Kerala in the World

The roots of KR Meera’s deeply local cosmopolitanism

KR Meera writes with ease and fluency about a culture very far from home. Courtesy KR Meera
KR Meera writes with ease and fluency about a culture very far from home. Courtesy KR Meera
01 November, 2014

WHEN, in 2004, a date was set for the hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee for the rape and murder in 1990 of a teenaged girl in Kolkata, the media, hungry for the unusual angle, homed in on the hangman himself. There had not been a hanging in India since the execution of the serial killer Auto Shankar in 1995. The 85-year-old Nata Mullick proved up to the challenge of the high-profile event, and emerged as a raconteur and philosopher who saw himself as an implacable agent of justice.

On 24 June 2004, the day before the hanging was to take place, Joshy Joseph, documentary filmmaker from Kerala, sat in Nata’s house in south Kolkata, filming the hangman’s compulsive discourse on life, death and iniquity, punctuated by references to his own angst and the solace of alcohol. Towards the end of the day, Nata received news of the hanging’s postponement and dramatically fainted before, and possibly for, the camera. It later emerged that he had been involved in a number of shenanigans behind the scenes: playing media channels off against each other, bargaining with the government for a job for his grandson, and so on. On 14 August 2004, Chatterjee was finally hanged. Joseph’s film, One Day from a Hangman’s Life, which premiered at Kolkata’s Nandan theatre in June the following year, was banned by the West Bengal government two days after the first screening.

In 2012, another Malayali, the short-story writer and novelist KR Meera, published her novel Aarachaar (Executioner), inspired as much by Joshy’s documentary as by the hanging itself. The book is set in Kolkata, features Bengali characters, and is deeply rooted in the city’s over three-hundred-year-old history, demonstrating a sure-footed sense of its culture. This is unusual, for novels written in India’s vernacular languages tend to adhere very closely to their respective languages’ native places.

However, setting stories in places far from home has been par for the course for Malayalam writers, given Kerala’s distinctive historical and social trajectory. The eponymous character in the distinguished philosophical novelist Anand’s magnificent 1995 novel Govardhante Yaatrakal (Govardhan’s Travels) is taken from Bharatendu Harishchandra’s 1881 play Andher Nagri (City of Darkness), in which a wrongfully convicted youth is set free at the end to face an uncertain future. This becomes an occasion for Anand to enter into a disquisition on crime, justice and politics in the north Indian landscape over a period of two hundred years. The longest novel in any Indian language, MK Menon’s four-volume 1981 work Avakaasikal (Inheritors)—written under the nom de plume Vilasini—is a stream-of-consciousness account of life in the Malayali community in Malaysia. Perumbadavam Sreedharan’s 1993 novel Oru Sankeerthanam Poley (Like a Hymn), set in St Petersburg and based on the relationship between Dostoevsky and his lover Anna (who would later become his wife), broke all records, selling a hundred thousand copies in the first twelve years of its publication.

This inherent cosmopolitanism of Malayalam literature—its changoottam, or sheer temerity in imagining the universe as its oyster—is a story in itself. Malayalis see themselves as belonging to the world. This confidence is partly fuelled by Kerala’s astonishingly eclectic translation industry, which brings the literary world to the state’s shores, making the works of Tomas Tranströmer and Immanuel Levinas as easily available as those of local writers. In the largely tribal districts of Wayanad there are clubs that screen the films of Werner Herzog, that philosopher of the thin line between savagery and civilisation. Between 1961 and 1973, the filmmaker G Aravindan’s daily newspaper cartoons on the common man, Ramu, often contained sly references to European poets such as Federico García Lorca, the justified assumption being that everyone would get them.

When Meera writes with ease and fluency about a hanging in Kolkata, she is asserting that the novel creates a space of its own, transcending empirical boundaries. At the same time, she invokes the familiarity of what appears strange and distant. At one point in the novel, a character quotes Tagore’s evocative line “Koto ajaanarey jaanaaile tumi” (You have made known to me the unknown). The point of Malayalam fiction has been precisely this. What follows is the story of how the strangeness of the unknown became the familiarity of the known.

