A sculpture of one of the characters from OV Vijayan’s The Legends of Khasak (Photo: Madhavankutty Pillai)
PEAK SUMMER IN KERALA IS ALWAYS WORSE THAN WHAT THE thermometer tells you. It is a sticky evil heat bequeathed by the coast. But there have been sporadic intense downpours recently and, right now, a hangover from the rains makes the outside tolerable. The sky is mild blue with a layer of muted clouds and on the road to Thasrak that winds through the town of Palakkad, I can see the usual thrum of vehicles except for one departure. Every two-wheeler has only one person on it. A few days earlier, a worker of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) had been hacked to death by men belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). A day later, a group of SDPI men came on three bikes and killed an RSS activist at his shop. This was in keeping with the blood feuds of political organisations in Kerala. The government had ordered that motorcycles shouldn’t have any pillion riders until murder is not in the air. So, we see on the road intermittent barricades and lonely seatbacks. When the SDPI man had been killed, his killers had come in a car. But cars have escaped any such regulation. If there was any equation between two-wheelers and communal harmony, I couldn’t see it.
Thasrak is not far from Palakkad, a little under 10 kilometres. I had come here the previous November when the lockdown was still a living organism even if its sting had tempered. On the way we first went to the house where MG Ramachandran, the late superstar and chief minister of Tamil Nadu, had grown up as a little boy. It was closed but we begged the caretaker to open it, peered into the cottage, which would nowadays be half the size of houses in slums in Mumbai, marvelled at the will and ambition that made a man pull himself up from such a station to be an idol of every Tamilian heart even though he was not a Tamilian by birth. From there we took the highway to Thasrak. Today, however, the route is different, also because Google Maps tricked us into taking a left turn and we were on sideroads passing through fields, ponds and a haystack covered with enormous tarpaulins. A turn brings us to an arch. It is the gateway to an imagination.
I was better prepared unlike my earlier visit because in the interregnum I had read the book. In 1956, OV Vijayan, who would go on to be an acclaimed cartoonist and writer, as a melancholic unknown 26-year-old just fresh out of a job as a lecturer, had come to Thasrak where his sister was teaching in a makeshift school. It was a remote village without even a bus stop. Vijayan’s short stay of a few weeks would form the nucleus from which, after a decade, Khasakinte Itihasam (The Legends of Khasak) would be born. Khasak is ordinary on the surface but, as the pages turn, becomes a wild tapestry of characters in a world where myths, folklore and tragedies come alive. First serialised in a magazine, the novel gradually snowballed into an enduring classic of the language. Khasak, everyone thinks, is a mirror of Thasrak, but it is not and I can soon see it.
Khasak, everyone thinks, is a mirror of Thasrak, but it is not. And the mosque, far from being in ruins, looks newly painted. Maybe it was different when Vijayan was here. Maybe not. What Vijayan saw and what he wrote is the parallel that separates art from fact
Share this on
The opening of the book has its central protagonist, Ravi, getting off the bus at a place called Koomankavu and then walking to Khasak. In the novel’s English translation (by Vijayan himself) it goes like this: “When the bus came to its final halt in Koomankavu, the place did not seem unfamiliar to Ravi. He had never been there before, but he had seen himself coming to this forlorn outpost beneath the immense canopy of trees, with its dozen shops and shacks raised on piles; he had seen it all in recurrent premonitions—the benign age of the trees, their riven bark and roots arched above the earth.” I find no Koomankavu here. From the entrance arch, Thasrak is a few minutes by road and, once there, some echoes resonate from the book, like the palm trees arrayed as sentinels all across—“The sun had dipped past its zenith; the wind rose again, no longer a gentle breeze but the east wind which blew in through the mountain pass, wild and tumultuous on the palmyra fronds.” But then the book also mentions this: “…the swift-flowing brook, its banks aflame with flowering screw pine; a flight of complaining crows rising in the distance like pterodactyls into the crystal arches of the sun. Behind Khasak stood the mountain, Chetali, its crown of rock jutting over the paddies below. Wild beehives, one waxed to the other, hung in immense formations underneath the rock, inaccessible to man.” Where is the swift-flowing brook with the screw pines? Where is the mountain behind?
The house where Vijayan stayed with his sister is now part of the memorial to him there. It matches MGR’s childhood home in size, a couple of minute rooms with a narrow corridor along its circumference and it was even smaller when Vijayan was here. The manager at the memorial, P Arvindakshan, tells me that Chetali, the mountain in the book, is in fact in another region of Kerala. Vijayan just lifted it in his mind and placed it behind the village, as he did with many of the features and characters of Khasak. Like the brook, that ran into the Arabikulam, “the lotus pond of Khasak, proud in newly blooming purple.” In the novel, it is overlooked by a dilapidated mosque: “Its walls and roof covered with picturesque disfigurement, the mosque exuded the dismal well-being of an antique. It overlooked the Araby tank, a pond of crystal water, to which kabandhas, beings dismembered in ancient wars, came to bathe their unhealed wounds.” I see a tiled path under an awning of short trees that lean to hold hands with each other leading away from the house. At the end of it is a pond, and a little away from its far shore, a mosque. There are, however, no newly blooming purples on the pond waters. Instead, there is the rich green of weeds on its surface. No brook empties into it. If the water is crystal, the leaves hide them. And the mosque, far from being in ruins, looks newly painted and in prim condition. Maybe it was different when Vijayan was here, but maybe not. What Vijayan saw and what Vijayan wrote is the parallel that separates art from fact.
