Saturday, June 13, 2009
The river of life
COLUMN: TURNING POINTS IN LIFE
Moving to Delhi at the age of 21 and getting a job in the French embassy were the turning points in writer M. Mukundan’s life
By Shevlin Sebastian
“When I was a child I suffered from various illnesses,” says M. Mukundan, writer and president of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi. He would spend his days confined to a room in his home in Mayyazzhi at Mahe.
Once or twice Mukundan almost died. One day he felt himself slipping into unconsciousness. “I heard my mother shout, ‘My son is gone,’” he says. “I also thought I had died. But I survived. I can still hear the scream of my mother.”
Because of his illnesses, Mukundan frequently felt angry. “I would ask God why He was being cruel to me,” he says. But the one positive aspect was that he developed his imaginative powers. “I started dreaming a lot,” he says.
In the opposite house there lived a 14-year-old girl. Mukundan used to see this servant girl working from morning to night. “I felt that the girl had received the same divine injustice which had been meted out to me,” he says. Later, when Mukundan began writing, she became a character in his novel, ‘Akasathinte Chottil’.
It was only when he was 14 that Mukundan began going to school regularly. And he came across a French teacher called Jayaraman Master who was later immortalised as Kunhananthan Master in Mukundan’s magnus opus, 'Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil' (On the banks of the Mayyazhi).
Jayaram Master introduced Mukundan to the French writers Jean Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and Albert Camus. And like Mukundan, Jayaram was afflicted by health problems. In his case, it was a severe heart ailment.
One day Jayaram told Mukundan, “I will die without knowing the love of a woman.”
This sentence affected Mukundan a lot. “I felt that even an insect has been given the gift of enjoying sexual pleasure and companionship, but this was denied to my master who died without marrying. Once again I felt that God was cruel.”
In a state of mental turbulence, at age 21, Mukundan decided to follow in the footsteps of his brother, the well-known writer, M. Raghavan and go to Delhi.
“At that time, it was impossible to get employment in Kerala,” he says. And within a few months in the capital, Mukundan had a stroke of luck when he got a job in the French embassy.
“It was the biggest turning point in my life,” he says. “It opened up a whole new world for me.”
One day while he was walking down a long corridor in the embassy, he saw the famous French philosopher, Regis Debray, an associate of the Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara strolling towards him. “I was stunned,” he says.
By this time Mukundan had begun writing steadily. In Delhi, there was a literary magazine called ‘Thought’. In one issue it carried a review of Mukundan’s first book, ‘Veedu,’ a collection of short stories. “My boss, Francis Dore, read it and asked me, ‘Who is this Mukundan?’ I said, ‘It is me’. And it changed everything,” he says.
The next week Dore threw a party, invited Delhi’s prominent writers, painters and journalists, and introduced Mukundan to them.
“Throughout the evening I was in a state of extreme excitement,” he says. “I could not believe this was happening to me. I heard the guests talk about Mukundan and it seemed to me as if they were talking about somebody else. By the end of the party I was drunk.”
It was with the publication of the novel, ‘Delhi’ that Mukundan became famous in Kerala. But the world view that he described in his novels was bleak and nihilistic. And many young people were affected.
In the early 1980s, a young man from Kerala went to Mukundan’s house in Delhi and said, “You ruined my life. Because I read your books I started having hashish. I had a small job and left it. My parents are upset. I can no longer stay in my village.”
A shocked Mukundan said, “Suppose I was not born, you would still have taken drugs. It is not because of me, but because of the turbulent times in the sixties and seventies. You are the creation of that.” The man walked away without saying anything. Mukundan never saw him again.
By this time, because of his literary fame, Mukundan was regarded as a jewel of the French embassy. So, when the French ambassador, Claude Blanchemaison wanted to meet Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar at Thiruvananthapuram it was Mukundan, going against embassy protocol, who accompanied the diplomat.
At the Chief Minister’s office, Nayanar, instead of shaking hands with the ambassador, embraced Mukundan and said, “Oh it’s Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil.”
Mukundan was thrilled for himself but deeply embarrassed for the ambassador. But Blanchemaison took it in a sporting spirit. “When we returned to Delhi, he told everybody, ‘In Kerala Mukundan is more famous than me, and I felt that I was escorting him’,” he says.
It was no surprise then that Blanchemaison, on behalf of the French government, conferred the ‘Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres’ in 1998 on Mukundan for his contribution to literature. So far, the distinguished author has published 12 novels and ten collections of short stories and won numerous awards for his writing.
Asked about his philosophy of life, Mukundan says, “I don’t believe in morality, which is imposed by man. So I don’t follow the rules. But at the same time, my aim is to avoid inflicting pain on others.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)