A Sethumadhavan, popular as Sethu, is a writer who wore many caps in his career. He served as a Met department officer in Pune and Thumba and as a Railway Board officer in Delhi before retiring as chairman and CEO of the South Indian Bank in 2005.
More than 50 years after he burst onto the scene with his first short story, in 1967, he continues to be relevant in the literary world. Sethu has received several honours including national and state Sahitya Akademi awards. In a wide-ranging interview with TNIE, he speaks about his writings, the circumstances that led to his resignation as chairman of National Book Trust in Delhi, and the culture of reading.
You have been writing for more than 55 years. For 45 of those years, you were both a writer and a professional. How did you manage this double life?
(Laughs) I have been replying to this question for five decades. I used to wonder how conflicting these two areas are. One is too real and the other is unreal, particularly with my kind of writing. I don’t have an explanation. Working in a bank is about management. You make decisions day in and day out. I would say I could see things from a different point of view.
Did the planning and involvement required in your profession affect your writing?
I was able to manage these two areas reasonably well. I would write in the morning. By the time I went to the office, I switched off from the ‘make-believe’ world. There, I switched to my other world, one which is very real. When I was the chairman of the South Indian Bank, I had to travel a lot to open 10-15 new branches in north India. For a Thrissur-headquatered private bank, it was a huge challenge. It was a novel written at the time — Adayalangal — that won me the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award and the Vayalar Award.
You started writing during the beginning of modernism in Malayalam literature. In your initial writings, there lurked a dark sensibility. How would you explain this?
It is easier to be dark (laughs). It is just like opposite poles attracting. When we switch off from one and go to the other, it is easier to have crazy thoughts. When we do very mundane things in the office, it is a relief to get into that space.
The most influential factor in your writing style...
I come from Chendamangalam. In those days, several myths and legends were popular in rural areas. There were stories of ghosts, sorcerers and oracles and haunted places in villages. My formative years saw several mythical and legendary stories that affected my character and imagination.
Has the West influenced your literary style?
It has influenced several writers, but not me. I am influenced by pure Indian life experiences, concepts, and beliefs captured at a young age. Whatever we read indirectly influences us. It remains in our unconscious minds. Later, it may be reflected in our work.
Can you explain how Pandavapuram, termed as your masterpiece, came to be?
When Lalithambika Antharjanam’s Agnisakshi was in its concluding stage in the weekly Mathrubhumi, M T Vasudevan Nair asked me for a novel. I said I have scribbled something, but it needs to be developed. He asked me to ponder over it. I was scared as Agnisakshi was a very popular work. MT encouraged me. When the work was published, some readers felt I was a lunatic. They wondered how MT too could have lost his mind (laughs).
Is Pandavapuram a mythical place?
In the 1960s, when I was at Katni in Madhya Pradesh, I was staying at an army barrack which had an open ground. It was peak winter. I could see horses galloping during foggy mornings. There were orange farms nearby. These visuals remained with me. In 1976, when I started writing Pandavapuram, these images came rushing to my mind. It was an unreal location.
Pandavapuram is open-ended. Why is it so?
Most of my short stories and novels are open-ended. I leave it to the readers to complete them. I believe my readers are more knowledgeable and learned than me. They are much more sensible or sensitive, and hence, they can complete the story better than what I could imagine. It’s the responsibility of the writer to pique the imagination of the reader.
Pandavapuram was adapted into a Malayalam movie...
It was horrible. But the Bengali film was good.
Your story Dooth too has this mystical fantasy element...
It is based on a real incident narrated by director G Aravindan. He shared the experience with me and I put it into the story. Later, Aravindan asked me how I perfected the story for the situation (laughs). I have said it many times... I haven’t written Dooth, someone pushed me to write it.
Recently, the criticism raised by MT about the growing authoritarianism in politics has triggered a debate. What do you feel?
What MT said is very relevant. I fully agree with that. The old proverb ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is what we are witnessing today. Whether it is in Delhi or in Kerala, the misuse of power is spreading. I have no doubt MT has commented on the misuse of power both in Delhi and Kerala. People who we admire are also changing.
MT, after EMS, is someone who speaks like Kerala’s cultural editor. Your thoughts...
What he said in Kozhikode was like dropping a bomb. Usually, he doesn’t interfere much. His approach is different from that of Azhikode, who wanted people to listen to his speech. Azhikode was a performer, and very articulate too. Even (Narendra) Modi is a good performer (laughs).
Unlike other cultural personalities, you are hesitant to respond to social developments. Is it a deliberate decision?
I don’t have any disagreement with people who respond to such developments. But I never felt I had to respond to developments around me. It is not out of fear. I never felt that I should live in the limelight. As a writer, I express my opinion through my writings. Though we claim to be progressive, women are still unsafe in Kerala. I don’t think women are safe even amid the nightlife in Kochi. In most of my works, the main characters are women. Even young children are being exploited. The biggest problem in Kerala is drug abuse. It is also the reason behind many unsavoury incidents.
