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Taking the long view of the past

NS Madhavan’s debut novel deals with history but it’s not historical.

books Updated: Dec 31, 2010 21:53 IST
Paramita Ghosh

Litanies of Dutch Battery

NS Madhavan (Translated by Rajesh Rajamohan)

Penguin
Rs 350
pp 324

On one matter, it is easy to get all Malayalis to agree: before there was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there was OV Vijayan. NS Madhavan, one of the most powerful voices in contemporary Malayalam fiction who has written, in a 40-year-old short story career, his first novel that has just been translated in English, says: “Marquez’s One Hundred years of Solitude was translated into English in 1970. Vijayan wrote The Legends of Khasak in 1969. So there was no question of being inspired by…”

Like many Malayali writers, Madhavan’s ‘break’ happened through the Mathrubhumi magazine. The story was called ‘Sisu’. Short stories, he says, come naturally to those from his state because of the fragmented nature of the Malayali experience. “There are Malayalees in Delhi, in Dubai… on the one hand, he may be supporting causes here while he himself may be a victim of labour laws there…”

In Litanies of Dutch Battery, however, the Malayali seems to be, almost as it were, witnessing his pre-history. Litanies’ Kerala is a different country. Six years before its statehood in 1956, the year when small pox vaccinators arrived in the delta, and the year of the ban on the Communist Party — this is the ‘time’ in which the novel is set.

Madhavan makes an interesting point about why even with so many historical details, his is still not a historical novel. “The characters are fictional, and the function of history is to provide the experience,” he says. “So for example, I have a character, Jessica’s neighbour, a school peon, ultimately victimised by the Party for questioning the killing of Imre Nagy, the liberal Hungarian prime minister, who was executed when his government was ended by Soviet invasion.”

The Communist Party, strange as it may sound, is the church, in Kerala. And by extension so was post-revolutionary Russia. “For us, Gorky was big,” says the writer. “Had it not been for TV, I don’t think Malayali Communists would have believed in the collapse of the Soviet Union,” With the party, or against it — every Keralite has a position on it. And so did the author of the first novel that re-launched the Indo-Anglian brandwagon — Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. “Roy’s book was the first Dalit novel in Kerala in English,” says Madhavan.

Madhavan has been open to new trends in literature. He says he was curious about the translation of his daughter Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s book into Malay-

alam and was told that as “a coming of age story it is relevant as it’s the story of many girls in Kerala.” He is also generous of writers who include Kerala in their work without knowing its inner workings. “Roy, [Salman] Rushdie are genuine voices. However, in Moor’s Last Sigh, Rushdie wrote about Kochi without even seeing it…” Roy is, at least honest, he says “not to have written another novel”.