Kuttiedathi and other Stories is a collection of the finest stories of M T Vasudevan Nair, available for the first time in English translation. Ordinary middle class lives and sufferings of northern Kerala have seldom been so engagingly told as in Nair's fiction. 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. Strange, unfathomable, bonds of passion are the theme of 'Insight', another story in this collection. Nair's enviable telling often makes it hard for us to distinguish between tenses and points of view. We touch, and are deeply touched by the survivors of these little tragedies of the soul.
"The ten stories collected here in English translation by the veteran and seasoned translator. V Abdulla constitute some of the most well-known stories of Vasudevan Nair, fairly representative of his opus. Spread over a broad span of time from 1962 to 2000, they reflect the built-in variety of his fictional concerns and the changing tones of his narration. A true artist, careful about the generic nature of short fiction, he attends to the minutest details of his work here more then perhaps in his longer works".
The trend of progressive realism had just blown over when, with the coming of Independence, there was a shift towards greater subjectivity and inwardness, in all genres of literature in Malayalam. There was a change of focus from generalised abstractions to felt authenticity in the perception and recording of social reality. A mood of introspection came in the wake of the writings- of Karoor Nilakanta Pillai, S.K. Pottekkatt, Vaikom Mohamed Basheer and P.c. Kuttikrishnan (Uroob). The strident voice of Kesava Dev, and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai had mellowed, with the former raising the question For Whose Sake? (Arku Vendi?) and the latter turning away from beggars, peasants and scavengers to the love story of Pareekutty and Karuthamma in Chemmeen. Society was still there, with all its complicated political and economic tangles, but the individual or personal concerns of the members of the upper class or middle class or lower class came to be addressed by the writers. Karoor highlighted compassion and pathos as fundamental elements in the everyday life of his characters, cutting across class divisions. Basheer often poked fun at the behavioural style and vocabulary of the self-styled leaders, drawing attention to the down to earth man and woman. Uroob, in short and long fiction, provided a larger canvas for the private lives of individuals and families, but was sympathetic to the sufferings and struggles of man in society. It was during this interregnum that M.T. Vasudevan Nair and others of his generation entered the scene, particularly of short fiction, to draw the attention of the reading public to the loneliness and alienation felt by individual characters caught in a social transition. Individual human beings with their private agonies emerged replacing the social stereotypes of erstwhile fiction committed to grand ideologies and slogan shouting. The whisper of the soul became audible, which had earlier been swallowed or stifled by public oration and street-side chorus. The new trend immediately caught popular attention, since that came to be symptomatic of the early years of independence. Slogans were replaced by sobs; with a gentle touch of the romantic without excessive sentimentality, the new and young writers wound their way into the sensitive minds of the new generation readers. A remarkably fresh sensitivity was evoked by the new short story, which was soon echoed in longer fiction too. A quiet and un- proclaimed revolution was sweeping through the corridors of Malayalam fiction, which in a way had its impact on the senior writers as well. In a few years the modernist writers with existentialist leanings, questioning current assumptions, came upon the scene: among them may be mentioned Pattathuvila Karunakaran, Kakkanadan and O.V. Vijayan. Vasudevan Nair, however, steered his course away from philosophical obsessions and simplistic formulae about life and society, and has till date maintained his integrity by pursuing his own perceptions and "his own style.
