Wednesday, November 2, 2011

VAIKOM MUHAMMAD BASHEER, THE SULTAN OF STORY TELLERS- CAPT AJIT VADAKAYIL


Vaikom Muhammad Basheer was a fiction writer, who wrote in my mother tongue Malayalam. He passed away at the age of 86 from my hometown Calicut, in 1994, leaving behind his wife and two children.

He won the Padma Shri award in 1992.  His face adorns one of the Govt of India postal stamps.

People outside Kerala will surely ask Vaikom Mohammad Basheer , who?

Well this was a man who broke all shackles of contemporary Malayalam literature. He did not care for the classical language— rather he did NOT even know it.  He wrote in Kozhikkodan Mappila Malayalam, the colloquial vernacular of the Kerala Muslims, or rather he wrote in the language of his characters.   Every Malayali film goer knows the delightful vernacular used by character artist and comedian Mammu Koya.

I relate to this style . When I was a kid I used to come rushing back home from  school , to play with my neighbouring kids,  some of  whom were Muslims , who spoke this Malayalam strain slang. There were about 16 of us playing soccer and Chatti ( 7 tiles ) . Those were happy childhood days.

The writings of Basheer are like a whiff of fresh air , after the first rain on parched land. Once you start reading his simple but well crafted stories , you won’t stop till you finish it. And after you reach the end of the story, you will be silent for a while and ponder over what he wrote—literally the melody of a song which lingers.

Malayalam literature till then, was monopolized by the high caste Hindus who wrote boring stuff in Sanskritised Malayam , which went over the heads of the common man. Trying to impress with prose rather than content, was never Basheer’s forte.  Basheer’s style in contract was refreshingly down to earth and rustic.  You really cannot translate his stories into other languages without knocking out its punch and sheen.

He was an astute observer of human nature, and the darker and seamier side of poverty. Every story had a social commitment and theme, woven craftily into the plot sometimes as sarcasm or even black humor.

The Malayali women just loved to shed a silent tear over his mushy love stories. His stories were poignant, full of emotional intensity,  mostly in a lingering sad way, which gave you a lump in your throat.  He also could punch humour in between, in a unique style which appealed to all age groups and intelligence levels.

Literally Basheer , with his deep understanding of raw human emotions exploded the Malayali consciousness to a new level, all by simple earthy stories. His magic with words made the Malayalis laugh, then he made them cry, before they could stop laughing.  If Basheer’s stories were the North pole the hollow Yank TV serial, “ The bold and the beautiful” would be the south pole.  Basheer’s inimitable works  were thankfully free of pomp and ostentation.

Now how did he get to understand raw human emotions?  Mostly by self experience , where he faced death due to hunger several times.  Experience is verily the best master. His personal life had been a sort of “Papillon” type saga.  The sheer trauma and gory reality of life that Basheer roller coasted through in his young eventful life did not allow him to lead a sane and peaceful life-- he was twice admitted to mental sanatoriums.

In 1924, when Mahatma Gandhi came to his village Vaikom for the Vaikom Satyagraha, 16 year old Basheer wore Khadi and went to meet him. He got thrashed by his headmaster for wearing Khadee.  He jostled his way to Gandhiji’s car . He came back and told his mother proudly “Umma, I managed to touch Gandhiji’s hand today!”—probably the turning point of his life.

In 1930 he participated in Gandhiji’s Salt satyagraha at Malabar, and was thrown into Kannur prison for 3 months. In 1931 he was editor of a revolutionary magazine by the name of Ujjvanam ( Uprising ), and a warrant was issued for his arrest again.

He fled Kerala to evade arrest and was footloose for 7 years. He went all around India in various disguises. He stayed in hermitages in Himalayas with Hindu sages.  He even stowed away on a Merchant ship SS Rizwani along with Mecca pilgrims , and went abroad to Gulf . To keep himself alive he took on various jobs cook,  fruit juice seller, beggar, newspaper boy, accountant, shepherd, watchman, hotel boy, porter,  fortune teller ( crafty guy giving bull !) , errand boy etc. He says he lost his hair due to lack of nutrition.

All these experiences , while struggling to keep himself alive and staving off hunger, were the reason for his deep understanding of human character and nature. After he returned back to Kerala he again plunged headlong into the freedom struggle and went to couple of  times more.

He wrote about his own experiences in jail too.  One of them “Mathilugal” was made into a Malayalam movie starring super star Mammotty, directed by renowned director Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

Mathilukal ("Walls") is Basheer’s own story . It is a novel of sad irony set against a turbulent pre-independence days political backdrop.  Here prisoner Basheer  falls in love with a 22 year old life convict Hindu woman . The women’s jail was separated from men’s jail by a very high wall. One day he was trying to catch a squirrel. Suddenly a woman's voice from beyond the compound wall asked:  'Who is whistling over there?" Till that moment of time , Basheer was resigned to mechanically living out each day in the prison till his sentence gets over. He gets renewed hope and energy in his monotonous life in the prison, when he starts interacting daily with this sweet female voice from across the walls, from the women’s prison. They fall passionately in love, exchange tokens of love across the wall, device a code to signal when they want to listen to each others’ voices, and so on. There are priceless steaming conversations between them from both sides of the wall. He now has a reason to wake up to each day, to look forward to hearing Narayani’s voice, and to replay each of their words a hundred times before he drifts off to sleep dreaming of her in his arms . They strategize on how to catch a glimpse of each other…They exchange solemn love-promises standing on two sides of a wall, only to be separated , one fine day without even being able to say good-bye. On the day they planned to meet at the prison hospital, by a strange quirk of fate, Basheer was released. He never had a chance to tell her .  Before he "met" Naraayani, the prison walls were killing Basheer, but when the orders for his release arrive he falls apart and loudly protests, "Who needs freedom? Outside these walls lies an even bigger jail."


