U.A. Khader finds his stories from villages rich in myths, customs and rituals. P. Anima talks to the author

Two worlds make U.A. Khader. The one he was born to but hardly knew and the one he knew but never felt wholly part of. Traces of his first world never seeped into his literature. Instead, he surged deep into the world he came to know for fodder to his 70-odd works including short stories, novels, novellas and travelogues.

North Malabar and its quaint way of life before and after independence is often Khader’s pliable subject. In the living room of his home in Kozhikode, indelible impressions from the past are at peace — a gramophone is quiet in a corner, the old grandmother’s trunk polished to forget age is proudly showcased while the winding clock on the wall tolls away hours. Sitting next to a shelf stacked with awards ranging from the Kendra Sahitya Akademi and Kerala Sahitya Akademi to Malayatoor and Padmaprabha, Khader talks of finding his literary milieu in his father’s hometown — Koyilandy.

Khader’s mindscape neatly accommodates memories and its absence. An “outsider” is the word he uses often. Born to an Indian father and Burmese mother who died soon afterwards, Khader grew up in his mother’s home country talking his mother’s language. At the age of seven, as the Second World War changed lives and forced Indian immigrants to return, Khader was brought to Koyilandy. His identity changed – ever since he was the child the father brought from Burma. “I was always considered a guest.”

Burma was blanks in the mind that would never fill. “It was zero,” he says. Silence greeted Khader whenever he quizzed his father about Burma. “His eyes would well up and that was it. I came to know my mother’s name from the birth certificate,” he says.

About the life he knew

The prolific writer filled in this blank in personal history with vivid imagination. “I knew my birthplace was Billeen.” But when he finally made his only trip to now Myanmar at 75, it was the end of imagination. Burma actively came into his writing in the travelogue — Ormakalude Pegoda (Pegoda of Memories). “Till then I could dream,” he says about the visit. But dreams are not factual. “I realised that Billeen was not in Yangon as I had thought, instead in Mong State not by the Irawati but the Kaiykatto river, The Bridge On The River Kwai,” says Khader.

For Khader who made his father’s place home, the challenge began by taming Malayalam. “At elementary school when other children had to merely learn the letters, I had to learn both the letters and the objects. I had to learn what mesha (table) meant first and then learn to write it,” he remembers. He followed conversations by understanding actions. At home a relative became the interpreter between him and the grandmother. “It took me two to three years to get Malayalam right,” he says. But Khader tamed it soon. “I consistently scored the highest marks in Malayalam.”

Meanwhile, subjects that would be key to his literature were coming into his life. After his grandmother’s death, Khader moved in with his step-mother and children in Koyilandy. “Our three houses were the only Muslim houses in the neighbourhood and next to it was Korayangatu theruvu where men and women lived with their Devi and Ganapati temples and where weavers worked,” he says.

A colourful world

Khader soaked in the colours of this world into his works. “Theyyam, theruvu, kavu, kalam all,” he says. When Malayalam literature was going modern, Khader went intensely local, to stories and language that smelt of the soil. “Modernism pushed away the readers at the base. Writers were writing of urban life and alienation that the common man could not relate to,” says Khader. He and a group of writers willingly became a bridge to the past in modernist times. For Khader, the quest was the milieu from which he could source his stories and the language to create them.

“Uroob was writing about south Malabar. Thakazhi about Kuttanadan life, Pottekkat was prolific in travelogues. That is when I realised that the life I knew about, of the villages between Parasinikadavu to Korapuzha, with their myths, nagappattu and theyyam, the temple and its festivals were not represented in literature. The life in these villages in the backdrop of Communism too was interesting. A theyyam artiste would be taking all the vows as the festivities begin. But he would also be doing party work. His beliefs and his politics were separate,” says Khader.

Local resonance

His literary language retained the local timbre. Vadakkanpattu, Puluvanpattu and Tottampattu lent not only its metre but also story threads. Khader says his stories can be recited in the pattern of aroodam chollal that precedes Theyyam performances. A work that encapsulates this way of life well is Thrikottoor Peruma, a collection of 11 novellas, Khader’s best known and most acknowledged work.

Khader’s women characters too have characteristic spunk. They may be physically striking, but have a mind of their own. In most of his stories they acquire a mythical aura. Yakshis are a regular presence. “The women were largely self-assured. Even in those days, they would venture into the market to sell coir and other products. Vadakkanpattu tells us about Unniyarcha’s bravery. The Muslim households too were run by women as the men travelled for work to Singapore and Rangoon.” About the recurring ‘yakshi’ motif, Khader says, “The ‘yakshi’ in north Malabar is the not the ghost with piercing teeth. Instead, she is physical realisation of the idea of beauty. So the concept is widespread in villages here.”

Though equipped with a treasure trove of personal stories he has largely steered clear of them in his works, an early lesson he learnt from C.H. Mohammad Koya, erstwhile chief minister and editor. “He said the story is not the space for your grief. It should have something to uplift society. A writer should be one in the crowd.”