IN THE 1930's, when Gandhi declared civil disobedience against the laws of the British Empire, the Malayali literary critic and amateur historian “Kesari” Balakrishna Pillai declared his own rebellion against English literature. Early Malayalam novels tended to be based on the works of Walter Scott and Benjamin Disraeli, and the introduction of English classics in school and college syllabi had exposed Malayalis to what Pillai believed to be unimaginative and sexually repressed literature. Over the next few decades, through his literary journal Kesari, Pillai introduced world literature to the local canon through translations of Henrik Ibsen, Prosper Merimée and Émile Zola, and essays on Rimbaud, Italian Futurism, Chinese classical poetry, Proust and Freud. Pillai was a local cosmopolitan, a man who never travelled beyond the borders of the princely state of Travancore but nevertheless imagined a wide-ranging literary world for his generation. And temerity was his watchword too. In an essay on the early history of Kerala, reflecting on the millennia-long pepper trade between Malabar and lands across the seas—including, at one time, the Roman Empire and Carthage—he asked the poignant question, “Is Kerala a chapter in the history of Rome or is Rome a chapter in the history of Kerala?”

Pillai’s literary essays were forged in the crucible of early-twentieth-century, post-Enlightenment thought as European thinkers sought to come to terms with the dubious and fraught intellectual legacy of the preceding centuries. Writers and political activists in Asia and Africa fretted about their place in a modernity marked by the savagery of colonialism. Pillai was not sure that nationalism was the way forward—a maverick stand to take at the height of Gandhian nationalism. He knew that the narratives of nationalism, which would segue into post-independence sub-nationalisms based on language and region, were creating an agoraphobia: a closure of the imagination. Parallel to his radicalism, the 1930s saw the acceleration of the more mundane enterprise of translating into Malayalam from other Indian languages, particularly Bengali. Tagore, Saratchandra and Bankimchandra became household names even as Bengal came to be identified as the home of the nationalist fervour sweeping through India.

This holding together of the world and Kerala in one vision became the default option for the literary avant garde after Pillai, given the nationalists’ vacillations regarding fundamental social transformation. To this was added, with the growing influence of socialism and communism, the vision of leftist universalism. If Pillai had expanded the geographical imagination of the Malayali beyond the British Empire, the communist movement that emerged in the 1930s directed interest towards the Soviet Union and the landscape of revolution in Mexico, Spain and the rest of Western Europe.

The Marxist literary critic Joseph Mundassery, who was appointed the minister for education in Kerala’s first Communist government in 1957, continued the exploration of a new literature for a new age, writing not just about recent literary movements in Europe, but also on popular science, contemporary Malayalam literature, and the relationship between art and politics. Mundassery’s was a more tendentious engagement with the world; it had to be made a better place, and socialism was the way forward. This view meant that certain kinds of literature dealing with the wretched of the earth were progressive and others not, and that the worth of indigenous literature and art was determined by the extent to which they served his vision of a new world.

Amid this ferment, with art rallying around the emblematic idea of the modern, critics such as Kuttikrishna Marar mined the Mahabharata and early modern Malayalam poetry to construct a genealogy of an indigenous aesthetic. This was a lonely furrow to plough at a time when the political rhetoric of the age called for an end to a “feudal” past and a leap towards a world without caste, inequality and superstition. Marar’s quest for an indigenous aesthetic and Pillai’s progressive engagement with the world created the reigning paradigm. Ever since, Malayalam literature, as well as other arts, has oscillated between the poles of worlding Kerala and seeking Keralam—the imagined, authentic space of Malayali tradition.

UNDERMINING these effervescent engagements with a radical future were the problems of the old. If caste was one underlying hierarchy, a disaffection with the old order of matriliny was another. The system of matriliny had traditionally enabled women to inherit property, though whether this accorded them any real power in managing it or resulted in greater respect is debateable. Over the nineteenth century, British judges and litigious local male elites whittled away at this institution, and whatever residual power remained in female hands was lost with successive court judgements deeming the eldest male the sole source of authority in the matrilineal family. Matriliny was abolished in the princely states of Travancore and Cochin, and in northern Kerala (Malabar), over the early twentieth century, though as a principle of inheritance it was a long time dying.

