Source : The Hindu Literary REVIEW – E.V. Ramakrishnan
Published in 1969, ‘The Legends of Khasak’ is worth revisiting today, as natural and man-made debacles overcome us
This year marks the eve of the 50th anniversary of the publication of O.V. Vijayan’s novel Khasakkinte Ithihasam (published as The Legends of Khasak in English in 1994).
First serialised in a literary weekly and subsequently published as a book in 1969, it still marks the highest point scaled by any Malayalam novelist in terms of intensity of vision and inventiveness of language. It narrates how Ravi, who lands in Khasak to set up a government school, is gradually sucked into its archaic charm, its tales and vibrant ways of life.
As Kerala reels from the after-effects of an unprecedented deluge, revisiting an iconic text that questioned our notions of modernity may not be inappropriate. Vijayan’s was a dissenting critical voice that reclaimed the fundamental role of the novel as a counter-narrative. Having suffered a loss of faith, he plumbed the depths of his inner resources by exploring the limits of language. Vijayan reinvented the form of the novel for a new generation, investing it with intractable questions of ethics that exceeded the formalist concerns of aesthetics.
Vijayan had serious misgivings about the way modernity produced and legitimated knowledge that met with uncritical acceptance. What happens to forms of knowledge that lie outside its institutional spaces? Khasak was about the imaginative apprehension of an order of reality that lay beyond language. Eduardo Kohn (author of How Forests Think) has argued that we need to go beyond language to see how the environment thinks through us.
Vijayan’s narrative is replete with images that invoke a vast ecosystem of interconnectedness across the living and the non-living. This is how the novel resists the impulse to classify and conquer, which pervades the Cartesian logic of modernity, and provides instead a critical perspective on Eurocentric epistemology.
Sensuous local idioms
Vijayan’s insights came as much from his disillusionment with the communist movement as from his intense imaginative engagements with the reality of everyday life around him. His great discovery was that language as dialect was a life form that gave access to a society’s conceptual cosmos.
The epiphanies we find in Khasak were made possible by the layers of an oral subculture. Non-standard language variants and dialects have the power to wound the standard idiom of the written text and its authority.
Vijayan demonstrated that the subaltern can speak to the centre through defiant story-telling. Khasak is a portrait gallery of rustic characters whose robust presence is sculpted in sensuous local idioms and rhythms.
Through the nuanced rendering of the spoken language, Vijayan defied the hegemony of social realism. His fictional text was more like a musical score that liberated us from our habitual ways of seeing.
Vijayan brought into the purview of the novel the collective and the community, but the early reception of the novel viewed it through the prism of middle-class individualism. For decades readers believed that Khasak was about Ravi’s guilt-ridden alienation and quest for metaphysical illumination. In this reading, the village of Khasak became an anthropological museum peopled with curious figures from an insubstantial and strange world.
Vijayan’s polyphonous vision was reduced to an exotic spectacle with no inherent meaning. That the village community could think through its crises and interpret the world with sophistication was not accepted by the majority of the novel’s readers.
Any attempt to decolonise the form of the novel will have to begin with a reflection on the novel’s function as a literary form. This self-reflexivity helps Vijayan recover the experiential site of the magical and the sacred, and move beyond the moral order defined by anthropocentric views of the social.
In the chapter titled ‘The First Lessons’, Ravi tells a story of two spores that set out as sisters but then part ways; with the elder one becoming a champak tree in Chetali’s valley, and the younger one a little girl in Khasak. As the girl plucks a flower, the champak tree tells her, “My little sister, you have forgotten me.” The story reverberates through the pages of Khasak because it looks beyond our narrow sense of what constitutes the human and what is humanism.
The novel is located on a moral plane that transcends the individual. Decay, disease, death, divinity and desire are embedded in the Khasak ways of living, with life triumphing at each stage. Khasak distils calamities into folk wisdom, into its tales, proverbs and a cosmic sense of life.
In these times of climate change, isolated individuals perish, while the poor and the abandoned, whose organic bonds are still strong, survive because they can endure, share and reach out to each other.
Kerala has demonstrated what compassion and such organic bonds can achieve in a situation of crisis. These need to be nurtured further to overcome the sense of despondency that can afflict society. Language and culture provide valuable resources and insights in times of trauma.
The writer is an Indian-English poet, and a literary critic in English and Malayalam.