The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 28, 2002

Artistic, evocative and picturesque prose
Aradhika Sekhon

What the Sufi Said
by K.P. Ramanunni.
Rupa, Pages: 174, Price: Rs 150.

What the Sufi SaidSufi Pranja Katha has been translated from Malayalam into English by no less personages than N. Gopalakrishna and Prof. Ronald E. Asher. That, perhaps, explains the veracity with which the lyrical beauty of the work has been retained in What the Sufi Said. The foreword by Gopalakrishna is of great help to a reader not acquainted with the social and familial setup of Kerela in the early 19th century.

The beauty of the book lies in its evocative and picturesque prose. "Sacrificed at the alter of darkness, the day lay prone across the west and the horizon was spattered with blood", writes Ramanunni, describing the sunset. And when talking of a reunion of the heroine with her beloved uncle, he says, "…But she found it increasingly difficult to keep steering her words into harmless channels. There were bruises and wounds everywhere. They would wake up and start aching at the gentlest touch." At every unexpected turn, the reader comes across such prose, which could almost be a poem written in blank verse.

In fact, it is easier to appreciate the book if one reads it without any expectation of cohesion in the narrative, purely for the artistry of the prose which is simple in language yet beautiful in texture. There is no 'plot', as one understands it, in the novel. Instead, there are a series of happenings that revolve around the central character, Karthy. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the love and marriage of Mamooty, a Muslim and Karthy, a Hindu Nair girl, but in fact the novel is about the transformation of Karthy into a beevi, or a benign pagan force, worshipped alike by the Hindus and the Muslims.


The story begins with the author's quest for faith in a beevi's tomb. He argues that it is necessary to do so because "In our mindless urge to find a starkly defined truth, we dug up the rolling meadows of our myths and the little creeks of our imagination where the flowers of our innocent fancies bloomed in season and today they lie parched and fallow…We had failed to install new deities in their place and we tried to seek solace in the barren caves of elementary logic."

Thus the story is about regaining lost faith. This author tries to establish belief by following the evolution of Karthy. Karthy is that perfect, confident woman who is sufficient unto herself. Perhaps this is because she has been born into a matrilineal and matrilocal society and is the heiress of a bountiful tharavad or community. That, however, does not explain her perfect beauty and perfect composure, which seems to be inborn. So perfect is she that even her own mother venerates her, leading to her alienation and loneliness. Thus, when the handsome Mamooty comes into her life, it seems natural that she elope with him. However, though Karthy converts to Islam, she is unable to resist the tug of her original religion and that's where the trouble starts.

Pantheistic traditions reassert themselves again and again in the book. The narrative is full of references to beevis and jarum in the Muslim tradition and to Bhagavathy, the Mother Goddess, believed by Karthy's family to be a living presence in the upper rooms of their home. The supernatural and the unbelievable rub shoulders with the mundane. For instance, when Sanku Menon's mother confronts him after her death to give him a piece of her mind, he doesn't find anything strange about it and meekly accepts her scathing comments on the impropriety of allowing three low cast Thiyyas to enter in the presence of her body. The reader has to take all this in his stride because he is reading a story that a Sufi has narrated. Thus, we find oral myths, lores and legends in the story. Therefore, too, there are no moral judgements made on love or murder. Emotional upheavals are dealt with with equanimity and faithlessness and disasters like small pox, taken in the stride quite easily.

Love is looked at as pure emotion without any rationality being attached to it. The love of Karthy's uncle, Sankumama, for his niece is not platonic, "The aura of his niece, her celestial beauty reduced him to impotence", but that doesn't detract in any way from the special emotional bonding they share. Karthy's elopement with Mamootty is again an acceptable and logical step. Mamootty's homosexual affair with Amir, his young relative, is unquestioningly accepted and is a step in the evolution of Karthy, the force of perfect love and beauty.

In the preface, N. Gopalakrishnan says, "It is possible to give a resume of the theme of this novel in just ten sentences", but to do so would be to do an injustice to the book. Casting it aside as a simple story would be to diminish the art and mysticism that abound in it. Doubtless, the story is simple and sometimes inexplicable, but the imagery and artistry make up for that.