One legacy of the struggle over matriliny was that masculine anxieties came to structure the sentiment of Malayalam literature. Satire had always been a part of Malayali aesthetics (as in the Chakyarkoothu form, where a performer wove caustic observations on contemporary society into the enacting of stories from the epics). Modern satire emerged during the transition from matriliny. A new generation of satirists such as EV Krishna Pillai and Sanjayan, writing in the 1940s and 1950s, worked a rich seam of misogyny in their essays and short stories, pillorying the modern woman as much as the earlier figures of female authority.

Early women writers, such as K Saraswathiamma, who began publishing in the 1930s, were attacked as “man haters,” and their work relegated to the rubric of women’s writing. In 1958, Saraswathiamma published a collection of essays titled Purusanmaarillatha Lokam (A World Without Men): a reflection on the fraught history of the struggle for admittance into a public and literary sphere dominated by post-matrilineal men.

In 1989, when Sarah Joseph published her collection of short stories Paapathara (Sinful Land), the poet and literary critic K Satchidanandan coined the word pennezhuthu, or “women’s writing,” to describe her work, which used female infanticide as a metaphor for the status of women in Kerala. He drew this term from the phrase écriture feminine (associated with the theoretical work of the French feminists Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, premised on female biology). Satchidanandan chose the Dravidian word pennu over the more Sanskritic stree in an attempt to capture the meanings of free-spiritedness and independence that he thought were embodied by the local term.

Sarah Joseph’s 1989 short-story collection Paapathara (Sinful Land) used female infanticide as a metaphor for the status of women in Kerala. Mk iqbal Kureshi

The appellation generated a dust-storm, and acquired both radical and derogatory connotations. The doyens of Malayalam literature weighed in on the worth and substance of women’s writing, and much newspaper and journal space was taken up by the male literary establishment bringing satire, dismissal and open prejudice to bear on the question. Female writers of fiction were subjected to speculation about their personal lives and morals. On the other hand, the use of the new term also allowed some of these radical works to be absorbed into the canon, exalting their “literariness” and their experiments with language and subject over their radical politics. Whether female writers were, in the critic J Devika’s term, “consecrated” or vilified, the intersection of patriarchy and the legacy of matriliny was evident in the perception of a real danger arising from the emergence of these radical new voices.

While the debates and new laws around matriliny restructured the system of inheritance, the coming to power of the first communist government in 1957 and the passing of several land reform acts over the 1960s—culminating in the historic Land Reform Act of 1970—led to the end of “landlordism” and to massive redistribution of property. With the shrinking of their holdings, many from the Hindu elite moved to education and professional occupations. A Malayali diaspora made its way across India and, from the 1970s onwards, to West Asia and Africa. Largely, they took up manual labour, though in Africa many became teachers. A cosmopolitanism of the imagination mapped onto a lived cosmopolitanism, as Malayalis wrote from where they were, producing novels set in the spaces that had become home. Those who continued to live in Kerala, such as MT Vasudevan Nair, the eminence grise of Malayalam literature, spent a lifetime writing about the upper castes’ experience of loss, using it as a metaphor for the Malayali condition. Sentimental novels and films laden with nostalgia for matrilineal households and the disrupted social hierarchy became a hallmark of the 1980s; and they remain so even today.

This literature of loss left its traces even on cosmopolitan writers, such as the poet Kamala Das, who spent most of their creative lives outside Kerala. Those who left spoke about a contemporary present; loss was handled by jettisoning the past altogether. And over the last decade, many marginalised from the Malayali literary pantheon have begun to write themselves into it. Narayan’s Kocharethi (Fisherwoman), set among the Malayarayar tribe of Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Idukki districts, was described as the first novel to be written by a “tribal” in south India when it was published in 2011.

KR MEERA’S NOVELAaarachaar—translated as Hangwoman, with the unnecessarily breezy subheading Everyone Loves a Good Hanging—emerges from this history as a stunning example of where Malayalam fiction now stands. The central characters in the novel are the figures of the aging hangman Phanibhushan Grddha Mullick (invoking Nata Mullick in his dramatic persona) and his daughter Chetna, a hangwoman-in-waiting. Into their lives enters Sanjeev Kumar Mitra, a news reporter intent on obtaining an exclusive story at any cost. His first encounter with Chetna is symbolic of the warped relations between men and women in India. Even though he flatters her, saying she represents the innate strength and virtue of women, he is really only interested in her as a story, not as a person, while as a woman she is a mere body to him. He pinches her breast hard, and states with a casual brutality that he would like to “fuck [her] hard, even if only once.” Chetna, awakening to her own womanhood, is both repulsed by and drawn to this crude advance, having known neither tenderness nor elegance in the men around her.

