The Postmodernism and the Prose Writers

A literary historian who categorizes the writers of twentieth century will have to re-label the Progressives into Modernists. Their world-view and their realistic style make them part of a broader phenomenon of modernity through which, writers and thinkers around the world have tried to move away from the traditional cultural paradigms into the certainties of the age of the scientific temper. While, in modernity, such notions as democracy, socialism, global market, empiricism, rationalism, nationalism, existentialism and other beliefs construct its certainties, in post-modernism, at least in its literary version, the writers tend to subvert some of these certainties from within.

Post-modernism in the West is primarily an engagement with form, but in Malayalam, besides its subversion of form, novelists and poets appear to be reinstating some of the irrationalities and tribalisms that modernism worked so hard to get rid of. In many ways, this trend is an extension of social postmodernity. The persistence of caste-consciousness, the puzzling coexistence of tribalism and individualism, the ascent of consumerism and liberalization of capitalist enterprise, the rise of religious fundamentalism, the decline of the left, various anxieties about the future of modernity and nationality (all these are seen from the region, from Kerala's peripheral position) are factors that are yet to be played out fully. However, the immediate trajectory for postmodernist writing has been the habitualization of modern literary forms (socialist realism). Among the more profound cultural reasons we can include the general breakdown of idealism, the excesses of political organizations (Marxist party, the Naxalites) and the rise of communal and fascist organizations.

Two Postmodernists: O. V. Vijayan and Zacharia.

The central figure in the post-modernist generation is O.V. Vijayan. He confronts the Marxist party on a regular basis as he confronted early on the preeminent socialist realist Kesav Dev about his generation's outmoded aesthetics and their suspicion toward the expressions of the younger generation. It must be remembered that in both cases it was the younger modernist revolting against the older modernist on issues of form and content, literary and social.

Vijayan, who is also one of the leading English language cartoonists in India, exploded into the literary scene with his dark, brooding, profoundly unsettling novel, Khasakkinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak, 1965, 1994). His writing was immediately identified as athyadunikam (ultramodern) as the term "postmodern" had not come into vogue in the critical vocabulary in Malayalam. Vijayan continued to write masterly short stories and social critiques until the National Emergency in 1975, when his second novel, the scatalogical masterpiece Dharmapuranam (The Saga of Dharmapuri) was prevented from publication. Dharmapuranam seems to have been influenced by the existentialists as well as by Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne, but his vision and style in general spring out of the archetypal experience of the pre- modern India, vestiges of which have managed to survive in the remote village and tribal cultures of Kerala.

It was the nascent postmodernist sensibility that enabled him to bring out the essence of the pre-modern in a scorching, flaming narrative style, much to the confusion of the modern Progressives who claimed certainty in the matters of life and art. His dissent to modernism was evident in his early short stories and parodies. For instance, in the story "The Progressive Classic" a woman sitting under the full moon asks her beloved: "Darling...have you read Karl Marx's Das Kapital?" As the man begins to undo the woman's blouse, she insists they read The Das Kapital right away. The author asks us to fill in the blanks with the four volumes of Marx, claiming that it would make his short story the lenghtiest socialist-realist novel.

O.V. Vijayan has remained a thoroughly Indian writer by sustaining a certain continuity of the tradition established by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. This he achieves through delving deeper into the subcultures and the subtle dialectal variations of Malayalam and simultaneously connecting his work to the postmodern condition. Ravi, the young protagonist in Khasakinte Ithihasam, is an educated young man who loses himself in an isolated village where he volunteers to teach in an elementary school. Earlier he had fled from the octopus clasp of modernity: city, college, intellecutal life, a future career as an astrophysicist in the United States. When the village falls apart on account of the intrusion of the outside world, Ravi departs, seeing himself as an intruder, but as he waits for the bus to take him back to the city, he allows a snake to bite him. At the close of the novel we still see him awaiting his final journey. In his 1986 memoir about the writing of Khasakinte Ithihasam, Vijayan has explained that his art has nothing to do with Western forms or existentialist philosophy as has been suggested, and that he receives his sustenance from post- Independence Indian realities. This intentional rejection of Western modernity is actually a mark of Malayalam postmodernism.

