Months ago, when a group of young men were taking a documentary film on me, I had to stay in my village for a couple of days. The river had dried up completely. Because sand had been illegally mined from it regularly over years, it had turned into an area overgrown with thickets. Since the pathetic state of the river always grieves me deeply, I now seldom visit the village. While I relaxed in the tharavad house after dinners my sister in law and children, one of them said: 'There are three or four people here to see you'. The visitor had not known I was there. They had made a slight detour on their way back from the Guruvayoor temple in order to see the village and someone had told them I was in Kudallur. They had read most my books.
The river and many of the people in the village have often featured in my stories and novels. The village of Kudallur is situated on the boundary of the Palghat district, between Kuttippuram and Thrithala, on the banks of the river knows as the Bharathapuzha. It is a village familiar to all my readers.
When the visitors left, my sister-in-law said: 'Every now and then, people turn up like this. What all of them want to know is whether this house is the old naalukettu that you wrote about in your novel. 'The old naalukettu does not exist anymore. Most parts of the building were demolished and even I have never seen the original building that housed sixty-four people in all, including adults and children. All I know about it what my mother and grandmother described to me when I was a child.
Old naalukettus were part of the marumakkathayam or matrilinear system of inheritance that prevailed in Kerala. A central courtyard flanked by wooden pillars, open to the sky, rooms along it sides, a dining hall beyond, the kitchen, a gatehouse, a building called the pathayappura that had a granary downstairs to store the harvested grain, and rooms upstairs, a kayyalappura, or outer building to dry the grain during the rains a naalukettu belonging to an ordinary family consisted of all these. Wealthy families had naalukettus with two central courtyards, sometimes even four. In these naalukettus, each courtyard was flanked by four pillars; there were eight-or sixteen pillared structures, also known as ettukettu and pathinarukettu, respectively. There are two or three of these eight and sixteen-pillared naalukettus still left in old Malabar. Our present tharavad house is a disappointment to readers who turn up to see the village and the naalukettu of the novel.
I wrote Naalukettu in 1957. Before that, I had written stories that featured some of the older members of my family, stories pieced together from what my mother and grandmother had told me. One of them, an uncle whom we called Porayamman, very hard-hearted man, never gave his nephews enough paddy, or coconuts for the household. Porayamman stayed upstairs in the gatehouse. The women of the household had to take his food up to him three times a day, elaborate meals with numerous dishes. His young nephews eventually concocted a plot to get rid of him and forced the women to agree to execute it. Poison was mixed into the chicken curry taken up to him one night. Caught in the throes of death, he was consumed by thirst and began to scream for water, but the nephews lay quietly behind the closed doors of the naalukettu. The story goes that the old man's ghost haunted the garden at night. Another uncle, Thashamman, a terrible miser, changed all the money he had made from the sale of the areca nuts and coconuts he cultivated, into gold coins and stored them in a copper vessel which he buried in the compound. Towards the end of his life, this uncle became insane. Having forgotten where exactly he had buried the gold coins, he began to run around with a spade, digging up the earth at various spots. My grandmother had heard Thashamman's ghost digging in the compound.
We children grew up hearing innumerable stories like these. Kondunni Uncle, the pagida player in Naalukettu, lived next door to us, in his wife's house. I used to see him very often when I was an elementary school student. A rumour that his business partner gave him poison and killed him spread through the village. I still have a clear image of him in my mind: when we came home from school, we children used to have a bath in the bathing tank in the house next door, on the northern side. Kondunni Uncle would be seated on the verandah, having dinner. He would call out to each of us by name and make us sit down near him. He had a rule, that every one of us should eat at least a handful of rice. So about ten of us, children would gather around him.
Many people have asked me during interview whether Appunni, the protagonist of Naalukettu, is myself. No, he is not. All I have done is to use the village and the ambience of the old naalukettu is the novel. I published three short story collections before I wrote Naalkettu. Many members of our old joint family featured in them. Around the time I started to write short stories, I wrote a short novel. I dealt with the unhappy lot of the cheruma folk who worked as agricultural labourers in our area and with the rebellion they organized against the landowners. It was inspired by the well-known novel, Randidangazhi, that Thakazhi wrote about the revolt of the agricultural labourers in Kuttanad. When I reread what I had written, I felt that it was not satisfactory at all, so I abandoned it. Later, in 1955, while making a living taking classes in a tutorial college in Palghat, I wrote another novel for a magazine they published there. This work, published in twelve instalments and entitled Paathiraavum Pakalvelichavum had a Hindu-Muslim theme. The readers of the magazine liked it. But I was dissatisfied. I thought I would write a novel set against the background of the old matrilinear tharavad that I had heard my mother and others talk about. I mulled over this idea for many months, until the novel took a shape that satisfied me. Then I decided to call it Naalukettu. Readers will enjoy this novel. What is being marketed now is the eighteenth impression. Between 1970 and 1990, another publisher took over and published five textbook editions. My present publisher tells me that the copies of the novel sold so far should number about five lakh. Naalukettu was written and published after I had been singled out from among the younger short story writers. I was anxious about how the novel would be received. A few months after the book appeared, I was invited as a delegate to a huge conference held by the Kerala Sahitya Parishad at Madras. Two illustrious writers who are no longer with us took part in this important conference: Joseph Mundasserry and Thakazhi Shivashankara Pillai. While discussing the contemporary scene in Malayalam literature and its future, Thakazhi praised Naalukettu in particular. I was seated in the audience, my head bowed. It was only years later that I actually came to know Thakazhi. But I treasured the words he said that day in my heart as proof of the generous acceptance he had extended to me, a new writer. The novel was selected for the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 1958.