BECAUSE THERE IS so little of Khasak in Thasrak, what the memorial has done is bring it here. The walkway between the house and the pond is lined by sculptures of motifs and characters from the novel. A bald old man with a flowing beard in stone is Allah Pitcha, the local mullah who doesn’t like the idea of the school that Ravi comes to teach in and then becomes its sweeper. There is a sculpture that looks like either a bat or a pterodactyl; one of a lantern, an umbrella, a woman in a head scarf, possibly Maimoona, who nurses Ravi back to health from small pox and then becomes his lover.
Vijayan’s short stay would form the nucleus from which, after a decade, Khasakinte Itihasam would be born. Khasak is ordinary on the surface but, as the pages turn, becomes a wild tapestry of characters in a world where myths, folklore and tragedies come alive
Share this on
I meet Majeed, who tells me he is 69 and has lived in the house opposite the memorial all his life. I ask him how the village looked in the past. There was no road outside, all around were palm trees, he says. He remembers Vijayan’s sister when she was a teacher but, as a little boy then, he had no recollection of the writer himself at the time. It was only when he turned 17 or so, towards the end of the 1960s, after readers started coming to the village, that Majeed came to know about Vijayan and the book. He said he was then keen on meeting the writer, through mutual acquaintances managed to do so, and also brought him here once. Now, he is the watchman of the memorial. He speaks of his interactions with Vijayan and I wonder how much of it is true. That is because Vijayan himself noted a phenomenon about Thasrak’s residents after the book became a bestseller. The villagers relished their fame and appropriated the story, merging their own imagination into it. Appukili is a famous character in the novel, a mentally challenged dwarf, who was based on someone Vijayan knew during his childhood somewhere else. But once, when he came to Thasrak, a sobbing young man rushed to hug him and said that Appukili had just passed away. Vijayan didn’t disabuse him that his own Appukili had nothing to do with Thasrak. He wrote in the ‘Afterword’ to the English translation, “But I did not want to violate the villager’s boon of love. Practically every villager has identified some situation which gives him or her entry into the fictional personae.” It is true even now. When a friend visited Thasrak recently, she was told that Maimoona was still alive.
From Thasrak, we take the road for about 11 km to the place where Thunchath Ezhuthachan wrote the Adhyatma Ramayana in Malayalam in the 16th or the 17th century. It just seemed appropriate to go there because if Vijayan is known to have changed the idea of Malayalam literature, Ezhuthachan brought literature into the language. Until then, literary works in Kerala were composed in Sanskrit; his Ramayana changed that. The house where he stayed is still there when we reach the Chittur Gurumadam. The door is closed. We have missed the visiting hours. The house that faces us has limestone white walls with blue windows and doors. Inside are his manuscripts and other artefacts but they would have to wait for another day. The memorial stands on a broad road, on both sides of which are houses, like one of those empty one-street towns in Western movies. At the end, joining the two lines is a temple, before it a massive chariot which is used during festivals. A man comes out of a house and starts talking to us. He says the village was settled by Ezhuthachan, who brought in Brahmins from Tamil Nadu and that he chose this place because he wanted somewhere quiet to write. The actual writing was done on the rock on the banks of the river nearby. Its name is Shokanashini, destroyer of sorrows. The man tells us that he is the son of the temple’s priest and a signal engineer working in the Middle East. Many of these houses are empty because the families have settled elsewhere. He points to a stately double-storied house near the memorial and says it belongs to the family of Viswanathan Anand, the chess champion. They still come to occasionally stay there. We turn, take a path that leads right, cross a shrine to Ganesh, and then stone steps bring us to the river bank where Shokanashini flows in abundant calm, glinting under the afternoon sun. There is a long rock before the waters and that might be the place where Ezhuthachan sat and crafted a language. Or this might be another local myth. And does it make any difference? Sometimes what is believed is what should be true.
On my way back, I pass through Palakkad town again and at a junction I am reminded of a statue that no longer exists there. It had first been installed in the town by an organisation to felicitate Vijayan’s memory but soon there were reports of its poor condition, sometimes vandalised, or alcohol bottles littered below. The organisation went to court because it was the municipality’s responsibility to maintain the statue. Within the municipality, everyone forgot that there was a case until an ex parte judgment came to remove it. The government scrambled to find a home for the statue, made a request to the memorial at Thasrak. I had seen it behind the memorial office there, Vijayan, bearded and bespectacled, looking with impassive stolidity towards the wall and the fields beyond. He had found himself back in the village that he never really stayed in writing a book that never really was about that place.