His diverse experiences – from banker to farmer – have shaped the writer in A. Sethumadhavan
For the last 45 years, A. Sethumadhavan has been living two lives — one during office hours, and the other between 4 a.m. and daybreak. Where one ends, the other begins. Only Sethu, the successful banker and the prolific writer, can explain this rare ability to straddle practicality and imagination with equal panache.
He, however, keeps it simple: “It comes naturally to me.” At dawn, when he sits to write, plots unfold and characters take birth. At office, they unceremoniously make way for numbers and “real people.”
For Sethu, the two worlds have always worked in tandem, often conspiring with each other. “The thing is, I love them both passionately. When I feel that my latest novel is one of my best, I feel relevant. Perhaps, that is why I never felt stale,” he says, sitting in the living room of his house at West Kadungalloor on the outskirts of Aluva, near Kochi. “At some unknown level, the real and the unreal worlds complemented each other. Banking gave my writing a certain discipline and my creative ability has helped my job.”
On his new novel
Sethu is upbeat about his latest novel, Aliya. The book discusses the lives of the Malabari Jews in Chendamangalam, and is culled from his early memories of school, woven with facts and lore. “It is not a historical novel. It blends history, myth, legend and imagination.... It required a lot of work — research and talking to people,” he says. “I have tried to recapture the period (1950s), when the Jews of Kerala were caught in a dilemma whether to return to their promised land or not.”
The community’s plight haunted him. “I had a lot of Jewish classmates in school,” he recalls. “I remember, they were all returning to a place called Israel. We had no idea about that ‘place’. Why did they come here at all if they had to go back?”
He worked on Aliya for two years, despite having considerable material at hand, collated for his book Marupiravi, which also touched upon Jewish migration from Chendamangalam along with the story of the ancient port Muziris.
Though old school when it comes to research, Sethu is no Luddite. He writes on the computer. “Almost the whole of Aliya was written on my laptop,” he says. For the last 20 years, he has been quite tech-savvy, perhaps why he seemed a tad concerned about the absence of a dictaphone for the interview. “Are you writing down?” he asks amusedly. “Writing on the computer offers great possibilities with editing. Only that, at times one feels a machine can never match up with the human mind.”
There is a certain narcissistic pleasure to writing, he says. “I am in love with literature and with my own writing.” However, Sethu believes that unless the creative energy is felt by the reader, the book is a failure.
The former chairman of South Indian Bank created a space for himself in modern Malayalam literature with his bold experimentation with form and style. The desire to be a writer was always in him, despite being happy with his job. But writing as a career, he says, was never planned.
It was while he was working with the Railway Board in New Delhi in the 60s that he got acquainted with some of the newsmakers in the Malayalam literary scene. He was a frequent visitor to The Kerala Club at Connaught Place, which had stalwarts such as VKN, Kakkanadan and O.V. Vijayan for regulars. “They emboldened me to write. And my first short story was published in the Mathrubhumi weekly in 1967. Thereafter, I wrote a series of short stories for the magazine. All my major novels were also serialised in the weekly,” he says.
When, as a 19-year-old student of Physics, he left Chendamangalam for the “ocean” of Bombay, besides “a rustic confidence”, all he had for company were Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Hugo whom he had befriended at his village library. “When I look back, I am shocked at how I grappled with life,” he says. He is thankful, too, for the experience he gained from his diverse roles — at the Meteorological Department in Mumbai and Pune and later at Thumba rocket station, with the Railways, with the State Bank group. The exposure helped him develop a pan-India vision, which is reflected in his writing, he feels. Incidentally, he recalls seeing former president APJ Abdul Kalam on a bicycle on the 600-acre campus at Thumba. “It was an exciting phase. Thumba had launched the first rocket just three months back.”
Five years after he served at the Met. Dept., Sethu moved to the Railway Board in Delhi. Then, as probationary officer at the State Bank of Patiala in 1967, he worked at Faridkot. “At the bank, you come across a fair cross section of society. There was never a dull moment.”
The varied experiences were to come back later as raw material for his stories. The location for his novel Pandavapuram, for instance, presented itself in picturesque clarity. He had spent a few months in Katni on work, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, which had an ammunition and cement factory and a refugee settlement. “Katni occurred to me as the right setting for Pandavapuram — like a film location.”
Currently, as chairman of the National Book Trust (NBT), Sethu continues the balancing act. His honorary engagement with NBT requires him to travel extensively, promoting a book culture in India by publishing books in different languages and making them available at moderate prices. The only thing that has suffered in this hectic schedule is his reading, Sethu says, adding he doesn’t find contemporary fiction compelling enough. “I find myself returning to the classics. They were so futuristic. I finished the 1,000-odd page Don Quixote last year. To think the 400-year-old book is so relevant today!”
When he isn’t travelling or writing, Sethu grows vegetables in his 60-cent compound. “This year, I haven’t had much time for farming,” he says. The overgrown field confirms.