The river sutra

Kuttiyadi river.   | Photo Credit: S. Ramesh Kurup

Kerala, the land of 44 rivers! At some point or the other, most Keralites would have boasted about the State’s magnificent rivers, big and small, that nourish the slice of land wedged between the sea and the mountains.

In prose and verse, men and women of words, many nurtured on the banks of the rivers themselves, have made the rivers their muse.

M T Vasudevan Nair.

M T Vasudevan Nair.   | Photo Credit: S. Mahinsha

While waxing eloquent about how Bharathapuzha, endearingly called Nila, fostered literature and art and craft —from Kilippattu and Koodiyattam to Kathakali and Thullal to Killimangalam weaves and Adakkaaputhur mirror, we have fallen short of words. More than the great oceans that bear unknown secrets in their wombs, I love my Nila, words of M T Vasudevan Nair, ever the storyteller of the Nila, well up as if to compensate.

Edassery Govindan Nair, another great literary figure, tries to gaze into the future of the river in his famous poem Kuttippuram Palam (Kuttippuram Bridge). He wrote the poem in 1963 when the bridge was built. The poet foresaw the sandmining and industrial pollution awaiting the Nila. “O Mother, Perar [another name for the Nila] will you but transform into a grieving gutter?," he laments. He describes the seasonal floods thus: "...Again, you will surge forward and crash across, destroying banks..."

Malayalam writer M Mukundan.

Malayalam writer M Mukundan.   | Photo Credit: S. Mahinsha

Memories of the deluge of August, when the Nila breached its banks and imperiously swept aside puny man-made structures, refuses to drain away but the Bharathapuzha is now a few puddles of water dotted by sandbanks; tall grass blades quietly swaying to the breeze, lending it an illusion of wellness. The scene brings to mind P Kunhiraman Nair’s timeless verses. His words resonate across the decades: “Alas! the valiant Kerala is unrecognizable today. The veritable, lovely garden has been turned into a scary cemetery!

A mention of Nila conjures up umpteen names, like magic. From the legendary Vallathol and M Govindan to VKN; from Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri to Nalappattu Narayana Menon; poets Vyloppilly, G Sankara Kurup, Balamaniyamma, O N V Kurup, Olappamanna, Akkitham, and Attoor Ravi Varma; journalist-writers K P Kesava Menon and O V Vijayan; novelists such as C Radhakrishnan and Uroob... renaissance leaders like V T Bhattathirippad, K Damodaran and Cherukad... Their lives and writings are inextricably intertwined with the river. And like a river, their words carried novel ideas across terrains to mould the Kerala that we know of now. One of the most fruitful ecological movements of our country, Save Silent Valley, took place on the banks of the Kunthipuzha, a tributary of Bharathapuzha.

Malayalam poet ONV Kurup

Malayalam poet ONV Kurup   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

The story of the Nila is the story of Malayalam, the language and its culture. The word ‘Nila’ is said to have been derived from the ‘Bhishma Parva’ of Mahabharata, but a more poetic conclusion says she is named after the Nilgiri hills. The river nurtured Thunchathu Ezhuthachan, Kunchan Nambiar, and Poonthanam, literary greats who fought against an entrenched caste system to make language, and literature by extension, accessible to all. The legacy has been guarded by later generations of writers who formed literary friendships like ‘Ponnani Kalari’. Ponnani, where the Bharathapuzha merges with the Arabian Sea, also nurtured Arabi-Malayalam, a confluence of Arabic and Malayalam, which saw works like the earliest known Mappila song Mohyuddin Mala, and a host of translations of Sanskrit texts such as Amarakosam and Ashtangahridayam.

Vellappokkathil by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai is often quoted as the story that encompasses the floods from the point of view of an abandoned pet dog. The incident being described here is the "deluge of '99", in popular parlance. These floods swept Kerala away, literally, in the year 1924.