Another significant postmodernist writer is Zacharia whose style and posture are also comparable to the work of the novelist Basheer. Zacharia's tightly drawn short stories possess a Borgesian inventiveness and the precision of Flannery O' Connor. The self-conscious narratorial voice in his stories parades and parodies several recognizable styles, often within a single sentence. At the end of each story, he manages to collapse the whole edifice with an naughty nudge. His collections, Oridath (1978) and Arkariyam (1986) also provide a unique Syrian Christian texture to his stories. His characters are modern individuals like Mr.Chacko who has all the trappings of a Westernized pseudo-intellectual, but he also possesses a postmodernist sense of entrapment in the labyrinth of Indian culture which convinces Mr.Chacko to commit suicide, but he fails: he couldn't quite open the poison bottle no matter how hard he tried. So he is condemned to live!

Zacharia's famous novella "Bhaskara Pattelar and My Life" (made into a film, Vidheyan, by Adoor Gopalakrishnan) provides us insights into his constant and evolving themes as the servile narrator lives his life to quench the master's ruthless thirst for violence and deprivation. In spite of his introspective awareness about serving the devil, the narrator (like the fascist's butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day) cannot act as a conscientious individual until the master is murdered, which leaves the servile man rather perplexed by the newly gained freedom.

The category of modernists and post-modernists encompasses a large number of poets, novelists, short story writers, critics and historians. Among the most significant contemporary fiction writers who are making lasting contributions include Madhavikutty (Manasi), Anand (Alkoottam, Marana Certificate, Marubhmikal Undavunnathu), Sethu (Pandava Puram), Punathil Kunjabdulla, (Smaraka Shilakal, Marunnu), Kakanadan (Ushna Mekhala, Parankimala, Arudeyo Oru Nagaram), M. Mukundan, (Mayyazhippuzhayude Thirangalil, Elokam Athil Orun Manushyan), Padmarajan (Nakshatrangale Kaval), M. P. Narayana Pillai (Parinamam), V.K.N (Pithamahan and Payyan Kathakal), C.V.Balakrishnan (Ayusinte Pusthakam), V.P. Sivakumar (Thiruvithamcore Kathakal), N. Prabhakaran, P. Surendran, Gracy (Padiyirangippoya Parvathi), Sarah Joseph, (Papathara), U.A Khader, (Khuraissikoottam) K.L.Mohana Varma (Ohari). A list of important emerging writers to watch for in the years to come include Nalini Bakal, Unnikrishnan Thiruvazhyodu, Madambu Kunhikuttan, K. B. Sridevi, M. D. Ratnamma, Sarah Thomas, T. V. Varkey, Aymanam John, T.V. Kochubava, Harikumar, N. S. Madhavan, V. G. Maramuttam, U. K. Kumaran, Jayanarayanan, C. V. Sreeraman, Ipe Paramel, Vaikom Chithrabhanu, P. T. Rajalakshmi, Victor Lenus, Thomas Joseph (Chitrasalabhangalude Kappal), George Joseph K., Chandramathi, V.R. Sudheesh, Akbar Kakkattil, N.P. Hafeez Muhammad, Ashokan Cherivil, Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu.

Women Writing in the Age of Modernity and Postmodernity

A great many of the good modernist and postmodernist fiction and poetry published over the second half of the century has been by women, mostly upper caste women and Christians. During the first half of the century, fiction writers like Lalithambika Antherjanam, K. Saraswati Amma, Annie Thayyil, and poets like Balamani Amma, Mary John Thottam (Sister Beninga), Mary John Koothattukulam, Muthukulam Parvathi Amma had emerged as major figures in a largely upper caste, male dominated world of Malayalam literature. Even Christian and Muslim male writers did not find favorable critical attention because cultural production was monopolized too long by the upper caste Hindus.

