KOCHI: “When I was a child I suffered from various illnesses,” says M Mukundan, writer and president of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi.
He spent his days confined to a room in his home in Mayyazzhi at Mahe. Once or twice Mukundan “almost died”. One day he felt himself slipping into unconsciousness. “I heard my mother shout, ‘My son is gone.’ I too thought I had died. But I survived. I can still hear the scream of my mother.” Because of his illnesses, Mukundan was frequently angry. “I would ask God why he was being cruel to me,” he says. But he developed his imaginative powers. “I started dreaming a lot.” In the house opposite his lived a 14-yearold girl. Mukundan used to see this servant girl working from morning to night. “I felt that the girl had received the same divine injustice which had been meted out to me.” Later when Mukundan began writing, she became a character in his novel, ‘Akasathinte Chottil.’ It was when he was 14 that Mukundan began going to school regularly. He came across a French teacher called Jayaraman Master who was later immortalised as Kunhananthan Master in Mukundan’s magnum opus, ‘Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil’ (On the banks of the Mayyazhi).
Jayaraman Master introduced Mukundan to French writers Jean Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and Albert Camus. Like Mukundan, Jayaram was afflicted by health problems. But in his case it was a severe heart ailment. One day Jayaram told Mukundan, “I will die without knowing the love of a woman.” This sentence affected Mukundan a lot. “I felt that even an insect has been given the gift of enjoying sexual pleasure and companionship but this was denied to my master who died without marrying. Once again I felt that God was cruel.” In a state of mental turbulence, at 21, Mukundan decided to follow in the footsteps of his brother, well-known writer M Raghavan, and go to Delhi. “At that time, it was impossible to get employment in Kerala.” Within a few months in the capital, Mukundan had a stroke of luck and got a job in the French embassy.
“It was the biggest turning point in my life. It opened up a whole new world for me.” One day while he was walking down a long corridor in the embassy, he saw the famous French philosopher, Regis Debray, an associate of the Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara, strolling towards him. “I was stunned!” By this time Mukundan had begun writing steadily.
In Delhi, there was a literary magazine called ‘Thought’. One issue carried a review of Mukundan’s first book, ‘Veedu,’ a collection of short stories. “My boss, Francis Dore, read it and asked me, ‘Who is this Mukundan?’ I said, ‘It is me’. That changed everything.” The next week Dore threw a party, invited Delhi’s prominent writers, painters and journalists, and introduced Mukundan to them.
“Throughout the evening I was in a state of excitement. I could not believe this was happening to me.
I heard the guests talk about Mukundan and it seemed to me as if they were talking about somebody else. By the end of the party I was drunk.” It was with the publication of the novel, ‘Delhi’, that Mukundan became famous in Kerala. But the world view that he described in his novels was bleak and nihilistic. And many young people were affected. In the early 1980s, a young man from Kerala went to Mukundan’s house in Delhi and said, “You ruined my life. Because I read your books I started taking hashish. I left my small job and my parents are upset. I can no longer stay in my village.” A shocked Mukundan said, “If I were not born, you would still have taken drugs. It is not because of me but because of the turbulent times in the 60s and 70s. You are the creation of that.” The man walked away without saying anything. Mukundan never saw him again.
By this time, because of his literary fame, Mukundan was regarded as a jewel of the French embassy. So when French ambassador Claude Blanchemaison wanted to meet the then Kerala Chief Minister E K Nayanar at Thiruvananthapuram, it was Mukundan, going against embassy protocol, who accompanied the diplomat. At the Chief Minister’s office, Nayanar, instead of shaking hands with the ambassador, embraced Mukundan and said, “Oh it’s Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil.” Mukundan was thrilled but felt deeply embarrassed for the ambassador. But Blanchemaison took it in a sporting spirit. “When we returned to Delhi, he told everybody, ‘In Kerala Mukundan is more famous than me and I felt that I was escorting him’”.
It was no surprise then that Blanchemaison, on behalf of the French government, conferred the ‘Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres’ in 1998 on Mukundan for his contribution to literature.
So far the author has published 12 novels and 10 collections of short stories and won numerous awards for his writing.
Asked about his philosophy of life, Mukundan says, “I don’t believe in morality which is imposed by man. So I don’t follow rules. At the same time, my aim is to avoid inflicting pain on others.”