In the short story ‘The Death of Makhan Singh’, the eponymous character’s patience reaches a tipping point when his effort to help two grieving women is thwarted at every point. Makhan Singh is penniless but not morally impoverished. The sarcasm and heartlessness of the world around him is an antithesis to humanity, a principal trait of Punjabiyat. Yet, he endures it all. A tiller of land once and a bus driver now, Singh must navigate many a treacherous pass and tunnel not just on the road to Banihal, but within too as tragic memories of Partition besiege him. Catharsis awaits Singh at the end of the journey. It’s a masterful Partition story rendered by T Padmanabhan, one of the finest writers in Malayalam. Similarly rooted in Partition and yet starkly unsubtle in tenor is the slash-for-slash, head-for-head story of retribution and debasement, ‘Humans and Animals’, by Nandanar. These are just two of the 50 such powerful stories, whose English translations are compiled in the collection ‘The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told’. Curated by AJ Thomas, poet and former editor of Sahitya Akademi's literary journal ‘Indian Literature’, the collection reveals the vision, depth and enormous appetite for storytelling in the language.
In his detailed and scholarly introduction to the genesis and journey of the Malayalam short story, which is more than 130 years old, Thomas gives the reader an overarching perspective of the socio-cultural, political and economic influences that shaped literature in Kerala. Thomas writes that the character of the literature of the 20th century consisted not in explaining but in revealing. This “incessant revelation of man’s inner life” is only one of the lenses through which one can absorb these stories.
In Uroob’s ‘The Fair Child’, class divide, poverty, innocence and the magical pull of mother’s love are woven into an allegorical fable. OV Vijayan’s ‘The Hanging’ leaves the reader with unspeakable grief over the mourning of a father, while M Sukumaran’s ‘It’s the Gallows for Us’ is a disconcerting portrayal of idealism, youth and elusive justice. While Basheer deploys hyperbole and satire to make a telling statement on human vanity in ‘The World-renowned Nose’, auteur P Padmarajan’s ‘The Hook’ is a brilliantly translated rendering of the simple yet laboured act of fishing and an old man’s momentary transcendence of his inner fears.
Thomas draws out several arcs to the socio-political influences that informed and shaped the writerly mind in Kerala, through the traditions of jeeval sahithyam (living literature), feminist writing and Dalit discourse, while also being extremely attuned to the concepts in philosophy and literary theory, and trends in art and literature across the world.
The angst and vagaries of the lives of farmers redeemed only by their love of the soil is rendered with poignancy in the stories by Thakazhi (‘The Farmer’) and Ponkunnam Varkey (‘The Speaking Plough’). Though a diversity of women voices doesn’t abound the collection, the silence of the ‘kept’ tribal woman in P Vatsala’s ‘Pempi’ after the man decides to leave her for his legal wife becomes shatteringly loud when she scores a moral victory over him. Then there is the spirited voice of the revolutionary fighter in Dhirendra Majumdar’s ‘Mother’ by Lalithambika Antharjanam and the liberated voice of the woman who decides to end her marriage for her own sake in MT Vasudevan Nair’s ‘Vision’.
Writer UR Ananthamurthy once said, “If you look at the diversity of Indian literature, you come to see its unity and if you look for unity, you are struck by its diversity.” The same holds true for this collection of stories. It is a tribute to the storytelling genre as it traverses the pre-modern realist phase to the “rigidly structured modernist phase with all its allegories, fantasies, and parables” through the 1960s-70s, before moving to the after-modern and postmodern phases.
Kakkanadan’s darkly comical tale ‘The War Begins’ interlocks primal fears and myths, when personal rivalries get transmuted into the realm of the occult. Chandramathi’s story ‘Reindeer’ recalls those sweet once-upon-a-time fables of childhood which may not have a happy ending in reality after all. NS Madhavan’s ‘The Fourth World’ is a critique of communism in an absurdly imaginative setting. Two men in space juxtapose the dominant leftist politics in Kerala with the excesses of the Stalinist regime in Russia, even as the Soviet Union collapses and the spacecraft hovers in uncertainty.
The scale of this collection of stories is indeed ambitious, and there is always bound to be some dilemma over inclusions and exclusions. This validates the call for not only one more such compilation, but also the need for more and more translations in Indian languages.
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