This hardback omnibus edition collects three of M. T. Vasudevan Nair’s previously published works-, Mist and The Soul of Darkness, Kaalam and kuttiedathi and other stories. The volume features an introduction to M.T Vasudevan Nair’s work by P.P. Raveendran, an eminent academic and a scholar of Malayalam literature.
Mist and The Soul of Darkness are translations of M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s highly-acclaimed novellas, Manhu and Irutinde Atmavu. In the Mist, set at a hill-station resort, the author narrates the story of Vimala, a school teacher who continues to wait for her beloved Sudhir, with whom she once shared a passionate affair filled with promises. The soul of Darkness, on the other hand speaks of Velayudhan, a young man regarded by his family as ‘not normal’ and is thus treated abominably, tortured and beaten. Though his cousin Ammakutty really cares for him, she is helpless and cannot do much to save him. In both stories, Nair voices through mists of memories and emotions, some lost hopes and evocative experiences. The narratives are deeply touching, dramatic and realistic.
Set against the backdrop of a crumbling matrilineal tarawad system of the Nairs in Kerala with its manifold conflicts and problems, Kaalam is the story of sethumadhavan Nair who starts out as an ambitious and confident adolescent-but in his journey towards adulthood, where material and social success go hand in hand, he is faced with an overwhelming sense of disillusionment. In its revelations, the story is beautifully adorned with the emotional experiences of the protagonist, which is also reflective of MT’s own childhood in many ways.
Kuttiedathi and other Stories is a collection of the finest stories of M.T. Vasudevan Nair that encompasses the ordinary middle class lives and sufferings of people in northern Kerala. Nair’s engaging style of storytelling is touching throughout. If the lead story ‘Kuttiedathi’ mixes tragic memory and domestic martyrdom, ‘When the Doors of Heaven Open’ plays out another life upon which centre a group of lives, all selfish, caring and indifferent by turns. In ‘Insight’ however, strange and unfathomable bonds of passion come up as the main theme. These are little tragedies of the soul told with a finesse characteristic of Nair’s profound, yet minimalist sense of expression.
Born in 1933 in the small village of Koodallur, Kerala, Madath Thekkepat Vasudevan Nair is the best known among his generation of storywriters in Malayalam. With a publishing career spanning a little more than fifty years, he is renowned as a chronicler of life in the matriarchal joint family of Kerala, a milieu he describes with intimacy in novels such as Nalukettu (1959) and Kaalam (1969). He won the State and Kendriya Sahitya Akademi awards respectively for these two novels. He is also among kerala’s most popular script writers and directors of mainstream cinema. He has won four National Awards for his screenplays. The very first film he wrote, produced and directed, Nirmaalyam (The Floral Offering) won the President’s Gold Medal in 1973 and Kadavu (The Ferry) won the Japanese Grand Prix. He was also awarded the Jnanpith in 1996.
Apart from short fiction in which he has excelled, Nair has published novels and novellas, travelogues, literary criticism, books of children and a sizeable number of miscellaneous notes, reviews and memoirs, Nair’s stories have been translated into major languages in India and abroad. He was associated with the editorship of Matrubhumi periodical publications for well over four decades. The Government of Indian honoured him with the Padmabhushan in 2005.
A seasoned and sensitive translator, V. Abdulla (1921-2003) has known M. T. Vasudevan Nair since his youth. His earlier work has included translations of Malayalam writers like S. K. Pottekat, Vaikom Mohammad Basheer and Malayatoor Ramakrishnan. He won the Yatra Award (1995) and the Sevarathna Award (1996) for translation. He retired as Divisional Director of Orient Longman in 1981.
The translations in the volume were completed before his death in 2003. He is survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.
Gita Krishnankutty has a doctorate in English from Mysore University. She has a number of translations from Malayalam to English to her credit, including Cast Me Out If You Will, a collection of short stories and memoirs by Lalithambika Anterjanam (Stree, 1998), several short stories by M.T. Vasudevan Nair and his novel, Nalukettu (Oxford University Press, 2008). She is the author of A Life of Healing: A Biography of P. S. Varier (Viking Penguin, 2001). She won the Sahitya Akademi Award for her translation of N. P. Mohammed’s The Eye of God (Macmillan, 1997), the Crossword Award for M. Mukundan’s On the Banks of the Mayyazhi (East West Press, 1999) and for Anand’s Govardhan’s Travels (Penguin, 2006). She lives in Chennai.
