Johny Miranda successfully juggles two diverse worlds — as an author and a KSEB lineman
A translation throws open a book to a whole set of new readers. If it is true to the text it makes for delightful reading. So is it with Sajai Jose’s translation of Johny Miranda’s 2004 Malayalam novella Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees, Requiem for the Living, 2013 edition. It presents the writer, the work and the subject of the work to English-speaking readers and the response is drawing them to the writer’s small and neat house on the single narrow road in Mulavukad.
Johny stands on the road in welcome. “I am a KSEB lineman also,” he says adding to the already fantastical image the book conjures up of the writer. A lineman setting right electrical faults and a writer creating characters is a curiosity, as strange as the language and life narrated in the book. “I am in Kalamassery Division. My main duty is to climb electric posts for repair and climb trees to cut the branches. It is hard work,” says Johny adding more to the mystery of being a writer whose creativity is a far cry from the world of a government office.
Pre-empting more queries he continues, “Writing is very different from my work, but one cannot manage by just being a writer. The entire Anglo Indian community faced this problem of economic disadvantage.”
Though Johny speaks on behalf of the entire Anglo Indian community Jeevichiri…. is more specific to the lives of the parangis, who inhabit the islands hugging the fringes of coastal Kerala. Their insularity left them isolated and economically weak but segregation helped retain a way of life unique to them. Jeevichiri…, in a strange satirical way, celebrates the lives of these men and women who have a markedly different vocabulary, accent, rituals, beliefs, dressing and cuisine. “Look at this picture, my mother-in-law’s sister. We believe our ancestry is from the Dutch and Portuguese colonies in Malaysia and Malacca. We resemble the anatomy and facial features of people from those colonies. We have common words and share some rituals,” says Johny. So Juana Mammanji, a formidable character in the novella who attains sainthood, is a colony prototype, a character that lives on through hearsay, fed and exaggerated over years of story telling and listening.
Johny’s interest in stories began young, at his father’s tea shop — Jancy Café— that once stood where his house now stands. “This front portion was the tea shop. From six in the morning people began trooping in with stories. There were four to five newspapers that were read and discussed. There was a plethora of tales that I heard and savoured,” remembers Johny, whose other preoccupation once was painting. He participated in the State exhibition of painting held by Kerala Lalithakala Akademi and won an award for caricaturing in 1999. Johny gave up painting for writing.
A telling portrait by him, of his father with a vector moustache, hangs in the sitting room.
The tea shop also inspired Johny to read. He began reading the works of writers in translation. The worlds of Juan Rulfo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Yasunari Kawabata, Aleksandr Kuprin, Jorge Leal Amado, and Dostoyevsky became his world; he was impressed by the language, imagery, structure and storytelling. Johny could not pursue his studies after SSLC but at 16 began writing stories for Kerala Times, a Latin Catholic publication.
“Malayalam is so rich a language that all translations take to it beautifully. I think Marquez is the greatest Malayalam writer,” says Johny.
He published his first novel, Visudha Likhithangal 10 years back but it was never reviewed. For the last 10 years a question that has often nagged him after a hard day at work is, ‘why should I write, because nobody cares about my work.’ But he believes that every book has its destiny.
And it’s this destiny, so steadfastly relied on by Johny that does not spare his characters either. A pregnant Ida Chitta is killed violently watched by others, Mamma transforms herself into Mammanji, Josy Pereira watches life close in on him …each meeting an already charted fate.
“There is so much history in Kochi and much research but nothing specific about our ancestry is there. There are no studies. I don’t think the Anglo Indian community is marginalised but our men have problems of laziness, alcoholism and lack of saving mentality,” he says, perhaps emerging as a significant, new voice for the Anglo Indians.
Writer Ponjikkara Rafi being a neighbour had some influence on Johny but otherwise stories abound in his mind and rise from his people. He does not write to a routine. The characters form as in painting. “When a work begins, it ends on its own. This is the beauty of fiction,” he says.
By now his wife Blessy has brought snacks, juice and tea in the old-style hospitality of Jancy Café. His daughters are back from school, his mother from the doctor.
Looking at his mother he says: “My mother still does the treatment for jaundice, the one that Juana Mammanji does. Juana is a character from my wife’s side. Her mamma’s mamma’s mamma’s side…My father was a great character. He used to write his own 10 commandments.”
And suddenly one finds the intriguing story of Jeevichiri …. Culled, collated and fantasised in the mind of Johny who is on to his next novel, a story about a girl from Ponjikkara.
By now it’s time for him to switch off and switch on to another mode at the call of duty.