M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the chronicler of the quotidian

Age may be have slowed down M.T. Vasudevan Nair but his creativity remains undiminished

Updated - May 11, 2019 05:41 pm IST

Published - May 10, 2019 03:36 pm IST

The legend: M.T. Vasudevan Nair in Chennai in April this year.

The legend: M.T. Vasudevan Nair in Chennai in April this year.

Lovers of Malayalam literature are eagerly looking forward to the next novel from M.T. Vasudevan Nair, or M.T., as he is popularly known. Not since the legendary Chemmeen has a Malayalam novel aroused such intense curiosity as M.T’s unborn fiction, which will be arriving 17 years after his last work. But then, no novelist after Thakazhi has captured the Malayalee imagination as profoundly as M.T.

For over 50 years now, M.T. has been the presiding deity of Malayalam fiction. With his formidable contemporaries, O.V. Vijayan and Madhavi Kutty (Kamala Das) gone, M.T. remains unchallenged as the lone superstar of Malayalam letters.

M.T’s huge popularity, bordering on adulation, owes largely to the way he presents the social history of Kerala in his works. The centrepiece of his fiction, Kudallur is a picturesque little village that is a microcosm of Kerala’s agrarian economy. That economy has been built on a feudalistic social structure. It is a shadowy world of exploitation, unashamed male domination and caste-driven prejudices.

Dissenting voices

Kerala in the first half of 20th century was a world apart. The Gulf boom was still a few decades away and digital technology had not yet arrived. Poverty and unemployment were widespread. It is the pain and pathos, loneliness and frustration of those days that M.T. sensitively portrays in his three early novels — Nalukettu , Asuravithu and Kaalam . Yet his characters are bold and irreverent, raising dissenting voices in a conformist society.

For M.T., Kudallur was the laboratory of the transformation that overtook Kerala in the second half of the 20th century. The transformation was the result of a composite movement evolving within the triangle of the freedom struggle, a social revolution and cultural renaissance.

Notwithstanding his preoccupation with themes that relate to traditional Kerala society and its underlying conflicts, M.T. remains one of its most versatile writers. In 1984, he produced another masterpiece, Randamoozham (Second Turn), where he recreates the story of Bhima, the marginalised Pandava from the Mahabharata . He humanises the tough war hero by highlighting his emotional trauma in a compelling work that brings Bhima to life.

Undercurrent of nostalgia

M.T. is also an accomplished filmmaker and script-writer. In a way, his literary and film careers have complemented each other. His film, Nirmalyam, won the National Award for Best Feature Film in 1973 and it remains a classic. Three more of his films won National Awards. Many of his screenplays are adaptations of his widely acclaimed short stories. They raise troubling questions about contemporary society and its synthetic values.

Stories like ‘ Iruttinte Athmavu ’ (‘Soul of Darkness’), ‘ Kuttiyettathi ’ (‘Little Big Sister’) and ‘ Oppol ’ (‘Elder Sister’) expose society’s double standards. In others like ‘ Vanaprastham ’ (‘Retreat’), ‘ Bandhanam ’ (‘Bond’) and ‘ Perumthachan’ (‘Master Craftsman’), M.T. explores the complexities of human relationships.

In most of his stories, there is an undercurrent of nostalgia and a yearning for a simpler life largely swept away by the technology-driven modern world.

M.T.’s writings are often compared to those of O.V. Vijayan, the other icon of contemporary Malayalam fiction. But the two have contrasting styles. MT’s simple, elegant language and narratives that closely follow real life have made him popular with the ordinary reader, while Vijayan’s inventive prose that speaks through symbols appeals to the more discerning reader. The two have made Malayalam fiction richer in equal measure.

Regional talents

M.T. Vasudevan Nair turned 85 last August. Advancing age has slowed his writing down but his creativity remains undiminished. A new generation of Malayalam writers have arrived, but there is no one who can equal his genius. His pan-India stature was recognised when the Jnanpith was conferred on him in 1995. The Kerala government has honoured him with almost every State award for literature it has.

I once asked Amitav Ghosh, who was on a visit to Chennai, that if India gets the Nobel some time in the future, whether it should go to an Indian writer in English or to a regional writer.

Ghosh replied that the huge talents in India’s regional writing remain largely unknown to the world outside. He added that it is the Sahitya Akademi which should take the initiative to bring out high-quality translations of important pieces of Indian writing into English and other global languages.

Until that happens, M.T.’s powerful stories will sadly remain confined to Kerala and the vast Malayalee diaspora spread across the world.

The writer is Senior Fellow at London School of Economics who writes on Malayalam literary trends.

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