The irrationalities of a sanguine age, the horrors of war, pogroms in the name of God, caste, language, region and nation have been the popular themes in the works of Malayalam fiction writer and cartoonist O.V. Vijayan.
Such was the influence of his debut Malayalam novel Khaskinte Ithihaasam (1969) that it divided Malayalam literature into two halves; the pre-Khask era and the post-Khasak one. It has run into 50 reprints and is the most widely sold novel in South Asia.The Legends of Khasak, Vijayan’s 1994 translation of the novel, however, lacks the sensibility of the Malayalam original and is also a reflection of how the writer has, in the course of 25 years, meandered through the ideologies of Marxism and spiritualism in search of a solution to the maniacal injustices of our times.
Ravi, the young protagonist, walks into the sweltering heat of Khasak at the very outset of the novel, to run a single teacher school in the remote village. The character, now a literary legend, was driven to a level of meditative spiritual quest after an illicit affair with his step-mother. He thus forsook a lucrative scholarship in Physics, at Princeton, for a detached life in an aashram.
Ravi’s drift from the academia to a cloister and later to Khasak, from the guilt of a ‘sin’ with a yogini, imbibes the frailty of the human mind that is subdued by guilt and driven to a state of frenzy. This remorse is a universal feature in colossal tragedies such as; the story of Buddha who abandoned his palatial bungalow for the life of an ascetic, Lady Macbeth who lost her sanity, remorseful after her role in the regicide, and even Othello who self-annihilates having discovered the innocence of Desdemona.
Even as he dissolves into the everyday life of the village folk, Ravi is alienated in the hamlet that has yet to be exposed to the winds of modernism. Allah-Pitcha, the moulavi of Khasak, thus becomes his natural foe as the friar considers modern education, which spreads the ‘devil’s’ sciences and Anglican ideas, a bane.
The novel is far beyond a rural narrative as the numerous characters, each of a different genre and rarely appearing in more than one chapter, confers it the status of a classic. There are Nizam Ali, an orphan brought up by Allah-Pitcha, and the tailor Madhavan Nair; both communists who come to Ravi’s support.
The village beauty Maimuna, married to Chukra Rawthar, the retarded Appukkili, brought up by many mothers from different religions (possibly a symbolic representation of Vijayan’s commitment to secularism), the revered temple priest, Kuttanadan; Sivaraman Nair, the hindu fundamentalist and Kuppu Achan, the toddy taper; are all well weaved into an elaborate network that directs the serious reader into a web of magic and myth.
Khasak is a multi-religious community. Along with Hinduism and Islam, Vijayan has not missed the role of communism as an all-pervasive ideology in Kerala’s history. His graphic representation of Nizam Ali’s role in the founding of Koomankavu Beedi Worker’s Union, the first in the town, and the subsequent confrontation with Attar who owned the factory, followed by a strike and workers demonstration; is a caricaturised version of Kerala’s long history of proletarian agitations.
That Nizam Ali, who was arrested and jailed, later gave up the struggle when tortured in custody; is perhaps influenced by Vijayan’s own disillusionment with the left-movement he had abandoned in the mid-1950s.
In the Afterword to the novel (absent in the Malayalam edition), Vijayan confesses that he had intended Ravi to be a “pilgrim-revolutionary” but the course of the work changed track after the killing of Imre Nagy in Italy which blew the young writer’s mind. Reflecting on this; he writes, “I thank providence, because I missed writing the ‘revolutionary novel’ by a hair’s breadth. Had I written it, I would have merely made one more boring entry in Marxism’s futile, repetitive bibliography.”
O.V Vijayan universalises his personal experiences throughout the novel. Like the writer, the protagonist too is an unceasing wanderer. At the climax of the novel, Ravi, keeping his promise to his lover Padma, decides to leave Khasak on a monsoon morning. As he waits at Koomankavu’s bus-stop he sees a blue-black snake approach. The reptile with an outspread hood pierces Ravi’s foot with its fangs. Within minutes, Ravi lay dead in the rain.
The novel, metaphysically, ends where it had commenced: at the bus-stop of Koomankavu. But one really wonders if the central-character deserved such a tragic end at the hands of the novelist. Would it not have been better for the reader to imagine a Ravi who continued to tramp the earth, in search of truth; for the quest of his spiritual liberation?