The ten stories collected here in English translation by the veteran and seasoned translator V. Abdulla constitute some of the most well-known stories of Vasudevan Nair, fairly representative of his opus. Spread over a broad span of time from 1962 to 2000, they reflect the built-in variety of his fictional concerns and the changing tones of his narration. A true artist careful about the generic nature of short fiction, he attends to the minutest details of his work here more than perhaps in his longer works. Being a novelist and a short story writer at the same time, Nair knows the difference between the two from the aesthetic point of view. What is perhaps passable in the bulk of a long narrative will not be overlooked or forgiven by the reader of short fiction. Here, the reader's focus is sharper than in the longer narrative; every word, every image, the rhythm of the language and the tone of the narrator, count. Nair proves an excellent craftsman in several of his short stories. He has effective control over the incidents described, but more remarkable than that is, the close attention he pays to the choice of words, their sensuousness, their scent and their flavour. In stories where the events are not more important than the atmosphere conveyed, the lyrical element is predominant. Grief, resignation, helplessness, loneliness, isolation, nostalgia: these are some of the emotions most powerfully evoked by Vasudevan Nair as a master of short fiction. In the novels, perhaps, some of these may appear repetitious or belaboured, but within the controlled frame of the short story every word does its duty. There is tremendous economy. One word too many can easily spoil the ambience of a short-story. Especially when the emotion is delicately evoked, there is no scope for elaboration or admixture of contrary sentiments. The poetics of the lyrical short: Story does not provide for laxity.
The earliest of the ten stories in this volume is "Kuttiedathi" (1962) and the latest is "Insight" (2000). The other stories in this volume were all written between these two dates. But it is difficult to say that they illustrate a linear development of the author's art or craft, each of them being a finished work at the date of its composition. As they cover nearly forty years of a successful career, it may be argued that together they constitute the high peaks of the author's creativity. Some of them like "Red Earth" are rather short, while some others like "When the Doors of Heaven Open" are fairly long. In the shorter tales the effort is only to evoke a single mood and the tone of narration does not change. Only one moment, one single context, is evoked in all its intensely sensuous power and passion. The central idea is not spelt out in so many words, but interiorised so that the reader has to get at that through indirect means. In "Red Earth" only a minimal space is devoted to the description of the event or its location; the emotional surge is impressionistically hinted at without straining after effect. A rich sense of ambiguity is slowly built up, by mixing fact with fantasy. The goddess of the legend, the ceremony that was disrupted, and the inner desolation of the locale are felt presences in the consciousness of the visiting lady tourist, to whom the whole enterprise takes on the dimensions of an oppressive experience. Within a minimal frame the story achieves its telling effect in a manner characteristic of the author. The same kind of artistry may be found in "Once Again in Search of a Refuge", where too the fleshy details are suppressed and the narration is kept to the bare minimum. The owner of the house, the manager, the neighbours, the maintenance workers etc. are there to provide the framework of the story, but the focus is on the mood of the loner seeking refuge. An unspecified locale, nondescript characters and expressionist sketching of people and objects help to suggest and evoke a certain mood of isolation and alienation without the aid of any incident as such to make the tale rooted. "Kuttiedathi", on the other hand, tells the sad story of an unmarried girl in an old taravad in decline, as told by a young boy, who is an eye-witness to the domestic tragedy leading to the suicide of the girl, but is too young to understand the nature and dimensions of the tragedy itself. The evil fate overhanging the erstwhile feudal Nair household in Malabar is a recurring theme in Nair's oeuvre, and he is an expert in the slow and sensitive delineation of the agonies of characters trapped in this situation. What with her dark complexion and the ugly wart disfiguring her, Kuttiedathi, as she is called by the boy, is earmarked for suffering and sacrifice. Her natural tendency to protest and prevail is offset by the conspiracy of circumstances, as it were. She ends up a victim of the socio-economic tensions of her milieu. A similar preoccupation on the part of the author with the tragedy inherent in the joint family system comes to the fore again in the longest story in this volume, "When the Doors of Heaven Open". The wry humour and irony built into this narrative about the death of the head of the family, which is expected by the relatives, but actually does not come off, since no one knows when the doors of heaven finally open, account for the elaboration of the story. Every relative had turned up, in spite of their heavy and busy schedule, but the patient did not oblige; he recovered to the consternation and relief of everyone assembled and now ready to leave one by one. The old man also understood their eagerness to leave, as nothing expected did happen and there was no need to stay any longer. His words sum up the denouement :
Master cleared the phlegm in his throat and said softly: 'Are you listening? If I fall seriously ill again, don't send for the children. They've hundreds of things to do. No telegrams, no phone calls. Don't inform them till you're sure it's all over.
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