Eclectic writing from Kerala

A collection of thoughtful, satirical, passionate even whimsical pieces introducing readers to the 'new emerging Kerala'
Eclectic writing from Kerala
Eclectic writing from Kerala

I like travelling in Kerala, with its air of timelessness and fecundity. Even though I am from neighbouring Tamil Nadu, Kerala has a foreignness that makes every moment fresh. So, I quite looked forward to a book on the &lsquonew emerging Kerala&rsquo, but what I get is a mixed bag. Inside are some lovely pieces, and then some that prove nobody believes in editing anymore. Editor Shinie Antony&rsquos gushy Foreword is my first warning of things to come (&ldquothe path to soul-neutering&rdquo And how does one &ldquocriss-cross into the global spotlight&rdquo). Inside, she spoils what could have been a crisp collection with vague rambling.

Antony is at her best when she transforms interviews in Malayalam into taut monologues &mdash the two here are among the best in the book. The memoir of 90-year-old Gowri Amma, a veteran of the Communist Movement, is just a tiny slice of her life but one that captures perfectly the mood of those times. And the last, &lsquoHappy&rsquo, as told by Omana, a Malayali housemaid in Mumbai, is so perfect it could be framed.

Susan Visvanathan&rsquos languid tale of an interrupted train journey keeps perfect step with Kerala. It&rsquos the kind of meandering piece I love to read on a slow train to nowhere. In &lsquoCountryside&rsquo, the old-fashioned theme of a village girl deserted by her &lsquoforeigner&rsquo husband is slowly and charmingly told by Mukundan. Sadly, Dalrymple is not at his best in &lsquoSisters of Mannarkad&rsquo, a story of how a legend brings Christians and Hindus together, he is clearly floundering and disengaged with South India.

K. Satchitanandan&rsquos essay (&lsquoEveryday and the Avant-Garde&rsquo) is best described in Anita Nair&rsquos eloquent words &mdash &ldquoinviolate, insoluble, and heavy with incomprehensibility&rdquo. Honestly, what is such a leaden academic paper doing here Nair herself is accomplished as she demolishes literary critics in her humorous story &lsquoOrhan Pamuk, Nair and I&rsquo, and makes one wonder if she could be the eponymous author

Of the translations from the original Malayalam, some like Paul Zacharia&rsquos tight satire &lsquoHijack&rsquo lose nothing in translation, and the pathos of the Malayali IAS officer wanting to hijack a plane home is brilliantly built up. But &lsquoThe Clove&rsquo as translated by Sangeetha Sreenivasan is a serious disservice to author Sarah Joseph. The sensuality, which one imagines heavily imbues the original, is entirely lost and the language is rank bad.

Artist Yusuf Arakkal, whose paintings I hugely admire, disappoints in his prose &mdash it&rsquos dry and boring. Actually, it becomes a bit tedious when most of the essayists indulge in breast-beating about all the famous Malayali flaws &mdash lazy labour, activism, endless arguments and so on. What essays should be like is illustrated by Hormis Tharakan, whose &lsquoSitrep Seventies&rsquo is by far my favourite. The descriptions of his Parayil family ancestors, the anecdotes about their church connections, the Naxalite struggles and his own role in the police force &mdash his account is gripping and a perfect example of history made into story, something no Indian author has done well so far. Tharakan should write more I would love to read his autobiography. Equally brilliant is Suresh Menon with &lsquoNo Sex Please...&rsquo Full of sly humour, it&rsquos a nostalgic and loving look at Irinjalakuda, Menon&rsquos birthplace.

Another one I loved was &lsquoFort Lines&rsquo, a brief, taut play by Shreekumar Varma about a reformed activist. Moving sharply from scenes of how Jayesh staged rasta-rokos with thugs to the present Jayesh studying for the Civil Services, it is stark and moving and made me want to see it put on stage.

S.S. Lal, Jayant Kodnani and Sheila Kumar are good and experienced, taking you easily along their practised ways. The hurdles are essays like &lsquoChinese Takeaway&rsquo, &lsquoMusic and Lyrics&rsquo or &lsquoA for Anglo&rsquo, which are irritatingly and obviously commissioned to cover predictable areas. Where&rsquos the whimsy Why break the magic created by little gems like &lsquoThe Gift&rsquo by 13-year-old Nimz Dean or Vinod Joseph&rsquos &lsquoA Matter of Faith&rsquo They are the ones that make the book worth reading.

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