I am lost in the teeming turns to Paloor Mana near Kovoor in Kozhikode despite lucid, patient instructions thrice over the phone. By the time I park near a muddy path east of the luxuriantly spread out Mahavishnu Temple, it is 20 minutes past the appointed time. Waiting at the gate, the bespectacled old man in a khadi shirt and dhoti, a towel slung over his shoulder, introduces himself — “I am Paloor”; M.N. Paloor, recipient of the Kendra Sahitya Akademi award announced in December 2013. He won the award for his autobiography Kadhayillathavante Katha (The story of the story-less). Paloor settles into the easy chair by the wall-to-wall window of his simple home, rests his left leg on the long arm rest. He is aware of the irony. “I have been writing poetry since I was nine-years-old,” he says and smiles. With about 10 collections of poetry to his name, Paloor is hailed as a “modernist” poet in Malayalam and an original voice at that. “I wrote Kadhayillathavante Katha 16 years ago. But no one was willing to publish it. Finally, Green Books brought it out last year,” he says.

At “82 and a half” as he likes to say it, he is not travelling to New Delhi to receive the award which has come 30 years after he won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award. “I am in no shape to travel.” He wonders if there is anymore poetry left in him. “I have not written anything in the past three to four years.” Poetry, as Paloor knows it, is not simple. A poem is not what he first met on a school textbook. The poet, in fact, has never been to school. “That has worked to my advantage,” he laughs.

Memories of childhood

Growing up in an impoverished Namboothiri household in Paravoor, poetry was his mother’s most precious gift to him. ‘My mother got married when she was 14. So many child births ever since. But 365 days a year she would be reciting poems, of G. Sankara Kurup, of Poonthanam and (Thunjath) Ezhuthachan. But mostly it was the poems of Sankara Kurup. My mother’s house was close to the poet’s house in Nayathode. She was influenced by his poems. In fact, my mother died a month after the poet’s death. Sankara Kurup is my poet. Of course, I read (Kumaran) Asan, Vyllopilli (Sreedhara Menon) and Vallathol (Narayana Menon). But Sankara Kurup’s poems gave me satisfaction,” he says.

Poetry, says Paloor, became second skin by repetition. He repeated verses everywhere, at home, while playing or merely gazing at the waters of the Chalakkudy river. “That way, we learnt everything by heart,” he says before bursting into a few lines of Sankara Kurup’s poetry. “Poetry is a feeling, a thought,” says the author of collections such as Kalikaalam, Bhangiyum Abhangiyum, Ardhanareeshwaran and Pedithondan. Compliment Paloor on his unblemished memory at “82 and a half” and he says, “The things I remember are what my mother taught me. I have forgotten most of what I learnt by myself.”

Yet, there was quite a bit for Paloor to learn by himself. His awareness of Sanskrit definitely helped in getting around Malayalam and writing poems. His teacher K.P. Narayana Pisharoty guided him to the store mine for poems. “He told if poetry is what I wanted to write, then I should read The Mahabharatha,” says Paloor. Over the past 40 years, the poet has read and re-read the text many times, for fodder, for thought, for knowing more about life, living and poetry. ‘The Mahabharatha is my soul,” he says.

For the poet popularly called “modernist”, Paloor’s searches are spiritual. It was a personal tragedy that made him turn to poetry seriously. “It was after my sister’s death at the age of 22 that poetry grew in stature in my life,” he says.

Views on life

The poet spent over 30 years in a rather un-poetic environment working for the Indian Airlines in Mumbai. ‘I worked first in the transport department and later in the maintenance section,” he says. Chores at work were many, but writing, Paloor kept in a different realm. Poetry for him is a snippet vision of life tied down to words before the vision disappears. The process is painful. “Each poem tears away a part of my soul.” “When I am writing, a madness drives me. I have no peace of mind until I finish writing. I would be angry, have no sleep or hunger,” he says. As a poet who insists each poem be an original experience for him, Paloor understandably has not been prolific. “The thought has to be original,” he insists. So Paloor wrote about a world that lived on Anacin and also about Marilyn Monroe. But beneath these popular symbols and names, were Paloor’s search. “Though I have written about Marilyn Monroe, the poem is not about her. On one hand was the woman rumoured to be the President’s girlfriend. On that other hand, she consumes sleeping pills and kills herself. It was about a world where everything is on sale. In a world where Anacin is food, I look at what causes the headache. Actually, there is nothing worth having a headache over,” explains Paloor.

Paloor may be unsure of his future in poetry. But his questions are still alive. “Why do we live? Nobody knows. But we keep running knowing one day we will fall. Yet there is no end to greed,” he observes. Paloor remembers his childhood, the short while he saw his family’s good days. “By the paddy fields we grew all the vegetables we needed — plantain, yam, long beans. Your wealth was your land. Now money is wealth. Imagine, I did not see a hundred rupee note till I was 25,” he says. As the poet walks me back to the main road, we pass by the temple. “Do you visit the temple?” I ask. “No, I never go to one,” he answers. Didn’t he say during the course of the conversation, “God is your mind.”