How do you choose one book from a nation of 1.2 billion people – a country that is one of the most culturally rich and diverse in the world and a country, that, as I discovered when I was lucky enough to visit West Bengal last year, is so varied in its constituent states, let alone across its 1,269,219 square miles, that it makes a nonsense of the term ‘nationality’ as it is commonly understood?
I’m afraid I still don’t have the answer to this question. I struggled with it long and hard. As the suggestions of Indian writers poured in from visitors to this blog I did my best to research and weigh up each one. All to no avail: the more I looked into the many excellent and intriguing Indian authors whose names I’ve heard this year, the more impossible it seemed to limit my selection to just one work. An Indian friend of mine kindly posted my dilemma on Facebook and yet more names flooded in. The truth was, I could have spent a decade reading Indian literature and still barely have scratched the surface of the literary delights this country has to offer.
One thing I did know: I wanted to read the work of an author who was prized and celebrated in India rather than one who had made his or her name outside the country. As Tim who recommended Kushwant Singh just this week put it, ‘rather a lot of the “Indian” writers beloved of the international literati seem to live in London or New York’. Talented though many of these authors are, they didn’t chime in with what I was looking for: I wanted to read the work of someone who wrote primarily for Indian readers.
With this in mind, one among the many comments I’ve had about Indian literature stood out. It was from Suneetha:
‘I am from India, and I note that both the suggestions in comments and your list for India reads are those written originally in English. I have to say these are just second best to what regional literature we have here in over 23 official languages and a couple of hundreds of other languages spoken across the country.’
This struck a chord with me. After all, if I was looking for an Indian writer who wrote to be read by his or her compatriots, surely I should choose something written in a regional language, rather than the international lingua franca of the country’s colonial past? And so it was that I plumped for a novel by one of Suneetha’s favourite authors: the much decorated Malayalam novelist and filmmaker M T Vasudevan Nair.
Kaalam (Time), which won Nair the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1970, follows Sethu Madhavan as he leaves home for college and tries to make his way in the world. The expectations of his rural village rest on his shoulders and his excellent academic record seems to promise him a bright future. Yet, as the years pass and Sethu staggers from one failure to another, consoling himself with a series of hopeless love affairs, his potential seems to tarnish and warp and he grows disgusted with his life. At last, obliged to return to the family home he has spurned for so long, he is forced to face up to himself.
MT (as he is known) excels at presenting experiences that are at once universal and very specific to his characters’ time and place. Readers everywhere will recognise the adolescent Sethu’s embarrassment at his relations’ eccentricities – his aunt who lies scantily clad on the verandah, for example, and his mother who grumbles whether anyone is listening or not – and his desire to hide his poverty from his friends, as well as the perennial graduate’s dilemma of needing experience to get a job and a job to get experience.
What makes MT’s portrayal of these relatively commonplace rites of passage is his insight into the inconsistencies and contradictions that wrestle beneath the surface of all of us as we seek to move through life. From Sethu’s exasperated interior monologue in the face of an interview panel, to his stilted encounter with a friend who left education long before him and is now married and running a company, the author is a master of the tricks we use to disguise our shortcomings and the way casual questions and pleasantries can strike a person to the bone. This is particularly evident in MT’s depiction of his protagonist’s dealings with women: Sethu’s delight in the ‘illusionary obstacles’ that mask the impossibility of his feelings for teenage Thangamani and his wild justifications of his cruelty to his first love Sumitra both point to the self-delusion that keeps him crashing blindly, wilfully on.
These insights are couched in scintillating descriptions, which make the novel a joy to read. There is the loveless married couple for whom ‘words had become brittle showpieces in a glass case, to be used only on special occasions’, the minutes that ‘swam before [Sethu’s] eyes like bubbles distilled from the indistinct colours of sunset clouds’ and, perhaps my favourite of all, Sethu’s numbed reaction to his mother’s death: ‘The news stood just outside his mind like a traveller in search of shelter’.
The editorial decision not to explain culturally specific terms in the text but instead to confine their definitions to a rather incomplete glossary at the back means that readers from other parts of the world may find it hard to work out some of the roles of and connections between characters. There are also some gremlins in the e-edition, which mean that odd words have been misrepresented, making for some rather strange sentences that have to be read twice to tease the proper meaning out.
These glitches in no way hampered my enjoyment of the novel, though. If anything, the initial confusion I felt over the interrelationship of the characters is an added bonus: it means that I will have to read the novel again now that I’ve got them sussed. I’m already looking forward to it.
Kaalam by MT Vasudevan Nair, translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty (Orient Blackswan, 2012)