Though the first prose treatise in Malayalam, Bhasha Kautiliyam was written as early as twelfth century, the development of prose literature was slow. Poetic works and Kathakali texts had ready audience throughout the history of Malayalam literature, but prose-readership began to grow only with the growth of printing in the 1850s--the first press was established in 1563, at a seminary in Cochin. One of the famous early prose pieces, Velu Thampy's Kundera Proclamation of 1809, a battle cry against British colonialism, had moments of literary brilliance:

"Taking over the realms of others by treachery is their [British] hereditary tradition; when thus a land passes into their hands, their soldiery will take over palace and fort under their guard. . . then land and hut, field and orchard will become their monopoly."

During the last quarter of nineteenth-century, we also begin to see a gradual decline of such traditional and unique Malayalam genres as attakatha, ithihasas, kavyas, and khanda kavyas, which were all replaced by the mainstream European genres. The Rise of the Novel Though the semi-feudal modes of production continued to play an important role in the literature and life, a sufficiently independent class of readers and writers emerged, making possible what Ian Watt called [in the context of eighteenth-century England] the "rise of the novel". Appu Nedungadi's Kundalatha (1887) is arguably the first original novel in Malayalam. Chandu Menon's Indulekha (1889) is certainly the first significant Malayalam novel; the English lineage of the novel is acknowledged in the novel's subtitle: Englishnovel Matiriyilulla Oru Katha (A Story in the Manner of the English Novel).

Chandu Menon has written that he initially meant to translate Benjamin Disraeli's Henrietta Temple (1836) into Malayalam, but having struggled with the subtleties of an alien culture, he abandoned the project in favor of writing one on his own, depicting a familiar story. The fact that Chandu Menon's novel deals with the decline of the feudal, Brahminical culture in Kerala also explains the rise of the novel form in Malayalam, as one of the necessary preconditions required for the flourishing of the novel genre is the emergence of an educated middle class.

Menon's Indulekha dramatizes the resistance of a progressive woman named Indulekha who is being pressured into marrying the lecherous Brahmin, Suri Namboothiri, who represents the decadence of feudalism, its caste oppression and polygamy. While feudalism controlled art and kept it limited to self-serving ritual forms, caste prohibited literary production because education itself was prohibited to the lower castes. The Brahmins maintained a belief that the untouchables would pollute the sacred language, Sanskrit. The gradual breakdown of such structures of oppression opened up the culture and made the rise of the novel posssible.

Chandu Menon's heroine persists in her educated believes (she is an ardent student of English language!) and eventually weds her lover, Madhavan, in the process defeating the Brahmin who is shown as an effete oppressor. Many of the social evils depicted in the novel have disappeared in independent India, partly due to the forceful representation of these problems in new literary forms. Chandu Menon's Indulekha set the tone for the future development of the novel in Malayalam: novelists began debating social issues through their elaborate probing into the individual experience of characters who were drawn from contemporary society. This literary trend had shown its first signs in Malayalam as early as during the eighteenth century (as it did in Europe) when the poet Kunchan Nambiar satirized society and its mannerisms and inequities. Had he written a prose narrative, we would have called it a novel.

In the absence of the print culture, prose fiction had to wait until the final years of the nineteenth century. The second major novelist to emerge in Malayalam was C.V. Raman Pillai. His Walter Scott-inspired historical novels about the Travancore dynasty, Marthanda Varma (1891) and Dharma Raja (1911) made up for the late-blooming of the genre. He produced grand historical romances about the different Travancore kings and war-heroes who stood up to British imperialism. In his Dharmaraja, actually a sequel to Marthanda Varma, C.V. Raman Pillai follows up on the historical events that ended with the execution of a clan of King Marthanda Varma's enemies. In Dharmaraja, two descendants from the clan returns disguised as wandering monks seeking revenge at the new King, and to usurp the throne of Travancore, but the conspiracy is spoiled by the King's lieutenant, Kesava Pillai, who himself becomes the central character in the third part of the saga, Rama Raja Bahadur.

