Sunday, July 19, 2009

First time lucky


Sending the first story he wrote to M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the editor of the Mathrubhumi weekly and getting it published was the major turning point in author Sethu’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1966, when the writer Sethu wrote the Union Public Service Examination for the Assistant’s Grade exam, he could never have imagined the result. He secured the first rank in the All-India exam.

“For a person who came from a small village, Chendamangalam, and suffered from an inferiority complex it was a huge shot in the arm,” he says.

Thereafter, Sethu joined the Railway Board in New Delhi and stayed at Mahadevan Mess in Karol Bagh. It was there that he heard about the Kerala Club, which met every Friday.

“It was a place where young writers would meet and talk literature,” he says. Somebody would read a poem. Or a writer would present his new story, followed by discussions.

“Nearly everybody was young,” says Sethu. Among the members were O.V. Vijayan, Kakkanadan, M. Mukundan and Jayadevan. “Sometimes, VKN (Vadakke Koottala Narayanankutty Nair) would come,” he says.

After attending a few sessions, Sethu wondered whether he could write a story or not.
“I realized that the other guys were human beings like me,” he says. “So why could I also not try to write?”

Soon, he started writing and finished his first story. Instead of showing it to anybody, in an audacious move, he sent it to M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the editor of the Mathrubhumi weekly at Kozhikode. The story, ‘Dahikinnu Bhoomi’ (Parched Land), was about a severe drought in Bihar in 1966. Sethu had gone with his Bihari colleagues to have a look.

“It was a shock for a person who grew up in the midst of so much of greenery in Kerala to come across a land that was brown, where the wells and the rivers had dried up, and the people were in such misery,” he says.

Two weeks later, Sethu received a postcard from M.T. who wrote: ‘The story is nice and has been selected for publication’.

“I was on the top of the world,” he says. “This was a huge turning point for me. To be published in Mathrubhumi was the ultimate dream for a writer. I knew I had the creative gift in me.” Soon, Sethu was launched on his literary career.

By this time he had tired of the Railway job, and appeared for the probationary officers’ exam of the State Bank of India. He was selected and assigned to the Faridkot branch, on the India-Pakistan border.

“It was a God-forsaken place,” he says. After several months, Sethu felt restless and wanted to leave. He met the managing director, K. Subramanium at his home in Patiala on a Sunday morning to plead for a transfer back to Delhi or any other metropolitan city.

“Subramaniam was hesitant,” says Sethu. “He knew that if he succumbed to such demands from a probationary officer, then everybody would be asking him the same thing.” But his wife, who was overhearing the conversation, suddenly said, “Help this young man.”

Subramaniam reflected for a while and said, “Will you accept a transfer to the State Bank of Travancore at Thiruvananthapuram?” For Sethu it was unbelievable. From Faridkot, back home to Thiruvananthapuram -- who could have imagined it? “This is how life turns in your favour,” he says.

In Thiruvananthapuram, sometime later, Sethu became a member of an informal group of writers and artists, which included film directors G. Aravindan, Padmarajan, Bharathan and actor Nedumudi Venu. “We used to meet at a hotel called Nikunjam, which was opposite to the Tagore theatre and discuss art, literature, films and politics.”

Meanwhile, Sethu’s novels and short story collections came out regularly. They included ‘Nangal Adimakal’ and ‘Nananja Mannu’.

One day, in 1977, M.T. suddenly called and said, “Sethu, do you have any novel with you?”

Sethu was shocked, because Mathrubhumi never asked for novels from younger writers. “Only Thakazhi, Basheer, Uroob, and other senior writers used to write,” he says.

When asked the reason why he was told that the serialisation of Lalithambika Antharjanam’s ‘Agnisakshi’, a landmark novel in Malayalam was about to end and Mathrubhumi did not have another good book.

Sethu did not have any novel, but he was toying with some ideas. “One of the themes was about a strange woman, rejected by her husband, who is thrown into the wilderness, and tries to create a past and justify her estrangement. It was a mix of realism and fantasy.”

MT said it was a good idea. Sethu started working on it but one day he got a shock when he opened the weekly: Mathrubhumi had put out an announcement, with a photograph of his, stating that his novel would be serialised soon.

“That was the kind of confidence MT had in me,” he says. Of course, Sethu rose up to the challenge and, later, this novel, ‘Pandavapuram’ became a landmark in Malayalam literature. It fetched Sethu the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 1982. So far, it has been reprinted 15 times.

Meanwhile, Sethu’s banking career was as successful: In 1999, he became the chairman and CEO of South Indian Bank. He was the rare man who could straddle the practical and creative worlds, and be successful in both.

“But when I look back all I can say is that I have been blessed with immense luck,” says Sethu at his beautiful home at West Kadungalloor, near Aluva.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)


  1. What might Sethu's EMail ID be...?

  2. hi - I am Malayatoor's son - now in Canada - came across your blog by sheer chance! great range of topics. good luck with your efforts. Say hi to Prema if you meet her.

    R. Viswanathan (Kanan)