Happy birthday, MT

Welcome to Meledath — the over two centuries old Tharavad [Keralite ancestral home] in Bilathikulam, Calicut where I

Home is where the hurt is

Home is where the hurt is

spent my formative years.

Looks nice, doesn’t it — washed clean by rain, with its typical naalukettu facade holding out the promise of much history within?

Looks are deceptive; the home that means the world to me is a ruin waiting to happen, its foundations eaten away by familial squabbling and consequent neglect.

It is a world — sad, anachronistic, decaying — that readers of the fiction of MT Vasudevan Nair will immediately recognize.

‘MT’, who turned 76 today, has spent a lifetime chronicling the breakdown of the Nair tharavad starting with his debut novel titled, appropriately enough, Naalukettu.

That book, and its successors like Asuravithu [Demon Seed], resonated with me for the subject matter as much as for the intensely evocative writing: I was reading those stories of the breakdown of the matriarchal system even as I was living it in real life.

Superb though those novels were, they were hardly unique — other Keralite writers have painted similar pictures with equal, or even greater, skill. It was with the 1989 feature film Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha [A Northern Ballad] however that MT really captured my imagination — and at least in my mind, marked himself out as a writer beyond compare.

While wandering the paddy fields of my mother’s ancestral home in Palghat, I had heard workers sing of the storied warriors of Kalaripayattu, the ancient Keralite martial arts form, like Thatcholi Othenan and Aromal Chekavar.

The stories are simplistic, and etched in uncompromising black and white. The heroes are heroic, the womenfolk are beautiful, the villains are demonaic in their malevolence and inevitably, good triumphs over evil.

Thus, Aromal Chekavar was the invincible scion of Puthuram Veedu in northern Kerala, the greatest Kalari warrior of his day. In a duel to the death with rival master Aringodar, Aromal’s sword breaks off at the hilt. It turns out that the metal rivets holding blade and handle together had been replaced with wooden ones at the instance of his cousin Chandu, who was jealous of Aromal’s popularity.

No ambiguity here — thanks to this story, the name ‘Chandu’ became inextricably twinned with the word ‘chadiyan‘, traitor. Chadiyan Chandu — the touchstone against which all subsequent acts of treasury would be inevitably measured.

The legend of Aromal had been translated onto the silver screen many times; I had seen versions starring Satyan and Prem Nazir, and each fresh telling merely reinforced the ‘fact’ of the storyline.

And then I saw Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, for which MT had written the screenplay [He won the national award for it, as did actor Mammootty for his portrayal of Chandu]. Broadly, it followed the accepted storyline — but at each plot point, the writer subtly altered the focus to confront us with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Chandu could have been more sinned against than sinning.

There was no gee-whiz moment, no dramatic revelation that spun the perceived narrative on its head; instead, the screenplay was a succession of little moments, little incidents familiar to those who knew the story, but strangely new and compelling thanks to the author’s skill in getting beneath the skin of the characters.

Epic tales are typically one dimensional — it is all surface heroism and surface villainy, with little attempt to examine motivations, to delve into the emotional undercurrents. This version differed; at every point, action and motivation went hand in hand, with the byplay of conflicting emotions providing the undertow.

By the end of the film, MT had managed to reduce the heroic Aromal to a pompous, boastful, self-absorbed, vindictive caricature of his perceived self and his raison d’etre, the unparalleled skill with arms, had been shown up as inferior to that of his cousin. And with every notch that Aromal fell, Chandu simultaneously grew — when the end credits rolled, he had been transformed into the ultimate tragic superhero, a character elevated to epic, almost mythic, proportions.

What amazed me most was this: the traditional Chandu narrative was one I had grown up with and could still sing along with, without missing a beat or a line. Yet, in the space of two and a half hours, I was primed to jettison that storyline as rubbish, and totally buy into this new version — a tribute to the remarkable persuasive powers  of the author.

The film’s leitmotif was that there is invariably more than one side to a story, and that perhaps the most commonly ‘accepted’ side may not in fact provide the true, or even most compelling, narrative.

It was among the seminal influences of that period in my life when, after ten years of bumming around doing nothing in particular, I thought maybe I’d like to make a career in journalism and was trying to understand what the craft of writing was all about.