Practising artists rarely demonstrate a flair for the theory of art. They often avoid the academic vocabulary that one uses in theorising about art. To be 'artful', one might say, is to shun theory. If talking about the theory of art is to be somewhat 'artless', M. T. Vasudevan Nair is to be treated as artless in his practice as a writer. On the other hand, he can also be regarded as 'artful' in his approach inasmuch as he is enormously conscious of the complexities of the craft of fiction and can indeed talk authentically about them. He is one of the few fiction writers of his generation who have talked and written at length about the art of fiction writing in the form of letters, lectures, essays and book-length studies.
MT, as he is known, has also been greatly consistent in his theory of art across time. He is not enamoured by fashions in theory. A perusal of Kathikante Panippura [The Storyteller's Workshop, 1963], his early treatise on fictional theory, read in conjunction with his recent lectures and essays on the topic would reveal that MT's views on the art of fiction have undergone little change over the years. His practice of fiction writing, on the other hand, has gone through enormous changes. 'Artless' again is the term that one might find handy in describing his views, given their underlying theory of reading that sees no major breach between reality and its fictional representation. An artless attitude to writing would suggest that one looks upon literature as a transparent carry over of the problems of the real world to the world represented in fiction. One is moved almost spontaneously to creative expressiveness when one is overawed by the power of one's emotions. The gap between emotional turbulence and its expression, in this view, is too small to allow for any mediation worth mentioning.
It is useful to begin any discussion of MT's fiction with a reference to his theory of writing because outwardly his fiction seems almost transparent and unmediated. It is artless, both in the sense of 'being guileless' and 'making no pretence to art'. When MT started writing his narratives in the fifties of the last century, the story writing tradition in Malayalam was controlled largely by the ideology of what could be called 'renaissance fiction', which modelled itself on the social realism of such nineteenth-century European writers as Mauppasant, Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Dickens and Chekhov. The writers who practised this kind of fiction were using the fictional medium to make a point or two about society. They belonged to the generation of Malayalam writers who were attempting to fictionalise across the public life of Kerala a generation earlier. Providing a formal shape to the experience of the renaissance was for them also a way of coming to terms with its social and political energy. A number of writers, including Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Ponkunnam Varky, Kesava Dev, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, K. Saraswati Amma and Lalitambika Antarjanam participated in their own individual ways in this great creative upsurge. Aside from the fact that all these writers inherited the social renaissance ideology of placing an abstractly conceived man at the centre of the scheme of things, each of them seemed to be distinctively individualistic in expressing his/her response to the world. But their seeming artlessness was what bound them together as writers of fiction. The artlessness had behind it the conviction that fiction represented a spontaneous and unmediated translation of experience from the plane of the worldly to that of the literary. The writer's creative genius arguably was all that was needed for this translation.
MT certainly shared this conviction and, unlike his renaissance predecessors, also chose to theorise on it. His preferred theory of creativity corresponded with that of the social realists who looked upon literary works as the creations of individuals whose invisible presence in the works would invariably be felt by the readers. Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary, had once drawn a parallel between the artist and God, the supreme creator, and had suggested that like the Almighty, the artist in his creation should never become visible, but should make sure that the work is animated by the author's unseen presence. In his theoretical work, Kathikante Kala [The Storyteller's Art, 1984], MT quotes Flaubert with approval and remarks that the writer's pervasive, but invisible presence in the story is what transforms it into a well-written creative piece. A good work of art should appear almost artless.
In short, while it was their artlessness that characterised the writing of the renaissance fictionists, MT's intervention was aimed at transmuting this artlessness into an artistic virtue by integrating the form of the short story with a new sense of the craft of fiction. A few writers of the earlier generation like Karoor Nilakanta Pillai, S. K. Pottekkat and Uroob [P. C. Kuttikrishnan] as well as some of MT's own contemporaries like Madhavikkutty and T. Padmanabhan had already started moving in this direction with their path-breaking stories that probed the intricacies of the human mind. Indeed what MT did through his short and long fiction of the fifties and sixties was to draw the attention of the reader to the inner life of the individual whose voice had seldom been heard in renaissance fiction. His fiction delved deep into the dark recesses of the individual mind and shed light on its hidden aspects that no one before had suspected to exist. The human mind and the psychology of the individual were relatively new inventions for Malayalam fiction, and it was primarily MT who helped invent them through his cleverly crafted tales that told the stories of lonely, angry and alienated individuals fighting a society that was falling apart, a society that is on the verge of disintegration-this in a sense would neatly sum up the thematic kernel of much of MT's early fiction.