The characters of Phanibhushan, Chetna and Sanjeev are superbly drawn. Phanibhushan, who has an interest in jatra—a traditional Bengali theatre form—sees life as a performance in a morality play. The prospect of a hanging brings to the surface his desire to be in the public eye, as also the precariousness of his position. His only son, who should have taken on his profession after him, lies severely disabled on account of a brutal physical attack by a grieving parent whose son Phanibhushan hanged. While Phanibhushan would like to see Chetna as a hangwoman, and is willing to wheedle and manipulate others for this, as a patriarch he is aware that a hangwoman is not in the natural order of things. When a dramatic turn of events precipitates the inevitability of Chetna taking on the role, he is both withdrawn and violent towards his daughter.

The longing for a lost matrilineal past inflects the work even of cosmopolitan Malayali writers such as the poet Kamala Das. BCCL

Chetna, surrounded by feral men who see her merely as flesh to be groped, is only too keenly aware of the irony of the Durga metaphor summoned up for her as a vehicle of justice and vengeance. Till the very end, Chetna remains unconvinced of the state’s rhetoric of transcendent justice. She has known how to make the hangman's knot since she was a child; it is something that is almost a genetic inheritance. And she knows, too, that this is her source of power, tainted though it may be with self-serving notions of justice. Over the course of the novel, her relation with Sanjeev changes as she learns more about him, and her growing assertiveness punctures his bravado. Through Chetna, Sanjeev discovers more about his past, one he wishes to disavow because of a mother who works in a red-light area and an absent father. His complicated relationship with Phanibhushan—manipulative, protective and impatient—ends up becoming almost filial, just as his relationship with Chetna develops from a casual lust to an emotional dependence.

And through the pages float the stories of hangmen and hangwomen past: from the times of the Nanda kings of the fourth century BCE through medieval India to the hanging of young swadeshi revolutionaries during the nationalist period. This history, stretching back over a millennium, and marked as much by compassion as by tyranny, is the material from which the figure of Chetna has been created. Meera weaves history, romance and the politics of the present together into a narrative of incredible complexity. This is not mere background. Every anecdote and historical detail informs the lives of the characters. The once vibrant oceanic trade between Malabar and Bengal, for instance, forms a clue to Sanjeev’s personality, as we realise his ancestors came from Kerala via rice-trading routes along the coast. Equally remarkable is Meera’s evocation of Bengaliness, and in particular of Kolkata as a city: an apt Tagore poem or song; the right Bengali phrase; and the details of a pada, or neighbourhood, with its interwoven lives. J Devika’s translation is superb, and she captures the rich detail of Meera’s Malayalam: descriptive, textured and evocative.

Meera’s short stories bear the impress of experimentation, and their language is more adventurous than that of her novels. These stories cover an amazing range, and in each her idiom is inseparable from the plots and characters. Casual lust; the violent resentments born of the decadence of a leftist political culture; the casual yet brutal gender hierarchies in a government office; feminism and its consequences in a male-dominated public sphere: each story invokes the inner violence of contemporary society in Kerala. With a fine ear for spoken language, Meera captures the colloquialisms and elisions of lower-class male speech as much as the seeming sophistication of official language. In her superb story ‘Yellow is the Colour of Longing’—from which the English translation of her recent collection Mohamannja takes its title—two patients meet in a hospital and are “infected by lust ” amid “longings that are liberated from the many thousand bodies of the dead.” While her language in the novel is in tune with a narrative sprawling over a thousand years, evoking traditions, history and geography, the short stories are contemporary and their tone jagged, brittle and precise.

A long time ago, the Malayali literary critic N Krishna Pillai wrote of the nineteenth-century novelist CV Raman Pillai that each of his characters had a distinct register: pratipaatram bhaashana bhedam. Reading Meera, in Devika’s meticulous and inspired translation, we similarly experience the author’s spectacular ventriloquism. And we are also reminded of the tradition that Meera comes from, which she has burnished and transcended with her epic novel.