That evening, my highly literate uncle and I were discussing the film when my uncle off-handedly said, “That’s the thing with MT, he will convince you that black is white — haven’t you read Randaamoozham?”

That was my introduction to MT’s recreation of the Mahabharat from Bhim’s point of view — the source code for the narrative I’ve been attempting on this blog.

Your feedback to the latest episode has been embarassingly fulsome; this seems like a good moment to remind you of the original author, an amazing talent so well-known and loved in his native Kerala and sadly so completely unknown outside that small state.

Happy birthday, MT. And thank you.

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39 thoughts on “Happy birthday, MT

  1. Pingback: And then there were none… | Smoke Signals

  2. searching for some one long lost i came across the name sake in you,browsing i got the PDF of bhimsen. studying in kendriya vidyalaya school which had mahabharat as syllabus , i always felt that there is something creepy with son of yama. voicing my opinion had me in the bad books of my hindi teacher for rest of the term. i really enjoyed reading bhimsen, there on am following you on blog, become a fan ….
    by the way my tharvadu was also named meladath.but in thrissur .

      • thanks. am just learning the ropes of blogging.
        being one of those keralites who are unable to read and write malayalam fluently ,i had to make do with english translations of writings in malayalam. am waiting for the DC book of MT’S Randamoozham from India which i have not read still.
        The interperation of birth of PANDAVAS was it by you or is it in the original by MT?? Being brought up with mythological story of vayu, indra and surya as fathers of these heros it is little unsettling to think otherwise,yet refreshing.

        • The interpretation — like the rest of it — is largely MT’s. Where appropriate, I made additions and fleshed out some of the thoughts, is all. The English translation of Randaamoozham is horrible :-( Pity you can’t read it in the original. I can’t write the language, but I taught myself to read because there was too much good literature I was missing out on.

  3. Actually its not true that MTV is not known outside Kerala, I am a Hindi
    speaker living in Hyderabad and I’ve read both randamoozham and nalukettu. Not just MTV but Thakazi and Basheer too are quite well known
    to folks outside Kerala.

  4. A typo – I think you meant treachery (treasury)
    I’m from the neighbouring state but have not heard of MTV until you started Bhimsen. Thanks for that – ofcourse I’m not a well read person – an ‘normal’ child who suddenly had to abandon the street time for study time (textbooks) since it was the 10th std you were in, slog some more, get into a good university, a good job then finally overseas…

  5. Brilliant writing, Prem… My current reading lists include the Bhimsen series and K.M. Munshi’s Krishnavatara, which throws a whole new perspective on characters who were a part of Krishna’s lives. It demystifies Krishna and throws a lot of accepted perspectives out of the window. For those of you who have not read this yet, please do.

  6. Saw the movie “orru vadakkan veerakatha” by accident on DD’s national award movie slot on Sunday as a 12-14 year old. didn’t know the original story, the director or anything. but the movie grabbed me. with my tamil could follow most of the movie. what stuck in my mind was the pathos of the chandu character, the picturization of kerala, the fight scenes.. it was amazing. even after 10-15 years i remember scenes from the movie. it is still one of the best movies i have seen.

  7. I AM A FAN. More yours than MT’s at the moment.
    I am reading your blog for the first time & you took me back to my childhood. You have in the most perfect way possible explained the sheer genius of MT’s Vadakkan Veera Gadha. Will keep reading. :)

  8. Amazing piece .. I have always wanted to read MT .. but havent found his translated work .. I had just been to kerala and saw my dad’s Tharavadu almost falling apart .. and he was reminiscing about his growing up days and trying to give us a picture of how it had been.

    • Deepti, hi, my sympathies with your dad. :-) It is incredibly hard to convey, to someone who has not lived that life, just what it was all about. Consider that till some point in the late sixties, when I was a kid growing up there, an elephant used to stand tethered to a mango tree at almost the identical spot I was standing on when I took the picture in this post two weeks ago. Totally different world, a different ethos, a way of life I find almost impossible to capture in words.