I was a trainee in the editorial section of the Mathrubhumi at Kozhikode while writing Naalkettu. Sunday was my only free day. I used to get back from the press only after eight at night. So I would have a few hours every night and then all of Sunday. Using this time, I finished the novel in three weeks. I took me a month to make a fait copy. I thought at first of giving it to someone to read, than gave up the idea. I had never shown my work to anyone ever earlier. I went straight to Thrissur with the handwritten manuscript. I had a friend, M.J. Thomas, a new publisher. I handed over the manuscript to him and went back, knowing that Thomas was neither a discriminating reader nor a critic. He called me after three or four days to say that the book was being elegantly printed and would be released in a hardcover edition. This was not common practice in Malayalam. Moreover, it was going to be priced at five rupees! Which was expensive at that time Thomas, however, was extremely confident.
Once our tharavad was partitioned, the main naalukettu went to my eldest brother as his share and the granary building, the pathayappura, was the share given to the brother immediately elder to me. When the old house was demolished and rebuilt, my brother gave the contractors strict instructions to retain the door and walls of the sacred room that was believed to be the dwelling place of the goddess Bhagavathi exactly as they were. While the pathayappura was being demolished, the younger of my older brothers said in jest: 'What, if we come upon the treasure that Thashamman buried while digging up the earth in this area? Let's look'
Since they too had heard this story, the workmen kept listening as they dug. For the sound of the spade hitting against the pot of treasure!
The team working on the documentary film left. I thought I would sleep that night in the upstairs room of the old house. In the old day, the river used to be visible from there. There is no river no. There is only its outline.
The pathayppura was taken over by new owners. They demolished and rebuilt it. There used to be two rooms upstairs in the old building and it was in one of them that I made my first attempts to write poems and stories when I was child. Beyond the curtain of time, I saw that little boy rereading what he had written, weaving dreams with the material he wanted to write about. He did not have the slightest idea then that literature would become his profession. Nor did he know that writing would bring him remuneration. He kept writing reams in pages torn from old bound books, and tearing them up because he was not satisfied. He tried his luck with certain pieces which he thought were not too bad, but nothing appeared in print, ever. Despite this, he kept trying, over and over again. His mind was filled with unwritten stories and he was always trying to give them shape. And then one day, below a little magazine that came in the post, be saw his name in print!
I sat in the verandah at night, gazing out into the garden, thinking of those days. The thickets in which darkness used to hide had all disappeared. And because of that, our old uncles could no longer indulge in their nocturnal wanderings.
However, even now the children of the new generation do not forget to light to little oil lamp that throws its pale gleam in our Bhagavathi's shrine room.
From the Jacket
Fascinated by accounts of the grand 'naalukettu tharavad' of which he should have been a part, Appunni visits the house only to be rejected by the head of the household. With vengeance boiling in his heart and the pain of disappointed love a lingering ache. Appunni claws his way up in life to finally buy the symbol of his youthful aspiration and anguish: the naalukettu tharavad of his ancestors. But victory both financial and emotional turns to ashes. Enemies are not worth conquering; his father's murderer turns out to be the only sympathetic adult in his lonely teenage, and Appunni eventually returns the favour.
Naalukettu sensitively captures the traumas and psychological graph of Appunni, caught as he is in the throes of a transitional period in Malabar, a phase marked by the gradual disintegration of the feudal structures of the matrilineal joint family system and the rise of the Nair sense of personal identity.
The novel, a fascinating read, and the perceptive introduction by the translator, will appeal to students and scholars of regional Indian literature in translation, comparative literature, sociology and cultural studies as well as general readers.
About the Author
M.T. Vasudevan Nair Jnanpith awardee, novelist, short-story writer, editor, critic, and composer of screenplays, is one of India's greatest living writers.
Gita Krishnankutty has a doctorate in English Literature, and is a well-known translator. She has published with every major publisher in India, and the Sahitya Akademi, Crossword, and Katha awards all recognize the special quality of her work.
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