AJ Thomas, who has selected and introduced ‘The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told,’ talks about the changing landscape of Malayalam short fiction, and the different ways of storytelling

One morning, in May 2022, poet-translator AJ Thomas called up T. Padmanabhan (92), the multiple award-winning Malayalam writer. “Sir, I am bringing out an anthology called The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told,” said Thomas. “I would like to select one of your stories, ‘The Death of Makhan Singh.’” Padmanabhan asked in a playful tone, “What will I gain? Will I be around when the book comes out? What is the use? What am I worth?” Thomas said, “You are the greatest living Malayalam short story writer.” Padmanabhan said, “Who says that?” “Sir, I am saying it,” replied Thomas. Padmanabhan laughed.

“His clarity of mind was amazing,” recalls Thomas. Eventually, the book became a compendium of 50 brilliant short stories translated from the Malayalam, and spanning 50 years from the 1950s to the turn of the 20th century. The anthology, brought out by Aleph Book Company, brings together the works of both stalwarts and the emerging voices. They include P Kesavadev, Ponkunnam Varkey, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, SK Pottekkatt, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Uroob, MT Vasudevan Nair, OV Vijayan, T. Padmanabhan, M. Mukundan, Kakkanadan, Paul Zacharia and several others.

In his story, ‘The Hanging’, Vijayan talks about a father visiting his son in a prison a day before he was hanged:

An intense keening issued from Kandunni, a wail so high-pitched and shrill, it was on the edge of auditory perception. “Appa, don’t let them hang me.”

“Time’s up, Sir. Please come out.” Vellaayiappan walked out of the cell and the door clanged shut. When he looked back, he saw his son looking at him from behind the bars as a stranger might from behind the barred window of a train hurtling past. Vellaayiappan kept walking. Just before he turned the bend in the corridor, he looked back one last time, to bid his son farewell.’

P Padmarajan is known for his novels and films. But he has written a short story called ‘Choonda’ (The Hook). It is about an old man sitting by the side of a pond trying to hook a varal (murrel). He has a 38-year-old daughter who is not married. She goes on cursing him for going to the pond daily and returning empty-handed. One day, the old man finally catches a murrel. The story ends with these lines: ‘A thought gave him great relief. That day, for the first time in the last five days, he could sleep without listening to cursing.’ Thomas says: “It’s a fantastic story. There is a superb creation of atmosphere.”

Expectedly, the quality remains superb throughout. The women writers whose stories have been included are: Lalithambika Antharjanam, K. Saraswathi Amma, Rajalakshmi, Madhavikutty, Sara Joseph, and Manasi. Lalithambika’s absorbing story, ‘Dhirendu Majumdar’s Mother’ is about Shanti Majumdar, the mother of a revolutionary, who herself becomes a heroine during the partition of Bengal and India in 1947, and the Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971. Asked whether there is a difference between the older and current writers, Thomas says, “There is no difference. There are only different ways of story-telling. I selected stories that read well.”

Incidentally, the first Malayalam short story, ‘Vasana Vikriti’ (Strange Stirrings), was written by essayist Kesari Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar (1860-1914) in 1891. It appeared in the literary magazine Vidya Vinodini. “But the serious, well-formed short stories began to appear in the 1930s,” says Thomas.

The selection process

The idea of the anthology took shape when Aienla Ozukum, the Publishing Director at Aleph Book Company, walked into the Delhi office of Thomas, the editor of Indian Literature, a bi-monthly literary journal which is brought out by the Sahitya Akademi, in November 2018. She told him that Aleph was planning to bring out a ‘Greatest Stories Ever Told’ series from all the regional languages. “Since Malayalam is one of the major literatures in India, Aienla wanted me to select and translate the stories into English,” says Thomas.

Though Malayalam short stories are his forte, the idea was a daunting task for him. But his extensive work in the field came in handy for Thomas, who did his M. Phil and PhD dissertations on the subject. He has done several translations of notable books throughout his career. And won the Katha award for his translation of a story of Paul Zacharia called ‘Salam America’. He translated Ujjaini, based on the life of Kalidasa by legendary Malayalam poet ONV Kurup as well as M. Mukundan’s novel, Keshavan’s Lamentations. The latter won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2007.

