Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai,who would have been 100 years old on April 17 this year,was one of the great storytellers who laid the foundation of modern Malayalam fiction and at the same time co-founded a social revolution. The birth of the new storytelling in Kerala was a process in which young writers like Thakazhi,Kesavadev and Vaikom Muhammed Basheer responded to their times with a vigour that was rebellious to the core. Subaltern reformers like Narayana Guru,Ayyankali and Sahodaran Ayyappan had already sowed the seed of social revolution in the early 20th century.
The nationalist movement had filled the air with the discourse of freedom. English education had given young writers a glimpse into literatures of the world. They intuitively perceived the injustices of the feudal world and opted to stand with the poor and the oppressed. The communist movement,intense and genuine in its nascent phase,had articulated the possibility of a political revolution. When Thakazhi and Co took the plunge into writing peoples fiction in Malayalam,where fiction was still in its formative stage,they hardly had any models before them.
But there was a recluse of a man who guided these young writers to a breakthrough. He was A. Balakrishna Pillai,popularly known by the name of the journal he published Kesari. He was a prodigious scholar-thinker and an indefatigable advocate of humanism and modernity. His magnetic personality drew to him the young generation of writers. Kesari introduced them to the works of the great 19th century French realists/naturalists like Maupassant,Zola,Flaubert and Balzac as also to the great Russians. He goaded and guided them and when they had taken off in their different directions he pursued them with a persistent critique. Thakazhi was one of his many celebrated disciples.
Thakazhi enjoys a rare good fortune as an iconised writer because the clichés built around him happens to be the truth. The cliché-makers call him the chronicler of Kuttanad. (Kuttanad is Keralas fragile backwaters as also the heartland of paddy,and today a noted tourist destination.) He is that. They call him the storyteller of the oppressed and the downtrodden of feudal Kerala. He is very much that. They describe him as the man who lifted the life of the fisherfolk to the level of a magical myth. He did precisely that. They call him the novelist who penetrated the mind of the Hindu and Christian communities of central Kerala. Thakazhi was that. And he was a legend in his own lifetime. He survived the clichés,on the one hand,by enjoying them in an old-fashioned way,all the while seeing through them it was the same with flattery and,on the other,by doggedly being a writer to whom categories did not matter.
The novel that placed him on the frontline of Keralas social and literary renaissance was Thottiyude Makan (Son of the Scavenger),which narrated the horrific life of the scavenging people and carried it forward to a revolutionary finale. In a literature where the dominant theme was the manicured lives of the upper classes,such a story was a body-shock to the Establishment. On the one hand,it tore open the social curtain of silence to reveal the foul and nauseous conditions of the scavengers life and dared,on the other,to project the scavenger community into a politically empowered future where Thakazhi was not embarrassed to show them succumbing to material temptations. Looking back on this work published in 1947,when the communist party was still in the wilderness,Thakazhis prescience about the revolution and its aftermath is nothing but astounding. Randidangazhi (Two Measures of Rice) followed and it became another landmark of purogamana sahityam,Malayalams path-breaking progressive literary movement.
Chemmeen perhaps the most renowned of all his works,embellished by a classic film tells a tragic triangular love story. A Hindu fisherwoman is loved by a Muslim and a Hindu. However,the tragedy is enforced not by religion but by a quirk of fate. It is a work of great emotional unity,pace and lyrical force. In a way,it is a standalone work because Thakazhis essential style is laid-back,rambling,no-holds-barred and often direct to the bare bones. When he had a story to tell,he went about it simply by telling it the way it came and he was not interested in obstacles like premeditated craft. He let the characters loose and they,so to say,talked the story forward with occasional interventions from the writer to adjust the junctions and turns. He was a master narrator who wouldnt let anything stand in the way of his raw,onrushing story. And that reaches the pinnacle in his magnum opus Kayar (The Rope),which is a gargantuan,overflowing,intricate and rich pageant of four generations of ordinary people in Kuttanad. In the depth and breadth of story-making imagination,the bountiful extravagance of characterisation and the profundity of social and historical insights,Kayar is a masterwork of Indian literature.
There is a hilariously beautiful moment in Kayar that is quintessential Thakazhi. Kalyani Amma is the seductive village midwife with a run-away husband. She is attending to the pregnant wife of a young and handsome government official camping in the village,and she gets pregnant by him.She is unruffled,and the whole village knows about it except her uncle,Paramu Aasaan,the head of the family. Women never met the head of the family face to face. One day she accidentally runs into him with her big belly. In a murderous mood,he goes after her with his stick. She is cornered. Kalyani Amma chooses the only escape route available: she drops her lower garment and confronts him with her nudity. He not only runs away but soon after leaves home for Kashi,never to return.
All his life Thakazhi remained a villager and nothing but that. That was the identity he cherished most. And in the overwhelming political and cultural decadence that had begun to swallow Kerala in his own lifetime,masterminded by sectarian forces in politics,religion and the media and to which many cultural figures surrendered,Thakazhi stood out like a titan,democratic,secular,cosmopolitan,tolerant,bold and utterly free to a fault.