Some years ago when I had visited Kottayam on invitation by DC Books, the Malayalam publishers, I was asked if there was someone I would like to meet. My mind ran over my wish list of Malayalam literary lions. M T Vasudevan Nair was staying in the guest house as I, and not just did I speak to him at length, I also had the opportunity to watch him eat breakfast. That by itself was a rarity for me. Literary lions are always seen in the glow of a spot light. Larger than life they loom over the horizon and your mind with an absoluteness that is inviolable. It is as if there is a board: SEE BUT DO
An artist friend of mine once explained why in India art has to be encased behind glass or kept cordoned off. We are a race of touchy-feely people. We can’t help touching things.
So it is very humanizing and endearing to see a man, a literary lion at that, eat his fried egg, butter his toast and chew on it resolutely.
Balachandran Chullikad the other literary lion I wanted to meet was to be part of the program. So that left only O V Vijayan who was based in Kottayam in those days.
O V Vijayan was ailing and was in hospital, did I mind visiting him there? Ravi DeeCee asked.
Not really, I said thinking of how I had stood before the Pieta for hours. It was behind a sheet of glass but the power of what it represented emanated with a vigour no glass could hold back. It didn’t matter if there would be no conversation; it would be enough just to be in his presence, I knew. Somewhere in those eyes would be traces of that vision that conjured up Khasak.
At the hospital, someone told me of the day they brought in O V Vijayan. Of rushing to the doctor and saying, “I have brought O V Vijayan in! He is very ill. Could you please hurry?”
And of how the doctor responded, “It doesn’t matter if you brought O V Vijayan or A V Vijayan, he will have to wait his turn.”
The doctor wasn’t just being sarcastic. He also didn’t know who O V Vijayan was or what his genius represented. Forty-five years after it was published, Khasakinde Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak) is still a bestseller in Malayalam. But to a man who probably last read a book in his teens, a literary lion meant nothing.
The gentleman with me wasn’t annoyed as much as he was dismayed by the incident. “If it had been even a two bit actor from the cinema world, would the doctor have been so dismissive? He would have dropped everything and rushed to be at his side.”
It is this I think of each time I meet a literary lion who doesn’t step out of the literary territory. Be it Ashok Vajpayee or Sankar, Manoj Das or Ambai, Mohan Rakesh or Varsha Adalja, writers who contain themselves with creating literature. And for this they are punished by a relative anonymity in the greater world while lesser talents who step out into the world of cinema or court controversy by shooting their mouths off on anything and everything acquire a superstar status.
As readers we fail literature when we are blinded by the glitz and hype and overlook talent with gravitas. As readers we do talent a great disservice. Sigh!
Anita Nair is a bestselling writer and columnist.
She can be reached at email@example.com