‘I am for universal brotherhood’

Daivathinte Pusthakam by K. P. Ramanunni   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

One may not say controversy is his middle name, but it has been writer K.P. Ramanunni’s constant companion. Hear him for a while on culture, religion, sexuality and literature, and you can see a fiercely independent thinker under that calm exterior. Shorn of that veneer of genteel calmness, in a free-wheeling interview, the author, whose seminal novel Daivathinte Pusthakam has won the Kendra Sahitya Akademi award for 2017, spells out his views:

In Baliyaani, men in flesh and blood, people who walk this earth, become characters in a story. Was this brilliant move, perhaps a first, designed to grab the reader’s attention?

Baliyaani is not a rejoinder, but a sequel, to the short story Biriyani by Santhosh Echikkanam for which he was hauled over the coals. Santhosh had scoffed at the profligacy and the extravagance of the affluent Kalanthan Haji in the midst of poverty, but a section of the readers mistook it for his derision for the community. In my story, I do not, for a moment, blame Santhosh. I have delineated a contrite Santhosh, feeling remorseful that his story caused discord between two communities. To place the story in the natural premises, it was necessary to pull in literary and other figures belonging to the area.

In stark contrast, in Daivathinte Pusthakam, we see mythological and historical figures as characters with NASA, the black hole, time machine and the like as adjuncts. Comments?

It reflects my angst about the deterioration that is fast overtaking the world, humans and environment, the need to set in motion a corrective action.

A close look will reveal that all the characters are in a self-correcting mode. It is essentially self-criticism by mankind and articulates my wishful thinking that a new world order will emerge, with universality of love and the eternal truth prevailing.

No renovation is complete unless it starts from the past. And this is where the black hole and the time machine come in. This novel is set in a vast time-space continuum: Dwaaparayuga to the sixth century to the current times, the small world that we live in to the galactic black hole.

Does one detect an autobiographical streak in Jeevithathinte Pusthakam?

Well, yes and no. A writer draws copiously from the world around him, including himself. Some of one’s experiences do sneak in when one writes, but so do those of others, but that is only half the story; imagination is the other half.

Milan Kundera put it so succinctly when he said, “Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs.” It is those unrealised dreams that become characters, episodes and stories. Amnesia is a metaphor in the novel – a ruse to get away from the modern, mechanised, loveless, artificial world. I go back to Kundera again, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

The common thread that runs through many of your works is concord and understanding among religions. Nevertheless, does not performance of the rituals for a pilgrimage to Sabarimala in a Muslim household, though desirable, look contrived?

When I was in school, my classmate Khayyoom spoke to me about Muhammad Nabi. I asked my mother who Nabi was. Her response was that he is the counterpart of Sreekrishna. A woman who had not studied beyond Class VIII, she had imbibed that precept from her forbears and passed it on to the next generation. That spirit of inclusiveness sums up the essence of Hinduism. It is not about religious tolerance, but about love for the ‘other’ religion. It is not for nothing that Kerala is called God’s On Country. Far from being a tagline for the tourism industry, it is an uncontestable truism. In Sacred Kerala by Dominique-Sila Khan, she refers to the culture of shared spaces between religions.

Viewed in this context, there is nothing contrived in setting off for Sabarimala from a Muslim household or Ashraf undertaking the pilgrimage to a place of Hindu worship, observing rituals consistent with his faith and belief systems.

Towards the end of your debut novel Sufi Paranja Katha, a chasm too wide to bridge develops between Kaarthi and Maamutty. Does not this pessimistic note give lie to the hope for the hallowed tradition of religious harmony?

You can see that hope is embedded in the tragedy in the story. It highlights the fact that though the religions may be different, the culture is the same, as much as Beevi and Bhagavathi are. Religion is not about rituals, it is about spirituality. Maamutty builds a Kaali temple for Kaarthi and after embracing the sea, she returns to the beach as a Beevi. Eternal hope springs.

Despite advocating tolerance and understanding, the past seems to repeat itself in the present. Are not recent developments in the case of some books, authors and films not logical but unfortunate extensions of the same mindset?

Hindu is not the opposite of Muslim. Religion is self-renewal. When Sree Narayana Guru’s advice was sought on conversion from one religion to another, he brushed it aside, for, if you cannot be good, no religion is good enough. Hinduism does not consider obeisance as the only form of worship.

The Kauravas attained salvation because Lord Krishna was on their mind all the time, albeit as an enemy. Take Shankaracharya’s Soundaryalahari or the Kodungallooor Bharani where it is the femininity and the sexuality that is worshipped.

Despite being unbiased, even sympathetic to the minority and describing Nabi as the embodiment of love, some people seem to have arraigned themselves against you. In a world where religion wields power and influence more than ever in the past, is obscurantism being bred and nurtured by fanatic religiosity?

There are no Hindu fundamentalists or Muslim fundamentalists; they are both criminals. It is not merely the fanatics that have turned against me; the secularists and the rationalists too have an issue. I am for universal brotherhood and plurality, not compartmentalisation or regimentalisation.

Would it be right to conclude that in Daivathinte Pusthakam, you assert that religion is, to use a mathematical term, a ‘function’ of the economy, history, culture and geography in which it sprouts and lives?

It indeed is, as it moves out of its original location, it acquires the local flavour which is why the Islam in Indonesia or India is different from that in Arabia. It is not anti-Islamic. Recall that Imam Malik adopted the African attire. Vested interests pull religion back to its roots, thus preventing it from renewing itself while re-reading of the scriptures is the need of the hour.

M.T. Vasudevan Nair has observed that traditional notions about semantics are redefined in the style of writing you adopt. It is almost like unshackling the words and setting them free or assigning them new connotations, he says. How do you achieve that?

It just happens. The way you express your love is not premeditated: it is spontaneous, natural, evolving as the process progresses. You act as the situation demands. Likewise, as one writes, words flow; they take on new connotations. At times, one invents new words or assigns new meanings.

A charge often levelled against you is that your writings are suffused with large doses of sex, often not essential in or relevant to the narrative. Your response?

It is true that there is elaborate description of the act in more places than one, but it is not the physical act that I have focused on. It is not the loveless sex that I describe. Sex is not a sin. It is the sublime and aesthetic act of union.

Which is the format you are more comfortable with – short stories or 700-page tomes?

Both. It all depends on what I intend to portray. While short stories are ideal for episodal writing in a brief time-span and locale, the broad canvas of a novel, a vast space and a long continuum of time are necessary for expressing one’s vision of life. Which is also why novels are few and far between.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 11:10:27 AM |

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