        • At one point, toyed with the idea of telling the story of my family with this home as narrator :-) Figured it was a bit too immediate, too personal, and too likely to offend too many people, so shelved the thought.

  9. Could you post the link to the first episode of Bhimsen? I tried searching for it, but couldn’t get to it.. Would like to starte reading it from the beginning, thanks!

  10. Remarkable ! This house looks amazingly similar to my father-in-law’s house in Kodmangalam (hope I spelt it right ) ! Kerala indeed is a beautiful state Prem …… and as I keep telling my wife, so are it’s women ;-)

    • Hey, Dibyo, didn’t know about the Keralite connection :-)

      Yeah, ancestral Keralite homes would tend to look remarkably similiar, since they were constructed to one of two templates: the naalukettu and the ettukettu.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nālukettu

      Basically, the naalukettu had four wings, each two storeys, arranged around a central quadrangle and the ettukettu — ettu meaning eight — doubled that. Ettukettus were rarer, being permitted only to royalty.

      Kerala is lovely yes — but it is changing, in ways I hate.

      • “Changing in ways you hate” ? What’s changing ?

        Yeah, we are a Mallu – Bong couple each competing with one another on who can make the best fish/goat curry or who is reading the more interesting book !

        I envy people who grew up in such quaint peaceful locations. However The busy streets and over-crowded bylanes of the historic North Calcutta neighbourhoods do have their own charm.

  11. Prem

    Apologies if this isn’t the right place for the following comment.

    While today’s Bhim episode was brilliantly written, I personally don’t think it’s your best work – some sheen of it is taken away from the fact that you had M T Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham to fall back on, if a doubt did creep in.

    I personally started following your work, when I stumbled across the piece you wrote about your father. That was straight from the heart, and nothing or no one to fall back on to write it. I haven’t come across a better piece of writing from you since then. Not that you don’t write well since then – but for me that was your pinnacle.

    Don’t get me wrong – you are one of the few in the Indian media circle that I follow and respect.

    • No apologies needed, no offense taken where clearly none was intended.

      Twenty years — not counting my childhood — of fraught relationship went into that piece on my father; it was written in the immediate aftermath of his death, and came out in one cathartic rush of thought, emotion and feeling. It wasn’t even intended for publication — when I came back from performing his last rites, I felt so conflicted, so overwhelmed, I couldn’t concentrate on work. Writing that piece was my way of getting it off my chest; a colleague who, when I was away from my desk, came looking for something saw this open, and insisted it be published.

      Absent stimuli of equal and immediate power, there is no way I can produce a similar bit of writing; I know my craft well enough to not even try. There is definitely no way an attempt to put myself in the shoes of a mythic hero and write from his perspective is ever going to match writing that draws from the most intensely private part of my own life.

      That said, I have come to enjoy what I am doing with MT’s book. I started off just wanting to translate a book I loved, so it could be shared with those who couldn’t read the language. But early on, I realized that I could be far more effective if I stopped referring to the source, and wrote my own while staying broadly within MT’s framework [coincidentally, I just wrote about this process in response to a question on the latest episode thread].

      Imagining those times, trying to think through incidents, even create my own descriptions of weapons and tactics, and elaborate on the thoughts and emotions of various principals has been immense fun. The bonus has been that readers appear to enjoy it as much as I do :-)

  12. Matriarchal is not the right word for the Nair system of family name and property devolving from one’s mother… it’s matrilineal. No self-respecting karanavar is going allow any matriach to usurp his position… :)

    • *LOL* You think? As late as three generations ago, at least as far as my own family was concerned, the matriarch ruled. That would be my great grandmother’s time. I only have a vague memory of her, dating to when I was three or four — an almost never seen, perennially felt presence in that house. She had by then developed some mental problems; treatment of the kind we have today was relatively unknown and as I recall, she was chained in one room of the home, where we kids never went. My only memory of her, and it remains vivid even today, was of the occasional scream.

      But in her heyday, she was the quintessential matriarch. As I understand the family history, she had during her youth taken four different lovers from various well known Brahmin families — the “sambandham” system.

