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Never leaving Khasak

By February 18, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu BusinessLine – BLink    –    DEEPA BHASTHI



Why OV Vijayan’s cult debut novel, which turns 50, retains an unyielding hold even after multiple rereads year after year


WhyKhasak? I couldn’t say. I wish it was any book other than OV Vijayan’s The Legends of Khasak that bound me to its narrative in ways so complicated that I was compelled to go between its pages every single year. I realise I had no choice — the book chose me and not the other way round.

Khasakkinte Itihasam or The Legends of Khasak , or simply Khasak , as it is mostly referred to, was Vijayan’s debut novel. Written in Malayalam, and translated by the author into English towards the end of the 1990s, the publishing of Khasak is widely recognised as a watershed in Malayalam literary history. Though serialised a year earlier, it was published as a book in 1969, thus completing a half-century this year, and going into several more reprints in the interim. The narrative’s use of magic realism — there’s no specific plot or storyline, and nothing really ‘happens’ — was a sharp departure from the prevailing works then, in Malayalam and beyond. In fact, there are those who view Malayalam literature history in terms of pre- and post- Khasak — such was its influence.

Magic realism is not exactly unfamiliar to anyone brought up on stories in India. From epics to folk traditions, a healthy peppering of the fantastical with the quotidian is how we have always known and liked our heroes and heroines. Jinns and angels, the real and the imagined, the ancestor and the present, the land and the landscape — all of these elements bleed into each other until the storyteller becomes the conjurer-conduit, and the listener a recipient of awe and wonder. With every retelling, the story is told and heard anew — details are added or removed, genders change places, and nuances appear and disappear.

Khasak ’s accomplishment lies in bringing to the printed form the fluid storytelling integral to oral traditions, earning it a rightful place as a masterpiece in Indian literature.

I cannot remember how I first came upon this book. Maybe my favourite bookseller, familiar with my reading choices, nudged me towards it. Perhaps it was a friend who pressed it into my palm, saying, “You HAVE to read this”. What I do remember is the involuntary gasp that escaped me when I first read it.

I recall reading it in mid-2012 (though, surely, I’d read it many times before that). I was on the brink of embarking on a relationship — now gladly past me — that would prove to be volatile, frequently combustible and overall toxic. Every consecutive year I would reread it — perhaps to relive how things seemed at the beginning, perhaps to understand what was happening and why, or perhaps to find some clues to explain the overarching haze of those foolish years. I would read it again later too, to heal, but mostly because the pull of Khasak was way stronger than my desire to resist it.

And yet, I couldn’t say why I reread the book every year. I wonder if I even like it all that much, now that I think about it. It is a good novel, though discussing its literary merit is not exactly the point here.

Khasak is a wide-angle portrait of the eponymous village, a fictionalised version of Thasarak village in Kerala’s Palakkad district, where an unemployed Vijayan spent a year in 1956 giving company to his sister, who had been appointed to run a single-teacher school. (Literary pilgrims are today said to alight at Thasarak and ask for the way to landmarks mentioned in the book. All they get, instead, is an OV Vijayan monument.)

Ravi is the teacher at the Khasak school. Running away from demons in his past, Ravi is, over the next few years, enmeshed with the lives of those that run the village — lives that are both alive and imagined or conjured, whenever needed, and those that are dead. The village is host to many layers of rituals, myths and eccentricities. The characters in the book circle each other’s lives, peripherally, or inextricably at times. Ravi and those he meets don’t find respite from the spirits for whom Khasak is an age-old home, nor can they find solace in the many parallel realities. I have found that, like a wise mirror, the situations and circumstances of the characters reflect what needs to be said or undone in my own life. Like a working Ouija board.

Khasak is a strange novel, one that defies any attempt to reduce it to a gist. It is uncomfortable to read, more so if you have to do it year after year. Even when there is no linear narrative, the sentences turn dark, at times poetic, always very complex. Like poetry, they mean something different with each reading, depending on where in life I find myself. A friend recently envied my having such a personal relationship with a book. “I would choose any other,” I protested, again. “Irrelevant,” he insisted, adding that all that mattered was there was one.

I suppose so.

deepa bhasthiis a writer living and working between Kodagu and Bengaluru

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