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Home page > English > Interview > The man from Mayyazhi muses

When I grew up M Mukundan was one of the four Malayalam writers who made a deep impact on my psyche (and to some extent on my physique). The other three were O V Vijayan, Balachandran Chullikkad and C R Parameswaran. It’s another factor, though, that today, two decades later, I consider Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, VKN and M P Narayana Pillai as the best writers Malayalam has ever produced.

Coming back to Mukundan, I still consider that there is possibly no other Malayali who could write in as simple and expressive manner as he does.

Some time back, I was sitting with him in his Maruti van, and while driving through the dirty lanes of Chandni Chowk in Delhi, he told me: "Delhi can be wonderful. "That is if you think it is." For Mukundan, Delhi, like his native land, is an inseparable part of his writing. The smell and noise of the city have been effectively portrayed in almost half his works. His interest in painting, sculpture, drama, music and dance developed during his thirty-five-year-old stay in Delhi and also left deep marks on his writing.

Mukundan’s works were consumed eagerly by the dislocated and the hallucinated youth of Kerala, right from the sixties. His works characterised the restless youth, their discontentments and ambivalence, their bitter experience with the so-called radical and progressive thinking and activism, their seeking solace in drugs and alcohol, their bohemian and nomadic nature — all were portrayed amicably by the man from Mayyazhi, a French colony till India’s Independence. His craft was so explosively potential that his readers could identify themselves with Mukundan’s characters easily and even find solace in them. No joking.

About him. Mukundan was born in 1942. He wrote his first story in 1961. His main works are: Ananthan’s Sorrow, On The Banks Of The River Mayyazhi, This World And A Man In It, Delhi (all novels), The Wedding Of The Goldsmith’s Daughter, Child, The House, Mukundan’s Stories (story collections) and What is Modernism (essays).

Mukundan is the recipient of the Central Sahitya Akademy Award (for his novel God’s Mischiefs). A film based on it fetched him the Best Screenplay Award for the year 1993. He has also the winner of Kerala Sahitya Akademi and M P Paul awards.

Mukundan works as the coordinator of cultural exchange programmes at the French Embassy, New Delhi. He lives with his wife (his son and daughter are married and settled in different places).

We got out of his van, walked into his Delhi barsati, and started talking. Just like that.

When did you start writing stories?

Before I went to school. Since I didn’t know the alphabet then, I wrote with images. They were written for myself; in a language only I could comprehend. I wrote my first story in my mother tongue when I was fourteen.

And when did you publish your work? Did you have any difficulty getting your stories published?

My work was first published in a leading weekly when I was twenty. The first story was rejected. But the second found its way in, and subsequent stories appeared in various weeklies with facility.

What were the thematic elements of your works?

At the outset, I wrote about the people and the milieu I was familiar with. Most of my characters were living people. I portrayed them as they were and found myself in trouble very often; when my third story appeared in print, the parents of a girl who was with me in school went to the lawyer to file a defamation suit against me. But later on, I learnt the art of altering living people’s images. I changed them to the extent that they could not identify themselves. All fictional characters are metamorphoses of living people.

Who inspired you in your creative pursuits?

Myself. My unfulfilled dreams, my solitude and my anguish were the sources of my inspiration.

I believe your novels, especially your chef d’oeuvre, On The Banks Of The River Mayyazhi, distinctly created a scar on the psyche of the youth in Kerala — the disillusioned, both spiritually and rationalistically orphaned youth who sought solace in drugs and alcohol. Some still accuse that your drug-addict characters influenced the youngsters, so much so that they even tried to emulate your characters — searching absolute truth in spiritual anarchy. How do yon react to this accusation?

We know that living people influence characters. Now we are told that characters influence living people. I never wrote stories or novels to influence anyone. It was the young readers who identified themselves with my characters. Perhaps I was writing about them. Sometime ago, a young reader told me, ’Look, you destroyed my future. On reading your books, I decided to discontinue my studies and I took to drugs.’ I felt sorry for him, but if all readers get influenced by what they read, the world wouldn’t be the way it is any more.

How has your contact with France, the French language and culture, influenced your writings?

French literature and cinema have helped me evolve a new form of writing. But so far as the content of my books is concerned, it is not French. It is not Indian either — it is Malayali.

What do you think of contemporary Malayalam literature?

In the post-Independence period, responding to the distant call of Marxian ethos, it left its own fertile land and wandered off to an illusory land of promises — socialist realism. And from there, it again wandered away, this time to the modernity of the 1960s. Now, like a prodigal son, it is coming, back to its own fold — emaciated, but holding forth a new found promise — its own identity.

What is this identity?

Everything that is Malayali. For example, when we worship Lord Vishnu, we are worshipping an Indian supreme god. But when we lie prostrate at the feet of a local deity, like Kuttichchathan, it is a little god, not as powerful as Lord Shiva, whose area of wielding power is restricted perhaps to a panchayat. But then, it is a Malayali god.

Whose writing do you most appreciate in Malayalam?

My favourite writer is Uroob. No other Malayali novelist has had that kind of ever-widening vision and reach. Were he alive, he would have been recognised as the greatest contemporary Malayali writer.

Among other storywriters in Kerala you stand apart — differing in style, structure and authenticity. Do you think that your writings as a whole deal with contemporary issues — material or spiritual?

Good writing, like good music, is an exercise in spirituality. But I do not make any conscious efforts to relate my writings to any such issues or problems. A work of art should have a purpose other than being well written. Writing itself is a complete accomplishment. But if any social or philosophical issue spontaneously finds its way into the work of a writer, it is fine.

In what way does modernity affect the Malayalam short story, especially yours?

Modernity’s main contribution to Malayalam short story is that it evaporated the divide between form and content. This is truer of Malayalam poets, especially Ayyappa Panicker and Vinayachandran.

How did painting and other visual art forms inspire you, and how did they help you in your writings?

I have tried to give the rhythm of music to my style in some of my stories. For example in The Wedding Of The Goldsmith’s Daughter. From my contact with painting, I felt that a writer can arrange the space in his text, much in the same fashion as a painter arranges the space in his canvas.

What is your opinion about your counterparts and their oeuvre in other Indian languages?

I haven’t read much in other Indian languages. From what I have read, I feel closer to Bengali writers. Translations of the works of other Indian regional writers are rare. That is perhaps why I feel more familiar with Latin American or European literature than Hindi literature. I know a lot about Milan Kundera or Umberto Eco, but I hardly know anything about... I don’t know even all the names of leading Hindi writers. A shame indeed, but whom to blame? I can’t learn all Indian languages to read the books of the leading writers in those languages.

Home page > English > Interview > The man from Mayyazhi muses


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