The historical context is that of the incursions of Tippu Sultan into the kingdom and the persistence of clanish dissent which leads Travancore into accepting the hegemony of the British. Very much in the manner of Walter Scott's romances, C. V. Raman Pillai also creates an elaborate human drama grounded in history, yet peopled with realistic characters. Following in the tradition of C. V. Raman Pillai, several historical novels were written. Pallath Raman's Amrita Pulinam and Appan Thampuran's Bhoota Rayar and Bhaskara Menon (the first detective novel) deserve mention. Sardar K. M. Panikkar's Paranki Padayali (The Portuguese Soldier), Dhumakethuvinte Udayam (The Comet of Ill-Omen) and Kerala Simham (The Lion of Kerala) are also important works of subaltern sensibility in presenting Kerala's encounter with the colonizers and imperialists. The range and popularity of the early novels helped the construction of a culture of the novel in Malayalam literature.

When C. V. Raman Pillai wrote his first satirical novel, Premamrutam, it also spawned yet another series of imitations. At this time, translations of novels from world literature began to appear, further enhancing the credibility of the genre. Besides Nalappat's classic translation of Les Miserables, several other translations of John Bunyan, Maxim Gorky, Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Tagore elevated the position of the novel in Malayalam. The Malayalam Novel in Transition If Malayalam poetry was revitalized the moment it parted company with the tiresome gods who came to dominate the South Indian Literatures after the waning of the Sangam Period, resurgence of the novel as the preeminent literary genre followed the social and political transformations taking place in response to Western humanist tradition, increasingly drawing its energy from the Marxist philosophy and aesthetics.

By 1930s, a whole new school of writers, known as Progressive Writers, had come into existence. Three young critics, Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, M. P. Paul, and Joseph Muntasseri became the theoreticians of the school. Having understood the great potential of realistic fiction, these critics theorized about the new role of Malayalam Literature in an era of Western literary and cultural paradigms. Through the many critical introductions he contributed to the works of emerging writers, Kesari Balakrishna Pillai affirmed the literary and aesthetic qualities of prose fiction. The mature theoretical synthesis of M. P. Paul's critical monographs, Novel Sahityam, Cherukatha Prasthanam, and Gadyagathi defined the novel, the short story, and the essay respectively, and aligned Malayalam literature with international aesthetic trends. Joseph Muntasseri spoke primarily as a Marxist aesthete grounded in Indian literary traditions.

The Progressive Writers

The Progressives acquired the label as they started out as socialist realists. Most of them gradually transcended all such "isms" even as Kerala was becoming the first state in the world to bring a communist government to power through electoral process. A famous critical work of the period, Guptan Nair's Isamgalkkapuram, advocated artistic freedom reaching beyond "isms" and agendas. Kuttikrishna Marar's critical essays, eventually collected in 1965 as a single volume, Kala Jeevitham Thanne, took issue with both the socialist realists and with the proponents of "art for art's sake", pointing at the unique path an Indian writer could take independent of Western prescriptions.

Again, the aesthetic independence of leftist writers might have been a result of the peculiar mutations of Marxism itself as it won followers from upper and lower castes alike, forming in essence a regionalist coalition against the mainstream Congress party and its bourgeois, sectarian allies. In 1956, when the three Malayalam speaking regions, Malabar, Cochin, and Travancore were united to form the State of Kerala, an environment of political and linguistic unity to the culture of Malayalam speaking people.

Many members of the new communist cabinet were literary personalities; the critic and novelist Joseph Muntasseri himself became the Minister of Education. And the Chief Minister was E. M. S. Namboothiripad, a prolific writer on history and Marxist aesthetics. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Kesava Dev, S.K. Pottekkat, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Uroob, and Cherukad are prominent novelists of this generation. The novelist who typifies the generation of the Progressive is Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai; he started out as a leftist and matured into a true Kerala original.

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai

The most well-known Malayalam writer, both nationally and internationally, is Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (b. 1914). His fame is partly on account of the UNESCO translation of his masterpiece Chemmeen (The Prawn) and its classic film adaptation made in 1966 by Ramu Kariat. Though Thakazhi is often considered as a hardcore socialist realist, his major works like Chemmeen and Enippadikal are intense portrayals of love and tragedy, and they have little to do with socialism or realism. Very few Indian novelists have explored the nature of passion the way Thakazhi has in Chemmeen, in which the social and economic exploitation is mostly a subtext. Taken as a whole, his voluminous works present a proletarian position. Like Basheer's work, Thakazhi Sivansankara Pillai also captured the living language of the underclass and traced the waxing and waning of their hopes in modern India.