For breathing life into this role, Mammotty got Best Actor National award.

Published Works

1. Premalekhanam [ A love letter] (Novel) (1943).
2. Baalyakaalasakhi [ Sweetheart from childhood] (Novel) (1944).
3. Kathaabeejam [ Seed of a story ] (Play) (1945).
4. Janmadinam [Birthday] (Short stories) (1945).
5. Ormakkurippu [Jottings from memory] (Short stories) (1946).
6. Anargha nimisham [Invaluable instant] (See Anal Haq) (Short stories) (1946).
7. Shabdangal [Voices] (Novel) (1947).
8. Viddhikalude Swargam [Fools' paradise] (Short stories) (1948).
9. Ente uppuppakkoru aana undayirunnu [Me grandad had an elephant] (Novel) (1951).
10. Maranathininde Nizhalil [In the shadow of death] (Novel) (1951).
11. Muchcheettu kalikkaarande Makal [The daughter of the card-shark] (Novel) (1951).
12. Paavappettavarudey Vaeshya [The courtesan of the poor] (Short stories) (1952).
13. Sthalathe Pradhaana Divyan [The principal divine of the place] (Novel) (1953).
14. Aanavaariyum Ponkurishum [Elephant rustler and Golden cross] (Novel) (1953).
15. Jeevithanizhalppaadukal [The shadows of life] (Novel) (1954).
16. Vishwavikhkhyaathamaaya Mookku [The world-renowned nose] (Short stories) (1954).
17. Vishappu [Hunger] (Short stories) (1954).
18. Paaththummayude Aadu [Paaththumma's goat] (Novel) (1959).
19. Mathilukal [Walls] (Novel; basis for a film (1989) by Adoor Gopalakrishnan) (1965).
20. Oru Bhagavadgeethayum Kuraey Mulakalum [A Bhagavadgeetha and some breasts] (Short stories) (1967).
21. Thaaraa Specials (Novel) (1968).
22. Maanthrika poochcha [The magic cat] (Novel) (1968).
23. Nerum Nunayum [Truth and lie] (Commentary and letters) (1969).
24. Ormmayudaey Arakal [The cells of memory] (Commentary and reminiscences) (1973).
25. Aanappooda [Elephant-hair] (Short stories) (1975).
26. Chirikkunna Marappaava [The laughing wooden doll] (Short stories) (1975).
27. Bhoomiyudaey Avakaashikal [The inheritors of the earth] (Short stories) (1977).
28. Anuraagaththintaey Dhinangal [The days of desire] (Diary; originally titled Kaamukantaey diary [The diary of the paramour] and changed later on the suggestion of M. T. Vasudevan Nair) (1983).
29. Bhaargavinilayam [The house named Bhaargavi] (Screenplay for a film (1964) by A. Vincent which is credited as the first horror cinema in malayalam; adapted from the short story Neelavelichcham [The blue glow]) (1985).
30. M. P. Paul (Reminiscences of his friendship with M. P. Paul) (1991).
31. Shinkidimunkan (Short stories) (1991).
32. Cheviyorkkuka! Anthimakaahalam!! [Hark! The final clarion-call!!] (Speech) (1992).
33. Yaa Ilaahi! [Oh God!] (Short stories published posthumously) (1997).

When he achieved fame some Islamic fundamentalist organisations tried to make Basheer their mouthpiece, to highlight their cause .  To Basheer’s credit he did NOT fall prey to them, earning the respect of all.

You may wonder—what the hell?  Everybody writes a love story.  The usual run of the mill, man meets girl— man falls in love —  man proposes to girl —  girls ignores him —  man does sweet pursuit—  girl relents after playing hard to get for a respectable period .  

Thousands of love stories had the same plot, right?  So then why is Basheer so special?  Well, ladies and gentlemen,  that is why Basheer is the sultan of all legendary story tellers.

By the way Aishwarya Rai calls sweet pursuit of love --  “ diabolical stalking”.   Poor girl, at the age of 38 is still hooked on to the “Coz I am worth it”  line –

No easy escape from narcissm for some – Basheer on the contrary was unaffected all all the attention—anybody muse could go to his doorstep and interrupt his writing. Did not a little bird tweet , that beauty is only skin deep?

“ LoReal Paris, ka Total Repair 5-- Kyon ki mujhe naaz hai khud par”! ( sniff !) . I wonder how Basheer would have responded to this pathetic line!!

Basheer should have written a book about Kerala Communists-- how they keep dropping the Latin word BOURGEOIS without knowing its meaning , all over the place to impress all and sundry.  The best part is , surprisingly -- all of them know how to pronounce this word properly.  I remember the Calicut Communist Muncipal Corporation used to make problems for us at the Stadium Tennis clay court -- dubbing it a bourgeois ( sic!) game.

In the video below the delightful , hilarious dialogues of Mammu Koya who speaks the Mappila lingo of Basheer, can never ever be recreated in any other language.


Grace and peace !




CAPT AJIT VADAKAYIL

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4 comments:

  1. Wow...great...thanks for the post, being a N.Indian and long away from Kerala, I still could understand the dialogues..

    -kumar

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  2. Very much moved to read the true impressions of the Sulthan's work and about himself. Lovely depiction of the man. Great portrayal of this remarkable man...unpretentious, witty, courageous and earthly: variables to measure an original man.....

    Thank you, Captain for the article...

    Zaibin

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  3. One interesting letter from Basheer to Sukumar Azheekode.
    http://jomyjames.blogspot.in/2014/01/blog-post_14.html

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  4. any place from where i can get Bashir's collecton in English translations... ?

    ReplyDelete