‘It was like a birthday gift for my father’

Anita Nair on being shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014.

Updated - April 08, 2016 10:21 am IST

Published - November 02, 2014 08:44 am IST

BANGALORE, KARNATAKA, 28/01/2014: Author Anita Nair during an interaction in Bangalore on January 28, 2014.
Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar

BANGALORE, KARNATAKA, 28/01/2014: Author Anita Nair during an interaction in Bangalore on January 28, 2014. Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar

It was the description of a young boy’s dark skin tone in a Malayalam folk ballad that set Anita Nair thinking about the fascinating and tumultuous history of 17th century Kerala. The Pulluvan Paattu , which describes the 1683 Mamangam (the once-in-12-years festivity that stamped the power of the Zamorin over the land) spoke of a young warrior Kandavar who is on a mission to assassinate the king. What if the father of the feisty boy — whose legs were dark as sugarcane —was a Somalian, considering the flourishing trade between Eastern Africa and the Malabar Coast in this period, wondered Anita.

This thought sowed the seed for Idris: Keeper of the Light , which has been shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Fiction 2014. When the shortlist for The Hindu Prize was announced, Nair was in her village in Kerala for her father’s birthday. “So it was like a birthday gift for my father!” she smiles.

As the novel unfolded, Kandavar’s mysterious father Idris — the “eternal traveller seeking the measure of earth and man” — became the nucleus around whom the plot revolved. In fact, the plot itself grew so thick and rich that the novel has become a trilogy.

Idris chronicles the protagonist’s chance encounter with his nine-year-old son, born of a surreal midnight tryst with Kuttimalu, a Nair woman. It then takes off on a long journey from Malabar to Ceylon; from Thoothukudi to the diamond mines of Golkonda.

Historically, the 17th century was an interesting period in Kerala. “The European traders were not yet big colonial powers, and the king not a puppet in their hands. It was also a time of renaissance in Kerala with poets, astronomers and mathematicians flourishing,” says Nair. This period was also marked by a curious combination of being open and yet very closed as a culture. Trading between distant lands brought new influences in language and cuisine and cultural practices. But the caste hierarchy and rules remained rigid and inhuman, with the “lower” castes condemned to remain at the bottom. 

Reconstructing this historical period was not easy, considering the scarcity of authentic records and other source material. She had to enlist the help of assistants who went to the dusty corners of libraries in Kerala to dig out old books in Malayalam. The narratives of foreign travellers and traders — which included English, French, Dutch and Portuguese — were of immense help but she had to be careful to look for the most reliable, considering that very few of the foreign travellers actually spoke Malayalam.

The two sequels to follow will flesh out this historical period in greater detail. Having got a grip on research methodology with the first novel, Nair hopes to be more organised with the next two.

For now, Nair has taken a break from history and is working on a sequel to A Cut Like Wound , featuring Inspector Gowda, in an attempt to “come back to the contemporary reality.” She is also putting together a writing academy with a mentorship programme, to be christened “Anita’s Attic.”

In the meanwhile, Idris has been translated into many languages, including Malayalam, and got a good reception.

“One of the best compliments was a letter I got from a Muslim cleric who said that he liked the way I described Islamic religious and cultural practices,” she says.

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