Remembering Sukumar Azhikode, that extraordinary public intellectual from Kerala.
In one of his last public speeches, Sukumar Azhikode stated that words were his soldiers: a strange thing to say in a world where tyrants of all hues keep on proving that soldiers are their words. All those who know Azhikode — as he is popularly known – will readily vouch for the truth of what he said. He did not rely on political parties or groups to fight his battles. Indeed, they kept lifting him up, and then dropping him, at will. Cynics saw his shifting stands as opportunism, but his admirers, millions of them, did not seem to care as they found significant public values at stake in all his moves.
Fearless speaker, the issues
He did commit mistakes, sometimes grave ones, as being soft towards the Emergency. And there were times when his political shifts did not seem convincing. But there was one principle that he consistently upheld: secularism. He never sold himself to the fundamentalists and communalists of any religious persuasion at any stage of his life: that is why he could roam the State speaking fearlessly from a thousand platforms against the demolition of the Babri Masjid and its perilous and far-reaching implications to the basic ethos of Indian democracy. He was one of the first to raise his voice, too, when Chekanoor Moulavi, a Muslim reformer, was mysteriously done away with by some unknown assassins, suspected to be religious extremists. He threw his weight behind several popular causes: the struggle to protect the rainforests in Silent Valley, the anti-Coca-Cola struggle at Plachimada, and the moves to protect the waterfalls at Athirappally.
Eminent Malayalam poet and critic Ayyappa Panikker was right in describing Azhikode as a typical Brahmacharin with a celibate's innocence as well as harshness. Writer M.N. Karassery recalls how Azhikode once said Ramayana was written not in praise of King Ram but to celebrate Ram's friendship with the poor boatman Guha, and even with the birds and the beasts.
His role as a public intellectual certainly held many contradictions, and controversy was a way of life for him. But even the most insubstantial of them does not in any way mitigate the significance of his positive presence on the scene as a vehement critic of social decadence and of the gradual loss of Gandhian values in India's public life — so well presented in his work, Mahatmavinte Margam (The Way of the Mahatma).
His defeat in the election to Parliament as a Congress candidate from Thalassery in 1962, by his own admission, marked a turning point in his attitude towards the Congress, a party that he found had fallen into the wrong hands, having lost its initial egalitarian aspirations and ethical orientation. The decay of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) seemed to him to symbolise the sad disappearance of Sree Narayana Guru's teachings from the Malayali psyche. He articulated this aspect of his frustration strongly in his book, Guruvinte Dukham (The Guru's Grief). He even launched a renaissance platform, Navabharatavedi, and ran a journal for some time to defend Gandhian and democratic values. He has also been critical of the deviations of the Left, but towards the end he seemed more and more like a sympathetic critic; maybe he found no alternative to the Left in Kerala's political life.
As a teacher
His students remember him as an inspiring teacher. When he finished one of his last series of lectures, on Indian poetics, at the Sree Sankaracharaya Sanskrit University in Kalady, a witness told me, the poet Balachandran Chullikkad — with whom he had had a tussle years earlier— told him how he was a true teacher in the tradition of the Indian gurus, and Azhikode was visibly moved.
He had a penchant for creating enemies, but all his foes soon turned into friends. His last days in hospital (where he died on January 24 at the age of 85) would be remembered as a unique celebration of reunion and camaraderie. He loved crowds and would be a man possessed when he addressed them. His eloquence — he is said to have made 16,000 speeches, surely a Guinness Book record for a public speaker — at times carried him to those dizzy heights where reason and unreason merged indistinguishably. His more lasting contributions, however, were products of his solitude. Tatvamasi, in the true tradition of subaltern gurus, re-read the major Upanishads from a secular-spiritual point of view, bringing their egalitarian message closer to the masses.
Azhikode is yet to be evaluated as a literary critic. Two of his immediate predecessors had a major impact on him in different ways: His aesthetic canon comes close to that of Kuttikrishna Marar, while his polemical vehemence brackets him with Joseph Mundassery. In his best works he integrates Eastern critical concepts with Western ones, and creates an idiom that is neither facilely journalistic nor stiffly academic. He established himself as a formidable critical force with his very first books that looked critically at the poetry of Kumaran Asan, G. Sankara Kurup, and Changampuzha Krishna Pillai. But his masterpiece is his meta-critical doctoral dissertation, Malayala Vimarsanam (Criticism in Malayalam), where he surveys the scene of criticism in the language between 1890 and 1965. He had Arnold Toynbee's challenge-and-response theory for his paradigm. He links literature to culture and distinguishes criticism from aesthetic theory and literary history, looking at it as an attempt to explain to oneself the springs of textual pleasure, innovativeness being one abiding source.
He was at his critical best when he touched great writers such as Ezhuthachan or Kumaran Asan. It is a pity that despite his very large critical oeuvre he, too, like his coeval M.N. Vijayan, did not move beyond the literary sensibility of the 1950s. One of his final concerns, shared with me as I met him in the hospital, was the shrinkage in space for serious literary criticism in our journals.
Azhikode's sobering voice will continue to be missed in the social and cultural crises in Kerala.
(K. Satchidanandan is a Malayalam poet, bilingual critic and former Secretary, Sahitya Akademi.)