Are we facing a lack of literary editors like MT?
There are no editors like him in India. We have seen better writers than MT and we will see better writers than him in the future. But there is no literary editor like him, and we will never see another one. Look at him. He gave a break to writers like Mukundan, myself, Kunjabdulla, Narayana Pillai, and Zachariah, who are still relevant.
Or is it because a new Sethu, Zachariah, or Mukundan are not bursting onto the literary scene?
(Laughs). I won’t comment on that. You can make your own judgement. But many brilliant writers are emerging. Some of them have unbelievable language and they capture the spirit of a very localised terrain.
When MT criticised demonetisation, everyone was waiting for your response?
I said that it was a blunder. The reach when MT says it and when I say it is different.
Your genre of mythical fantasy writing is not commonly seen in Malayalam?
There were writers in this genre. I admire M P Narayana Pillai the most although he hasn’t written extensively. He elevated local myths to a higher level.
Your Delhi life was rich with people like Narayana Pillai, VKN, and Mukundan. How would you describe that period?
I was in Delhi from 1966 to 1968. There was a Kerala Club in Connaught Place and a ‘Sahithi Sakhyam’ that met on Fridays. I joined the group by coincidence. Kakkanadan and I worked together at the Railway Board. He invited me to the club. Interactions with the writers there inspired me.
Compared to other writers of your generation, your writing requires a higher level of intellectual engagement. Is this deliberate?
When you realise that realism is not your preferred approach, you tend to explore alternatives. I came to understand that my path diverged from that of my predecessors. I made a concerted effort to primarily use Dravidian words or dialects. The Dravidian language offers a rich reservoir of words suitable for literary works. Ayyappa Paniker was among those who encouraged me to incorporate local dialects.
How would you describe your writing process? Do you begin writing with a fully formed story in mind?
I never start with a predetermined end in mind. The story evolves on its own as the writing progresses. Some of my books would never have come to fruition if I had a fixed ending in mind from the start.
Creativity is often a solitary pursuit. Could you share how you collaborated with Punathil Kunjabdulla for Navagrahangalude Thadavara?
It was an adventurous attempt. Kunjabdulla and I shared a strong friendship. Being fond of fantasy literature, we decided to collaborate on a novel in that genre. After settling on a theme, we divided the task and each wrote half of the book. We then exchanged drafts and embarked on editing each other’s work. Despite our efforts, the outcome fell short of our expectations.
Can you share your thoughts on Kunjabdulla?
He was undeniably talented, and possessed an astonishing ability to weave captivating stories. He ranks among the finest writers and storytellers of our generation. Kunjabdulla actually wasted his talent. I think Malayalam literature did not fully tap into his potential, save for Smarakashilakal. When he writes, the words and ideas flow effortlessly. He does not have to rely on craft. It is effortless.
The village where you grew up and wrote about had everyone existing in harmony. Is there such a place in the entire country now?
The current situation is deeply troubling, and it seems to be worsening with each passing day.
How do you view intolerance and hate politics these days?
As an 82-year-old man, it disturbs and frightens me deeply. Comparing it to the environment I grew up in, I worry about the world my grandchildren will inherit. I hesitate to delve into specifics, but the concept of othering—whether in religion, politics, or social interactions—is profoundly alarming.
Though you said othering is scary, you have not spoken about it publicly...
I never wanted to create a furore and seek attention through it. But I have expressed my views through my writings. I feel society is worsening by the day and I am not optimistic about the future.
Recently, the Sahitya Akademi courted controversy with writer Sreekumaran Thampi alleging humiliation...
It was an unwanted controversy. Both Akademi president Satchidanandan and Sreekumaran Thampi are my friends. Thampi is a very sensitive person. There was no need to say that his lyrics were cliched. Had they informed him that the state anthem would be selected only after getting a committee’s approval, Thampi would never have accepted the offer. He is a legend and his songs are eternal.
What made you quit the post of chairman of the National Book Trust six months before the end of tenure?
I quit the post after the BJP government asked me to leave. I tried to bring some changes to NBT. I knew I had to quit when the new government assumed office. But since I had only six months left to end the term, I thought I could complete my tenure. But they made it clear that they wanted me to quit. Technically, they cannot dismiss me. Had I continued, it would have become difficult.
Isn’t NBT an autonomous body?
It will be more correct to say that the government allowed the NBT to claim itself to be an autonomous institution.
Did Minister Smriti Irani intervene to remove you?
Normally, when the minister changes, all secretaries and chairmen go and greet the new incumbent with bouquets. Though I got an appointment after three attempts, it was cancelled at the last moment. Later, I came to know that she was refusing to meet people appointed by the UPA.
