Wednesday, February 04, 2015

A Humanistic Look at Life

KN Pillai’s book of poems, ‘Nodes and Codes’, focuses on the ravages of war, the cruelty meted out to animals, the history of Travancore and the sufferings in the Punjab in the 1980s

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

KN Pillai's poem, 'Susy's Last Day', set in Kochi, has an intriguing beginning:

On Tuesday dawn, I felt a trance,
While passing through North station
After tea and peeping through its entrance
where I saw a sight bewildering that stopped my motion.

There I saw Susy lying on the floor
ten to fifteen men half-dressed, half-bare, all snoring,
around her and in the same hour.

She was lean and smart, all in grace,
her body naked dazzled bright, up in height,
she was no teenage but had a blushing face...’

It takes a while to figure out that Susy is a dog and not a young woman. Later, in the poem, the dog is administered arsenic while a crowd gathers around and enjoys the spectacle of the dog dying. “Cruelty to animals takes place all the time and we don’t feel a twinge of conscience about it,” says Pillai.

This is one among 33 poems that comprise the collection, ‘Codes and Nodes’. Many of the poems are about animals. Pillai says that from a young age he liked animals. “I used to have pet cats and dogs,” he says.

The senior poet has been inspired by chance encounters, too. Once while travelling on a train from Kochi to Alleppey, he befriended two English women, Kate Cornish and Barbara Natchinson, as well as Patel, a man of Indian origin, who lived in England. “They came to our house and we spoke about poetry for hours together,” says Pillai.

In ‘That White Lady and an Invalid’, Pillai writes:

'That white lady philosopher. Enchanting.
During our train journey and in this house.
Along with her two companions, we spent only a few hours
Inside the temple too. Chitchatting.

What all, not! Literature, of course.
Poetry of Yeats, Maud Gonne.'

Pillai endeared himself to the Britishers with his knowledge of English poetry and his admiration for WB Yeats.

Asked who Maud Gonne was, Pillai says, “She was a 23-year-old English heiress and Irish Nationalist.” Yeats met her in 1889 and became infatuated with Maud's beauty and outspoken manner. She had a significant impact on his poetry and life.

Pillai is also a man who is keenly interested in history. In his 790-line long poem, ‘Venad and The West’, he writes about the history of Travancore, from ancient times to the present. Says Prof. P.N. Prakash, the former Principal of the Government College at Koyilandy: “I do not think that anybody in Kerala has ever attempted to interpret this story in poetry – this requires an encyclopaedic knowledge.”

Pillai also writes about international events. His ‘War or Peace’ focuses on the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia during the Second World War. An attack on a bus in Singapore resulted in this description:

'The necks of many
Had been chopped off.
Some were hanging down mangled.
But their limbs were glued
To the seats.

A few had started rotting,
And were pecked at
By crows and vultures
That barged in and out
At their will'

Pillai’s pre-occupation with war was not surprising since his own father fought in the British army against the Japanese and was captured. In an appendix, Pillai has published some letters that his father wrote. In one handwritten note, his father writes, ‘My Dear Wife, I am a prisoner of war in Java. I am in good health and am happy. I am quite all right in every respect. I shall return as soon as the war is over. Please take care of the children’s education.” However, his father returned a changed man. He spoke little and became very strict with the children.

By doing extensive research, Pillai also wrote about the insurgency in the Punjab in the 1980s too. “The detailed media reports about the sufferings in Punjab shocked me,” he says. “It spurred me to write the poem.”

Here are a few lines:

In a decade, the terrorists slaughtered civilians
Ten thousand and more.
Police personnel and relatives two thousand over
Widows, widowers, orphans and weeping parents and refugees
In exodus …
A ‘Dark Age’ indeed in this land of saints and sages.  

In person, Pillai is a man who readily recounts anecdotes of the many people he knew in the literary world, including the great Madhavikutty. He shows photos of him with her, at her home in Kochi, and at his home in Ambalapuzha. And there is a priceless photo of him with Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Madhavikutty, and her mother, Balamani Amma, during a literary meet at Allapuzha in September, 1994. He was also friends with freedom fighter Captain Lakshmi Sehgal and visited her Kanpur home in 2006. 

The 135 page book, published by Authentic Books, was released at a function by former ambassador TP Sreenivasan. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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