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Laughter born of tears

Noted Malayalam writer VKN, passed away recently. THACHOM POYIL RAJEEVAN recalls the life and times of the writer known for his `humour'.

VADAKKE KOOTTALA NARAYAN NAIR, popularly known as VKN in Malayalam, who died on January 25, belongs to the genus of writers that turns up not often in any language. He had an exceptional capacity, in Koodiyattam parlance, eakalochanam, of expressing diverse emotions all at once; that is to say, laughter in one eye and tears of extreme grief in the other. Also, he familiarised, with a Thullal performer's flair, what appeared far-off in time and space by presenting them as if they were habitually in the immediate neighbourhood. A cultural coincidence, it might be, that VKN was also born, raised and spent the major part of his life in the same environs by the Bharathapuzha in the district of Palakkad where the Koodiyattam exponent, late Mani Madhava Chakkyar and Kalakkath Kunjan Nambiar, whose innovative improvisation on the old Chakkyarkoothu resulted in the powerful art form of Thullal, were born.

VKN's entry into Malayalam literature was in 1950s. Like for many others, his first love had been poetry. Though, before long, he gave it up, he kept up this adolescent infatuation all through his life. And he could quote from the Megasandesha or the Ramayanamchambu as quickly and effortlessly as he could from a new generation poet. This textual proficiency did not confine to poetry or literature alone. It was generic. Anything from under the sun, from contemporary politics to primitive occultism, from modern astrophysics to Chanakyas's Arthasastra, or from Das Kapital to Kamasutra, was a narrative device for him, which he brought into play in his stories and novels.

It was in the 1960s that VKN came to prominence as a writer. But, by then he had left Kerala for New Delhi, where he spent about 10 years as a journalist. The New Delhi of the 1960s had a defining role in modern Malayalam literature. It was the group of young writers who happened to come together on various professional engagements in the country's capital that made Malayalam literature, fiction in particular, what it is today. Prominent among whom were O.V. Vijayan, M. Mukundan, George Varghese Kakkanadan and M.P. Narayana Pillai. VKN "landed" in this circle. These writers used to meet regularly to thrash out literature, politics or whatever else was the topic of the day — a preparation that capacitated them to accomplish new heights in writing.

As might be expected, VKN became an unfailing member of that collective. Those interactions, evidently, helped him be conversant with the latest developments in literature and consummate his style that is full of vim and vigour. Also, it could be that it was from those gatherings that he picked out many of his prototypical characters, especially the quick-witted, but hard-up "hero", Payyan (The Guy) of his seminal work, Payyankadhakal (The Stories of Payyan), who made inroads into the higher echelons of power and wealth using nothing but his sharp intelligence and winning demeanour.

The Delhi life in 1960s had significantly contributed to framing VKN's social outlook as well. The institutionalisation of unscrupulous political manipulations, power brokerage, corruption and the murky dealings in the corridors of power; all that to which he became a silent, nonetheless alert, head-on witness deepened his distrust of the entire social and political order. And, what he did was to make them materials for a laugh that begot another laugh, which finally spread across our body, mind and intellect. For that reason, he was labelled "humorist".

VKN's important works are Pithamahan (The Great Grandfather), Arohanam, which literally means "The Ascend" but "Bovine Bugles" in the author's own translation, Adhikaram (The Power), Payyankadhakal (The Stories of Payyan), Sir Chathuleecock, Kavi (The Saffron), Chathans, and Chitrakeralam (Kerala Pictures). "Humour", in none of these works, did mean just a laugh. Certainly, he made use of all that is available in the repertoire of humour: irony, satire, parody and burlesque. But, be it about the misuse of power, the abuse of female body, the libertinism of the affluent, or about the fate of the poor of the day; his narration was historically and politically many-voiced. Nothing escaped his keen-eyed scrutiny by which he puzzled readers as to how they should take it; laugh, cry or get agitated. His humour, in substance, was a lamentation on human fallacies. And, just like that, a resistance to authoritarianism of all sorts. He dispassionately chronicled the transition of society from one phase to another. And "laughed" because, like his favourite character Payyan, "he could not cry".

Thachom Poyil Rajeevan writes in English and Malayalam. He is editor of Yeti Books and can be reached at

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