Thomas says he has based most of his selection on two books. The first one was 100 Varsham 100 Kadha (Hundred Years, Hundred Stories), which came out in 1991, to celebrate the centenary of the Malayalam short story. Professor KS Ravi Kumar, the former Pro Vice Chancellor of the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, curated the stories. The second was author NS Madhavan’s 60 Kathakal (Sixty Stories). This came out in 2017, commemorating the 60th year of the birth of the state of Kerala. Thomas also relied on several notable previous anthologies, and literary periodicals of the past several decades as well.

The writers on the margins

Most were happy that they were selected for an English edition. But many writers remained in obscurity during their lifetimes. They include writers like TR (T Ramachandran), Victor Leenus and Thomas Joseph. “They set a different tone,” says Thomas. “You read their stories and you become aware of other realms. Thomas Joseph is a surreal painter with words.” Joseph had high blood pressure. On September 15, 2018, Joseph suffered a stroke while asleep at his home in Keezhmad, Aluva. The family took him to the Rajagiri Hospital. Since they could not afford to pay the medical expenses, his literary friends, including the writers Paul Zacharia, AK Hassan Koya, and others, including Thomas, pooled their resources. After being released, Joseph spent three years in a coma before he passed away, on July 29, 2021, at the age of 67.

(clockwise from top left): Kesari Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar, who wrote the first short story in Malayalam; M. Mukundan, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Thomas Joseph

The tragedy, says Thomas, is that when society loses a great writer, nobody is bothered. “Everybody goes after celebrated authors like MT Vasudevan Nair and ONV Kurup,” he says. “I have nothing against these great writers, only admiration. In music, people will celebrate singers like Yesudas. But there are also superb writers like TR and Victor Leenus, whom the public is not aware of. These are the people who, like the great Irish writer James Joyce, worked on the margins. That is why I took pains to include these immortals in this collection.”

The public is no longer bothered about the aesthetic quality of a literary work. “Earlier generations valued art and literature,” says Thomas. “Literature no longer touches people. They seem to be in another world. They are going ahead at a fast pace. The common man does not have the time to stop and look around. They regard literature and the arts as a luxury. To appreciate art, you need time and a meditative mood. Those things are no longer there. Having said that, there is also a minority which is deeply interested in these subjects.”

Found in translation

As to why so many Malayalam writers are being translated into English, Thomas says, “The quality of the writing is very good. This is widely known now. When Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things in 1997, it opened doors to a global audience for Malayalam literature through translation; even though the novel is written in English, it’s set in the cultural milieu of Kerala.

Thomas also mentions that the quality of translators has increased significantly. “Translators like Jayasree Kalathil, EV Fathima, Ministhy S. and many others are of international standard,” says Thomas. “This has helped create a market for Malayalam books in translation.” As for the modernist style in Malayalam fiction, he says, “The earliest model of Modernism existed till the early 1970s. Thereafter, there was the Postmodern period and Post-Postmodernism. These are subjective descriptions.”

From the 1990s, the scope of the story changed, says Thomas. “After the liberalisation of the Indian economy, the advent of the information superhighway, the rise of the Internet and social media, these are the new experiences,” he says. “All this is expressed in the writing these days.” Asked what elements have to be there in a story to make it timeless, Thomas says, “It should be life-affirming. It cannot be a story glorifying Hitler, for instance, or genocide. There should be aesthetic appeal. It should appeal to the intellect. There should be an original voice and fresh experiences. The narrative style is important. It should be tight and competent.”

Thomas is working on a companion volume of stories by writers mainly from the 1990s till the present. He mentions the names of K P Ramanunni, S. Hareesh, Benyamin, KR Meera, B. Murali, Unni R, VJ James, Vinoy Thomas, Subhash Chandran, Santhosh Aechikkanam, VR Sudheesh, E Santhosh Kumar, and a few others. “They belong to the New Wave of Malayalam short story writers,” says Thomas.

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