True value of biographies

In his ‘Jameela is in, Shakespeare out’ (The New Sunday Express, May 24) T P Rajeevan criticises the decision to introduce Oru Lymgika-thozhilaliyude Atmakatha, and Thaskaran Maniyanpillauyude

Published: 01st June 2009 01:55 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th May 2012 10:52 PM   |  A+A-

In his ‘Jameela is in, Shakespeare out’ (The New Sunday Express, May 24) T P Rajeevan criticises the decision to introduce Oru Lymgika-thozhilaliyude Atmakatha, and Thaskaran Maniyanpillauyude Atmakatha, for undergraduate courses in Malayalam language and literature in Kerala University. Rajeevan opines that study of the books at the cost of traditional texts is unlikely to enrich the lives of students who would be learning ‘how customers behave with sex-workers and how houses are broken into’.

A look at the two books — though Rajeevan makes Jameela’s autobiography sound like the modern Malayalee version of ‘Fanny Hill’, it is not so. Jameela works with the Sex Workers Forum and has made two documentaries on sex workers. The book, reviewed in the Express on 5 October 2007, as a work deserving attention on the same plane as the works of Kamala Das and O V Vijayan, is a bestseller. Jameela explains that she entered prostitution as a young widow to earn the rupees five that her mother-in-law demanded for looking after her children; then again, after being abandoned by her husband. It is neither a sob-story nor an apology. It is a study of the social hypocrisy prevalent in Kerala — the state with the highest levels of literacy. She says: sex workers perform a very important duty. They are a safety valve.

One needs only to look at the number of rapes — violent, incestuous and of children to understand what Jameela has the courage to say. The book has been translated into English by J Devika.

I couldn’t find an English translation of Maniyanpillayude Atmakatha. Though written by a thief the book is not a manual for burglars. Maniyan Pilla describes the nexus between the police, the political rulers and the underworld. His own story is one of deprivation and social injustice leading to his choice of vocation. Rajeevan may well remember that one other story of a thief is considered universally a classic of realism: Les Misérables.

Books on contemporary realism are rarely acknowledged as classics in the era in which they are written. Should literary works stand a test of time to be acknowledged as worthy? Lady Chatterly’s Lover initially banned for its sexual content and class politics is now a classic of masterful writing and lyrical exploration of the mind and the body. Nobakov’s Lolita banned for pornographic content is today regarded as one of 20th century’s best novels. How little is read in college about Gandhi, Marx, Dostoevsky or Lincoln as husbands. Their insensitiveness to their unhappy wives reflects the same hypocrisy that Jameela points out in her autobiography.

If 60 years of ‘traditional’ syllabus has failed bring the change these men envisioned, the fault lies in their depiction as pure and flawless personalities, devoid of their blemishes. Biographies of real people and how they deal with real problems are far more inspirational than fairy tales.

Literary subjects change with the needs of generations: patriotism, justice in war, the politics of race and class, or an understanding of the depth of democracy. I had the splendid opportunity of watching Measure for Measure at the reconstructed Globe in London. The impression I had was that it was renaissance England’s version of theru koothu, and deserved little of the sombre air of immutable classicism that professors in India tend to dignify Shakespeare with. How is Shakespeare more relevant than Thaskaran Maniyanpillayude Atmakatha to undergraduates of Malayalam literature?

A statistical report of reasons for sex workers entering the trade, though probably acceptable to Rajeevan as valid academic reading, fails to create the essential emotional link that transforms the reader and inspires interpretation of social conditions. Literature, through its subjectivity, connections of memories, imagination and subsequent re-imaginings, fantastical re-interpretations — promotes a closer introspection into reality. A literary autobiography identifies the writer as being more than a numerical entity in an undifferentiated bundle of lost human beings. The writer ascends into a higher realm of understanding and interpreting other realities. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writing of One Hundred Years of Solitude gave him such an understanding of Colombia that he was invited to facilitate negotiations between the government and the guerrillas.

Undergraduates, whom Rajeevan mistakenly refers to as adolescents are, on the contrary, adults or on the threshold of adulthood. Instead of being blinkered by all-knowing pedants, they must be exposed in a responsible manner to social ills, and taught to view social conditions as determining choices of livelihood and modes of social intercourse. Far from being an unnecessary infliction on undergraduates, the autobiographies in question are essential tools to understanding social organisation, and would enable students to participate sensitively in change and progress.

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