T.P. Rajeevan, poet-novelist, talks about looking within and beyond for inspiration

Poet, novelist, travel writer and publisher, in popular imagination the author of Paleri Manikyam: Oru Paathirakolapathakatinte Katha, Thachom Poyil Rajeevan is a compilation of the doors he has knocked open, the worlds he has left behind and those he has befriended.

Each world has left its imprint on his craft. It was a timid upbringing in Paleri, buried deep within Kozhikode district. Adolescence and migration to Kozhikode city were the first experiences in freedom. Work took him to Delhi and opened windows into a bigger, wider world. International residencies first in Iowa and then in Ledig combed him in with creative writers from the world. Rajeevan will now fly to Italy for a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagaio Center in Novemeber where he will re-work his latest novel KTN Kottoor: Ezhuthum Jeevithavum to be Windows and Mirrors: Life and Time of KTN Kottoor.

The bi-lingual writer appears to enjoy his life saddled by languages. Sitting cross-legged in his unpretentious living room where Tagore’s works genially share space with Irving Stone’s, where old cassettes keep a safe distance from numerous citations, and where books on Gandhi and Comrade Krishna Pillai are engaged in a quiet debate, Rajeevan talks about writing in English and Malayalam. “It is like giving birth to a twin after a gap of one or two years,” he says. But his twins are not identical. Between the two works, he would have changed, so too his life and environment.

Paleri Manikyam, for instance, was first written in English between Iowa and Ledig. “I wrote it in Malayalam after coming back. The book is in its 10th edition. The English version Undying Ethos of Silence though will only be published by Amaryllis this week,” says Rajeevan.

He asserts he is not splitting himself down the middle by being a poet and novelist in both Malayalam and English. A poem and its language are pre-destined. “Some poems happen only in my mother-tongue. The choice of language and form for a poem is genuine, organic,” he says.

Rajeevan is set to launch his eighth poetry collection – Yaksha in America. His poems are a heady tussle; some have an admirable lightness of being; others smirk at the world beneath a veneer of light-heartedness, but a few can just not shake away the sheath of darkness.

Letting out the darkness

The darkness he attributes to his lonely childhood. “In a way, poems are my attempt at pushing out the darkness from within.” As the first and only male child in a family outnumbered by women, his early years were darkened by taboos and unexplained fears. “There is a pond in my house. A river too is close by. But I never learnt swimming. They thought I would drown. The stories at dusk were that of ghosts and black-magic,” he remembers. He slowly withdrew into a web of loneliness. “I started talking to myself, the animals around,” Rajeevan says.

Those conversations with the self assembled as short poems. Roots and trees, scarecrows and worms, gold fish and glass cases became pliable subjects. But so too the women who bogged him down at home. A milestone in his repertoire is ‘Kannaki’. The mythical angry woman is infused with a touch of wit, but the poem unwaveringly highlights the objectification of women. About the poem that begins with “Where are my breasts?” Rajeevan says, “From the women I saw – grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, wife and daughter – I know the moment they reach a certain age, their world is made to shrink, made limited.”

In the city of freedom

The poems of his youth were bolstered by mentors and friends. In Kozhikode, he shared vibrant friendships with film maker Joy Mathew and writer Kalpetta Narayanan among others. He learnt literature during the Emergency years under teachers such as T.K. Ramachandran. In Delhi, he shared close bonds with writers Anand and O.V. Vijayan.

The gamut of his poetry grew richer on his return to Kozhikode as he delved into satire during his active years as the public relations official at Calicut University. Poetry also became a tool of search, of retrieval, of filling in the blanks of time. A work he holds close to his chest is Third Word – Post-Socialist Poetry, which he edited with Lana Derkac. “It is a collection of poems by writers who couldn’t publish their works under the Soviet regime. Most had kept their work secret,” he says.

If in his later years, Rajeevan drifted towards fiction. He calls it natural progression. “My novels are the extension of my poems. My poems are largely narrative. What I could not say with the medium, it can be my limitation as a poet, I choose the novel to say,” says Rajeevan.

But he is quick to add, “I will never denounce poetry” and mentions Pranayasatam, his last release, as proof. Never one to abandon humour, Rajeevan jests that his two novels are a tribute to his parents. “My father hailed from Paleri, while my mother’s village is Kottoor.”

Despite the possibilities, Rajeevan says a novel is back-breaking. “I fell ill writing my novels. Writing around 1,500 pages including the many drafts causes immense physical exhaustion. Further, those like KTN Kottoor is set in the 1930s and 40s and the preparation involved is great.”

Despite the pull of creative pursuits, Rajeevan replenishes his literary juices with travel. He recalls his one-time routine, the three-day train journey from Delhi to Kerala. “A journey through the spinal cord of India. That is when the mind gets active and creative. It is the time for introspection. A writer should always be able to leave and go.”

Films and Publishing

Rajeevan is also taking his nascent steps to film scripts. He has finished his script on Kunjali Marakkar for director Amal Neerad. Meanwhile, director Ranjith, who translated Paleri Manikyam to celluloid, has announced his plans to make KTN Kottoor into a film. Yeti, the publishing house, is yet another passion of Rajeevan. Meant for works in English, it was initially dedicated to poetry and expanded to include the novel recently. “We published Sudip Sen’s translated poems last year and have Sharmila Ray’s book this year. As of now I am taking Yeti a little slow with a book a year,” says Rajeevan.