Sumo wrestlers are a breed apart. They are giants, huge masses of flesh. They are so large that many have not seen their feet for ages, while other would have difficulty clasping their hands over their stomachs. They would attract attention in any country, especially in Japan where the dictum is ‘small is beautiful’. Here, they are superstars with groupies, fan clubs and limousines — as famous as celebrities anywhere else in the world.

Life in the heyas

But there is a hidden side to this world. Life inside the sumo heyas or stables is still a complex web of traditional rules and informal social norms. So much so that information on the structures that define their relationships, their passions, their lives outside the sport hardly trickles out. The dictum is not to rock the boat but only go with the waves. Whistle-blowers are reticent to talk for fear of being cast out of that world, and those who have talked, have been discredited or stripped from the only world they belong to.

Novelist and short-story writer E. P. Sreekumar’s new novel in Malayalam, Mamsapporu is a part fact, part fictional journey into this unfamiliar world. And he uses it to interpret his thoughts on the human body and human flesh. This is perhaps the first Indian language novel to use sumo as its backdrop. “Like anyone, initially, I was drawn to these huge mounds of flesh. It prompted me to think about the immense possibilities this world provides for a novel. But it took me nearly two years to decide whether to go ahead with this project,” says Sreekumar, who divides his time between writing and his day job as General Manager, People’s Urban Cooperative Bank.

Meeting Akshay, a young US-based entrepreneur actually inspired me to go ahead with the project. “He shared my passion, understood my challenge. He sent me a lot of material on the sport like the banzuke, the professional ranking list of wrestlers written out in a particular calligraphy, a sumo calendar, sumo dolls and more. He also organised a mock fight in the US and sent me the video. I could not go back after all that.”

The novel, which is narrated in a rather long flashback, centres on Dhanwantri, an obese, young Namboodiri boy sailing back home after a frustrating stint as a sumo wrestler in Japan. “His obesity is cause for a lot of humiliation and also consideration. But in an attempt to find some kind of centre in him he jumps at an opportunity to travel to Japan, and joins a sumo stable. He does, temporarily, find that centre but is forced to quit, disappointed, defeated. Through the protagonist and his travails I have attempted to imagine, with the information I gleaned from various sources, the life inside the sumo world.”

This novel is a turning point in Sreekumar’s literary career. Starting out writing plays and the occasional short story even while at school in Cherai, Sreekumar’s first stint with popularity was through radio plays, a rage then. “Associating with All India Radio, Thrissur, was a learning experience. M. Thankamani and N. K. Sebastian were the producers of the many radio plays I wrote. There were some firsts here, like a music-centric play Jathi, which had Ananthapadmanabhan on the veena. Then there was Athlete that told the story of a proud woman athlete, who stumbles in the final stretch and misses a medal at the Olympics. This was broadcast a few days before P.T. Usha’s tragic loss in the Olympics, a mere coincidence. But the authorities did not take it lightly and the producer was asked to give an explanation.”

The advent of television dealt a blow to radio plays and Sreekumar switched to short stories. “The encouragement came from N. V. Krishna Warrier who after publishing my story Nashtapetta Oppu (The Lost Signature) sent me a letter appreciating the work and asking me to keep writing.”

New themes, new idioms

Two anthologies of short stories and a much-discussed novel (Maaramudra) are part of Sreekumar’s oeuvre. The search for new themes, new idioms, techniques in style are Sreekumar’s forte. In Mamsapporu he has experimented with the tala (rhythm) of Carnatic music in structuring his lines and words in certain chapters, though the theme may not be musical. talaRagas have bhavas (emotion) but I believe that talas can also be used to depict emotions or moods. With the help of P.L. Sudheer, a ghatom exponent, I identified some of the talas that I could use for expressing the moods and situations in the novel. Anyone well-versed with the tala cycle will be able to read those specific chapters, synchronising the words with the beats.”

The novel also provides information on the ceremonies, the grace, sheer strength and the terminology of sumo wrestling. The rigours of their lifestyle, their chankonabe diet, long hours of sleep, the pecking order in the stables, their trials and tribulations. Sreekumar also hints at match-fixing for bouts, brings in the ‘soap ladies’ who give the wrestlers regular massages and unravels the goings-on in the stables that function more like monasteries than training houses.

Published by DC Books, Mamsapporu will be released as part of the literary festival being organised to celebrate the birth centenary of DC Kizhakemuri.

Works

Parasya Shareeram (Short Stories)

Kaneer Pashu (Short Stories)

Maramudra (Novel)

Mamsaporu (Novel)

Awards

DC Books Golden Jubilee Award 2002

Kaval Kairali Award 2009

SBT Malayalam Sahitya Award 2009

S.K. Pottekkat Memorial Award 2010

Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award (Short Story) 2011