Have you felt like writing about power?
It is a good idea. VKN has written about it in his style. Arang is a story about the emergency period. Emergency was in my mind when I wrote it.
As a banker, how do you see the probe against KIIFB, the question of state’s liability, and the raising of funds from the international market?
There is of course politics involved in it. But Masala Bonds are the state’s liability. I don’t know what the procedures are when a state government operates in an international bond market. We need the Union government’s clearance to go to the global market. The problem is that when the other government takes charge, they will be liable.
The Left government has protested in Delhi...
Though we go to Delhi to protest, the fiscal management here is poor.
What are your memories of your friendship with Bishan Singh Bedi?
For around two months, we were together for State Bank training. He is a humorous guy and used to crack jokes about Sardars. He was a great guy with guts... because, usually, cricketers join commentary, associations, do endorsements, etc. But he didn’t do that. He was bold and never used to bother anybody. He was truly a wonderful person.
Did you ever dream of being a writer?
Never. I was a passionate reader. My mother encouraged me to read books from the library instead of focusing solely on academics. I am truly indebted to her because if it weren’t for her guidance, I wouldn’t have pursued writing.
Your mother seems to have had a significant impact on you...
She had a profound influence on me. My father’s influence was also significant. It was his insistence that my mother and I should return to Kerala for my studies that ultimately led me to become a writer.
The recent backlash from poet Balachandran Chullikkad regarding the meagre compensation for writers has sparked controversy. Is he right in his assertion?
Yes, he is. Balan’s words are genuine. Even today, many fail to recognise the value of writers. Everyone’s time is valuable. Writers deserve to be compensated. In foreign countries, it is common practice for speakers to receive payment before attending an event. To give an authentic speech, a lot of preparation is needed. Today, such oratory is very rare.
Chullikkad clarified that his statement was mainly directed at the Malayali society and the value they give to the writers vis-a-vis other forms of arts like mimicry. What is your take?
(Critic) K P Appan once said that the penchant of literary figures to go around taking part in various functions is prevalent in Kerala. Why should they go to all events? What’s their role there? Writers themselves are responsible for the erosion of value that people place on them.
How was the approach of literary critics towards your works?
I once had a tussle with M Krishna Nair sir. I then cleared the air. Comments made by critics bothered me only in the early days. After a while, you start ignoring it. Writers don’t write keeping in mind anyone. Sometimes, the story works out, and at other times, it never reaches anywhere.
What about writers’ social commitment?
Whatever I want to say I do so through my writings, especially about the stature of women in our society. Be it in Bihar or Kerala, women and land are always soft targets. The situation of women is really bad in Kerala. Look at the number of rape cases being reported here. It’s the same in Delhi too In 1966, girls used to go to watch second shows in Delhi. That is not the situation today.
Among your contemporaries, who were you closest to?
I was very close to Punathil. He made me jealous. Another writer whose works aroused jealousy was M P Narayana Pillai. I could never write like that. Then there was Vijayan. VKN was also an awe-inspiring writer. There is nobody like him in India.
You started writing when many writers had a Leftist point of view. What is your politics?
I have never felt the need to lean towards any party. I didn’t want to hear the accusation that Sethu got awards because of his affiliation with a party. I have never coveted an award. I have friends in all political parties. (Industries Minister) P Rajeeve and (Leader of Opposition) V D Satheesan are my friends. But that doesn’t mean I am loyal to a particular person. I have my own space.
Is that the reason your name never comes up in discussions regarding cliques?
True. I never believed in getting awards through connections. What sanctity do such awards have in the long run? It doesn’t last.
Can you shed some light on the fake news associated with ATM withdrawals when you were chairman of the South Indian Bank?
After the fake news, many customers wanted to withdraw money. Though we made a request, the RBI didn’t issue any clarification. So we issued a directive to every branch to fill ATMs and open counters. We saw withdrawals of around Rs 30 crore in the first two days. On the third day, we got back deposits worth Rs 20 crore.
Do you watch films?
I watch films on OTT. I saw 12th Fail and Sam Bahadur. Both were really good films. The person who played the role of Sam Manekshaw (Vicky Koushal) acted brilliantly.
Over the past 50 years, have Malayali readers’ tastes and sensibilities changed?
Changes in taste happen. It is being said that reading has decreased. But people still read. Youngsters don’t go to libraries but they read on Kindle. The library culture that was prevalent in the past will no longer come back. But books are getting sold in large numbers.
After all these years of writing, are you satisfied?
Will anyone be satisfied? There is nothing like satisfaction. Satisfaction is like a mirage. You are trying to satisfy yourselves. But you are never satisfied. I had even thought of rewriting Pandavapuram. But then I realised it would be foolish.