Decolonising the land

O.V. Vijayan   | Photo Credit: Photo: Mahesh Harilal


In Malayalam literature, reclaiming the land is reclaiming one’s identity.

The dreams of Malayalees are linked to their land. So is the literature in Malayalam. The fractured relationship with land, as one who owns it or as one who has been driven away or as one who views it with disdain, marks the writing in Malayalam, particularly fiction, since Independence. Their heroes are the poets, dramatists and novelists who have created for them landscapes of the mind to moor their thoughts and emotions.

In his masterpiece Kayar (1978) Thakazhi Sivashankara Pillai tells a story spanning more than 200 years, of the rise and fall of different communities in his birth place Kuttanad. While being the history of a region, Kayar captures the essence of the revolutionary shifts in Kerala history, with reference to the changing pattern of land holding. If Thakazhi narrates the saga of generations, M.T.Vasudevan Nair delineate the lives of individuals struggling to negotiate disintegrating feudal structures and values. Most of the characters are drawn from Kudallur, his native village. Naalukettu (1958) tells the story of a young boy, Appunni, against the history of his tharavadu, a matrilineal joint family.

This act of inscribing the self in terms of the region is seen in Oru Desathinte Katha (1971) also. In the novel, S.K. Pottekad sketches the men and women of Athiranippadam, drawing the history of the country while detailing the micro-history of a place. In Thattakam (1995), Kovilan returns to Mooppilasseri, a thinly veiled representation of Kandanisseri, his birth place. In the process of narrating the myths, legends, history associated with the place, he creates new myths and legends. In contrast to the above narratives, we have vignettes of Muslim life set in the village of Thalayolapparampu in northern Travancore in works like Muchcheettukalikkaarante Makal (1951), Sthalaththe Pradhaana Divyan (1953), Aanavaariyum Ponkurishum (1953) Paaththummaayude Aadu (1959) by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. Almost Chaucerian in his humour, irony and wit, Basheer does not hesitate to bring into the fold of fiction relatives, neighbors and friends.

Khasak, the nowhere-everywhere land that O.V. Vijayan created in Khasakinte Ithihasam (1969) is perhaps the most famous place in Malayalam literature. Vijayan weaves fact and fiction to create a distinctive land. The magic of the place was such that Malayalam literature has come to be defined as that which was written before Khasak and that after. In Pandavapuram (1976) Sethu experiments with different layers of reality to imagine a place of escape and solace for the heroine Devi. In the world of fantasy the novel conjures, there is a very thin line dividing the real from the unreal as Pandavapuram is an extension the angst-ridden psyche of the heroine.

Places of refuge

Some of the outstanding works in Malayalam literature talk of places of refuge to those who are cast away from society. In the novel Mavelimantram (1991), K.J. Baby tells the story of Kaippadan and Ira, a young tribal couple, who escape slavery to set up a ‘mavelimantram’, an ideal place where there is equality and peace. By creating a place they can relate to, they are trying to correct the actions of those who drove them away from the very lands that belonged to them. Sara Joseph in Aalahayude Penmakkal(1999), talks about another set of people who are pushed to the margins to Kokkanchira, a suburban region, as the city ‘developed’.

If, in the writers mentioned, we have been talking about definable locales, in a writer like Anand, rooms in lodging houses, compartments in moving trains, shacks temporarily put up in construction sites in a desert, the bar of a military camp, the ruins of abandoned monuments form the milieu. In Govardhante Yaathrakal (2000), the author concerned with the irrationality of all systems of penal law, sends Govardhan, a fictional character liberated from a play by Bharathendu Harischandra, on a journey through Indian history where he encounters some of the more outrageous violations of justice. Here the fixity of land gives way to the mobility of travel as a master trope to signify the process of colonisation.

In the narratives of colonialism the discovery of new lands and their eventual conquest is critical. It alienates the rightful owners of the land, makes them dependents. The writers I have identified are trying to decolonise the land by naming it, describing it, marking it as their own. In this they consciously eschew the greater narratives of the nation and map small places, unimportant people, everyday details. The land becomes a place, Kudallur or Kokkanchira which becomes home to the entire family of Malayalees.