In the novel Thottiyude Makan (Scavenger's Son, 1947), we witness the story of three generations of thottis, cleaners of night-soil. The first two generations struggle to attain individuality; they suffer and die unfulfilled, oppressed and ostracized, but their struggles enable Mohanan, the third-generation thotti, to assert his individual dignity and to lead his fellow-untouchables to rise against oppression and prejudice. The landscape of Thakazhi's novels are peopled with thousands of characters who represent a cross section of Kerala: fisherfolk, toddy tappers, clerks, small farmers, landlords. He also tries to capture the peculiar social and mythical codes that continue to sustain their lives, making his works very much a part of the Indian tradition.

In his voluminous novel Kayar (1978), through recapitulating the history of two hundred years of the life of the working class and landowners, he also raised the scope of socialist realism by including the nuances of the Kerala's regional culture. Among the two dozen novels of this prolific writer include Enippadikal (Rungs of the Ladder), Randidangazhi (Two Measures of Rice) and nearly a hundred short stories. His works have been translated into about 25 languages.

Vaikom Muhammad Basheer

Basheer (1910-1994), is arguably the most significant novelist of the latter half of the century. He spent his youth wandering all over India and the Middle East when he was not incarcerated by the British. Having begun his writing career during the final phase of Gandhi's struggles, he became a popular novelist after Independence in 1947. Though one would suspect great revolutionary spirit in his works, what he offered were simple pictures of the life in the poor, illiterate Muslim community of Kerala trying to adjust to the modernity, religious pluralism, and socialism. Though a tragic sense of life is prevalent in his early work, his characters learn to accept the tragic; they live in a spirit of profound love for their neighbors and fellow- beings, including animals and birds and all the creatures of the natural world.

His thirty odd novels and short story collections include Prema Lekhanam (Love-Letter, 1943), Balyakala Sakhi (Childhood Playmate, 1944), Sabdangal (Voices, 1947), Pathummayude Aadu (Fathima's Goat, 1959), and Mantrikapucha (Magic Cat, 1968). None of these works were overt commentaries about social and economic inequities, but Basheer captured the life of a whole underclass and helped them appropriate the culture which had been monopolized by one elite group for too long.

Kesava Dev and his Contemporaries

Another novelist who started out along with Thakazhi was Kesava Dev whose novels Odayil Ninnu (From the Gutters) and Ulakka (The Pestle) are typical examples of socialist realism. Unlike Basheer and Thakazhi, Dev did not evolve and grow as a novelist; he even became a strident voice of the socialist orthodoxy. His tireless polemic against the postmodernist generation indicated the limitations of the original position of the Progressives, and the literature of commitment came to be somewhat discredited in Malayalam.

Among other significant novels produced by the frontline Progressives include Uroob's Sundarikalum Sundaranmarum (Beautiful People) and Ommachu, S.K. Pottekkat's Oru Desathinte Katha (The Story of a Land) and Visha Kanyaka (The Venomous Virgin), the military novelist Parappurath's Ara Nazhika Neram (Half An Hour More) and Ninamaninja Kalpadukal (Blood-stained Steps), Ponjikkara Rafi's Daivadoothan (The Angel) and Lalithambika Antherjanam's Agnisakshi (Wintess by Fire), a milestone work, written toward the end of her writing career; she harmonized both the spiritual and the social realms in this novel, as did the other thoughtful Progressives who allowed themselves to be transformed by new ideas and voices.

There is also a transitional generation of younger novelists who distance themselves from the Progressives. The best representative of this generation is M. T. Vasudevan Nair whose novels, Kalam (Time) Nalukettu (The Mansion) and Manj (Mist) are profound explorations of the northern Kerala characters startled by the abrupt changes in the traditional way of life. Equally important are his short stories and screenplays and his work as the editor of the foremost literary weekly Mathrubhumi. N. P. Muhammad's Arabiponnu (Arab Gold), Unnikrishnan Puthur's Anappaka (The Elephantine Revenge), the psychological novelist, the late-Vilasini's 4000-page, four volume modern-day-Mahabharata called Avakasikal (The Claimants), Malayatoor's Verukal (Roots) C. Radhakrishanan's Ellam Mayikunna Kadal,the various novels of G. Vivekanandan, E. Vasu, G. N. Panikkar, Perumbadavam Sreedharan, Joseph Mattom, Vettoor Raman Nair, Pamman, V. T. Nandakumar, P. Valsala (Nellu and Agneyam), and K. Surendran's Kattu Kurangu (The Wild Ape) are among the best works in a vast category of authors.Home