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