O.V. Vijayan did not become as well known as Gabriel García Márquez due to a lack of timely translation into English.
The entire world of literature mourns the demise of Gabriel García Márquez, the apostle of magical realism. The Colombian author adapted the way his grandmother told him stories to write his masterpieces. By the time he completed his first manuscript, his family was deep in debt. One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1967 and its English translation two years later.
In another corner of another country, another writer was working on his first novel. But O.V. Vijayan’s Khasakinte Itihasam was published only in 1969. The novel of magical realism was a break from the romantic Malayalam novel of that era. The Legend of Khasak, an English translation by the author himself, was published in 1994. Khasak was serialised in a Malayalam weekly, around the same time as the publication of the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Both novels had certain common elements. Márquez’s story was set in Macondo, an isolated town that resembled his native Aracataca in Columbia. Vijayan’s story was in Khasak, almost certainly Tasrak, an interior village in his native Palakkad. The protagonist in Khasakinte Itihasam was a single teacher school Ravi. In … Solitude, it was the Buendías, the family who founded Macondo. Both fictional locations had very little contact with the outside world. Though introverted and lonely, Ravi is impetuous. The Buendías are inquisitive, a quality that they inherited from José Arcadio Buendía, the family head known for his solitude and obsessions.
Both novels are not historical fiction but real incidents and characters find a place in the stories. Both writers are hailed as magical realism’s best practitioners for blending the everyday life of humans with fiction.
In Márquez’s novels, Colombian history was a part of the lives of his characters. Vijayan painted the story of a typical Kerala village, its beliefs, poverty and illiteracy through his characters. Both Khasak and Macondo lose their identity when external contact takes place. In Khasak, the new single teacher is viewed as a threat to the madrassa and the Hindu traditional school. It also coincides with Ravi’s existential crisis at being an outsider in Khasak. For Márquez, it was the existential crisis of Macondo itself.
Nevertheless, Vijayan paid a heavy price due to the lack of a timely English translation. Within a week of its publication, thousands of copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude were sold out. Khasakinte Itihasam took some time to establish itself even though it was hailed by the critics. Malayali readers then believed that fiction meant romance. Vijayan, who started writing in 1953, had to face political allegations when his magnum opus clicked. The undercurrents in Khasakinte Itihasam were beyond the communist comprehension of literature.
By 1980, Márquez was a household name in Kerala. In 1982, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though he won the Sahitya Akademi award for Gurusagaram and was later honoured with the Padma Bhushan, Vijayan was not awarded the Jnanpith.
The writer is the Director, Centre for Kutiyattam, of Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi.