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In search of `novel'ty

N. S. Madhavan is all set to bring out his debut novel.

EVERY TIME N. S. Madhavan comes back to his hometown, he searches around for those familiar landmarks. The master writer treasures countless images and sepia-tinted memories of Kochi, his own city. And when Madhavan dreamed of his first novel, he untied and sifted through this bundle of memories to come up with a tale of the life and times of the islanders.

"Those were days when I used to walk my way to school reading a book. There was that vast open space near MG Road where we used to play badminton. A huge multi-storeyed concrete structure stands there now. I often feel that I may even get lost in this maze," remarks Madhavan, whose early school and college days were spent in Kochi.

Deliberately, perhaps, Madhavan never used Kochi as the backdrop and its people as characters in any of his celebrated short stories. Reserving them to be spread out on a much wider canvas, allowing his memories to roam around. "I think I have said this somewhere before. Writing short stories is like driving a monoplane. The novel, is letting a jet plane fly in the auto-pilot mode," Madhavan puts it as crisply and succinctly as his brilliant prose.

`Lanthenbatheriyile Luthiniyakal,' serialised in a magazine and set for release sometime in May this year, is not a historical account of Kochi. There are many who believe that novels, especially when set in the backdrop of a city, need to be historically accurate. Madhavan does not subscribe to this. "There are so many incidents, people, customs, that have not been recorded by history. Trying to trace them in those voluminous history books may be futile. Recorded history of the city is not the main focus of the novel though some historical incidents do find mention. Historical and political changes are used as a device to mark the passage of time," says Madhavan.

The focus is on an imaginary island, perhaps Ponjikkara, evolved from the earlier `Kambonjikaadu,' and the lives of its citizens. Despite being so close to the ever growing mainland, this island is isolated, the winds of change hardly touching upon its denizens. The story of the island, like the litany, is repeated. The waves come back to lash on the shores, the influences of those who left their imprints on the island remain, even as time and age pass on.

The story of Lanthanbathery, spanning a period of 16 years from 1951 to 1967 is unravelled through Jessica. Madhavan explores in his sinewy prose the throbbing of this island, which is a blend of various cultures, with its ancient Portuguese cupola, boatyard, palaces and the fictitious and real life characters that flit through.

This magical storyteller began work on the initial notes of this novel way back in 1992. It took him nearly six years to prepare the fair notes, put the whole structure in place and then two more years to jot down the final notes. He even rented a house in Fort Kochi, where he polished the work, before writing the final print.

Madhavan is not a compulsive writer. He is one who prefers to wait for that spark and then draws up a schedule to work on the drafts. There was a short while when he wrote nothing. This came immediately after a rather pessimistic collection of stories, `Choolamedinte Shavangal', but with `Higuita' everything changed. This was a watershed in the history of Malayalam short stories. " I sent the story along with a stamped return envelope. Somehow I felt that way. M. T. Vasudevan Nair found a place for this and since then I have kept writing," Madhavan reveals with a chuckle.

There are many in Maharaja's College who fondly remember Madhavan's powerful, vitriolic writing in the leaflets printed by the Students Federation of India. Those were his early writings, which had obvious signs of his eloquence and erudition, which became the hallmark of his later works. "During those days most of us were enchanted by the genre of short stories. By those of Kakkanadan, Vijayan, Mukundan and others," says Madhavan, who shrugged off all existing genres to create one marked by matchless sophistication and classic quality.

Kochi will keep changing. Very soon that long stretch of isolated islands will be linked to the mainland. Madhavan's island that was a mirror to diverse history and culture, hardly touched by sweeping changes, may even vanish from the Kochiscape.


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