Writer Sara Joseph

Writer Sara Joseph   | Photo Credit: S Ramesh Kurup

Ayalkaar, a famous novel by P Kesavadev, opens to a scene of the rescue during those devastating floods.

The irrepressible Vaikom Mohammed Basheer has written about the floods that used to visit the Moovattupuzha river twice a year in Ormayude Arakal. Residents used to shift to large country boats during such times to wait till the waters receded. His encounter with a venomous serpent during one such time reads like a present-day post-flood account.

…And quiet flow the rivers

Sara Joseph’s Aathi, inspired by the life and myths of mussel pickers of Valanthkkad in Kochi, is soaked in the waters of Kerala. Here, human beings are only a link in the endless chain of life. The novel narrates how greed upsets this delicate balance, as we witnessed recently when our rivers reclaimed their encroached routes during the floods. River is a "she" in P. Valsala’s story Erandakal. Bhanu identifies herself with the river and, like ‘her’, she too falls prey to the avarice of man.

O. V. Vijayan

O. V. Vijayan   | Photo Credit: H. Vibhu

“We will all flow away, eventually. We should be aware of the flow. Where it comes from, where it goes…,” Parameswaran tells Nangemakkutti in O V Vijayan’s Puzha. Arkkam, a poem by Attoor, describes his search for self the world across, only to find it back home, on the shores of the Ganga, Saraswathi, and Perar. Maram, both the novel and the movie, by N P Mohammed, takes place on the shores of the Kallayi river, a centre of timber trade in bygone days. In his short story Olavum Theeravum, MT depicts Bapputty's emotions —his pain and elation, his hope and despair — getting reflected by the river. "The river is flowing in full. Waves come crashing onto the shore, and break apart. A pale moonlight melts into the water, like a smile borne out of anguish..." Another river that enthralled Malayalis is the Mayyazhi. In M Mukundan’s epic novel Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil, he says that dragonflies in Velliyankallu are the souls of the dead. Dasan, the protagonist, too joins them in the end, anchoring the era of Modernism in Malayalm literature.

Writer P. Valsala in Kozhikode.

Writer P. Valsala in Kozhikode.   | Photo Credit: S. Ramesh Kurup

In south Kerala, Kaanam E J named one of his hit novels Pambanadi Paanjozhukunnu. Muttathu Varkey set a number of stories against the picturesque Meenachil river. Malayattoor Ramakrishnan brought in the Moovattupuzha river in his novels while novelist G Vivekanandan set his novels such as Kallan and Kallichellamma in the backdrop of the Killi and Karamana rivers.

Dams and rivers

Vellappokkam by poet and pioneering environmentalist N V Krishna Varrier strikingly paints the picture of a dam breach. It reads like a succinct summary of the August floods. In his short stories such as Veedu, Nadeethadam, Chila Ormakkurippukal, Aymanam John, chronicler of Meenachil, writes about dams. Reminiscing about dried up rivers, the protagonist realises that the summers of his childhood never involved droughts. Then he remembers that a dam was being constructed upstream. In Malampuzhayil, P too laments about the Nila being chained by the Malampuzha dam.

Deafening sound of wheels, smoking chimneys and garbage-filled pipelines are characters in N P Hafiz Mohammed’s Vevalathiyude Puzha. Although the river in the story does not have a name, it can be inferred that the writer means the Chaliyar, which once got violated by a big fat factory and made many a resident on its banks a prey to cancer.

A deluge defies established patterns. Layers and layers of memories are tossed, churned and sifted.

Decades ago, P summed up exactly what we were to experience in his poem Sivathaandavam: "Dark whirlpools have crushed both banks of an earth that has lost its frames. Mighty mountains are buoyed by the waves like froth, only to close their eyes forever!" But Vyloppilly reassures us of a new beginning, in Chettupuzha: Let all putridity go down the swamps; and the river run towards perfection...

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2021 7:53:30 AM |

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