I carved out a space for myself in the literary world, says Mohammed Abbas

TNIE speaks to writer who moved the Malayalam literary world with his work 'Visappu Pranayam Unmadam'.  
Writer Mohammed Abbas
Writer Mohammed Abbas

KOCHI: What better time is there to talk about the power of reading, if not Reading Week? And who better than writer Mohammed Abbas, renowned for his works like Visappu Pranayam Unmadam and Athmahathyakkum Bhranthinumidayil, can encompass all about how reading inspires a person?

Abbas, who became a writer through the power of reading, is entering a new phase in his career with the release of his maiden novel Abuvinte Jalakangal. The writer who is known for his works centred around his personal life opens up about his life experiences and recounts his journey in Malayalam literature during a conversation with TNIE.

Excerpts:

How do someone who only knew Tamil fall in love with Malayalam?

My father is from Kottakkal, but we settled in the Travancore area in connection with his job. I was born and raised in Perunchilambu in Kanyakumari. Eventually, this area became part of Tamil Nadu, so I had to learn Tamil. Later, we moved back to Kerala when I was in eighth grade. However, my lack of proficiency in reading and writing Malayalam prevented me from enrolling in school. And then financial constraints further put a stop to my former education.

Later, I moved to Kozhikode where I took on various jobs in hotels as a day labourer. It was during this time that I met two sex workers. They encouraged me to learn to write Malayalam. They wrote words like ‘Kadal’ (sea) and ‘Akasham’ (sky) on a cigarette packet at Kozhikode Beach and started teaching me. I learned words such as ‘Thiramala’ (waves), ‘Vanji’ (boat), and ‘Kappal’ (ship), from them. Since we speak Malayalam at home, I already knew how to read some words.

Then, my life changed when my uncle found me and brought me to his home. Later, I moved to his rubber plantation in the hill area, where I spent three years. During this period, I would come down the hill weekly to visit the panchayat and party libraries at the junction, borrowing books to read in my free time. It was there I mastered my skills in reading and writing Malayalam.

When did you begin writing?

After becoming skilled in the language, I desired to write, despite being self-taught and facing a few limitations. Initially, I was hesitant to show my writing to others or submit it for publication due to errors and shyness. However, epics like Khasakkinte Ithihasam had a lot of influence on me and inspired me to start writing.

Over time, my spelling errors came down, and I began writing stories and submitting them to publications. Rejections came swiftly, but I continued to write. I took on jobs like painting, selling vegetables, fish, and lottery tickets at that time. In 2017, I got a phone and joined Facebook. I joined the reading groups and began sharing small write-ups about the books I read and how they influenced me. The positive feedback encouraged me to post more. The platform’s freedom allowed me to express myself without fear of negative feedback. This courage led to a publication contacting me to compile my write-up into a collection — Oru Paint Panikkarante Lokasancharangal.

I continued to write online, but I grew tired of the same format and started penning my personal life experiences, which became the book Visappu Pranayam Unmadam. To date, I have authored five books. So, we can say I taught myself and carved out a space for myself in the literary world.

Can you share how your reading journey influenced you to view the world?

In my youth, I turned from children’s publications to weekly magazines and eventually into soft porn novels that were available at that time. During this phase, I came across Ithihasathinte Ithihasam, a work where author O V Vijayan responded to criticisms of Khasakkinte Ithihasam. This led me to take Khasakkinte Itihasam, which helped me discover my preferred genres.

Soon, I started exploring the works of writers such as Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, M T Vasudevan Nair, and various translated works of world literature. Naturally, my thoughts and perspectives evolved. I began reading nonfiction, history, and diverse subjects, which expanded my thinking. It also influenced how I viewed others. I realised that regardless of our own experiences, continuous reading is important to truly understand others.

You said you often write about your life experiences. Isn’t it challenging to write about painful experiences?

Readers of Visappu Pranayam Unmadam have shared that they got emotional while reading the book. I cried a lot while writing it.

There is a difference when we revisit our lives through language, almost as if we are reliving them in a new way. We never anticipate writing about our experiences when we are going through them. The experience is the true teacher, not any religion or culture. It’s all about how we navigate and interpret these experiences. But I think everyone can write about their life experiences. But many stumble when beginning to write fiction, and they eventually discover if there is anything within themselves. My readers will find out this through my debut novel.

How do you connect these emotions with your audience?

I only know the language I speak — my vernacular in a colloquial style. This makes it easier for people to connect with me, as opposed to using complex language. Speaking simply ensures that people pay attention, even if the language lacks ornamentation, similes, or substance. This might explain why my writing connects with others.

Also, Facebook is a popular medium among ordinary people. While youngsters may prefer Instagram and intellectuals lean towards Twitter, my storytelling on Facebook reaches ordinary people. When we speak truthfully, readers sense our authenticity and embrace it. I write about both my best and worst days, my good and bad habits. I never hide anything. I just write and present myself as I truly am.

Recently, one of your Facebook posts about your son’s SSLC score went viral. Many people reacted and shared it through different mediums. What inspired you to write that note?

I have three children. My two elder daughters have achieved excellent ranks and accolades. However, when my son’s results were announced, our family was happy with that. But curious relatives and neighbours called to ask how many A+ grades he received. They viewed it as a matter of dignity and pride. For me, it was not.

Seeing that these calls affected my son, I chose to appreciate his humanity instead, knowing that this quality would benefit him more in the future than any A+ grade. I don’t believe marks define a person. Whether or not a child gets an A+, they are still our child, right?

The most important thing is to support our children without succumbing to societal pressures. By doing so, they will truly flourish.

Writing about politics and religion can attract a lot of criticism. How do you deal with that?

I have faced a lot of criticism over the years. One notable instance was when I wrote about the kitchen dynamics during Ramadan. During this time, women in the house often have to handle double the household work. They wake up early and prepare food, while the men wake up later and head to the mosque, which is usually air-conditioned. Even during their menstrual periods, women have to carry on with their duties. Then women need to get the children ready for school and start preparing for the feast. They serve food to the men and listen to their minor complaints.

Many people criticised me, saying their kitchens don’t function like this. However, whether it happens in our own kitchens or not, we need to address these issues. To those who criticise me, I have only one response: “Thank you, happiness, and more love”. It’s not my style to meet criticism with criticism or arguments. Instead, I believe in responding with love.

Many considered you the star of the recent Kerala Literature Festival...

Platforms like this hold significant importance in today’s world. On stage, I didn’t speak about the people who were present but about those who could not be there, those who lacked such privileges. When I took an autorickshaw to get here, I told the driver to take me to KLF. He didn’t understand. I then mentioned the place where the festival was being held, and he still didn’t know. This festival has been happening for seven or eight years, and he has been driving the auto for 16 years, yet he was unaware of the biggest literature festival.

I shared this on stage, how many auto-rickshaw drivers, painters, and carpenters remain disconnected from such events. It becomes a significant event only for a small percentage of society. For ordinary people struggling to survive each day, literature is not a big thing. I guess I didn’t speak much about literature. Perhaps that is why the audience noticed me.

What are your future projects?

My first novel has been released. I have always written about the struggles of ordinary people, highlighting issues that often go unnoticed. Over time, some readers commented that my work seemed to focus only on sorrow, asking if there was no happiness in my life. I also felt that my writing had become somewhat repetitive. That’s why I decided to try fiction. 

Another novel is set to be released next month. I am still going for my painting job because very few people can depend on writing alone. I am not particularly privileged to do so. I hope that my books will provide me with the opportunity to focus entirely on writing.

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