K. Kunhikrishnan talks to Malayalam writer Sethumadhavan on the significance of Marupiravi, his latest novel.
A. Sethumadhavan (Sethu)'s brilliant literary career spans over a period of 40 years. He has published more than 30 books of fiction. He has bagged many prestigious literary awards including that of the Kendra Sahitya Akademi. A few of his books have been translated into other languages like Tamil, English and Kannada. The English translation of Niyogam was shortlisted for the Crossword Prize.
His latest novel, Marupiravi (Reincarnation) is a path breaking work and is a masterly deviation from his past style and syntax. It is a commendable attempt to fill the void in history by recreating the social and cultural harmony of the times and juxtaposing it in contemporary literary perspective. Playing with time and space and the narrative moving back and forth, the novel relates the past, with myths, folklore and history woven in the fabric of fiction. The story revolves around the ancient Muziris, a port of international fame, bustling trade centre with the West.
The narrative also deals with Jewish migration to the fatherland and their nostalgia, and the details of the Paliath family and social struggles. The small town of Chendamangalam is the fulcrum around which characters, real and imaginary, from diverse social backgrounds are indelibly etched in the novel.
Most of your novels probe into the psyche of characters in the narratives. Instead of those ‘mindscapes', how did you venture, in your masterpiece Marupiravi (Re-incarnation), into a new format?
During my entire writing career of four decades I have been innovating and updating myself. I look at human predicament in diverse milieus with empathy and create new forms and texts. I had been planning to write a novel tracing the history of my village and surrounding areas for more than a decade.
Though the novel is a Muziris saga, the main locale is Chendamangalam and the events around it. Any specific reasons?
Muziris provides a conspicuous backdrop to the text and it should be seen in a much larger perspective. I was interested in looking at the region in its entirety and follow its historic evolution and subsequent invisible linkages influencing the life and times of people. Even in those times of limited facilities, continents were close and successful interplay of varied cultures resulted in a rare harmony.
My main focus was on village Chendamangalam, the abode of Paliathachans, Prime Ministers of Cochin for two centuries. They were against the British and one of them carried out a daring midnight attack on Col. Macaulay, resident of Cochin.
There were early Jewish settlements around Kottayil Kovilakom, which was a symbol of communal harmony, having a temple, church, mosque and synagogue. Many Jewish friends migrated to Israel en bloc in the 1950s. While on the trail of the Jewish migration to our coast, I could connect it to the active and centuries-old Indian Ocean trade. The Jews would have found the area safe for settlement as they had long trade connections.
‘Marupiravi' explores history, folklore, legends, myth, culture, trade, etc. What was your inspiration? What kind of preparations did you make by research and references?
While growing up, I had heard many stories about ships anchoring in a port near Kodungalloor, across the river. While planning the novel, I referred many books and articles and interviewed many old timers whose experiences were exciting. Discussions with historian Dr. M.G.S. Narayanan and the Pattanam researchers also helped.
Did classic Tamil literature impact you while writing the novel?
Dr. Selvakumar of Tamil University led me to the suggestions in Sangam classics like Akananooru, Purananooru and Pathittupathu. The striking images of a vibrant village life helped in recreating Muziris through the eyes of the protagonist, as a sub-plot, a ‘novel within the novel'.
The novel opens with a young girl collecting artifacts at Pattanam and concludes with the protagonist hoping the granddaughter takes his writings forward. Significance?
The present generation lacks a sense of history and concern for heritage. They live in a florid present without understanding the past. My attempt is to draw them to an undiscovered past, hoping that they will look at our past.
How much fact and fiction have you blended with a plethora of characters?
It would be difficult to quantify. The narrative is neither linear nor according to a well designed plot. It was meant to be a voyage through history mixed with myths, legends and pure fiction. The characters come and go, cutting across contours of time and space.
Unlike in your other novels, the female characters do not blend with the mainstream. They are there to connect the past and present. Comments?
Not really. Many of my characters have a kind of organic existence and do not tread a pre-determined path. They evolve on their own as the situation demands and my control over them is limited.
Why is the narrative style different from your earlier works?
I stick mostly to ethnic Dravidian words with a local flavour and avoid Sanskritised ones to the extent possible. In this novel the text also demands such syntax.
Why have you juxtaposed the past and the present with the Vallarpadam terminal symbolising the trade potential of Cochin?
History is not a blind alley. It repeats, sometimes in an intriguing way. My attempt has been to wade through the labyrinth of history, recapture the past, re-construct it and take it forward. At the end of the novel, I have tried to extricate a couple of characters out of the Muziris period and expose them to the glare of contemporary world. In an artist's weird vision, the Vallarpadam Container Terminal could symbolise a reincarnation.
The urge of the Jews to migrate to their fatherland and their nostalgia for the motherland makes poignant reading.
After the massive migration to Israel around five decades back, collection of information relating to their life in the village was difficult. However, an occasional visit of a famous veteran and his interesting narrations were invaluable. It is just not nostalgia, but an unbreakable umbilical cord connecting them to the motherland.