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Doyen of literature

Sukumar Azhikode. Photo: C. Ratheesh Kumar  

In June 1994 Sukumar Azhikode rang me for the very first time. “I am told that recently you married a Bengali girl. If you are free, come home with her for a cup of tea at 5 pm today,” and he banged the phone. Both of us hail from Poothappara of Azhikode in Kannur and later settled in Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala. He held my father's uncle, Velloore P.K. Krishnan Nambiar, in high esteem for translating Yogavashista into Malayalam.

When we reached his home, the 68-year-old lanky, hardly five-and-a-half-feet tall, chronic bachelor known for both his sense of humour and short temper, was waiting for us. “Is this ordinary looking and feeble man a literary colossus who thunderstorm the entire State?” I read from my wife's face.

Sanskrit talk

On knowing Pallavi's Santiniketan background and after asking her to sing a few lines of Rabindra Sangeet, Azhikode enquired her about an old friend of his whose first name he could not recollect. She suggested in her Bengali accent: “Oh, Sobyasachi Chakraborthy?” He said, “Yes, yes; it is a Sanskrit word that in Bengali is pronounced as Sobyasachi” and explained the root of the Sanskrit word and how Arjuna got that name and went on with the problem in transliteration of Indian languages; non stop for over 30 minutes he sailed us through the rivulets of Sanskrit language's aesthetics — another face, familiar to all those who closely interacted with him. No wonder, for most of the Malayalees he was “mash” — master in colloquial Malayalam.

As we took leave, patting me on my shoulder he said, “Teach her good Malayalam but not your's. You may also learn Bengali; make use of this rare opportunity.”

Blatant tongue always landed Azhikode in debates that he passionately longed for. When writer S.K. Nair commented on modifying his name from Sukumaran to Sukumar, Azhikode retorted; if Nair hates the consonant at the end, he too can avoid it ( Nai in Malayalam means dog). Antagonism and controversies were his siblings that accompanied him wherever he went, even to his graveyard — the disputes regarding where, when and how his mortal was to be cremated got to be settled finally by the State Chief Minister himself. He studied at the Rajas High School, Chirakkal, during the late 1930s. Decades later when I was in high school at his alma-mater, we nicknamed cynical teachers as “Azhikode mash”.

Of his 27 major works, Asante Seetakavyam (1954), Sankarakurup Vimarshikkappedunnu (1963, gravely criticising the celebrated Malayalam poet G. Sankara Kurup, the first Jnanpith recipient of the country) and Tatwamasi (1984) are considered among the remarkable writings in Malayalam.

During the 1990s when two of the cover stories that I had written in the Mathrubhumi Weekly stirred the hornet's nest, I was expecting orders not so pleasant from my then employer, State Bank of India. Azhikode told me, “Bravely walk ahead of your times instead of being a yours faithfully guy.” When I started reviewing books for The Hindu Book Review, he said, “I buy books going by The Hindu reviews” and advised me to “read the wrapper, only after sending your review.”

His orations, starting very slow used to gradually accelerate in pitch. Slightly bending and shaking in the right side of his body and projecting the index and middle finger simultaneously towards the listeners, he proceeded like a roar of waves, firing the minds of the listeners. During the mid-1990s, Azhikode got a letter from Sonia Gandhi expressing her desire to hear his lecture; the media of Kerala celebrated the news.

Paradoxically, this Gandhian and a follower of Narayana Guru and Vagbhadananda was extremely adamant and struggled all his life defending his ego until his hospitalisation. When literally all the celebrities whom he mercilessly grilled came to see him at the hospital during the last days of his life, mash reflected like an innocent child. As Malayalam fictionist K.P. Nirmalkumar once commented, mash was “as current as tomorrow's newspaper”.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 7:27:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/doyen-of-literature/article2860204.ece

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