Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Legends of Khazak

By O.V.Vijayan


It is easy to see why this book is considered such a seminal work of fiction in Indian literature. Published first as a novel in 1969 (it was serialized in the Mathrubhoomi Weekly a year before), it pre-dates a lot of the magic realism that Rushdie brought to the fore by more than a decade.

But The Legends of Khazak is not just a tale of magic-realism. A lot of the fables in the book are very real for a Keralite. They are reminiscent of stories that you grow up hearing – the ‘velichappaadu’ (oracle), the ‘poothams’ (ghosts), the ‘yakshis’ (spectres), all are familiar. As they are for the villagers of Khazak, these are an everyday presence, real and true, not just a part of some writer’s fantasy.

The tale is of Ravi’s – a would-be astrophysicist who chooses to come to the remote village of Khazak to teach at a single-teacher school. Khazak has not seen a school before. And so the conflicts between the local madrassa, the Hindu paathshaala and the new school master are inherent in the situation. But maybe because it is a more innocent time (the ‘60s were more about communism than fundamentalism), these conflicts do not form the basis of the story. Instead, the tale focuses sympathetically on very local characters, the old mullah who realizes his time is past, the dwarf-cretin Appu Kili, the poverty-stricken and abandoned Chaand Umma, the child Kunhamina, the toddy-drinking oracle Kuttadan. The small pox epidemic, the liquor prohibition and the resultant illegal toddy tapping, the advent of communists – all of them form a backdrop to events at Khazak.

Ravi, who is escaping personal demons from the past, is drawn into the stories of Khazak until he is a part of them himself. He comes to teach the village children the logic and rationality of the outside world. He ends up being taught that the so-called irrationality of the locals is as rational as anything he has learned in physics. The first school inspection passes off with flying colours. Ravi and the school do not pass the second. By then, he is telling the children stories instead of teaching them the alphabet. The village has changed him. What starts off as a regular tale of a city-bred schoolmaster coming in to the village to revolutionise it, becomes inverted. The teacher becomes the learner. And the enchantment of Khazak works its magic on the outsider. Until Ravi’s death wish is fulfilled.

‘Kazakinte itihaasam’ is supposed to have brought about a change in the Malayalam narrative structure as well. Unfortunately, to readers of the translation, we will have to take everyone’s word for it.

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Sunil K Poolani said...

good stuff, i have known vijayan quite well, please see my obit on my blog (appeared in deccan herald) http://frogbooks.blogspot.com/
i live in mumbai and run frog books (www.frogbooks.net)

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