      I remember my grandmother — who had entered into one such liaison herself when she was young, before she wound up marrying my grandfather — telling me how it was the privilege of the women to take such lovers, mostly the junior children of Brahmin households. Apparently when the matriarch got fed up of her current lover, she would pick up his sandals — they used to wear these wooden clogs then — and leave them outside the door of the bedroom.

      In my grandparents’ time, it was grandfather who to the external world had all the authority; it was his writ that ran. But behind the scenes, grandmother was an equal party to all decision making, though she never fronted it. It was a delicate balance between the authority of the karanavar and the power of the matriarch, but they seemed to know how to pull it off seamlessly.

      • Good that my comment occasioned your going further down the memory lane.

        But exceptions do not prove the rule. Your forebears on the distaff side may have been strong characters, but in Nair tharavads the head of the family was the kaaranavar and not the lady of the house, whether or not thalayanamantram or threat of being consigned to the dog house influenced his decisions. Nair women are known for dominating over their spouses; amongst other denominations of Kerala, achi and her nair are a perennial joke, but she wouldn’t have challenged her kaaranavar.

        But for the sake of the readers, who should not be misled by the use of matriarchal system, when what was extant was just a matrilineal system, it is better to distinguish between these two, even if Malayalis themselves use these two terms as if they are one and the same.

        Nair women taking on multiple lovers is not the proof of their dominance within the tharavad; it was a sociological phenomenon and more out of economic reasons than wantonness arising out of it going unchallenged.

        Even in MT’s stories, the karanavar called the shots, or no?

  13. “By the end of the film, the heroic Aromal had been reduced to a boastful, vindictive caricature of his perceived self and his raison d’etre, the unparalleled skill with arms, shown up as inferior to that of his cousin. Simultaneously, the character of Chandu had been raised to epic, almost mythic, proportions.”

    Funnily, you put what I had in mind today morning after tweeting you on paper (or more appropriately, the blog)… of course, I did not think in such beautiful words.

    At 17, imagine reading Randamoozham – Bhimasenan’s perspective flying, subtly but intriguingly, in the face of the Mahabharatham that you grew up listening to, reading and, I was irreversibly a MT fan.

    Don’t know whether you’ve watched Uyarangalil & Adiyozhukkukal – 2 screenplays he wrote after a convict, he met during his visit to the Kannur (unverified) jail, told him to write stories about men (ആണ്‍ പിള്ളേരെ കുറിച്ച്) as opposed to his usual stuff about crying women bound by familial ties. Glorious response by MT – Uyarangalil was about a guy with a criminal bent of mind who will stop at nothing (the concept of an anti-hero introduced for the very first time in Malayalam movies?) brilliantly enacted by Mohanlal.
    Adiyozhukkukal was about 3 people (Mammootty playing a nondescript guy, Mohanlal the victim of a visa scam & Seema a woman who escapes the clutches of the flesh trade) whose lives converge and entwine due to various circumstances.

    I could go on and on…thank you for writing about this living legend.

    On a related note, I was mentioning to Raja Sen about MT’s screen plays and wanted to introduce him to Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. You saved me the trouble of writing an intor not. Thanks for that as well.

    • Uyarangalil is a personal favorite; at one point, I vaguely toyed with the idea of recreating that screenplay in Hindi, but gave up realizing that (a) Bollywood would want to glamorize the hell out of that story and (b) in any case, there was no one who could do to the character what Mohanlal had done with the original. Adiyozhukugal good — and part of my collection of the few movies where the two superstars act together — if a notch below the first. Wanted to incorporate more material on some of his other novels and screenplays, but time… :-(

      • Bollywood would destroy any of MT’s screenplays unless of course it is taken out of the mainstream.

        Going back to his films, my personal favorites also include Perumthachan, Amritamgamaya and Panchagni. Looking in the rear view mirror, I realize that watching these films at a very young age skewed my film tastes in a good way :-) The current Mallu generation missed out on the glory days of Malayalam film industry and the current taste in films is just plain degenerate!

        Any idea if these MT films are available on DVD?

  14. I am not sure if MT is completely unknown outside kerala. I am from Tamizh Nadu, and I have heard about him, but I have never read his work (a translation). If you know of any of his works translated to Tamizh, plrease recommend.

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