Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Demon-Seed (Asura Vithu)

By M.T. Vasudevan Nair

Reading a Malayalam book in an English translation is personally slightly humiliating. After all, I do know the language, can even read it with some degree of capability. But somehow I know I don’t currently have the patience or the time to read an entire book in the original Malayalam. So, when I saw the English translation of Asura Vithu, I had to pick it up. I am somewhat familiar with MT. I have seen some movies that he screen wrote. And I have heard enough about him to know from my mother to know he is one of the more respected Malayalam writers of today.

Asura Vithu is a book that, even in an average translation, reads authentic. I could picture the village of Kizhakkemuri with its lush paddy fields, the river running through it, the coconut and jack fruit trees at each house, its unforgiving monsoons. It is beautiful Kerala at its most pristine, a beauty most Keralites take for granted. But the landscape is not the only thing that rings true. The pettiness of village life, the caste and religious politics and the grinding poverty among such incredible beauty – you know it’s a life lived by the writer.

The story is of Govindankutty, the youngest son of a proud Nair tharavaadu, Thazhathethil. The pride (in its ancestry that can go back a hundred years, in its long-lost riches, in a golden yesterday that exists only in memories) is all the tharavaadu has left. It’s a familiar story told a million times by a million writers and filmmakers. Poverty has ensured that the family land is mortgaged and rice gruel is the only food on the plate. Yet appearances have to be kept up. The eldest son has to give gifts on Onam to his wife’s family – even if it means the jackfruit tree in the compound has to be sold. And it is beneath one’s dignity to labour with your hands in another man’s field – that is only for the lower castes. Caste is important enough to dictate with whom you play, eat or employ in your home. The matriarch of the family Kunhikaliyamma is someone most Nairs have encountered – crusty, old, the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong, in complete control of her family. She has little real power to decide anyone’s fate; but in her closest circle, her helpless unmarried daughter, her youngest son she bitterly calls ‘Asura Vithu’, she wields the power to hurt.

It is a story of a desperate Nair boy, tricked into a marriage to redeem his rich nephew’s shenanigans. In a fit of desperation, to flee his shame and his poverty, he converts to Islam. To be forever shunned by his family and all who matter in the village.

There are characters who stick in the reader’s mind – the unmarried sister Kunhioppol leading a life of quiet desperation, the sensible and statesman-like Kunharakkar, the luckless Meenakshi, seduced by a spoiled nephew and thrust upon, as unwanted baggage on Govindankutty. They bring to life the picture of a decaying society where money is concentrated in a few hands and there is little opportunity for anyone else to make a decent life. Unless of course, you leave the village. To anyone who knows Kerala, it would seem little has changed in 50 years.

2 comments:

UL said...

There was a time I never missed a single movie that MT screen wrote. A great story teller. Harsh realities of the society were wonderfully portrayed in the movies at the time and malayalis are suckers when it comes to emotional sympathy. Though these days I don’t like such tales any more, for the same reason I doubt I would ever read this book. I would rather read about a character who escaped the social pressures the society imposes in his/her life than one who is a failure of his own making. No, thank you. What's the point? High time the pretenses stopped in the name of family and caste. It's time to move on as a society. It doesn’t mean I am hiding from reality; I would rather be working on the positive than dwelling on the negative aspects. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with our society. Anyway, I think I like MT’s stories where he takes existing characters and paints a different picture or looks at them from a different angle. I heard that he had written a book of Mahabharatha from Bhima’s perspective? I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on that. Have you read it? - UL

small talk said...

Hmm...interesting viewpoint. Though what exactly is 'escape the social pressures?' There are whole sections of society which have no such options. Good literature/ cinema/ art holds up a mirror to reality. It makes us think - and hopefully helps us recognise perversities in our own lives. In fact, as you read this book, you can see the parallels in our own family. We cannot wish away the negatives by dwelling only on the positives.
I have not read the Bhima one - think it's called randaam muzham. Will do so one of these days.