: Places of the Heart

Here are the last sentences of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Memories of My Melancholy Whores:

“I was arranging my languishing papers, the inkwell, the goose quill, when the sun broke through the almond trees in the park and the river mail packet, a week late because of the drought, bellowed as it entered the canal in the port. It was, at last, real life, with my heart safe and condemned to die of happy love in the joyful agony of any day after my hundredth birthday.”

The novel has been described as a fairy tale for the old, its narrator a journalist of insecure reputation who at the age of ninety, looks for a final love and finds it in a young virgin being initiated into the world’s oldest profession.

But as with Garcia Marquez’ most powerful work, it is deeply rooted in the life of the unnamed but identifiable city the “ugly, shy and anachronistic” narrator lives in. He knows the brothels with their cardboard partitions and the humid rooms set in groves of fruit trees; he knows the lanes where the belly-beat of brass bands thump out the time for a perpetual party, the irresistible storms that flood the streets, the jewellers’ shops where women of the best families replace precious stones with coloured glass.

He writes of those places with intimacy and longing but without nostalgia. Last week, watching the crowds who had come to honour V K Madhavan Kutty, who died of a heart attack on Diwali in the same week as we lost Amrita Pritam, I thought of Garcia Marquez, the only writer I know who might have done justice to the moment.

Most of those assembled at Kerala House were there for V K Madhavan Kutty the journalist. His body was laid out in a clear plastic coffin-like case in the centre of the room, almost obscured by wreaths and bouquets piled up in little mounds. Everyone had a story to tell about his generosity, his humour, a regret to share about the suddenness of his death.

Like a few others in the crowd, I was there to honour V K Madhavan Kutty the writer. We knew him best for The Village Before Time , published in English under that title in 2000 and in Malayalam as A Feast of Memories in 1991. He had written a travelogue earlier, and he had toyed with the idea of writing about the plane crash that he survived, but that haunted his memories. He had come to writing late, and while his essays and articles were considerable, he had been frugal with full-length work. The Unspoken Curse , his new novel about a young woman shackled by tradition in a village near Kerala, had just come out; it was a sensitive work, set in a place he knew and described with intimate understanding.

I loved The Village Before Time for the same reason I loved Bibhutibhushan and R K Narayan and Mukundan’s work. They set many of their books in the villages that they had grown up in and knew so well; but their recollections were free of sentimental nostalgia. Even Narayan’s Malgudi was not an idealised world, nor was it recollected from a safe distance—all these writers claimed their worlds with perfect ease. In the Foreword to Village , Madhavan Kutty wrote: “I hoarded all the stories I came upon deep within me, and shared them with no one. Inevitably, many spilled out of that brimming treasure house and are now lost. But those that remain are still bright, untouched by rust.” He was writing neither fiction nor memoir, but something in between: his stories were rooted in the real taravad of his memories, but the writer in him was free to add the detail missing from his recollections.

In his autobiography, the film director Elia Kazan wrote of the writers he knew—Steinbeck, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams among them—and of the fact that all of them knew where their material lay. Tennessee’s best material came from his memories of the South; he was rooted in that territory; Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is one of the greatest novels of the land ever written; Miller’s house for Willy Loman was the mirage the salesman carried with him everywhere he went.

The best writers know where their roots are, whether that is in the tarmac of a city or the soil of a village. V K Madhavan Kutty was just beginning to explore how deep those roots went in his fiction, when death claimed him.

(Published in the Business Standard, November 8, 2005)

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