When Kattakkayam Cheriyan Mappila published his great epic on the life of Christ (Sreeyesu Vijayam), the critical establishment mocked the work, saying that in the manner a water snake might be called the king of snakes in an abandoned pond Kattakkayam may be a Kalidas of the Christians! Women writers faced exclusionism of the worst kind: the social structure simply didn't allow them to write, for they had "no room of their own" to engage in creative act. However, Kavitharamam (1929), a collection of poems by a Catholic nun named Sister Mary Beninga became a best-seller (over one hundred thousand copies) and one of the poems in the collection "Lokame Yatra" (Farewell, World), a brooding, funereal poem justifying her decision to abandon the material world in favor of the cloister remains a classic of among the Romantic poems.

Of the women writers who persisted in their calling in spite of the oppressive environment, Lalithambika Antherjanam (1909-1987) and Madhavikutty are the best examples of a fulfilled literary career. Lalithambika's last name "Antherjanam" (those who live inside the house) offers us a clue about the level of social incarceration women faced in her orthodox Brahmin community, but she was fortunate to be born in a Gandhiyan family actively involved in fighting the many social and political battles of the day.

Even after her marriage to a farmer with whom she raised a large family, she was able to pursue her career in fiction and to emerge as one of the greatest writers of the century. She published her first collection of stories in 1937 and followed it up with a wide range of books in different genres, culminating with her most famous novel Agnisakshi (Witness by Fire), which appeared as late as 1976. From the romanticism of her early poetry, she quickly switched to a realist mode at the time of the Progressive Writers and became known for her craft of the short story, which retained the stylistic elegance and control of her poetry and brought in new elements of anger and commitment.

Her work provided insights into the many levels of alienation women of her powerful orthodox community experienced, much of it resulting from pointless rituals and the burden of tradition and caste which served only the family patriarch and harmed practically everybody else. In the wake of social modernity, the Brahmin community lost much of its power and the Kerala society as a whole became radicalized in conjunction with the nationalist struggle. Large scale women's participation in the Gandhiyan movement helped to bring more women into the public culture, particularly into the political, literary and academic fields. The transformation was not always easy.

The case of Rajalakshmi (1930-1965) illustrates the persistence of the suffocating domestic milieu a woman has to encounter in spite of the fact that Kerala is now known for its traditional acceptance of women's equality, its matrilineal heritage, the history of women's participation in education and politics, and its commendable male-female ratio. Rajalakshmi wrote about father-daughter relationships and the choking effects patriarchal figures could have upon women, particularly those who were accomplished and imaginative. The serial publication of her novel Uchaveyilum Ilam Nilavum (Midday Sun and Tender Moonlight) was cancelled because of protest from readers who found her attack on the hypocrisy of idealist men too close to home. She found it impossible to continue her writing career and took her life. K. Saraswati Amma (1919-1975), the author of Purushanmarillatha Lokam (A World without Men), did not take her life, but she lived single and isolated, her work applauded only after her death. Her last book Cholamarangal was published in 1958 and virtually disappeared from the scene.

The most important feminist writer to emerge in the last thirty years is Madhavikutty (Kamala Das), who is known nationally for her profoundly feminine, lyrical English poetry and for her short stories in Malayalam. Like Lalithambika Antherjanam, she comes from a distinguished literary family of northern Kerala. Her mother Balamani Amma is one of major poets of her generation

The late-Romantic poet and translator Nalapatt Nayaraya Menon was her maternal granduncle. However, it was her marriage and urban experience living in Calcutta and Bombay that inspired her work in English and Malayalam. She began publishing fiction in the mid-60s with such collections as Mathilukal, Oru Pakshiyude Manam, Thanuppu and immediately she was received as one of the key figures in the "ultramodern" (postmodern) literary movement, but it was her controversial memoir Ente Katha, published in both Malayalam and English (My Story, 1975) that brought her national attention, and some international notoriety (Time magazine featured her as an Indian confessional writer).

