- Related Image
- Click on the image to expand
MT Vasudevan Nair | Manu R Mavelil
Young Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi’s Home Coming and Bharatha’s Destiny by Shathrughnan nestle neatly among other books on a small table in the living room.
As you enter ‘Sithara’, located in a quiet neighbourhood in Kozhikode, you cannot but help notice a bunch of his portraits stacked together in a corner, while another rests on the wall. On a shelf are a fascinating array of awards and recognitions won by the Padma Bhushan awardee.
Standing tall in the middle is the unassuming MT Vasudevan Nair—the living legend of Malayalam literature. ‘MT’ to his legions of fans, he has always been known as a solitary reaper. Acclaimed writer, award-winning auteur and respected literary editor, MT is among the most worshipped cultural icons of Malayalis across the world. In an exclusive chat, the writer, who turned 85 on July 15, opens up about his life and times.
The growing intolerance in the country, he says, “affects and saddens” him. “Intolerance has come to a level where penning a book, speaking against the general norm invites the wrath of the mob,” he says. “Resist we must, through our writings, cinema, and theatre. The masses need to be made aware.”
He should know. He has given us some of the most powerful symbolisms that Malayalam cinema has ever seen. The haunting image of an oracle spitting on the idol in Nirmalayam, his 1973 award-winning film, will forever remain etched in the minds of viewers. Yet MT’s stoic silence on social issues has often invited wrath. “I do have an opinion. But it is only when I can no longer remain silent, that it is voiced.”
Citing the recent brutal campus murder of a Kerala student, he continues, “It unsettled me deeply and left a scar in my mind. Respond I will… in due time. Political violence has always been part of campus life, but such brutality and violent murders... never.”
Is there a conspicuous blanking out of Left ideology in his life and works? “There were hardly any people with Left leanings in my village,” he says. “I never got an opportunity to observe politics from close quarters. Yet there are several aspects of Communism as an ideology that I do relate to.”
Talking about his literary journey, he says, “Like everyone, I too started with poetry but soon stopped when I realised it is not my calling. Later, I began penning stories. A few were published; others did not see the light of the day. Reading Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, P Kesavadev and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer encouraged me to pursue prose.”
Most of his protagonists are societal outcasts. “Such people have always been present in society, leading isolated and lonely lives,” says MT. “They do everything, but never seem to gain anyone’s attention.” From among his own creations, ‘Asuravithu’ is a favourite.
Ammakku (to mother) is one of his most touching narratives. “Amma never knew about my writing. She died when I was in college. Starving kids in the neighbourhood moved her more than the thought of starvation at home. She just did not know how to differentiate between her own and the others. Gruff in her manners, she was a very strong woman and commanded respect. Achan (father) was mostly in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He would make a guest appearance once in a while.”
Polite inquiries about any first love leave a trace of a grin. “I did not actually have the material means to pursue any sort of love affair back then.” As talk veers towards the present crop of writers, MT expresses some sort of guarded optimism. “From my limited reading of modern-day prose, I feel that youngsters of today do take their writing seriously, viewing it as a major responsibility,” he says. “Readers too have changed. They have a lot more exposure. Catching their attention is the real challenge.”
He does not appreciate writers being labelled. “Only those works that stand the test of time will make it to literary folklore. That is a universal truth. Basheer’s stories are something we can read again and again. Karoor’s writing... beautifully crafted. There are only two types of writing—good or bad. Anarchy in writing does not appeal to me. Writing requires an innate discipline.”
It was his brother who got him acquainted with the classics. Russian great Fyodor Dostoyevski is his all-time favourite. “Latin American literature too fascinates me—Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Jorge Amado. Among Indian writers, Mahasweta Devi, UR
Ananthamurthy and P Lankesh figure among close acquaintances. I have always had a naive envy for a poet’s talent. Edasseri Govindan Nair is my favourite poet.”
Social media, he believes, is not conducive to writing. “Even today, I write with my own hand,” says MT. “Luckily, despite the visual media, books remain with us.” His detour to moviedom was accidental. “When a few friends asked for a story, I agreed,” he says. “Later, they wanted me to write the screenplay.” Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa’s works appeal to him. Among Indian masters, it is Satyajit Ray’s cinema that tops his list. Finally, what about the ‘Award Wapsi’ trend? “I find it meaningless,” he says in true MT style.