Though MT has diversified into other themes in the course of his development as a writer, 'outsider' figures battling it out with society have continued to fascinate him all through his fictional career. Right from his earliest short stories included in such collections as Ninte Ormaykku [Remembering You, 1956] and Iruttinte Atmavu [Creature of Darkness, 1957] and the early novels Nalukettu [The Feudal Household, 1958] and Asuravithu [Demon-seed, 1962], MT's major concern has been with fictionalising the strife and anxieties of individuals who are the victims of a system over which they have no control. This is true of most of his characters starting with Appunni, the central character of Nalukettu, the celebrated novel that launched the writer firmly on the literary horizon, to P. K. Venugopalan Nair, the journalist protagonist of 'Kadugannava: Oru Yatrakkurippu' [Kadugannava: A Travel Note, 1995]' a short story written much later. Even Bhima, the hero of Randamoozham [The Second Turn, 1984], his reworking of the Mahabharata story of the Pandavas, can be read as the tale of an alienated outsider caught in the pressures of a family feud. Much of all this indeed is a reconstruction of what he felt, experienced, remembered and fantasised as the member of a joint family in a village in the Malabar region of pre-Independence Kerala. The autobiographical element in MT's fiction cannot be mistaken, and as he states in a note prefixed to a recent translation of Nalukettu, the stories that he wrote even before Nalukettu had an autobiographical slant about them, with anecdotes he had heard from his mother and grandmother about older members of the family appearing in them in disguised forms.
This book presents in English translation two significant stories written by M. T. Vasudevan Nair, one of the leading living writers of Malayalam fiction. 'Irutinde Atmavu' (The Soul of Darkness) is a long short-story, first published as a book in 1957. It was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece by readers as well as critics. The story depicts the life of a mentally retarded young man in a matrilineal Nair joint family who suffers physical abuse and imprisonment under the callously unsympathetic eyes of his family. The story is etched on a small canvas to reach a dramatic finale.
'MT' (as he is popularly known throughout Kerala) started his writing career as a chronicler of life in the joint family of the matrilineal “tarawad" in Kerala and its crumbling feudal status. It is a milieu he describes with intimacy and feeling. However, he showed he could wing out of the confines of the tarawad into the wide world outside in 'Manhu' (Mist), the other novella included in this book.
‘Manhu' is set in Nainital. It revolves round a teacher, Vimala, keeping vigil for a lover who deserted her nine years ago. The story is hauntingly told with the mountain mist as a metaphor for the emotions that weave in and out of the lives of the characters.
Both these stories have been made into Malayalam feature films. ‘Irutinde Atmavu’ received a special National Award, and 'Manhu' was directed by MT himself. MT is a writer who has mastered the medium of cinema. He has directed four feature films in Malayalam apart from a documentary and a teleserial. His first directorial venture Nirmalyam, based on a short story of his own, received the President's Gold Medal. He is also an accomplished screenplay writer whose services are much sought after by Malayalam film producers. His screenplays have received innumerable awards at state, national and international levels.
The two novellas presented in this book with totally different backgrounds exemplify the author's versatility and literary craft. His three seminal novels on life in the matriarchal family in Kerala are Nalukettu, Asuravithu, and Kaalam. His epic novel Randamoozham (The Second Turn) published in 1984 retells the story of the Mahabharatha from the point of view of Bhima, the hefty Pandava prince. The very boldness of the attempt would have daunted most writers but MT emerged to wide critical acclaim. His subtle craftsmanship has been highly appreciated by readers as the response amply demonstrates (two reprints within three months). No one in Kerala were therefore surprised when MT received the Jnanpith Award in 1995. MT is not a person to rest on his laurels, and he continues to touch upon new vistas of understanding the interplay of human emotions.
When this book was published by Orient Longman more than two decades ago in their Sangam Paperback series, it was part of a pioneering effort to bring out English translations of classic modern fiction in Indian languages. Response from readers was not very encouraging back then, as I personally know from my service with the company, but the scenario is vastly changed in the nineties and translations from Indian languages are now in great demand. Many leading publishers are bringing out more and more such works.
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