The memoir was a watershed event for the women writers in Kerala as the work made it possible for women to write more candidly about sexuality as a structure of oppression. Over a decade after Ente Katha, Madhavikutty followed it up with Balyakala Smaranakal (1987) and Nirmathalam Poothakalam (1994); the three memoirs are increasingly perceived as documents about constructing a feminist self. Though written in a gentle, lyrical style, her memoirs are charged with much rebellious anger aimed at her aristocratic background and at many of the illustrious literary and cultural figures born in her ancestral family. In her short stories and novellas, she discusses women's inner lives in an age when their traditional lifestyle has been altered radically in the wake of social modernity. Many women who grew up in the dual worlds of tradition and modernity increasingly found themselves vulnerable and unprepared to face the world which is still controlled by patriarchal values.

In terms of her double existence as a bilingual writer who also runs for election and participates in the active public culture of Kerala, Madhavikutty is a product of postmodernity and postcoloniality, whereas Lalithambika Antherjanam wrote as a consummate modernist who possessed many certainties and convictions about the condition of women who were under the yoke of a male-dominated tradition and hypocrisy. In these final years of the century, many new women writers of fiction and poetry have begun to publish their first books and their works are characterized by gender consciousness and the politics of desire; they are also conscious of the metafictionality of their work. The short- short stories of Gracy (Padiyirangippoya Parvathy) is a case in point. In her one-page story about the Parable of the Sower, Gracy brings in a broad narrative context of contemporary drug culture and the psuedo-religious cults of westernized gurus. The guru quotes the biblical parable, but his disciples fall at his feet, asking for the esoteric meaning of the parable.

The guru tells them: "We are the sowers. The seeds sown into barren women are eaten away by their barrenness. Virgins abort the seeds before they begin to sprout. Seeds sown in whores are choked by the pills they take. But, alas, it is the seeds sown in thy neighbor's wife that sprouts and come to fruition."

In a short story called "Maranantharam" (After the Death), the narrator, a young woman who has committed suicide, begins to chastise all those hypocrites who wait around her coffin, mourning for her. She opens her eyes and then asks her father why he was struggling so to pretend sorrow. The question makes him withdraw from the scene. To her lazy brother she says, go on eating and sleeping, for my share of land is now secure in your hands. After talking likewise to all her relatives, she sees her lover, who kissed her and pretended much love, but when he got a job, he wished to go separate ways. She speaks out to him and to all the other mourners: "You're all nobody for me. Why go on pretending sorrow? Please, shut my coffin and go." The longer pieces in the collection also have layers and layers of sarcasm and irony and gender conscious critique of the lingering power of traditional ways to force women to internalize their rebellion instead of bringing it out into the public as we see in the voice of the suicide.

The future looks very promising for women writers of poety and fiction, and already, some of the best writing in Malayalam are done by gender conscious women writers. Besides, the woman writer of today is an active public figure as we see in the case of the poet Sugatha Kumari, who has become the pre-eminent voice against environmental exploitation in India. In her famous poem Ratrimazha (Night Rain), she merges the private and the public, and in much of her work we hear a woman's lamentation as she immerses her whole being into the metaphor of nature that is being driven to the brink of death. The novelist Sarah Joseph is involved with the feminist movement and P. Vatsala's fiction seldom deviates from the social and political context of women, tribals, and the Kerala working class. Similarly, the poet, O. V. Usha, like her contemporaries Sugatha Kumari, Kadammanitta, Chullikad, exemplifies the unique postmodern sensibility in Malayalam poety by attempting to link the mystical and modern, political and domestic, philosophical and religious to capture the puzzle of human experience in the second half of the century.