Writer M. Mukundan talks about the two places — Mahe and Delhi — that sculpted his literature
Small concrete walls on its banks keep the Mayyazhi River in check. The iron railings on top give it the look of a tourist site. The old railway bridge stands like a fine art work at the deep end of the river. A lone pouch of Milma milk is tossed around by the rippling waves. The river still whispers and gurgles to whoever cares to listen. Even as he poses to the camera, the river continues to woo writer M. Mukundan, the son of Mahe raised by the Mayyazhi.
“I still come and sit here, though it is more beautiful on the other side where the river meets the sea,” says Mukundan as his cotton-candy hair dances to the wind. “It is polluted, but since it flows into the sea here, there is a lot of movement and the dirt is washed away,” he adds.
Still known to the world as the storyteller of Mayyazhi after one of his early novels, “Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil” (“On the Banks of the Mayyazhi”, translated into English and French), Mukundan came out with his latest novel, “Delhi Gaadhakal” (“Delhi Tales”), late last year. After 40 years in the capital, Mukundan returned to his hometown, a union territory close to Kozhikode. If Mahe and Mayyazhi haunted him when he left for Delhi in 1962, now the city where Mukundan the writer was born makes him nostalgic. And he feels nostalgia is a handy tool for a writer.
Mayyazhi as companion
“When I left Mahe at the age of 21, I missed my place. I grew intensely nostalgic and that induced me to write. Now that I am back, I am nostalgic about Delhi and I write about it,” he says.
“As a boy growing up here, I had one companion — the Mayyazhi.” He bounced the stories in him off the river, dreamt of being a writer as he frolicked on its banks. “When I was here I was not bold enough to send my stories for publication as it was writers like Basheer who were published in the Mathrubhoomi weekly.”
But the stories Mukundan told were different, for his world was different. Though geographically ensconced in Kerala, Mahe was for long ruled by the French. When the rest of India was rebelling against the British, Mahe and its people lived in blissful ignorance. “I have very romantic memories of the French. I remember the evenings when the French man and his lady would walk along the bridge holding hands. When I was growing up, the French flag fluttered here. I just had to cross the bridge and I would be in a different country without a passport,” he says.
“We were pampered when people outside starved. It was also a strange place. Criminals and revolutionaries only had to cross over and they could not be caught. I remember the time when we got freedom. Many people cried when the French left, imagine that! Unlike the British who plundered us, the French had nothing to take away here,” he says, adding that it is impossible to paint in black and white Mahe's history of French colonisation.
Mukundan is considered one of the pioneers of modernism in Malayalam literature. As a writer he experiences an intense tug-of-war within and he waits for certain “jolts” that will make him act. After his retirement from the French Embassy in Delhi, he was appointed the president of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi, a post he held till recently. “That provoked me to leave Delhi, otherwise I would have stayed on. On one hand, Delhi is this modern city, but on the other, it is so ancient. It is these contrasts that help you write. When I went to Delhi, it was a big village with vast fields of wheat and cauliflower and deserted roads. Now, I cannot recognise it.” The capital saw him at his prolific best — a dozen novels including the much-feted “Daivathinte Vikrithikal” and a clutch of short stories in four decades.
Having relocated to Mahe in the early 2000s, he realised that his Mayyazhi's people too have changed beyond recognition. “If I have to write about Kerala today, it would have to be a very dark picture,” Mukundan laments. He left Kerala in the 1960s as it offered nothing for the young — “No employment, even education was difficult. There was a time when there were no young people on the streets,” he remarks.
“Even when we left Kerala, we had great dreams about it. But it has gone from bad to worse, in terms of violence, alcoholism and the idealism we had has also disappeared. We criticised the West, but the same things are happening here,” says Mukundan.
Of all changes, the change in Mahe disturbs him. Being a union territory, Mahe enjoys tax exemption on many goods, but the industry that has thrived here is that of alcohol. “So here we have young men in their 20s and 30s dying of liver cirrhosis. I want to write about the Mahe of today. But I know people will not love it.” He bares the conflict within. “I know I have to be honest to myself. Maybe that would be my last novel,” he jests. “Something should happen to provoke me to write, may be the loneliness of old age.”
For Mukundan, there is never a dearth of stories. “Writing is being myself. At any given moment, there will be many stories within and most of them go unwritten.”