M.T. Vasudevan Nair in Conversation with Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan: A Lifetime of Writing

M.T. Vasudevan Nair in Conversation with Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan: A Lifetime of Writing

in Video
Published on: 19 July 2019
M.T. Vasudevan Nair in conversation with Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan at Calicut, Kerala, January 2019

M.T. Vasudevan Nair (b.1933) popularly known as MT, is a versatile writer, who has contributed immensely to different genres of Malayalam prose, including novels, short fiction, screenplays, memoirs and essays. He is one of the most widely read Malayalam novelists with numerous all-time best-selling titles like Naalukettu (1958, The Ancestral Home), Asuravithu (1962, The Demon Seed), Manju (1964, Mist), Kaalam (1969, Time), Randamoozham (1984, The Second Turn) and Varanasi (2002) to his credit. Most of his fictional work depict the degeneration of the matrilineal Nair families of the Malabar region from where he hails and reflect the social and emotional transformation that Malayali life underwent in the post-independence period. Randamoozham, one of the most popular works in modern Malayalam, attempts to recapture the epic of Mahabharata from the standpoint of Bhīma. Ninte Ormaykku (1956, To Your Memory), Bandhanam (1963, The Binding), Kaliveedu (1966, Playhouse), Pathanam (1966, The Fall), Varikkuzhi (1967, The Trap), Dar-es-Salam (1972) and Sherlek (1997) are some his notable short story collections. He has also written several works for children like Manikyakkallu (1957, The Ruby Stone) and Daya Enna Penkutty (1987, The Girl Named Compassion). MT has won all significant literary awards at the state and national levels including the Jnanpith in 1995.

MT has also written screenplays and dialogues for several films that went on to win state and national awards and enormous critical acclaim. Some of these works were directly based on his short stories like Nirmalyam (Offering) in 1973 (based on the story titled 'Pallivaalum Kaalchilambum') and Theerthadanam (Pilgrimage) in 2001 (based on the story 'Vanaprastham'). He received the J.C. Daniel Award for lifetime achievement in Malayalam cinema for the year 2013 as well. He has also served as the editor of Mathrubhumi Weekly for several years.

Sudha Gopalakrishnan: Namaskaram. We are extremely happy to have you here, talking to Sahapedia. For your information, Sahapedia is an open online encyclopaedia focused on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. It is open because it is accessible to everybody. As an online resource, it gives the reader more flexibility and accessibility than the printed medium. In this context, we are very privileged to be talking to you about your creative journey. People across the world, especially Malayalis, are inspired by your stories. I would like to begin by asking, how do you see writing and what were the major impulses that made you take up writing at a very early age?

M.T. Vasudevan Nair: I will be more comfortable if I speak in Malayalam.

SG: Yes, please.

MT: I was born in a village, on the banks of the Bharathappuzha, where the world of literature, writing and books was non-existent. Newspapers used to come by post, delayed by three days. Books reached me once in a blue moon. My elder brother, who was then studying in Thrissur, used to bring me books. Everyone used to read them in bits and pieces. Other than that, there was no inclination towards literature. There was a school run by a single teacher, where a relative’s child was already studying. This cousin was in the second grade then, and I sat there too. Then another school, an accredited one, opened nearby and I was admitted there in the fourth grade. I didn’t study in the first grade at all and sat in the second grade briefly. Still, I was admitted to the fourth grade directly as an uncle was a teacher at that school. My family sent me there so he could keep an eye on me. I was interested in learning verses by heart and reciting them.

SG: How did you start writing?

MT: Once I reached high school, I started reading everything. Stories, novels, whatever was available at the school library and the houses nearby. After reading, I wanted to write something. I knew I could not match the writing I had read, but, in my loneliness, I felt like scribbling something. I discarded them without showing them to anyone as I felt they were not good enough, but I continued doing it. Then I started reading the works of great writers. I had admiration, mixed with awe and devotion, for those works. The poet, Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri, lived near my school. He had books in his house. I used to go to his house during vacations, select books that people would recommend, and read. I did not know what to write. Earlier, students would show their writings to their teacher. Then, according to the teacher’s response, they would go ahead. I did not have anyone like that to guide me. I did it all alone. The great poems that I had read served as writing models for me. I discarded so much writing when I felt it was not good. I tossed out my scribblings...and then started again.

SG: Perhaps this exercise of writing again and again sharpened your individual style and made you a distinguished writer?

MT: That could be the case, maybe. Then I stopped writing poetry. In comparison to the masters' work, it was never good enough. I knew great poems by heart...works of masters like Vallathol, Asan and Ulloor. Then I took a year-long break in studies. My brother was already in college and my parents could not afford to send two sons to college at the same time. So I stayed at home for a year. In the beginning I was sad. Then I felt it was a good thing (a blessing in disguise). Soon, I made use of the free time.

I would go to Akkitham's house and return with bundles of books. I would read them at home, return them and bring more. That journey through the world of books was significant. I hardly had friends to play with. When I wandered alone on the hillside, I would make up lines in my mind. I did not even know the addresses of newspapers to send in my stories. I was just a simple village boy. I did not know if anyone would even want to publish my writing. Then I saw an ad saying a big magazine called Chitrakeralam was coming from Madras. Many eminent writers would be writing for it. I was free then, so I wrote an article. Imitating the great writer S.K. Pottekkat, I chose the pen name V.N. Thekkeppattu, as Thekkeppattu was the name of my house. I was also impressed by great writers like Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and Karoor Neelakanda Pillai, who used the names of their villages as prefixes to own names, and wrote another piece under the name Koodallur Vasudevan Nair. Then I sent a third piece, this time under my own name, M.T. Vasudevan Nair. All three pieces were sent to the same magazine. After about two months, a parcel came for me at the nearest railway station in Kuttippuram. They asked us to send someone to receive it. It was from the magazine—all three of my writings were published in it.

That year, I translated some pieces, wrote essays, and sent them to magazines whose addresses I knew. The following year I enrolled in college. In the meantime, I realised I was more self-confident when I wrote short stories. Other than Matrubhumi, there were a couple of famous weeklies and magazines at the time. One was Jayakeralam, published from Madras and edited by P. Bhaskaran. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer used to write columns in it. Another one was Kaumudi, in Travancore, edited by K. Balakrishnan. I had sent my stories to these magazines. One short story was published in Kaumudi. I still remember the letter I received from K. Balakrishnan. It was in English and it read, ‘I liked your story immensely. We are going to publish it in the next issue.' Later, when I was in college, other students saw the clippings of these stories and were amazed that they were published in a magazine such as Kaumudi. After some time, I received a cheque worth 10 rupees, issued by the Travancore Forward Bank.

SG: Was it your first ever remuneration?

MT: No, before that, I once received five rupees from another magazine. This was the second. Likewise, I started sending my stories to various magazines and some would get published. Many stories came out in Jayakeralam, which was a very popular publication in those days. Then my college mates came to know about it. Till then, I had kept it private. I had never told anyone that I was a published writer. When my college mates stumbled upon my secret, they put me up as a candidate in college elections, banking on my image as a writer. When I was about to leave college, these students collected a few of my stories, compiled them into one book and published it. That was my first book.

SG: In your earlier stories, one of the most important themes is the disintegration of the feudal system and matrilineal households, seen from the perspective of a child. That sort of interiority has been present in your writing since then. Moreover, whether it is a short story or a novel, the growth of the form reflects the growth of the self, a process of self-discovery turns into a process of self-transformation.

MT: The reason is, I have listened to many stories about the past from my mother and aunts. They would narrate stories about cruel uncles, etc., with little regard for my interest in hearing them. These stories stay with you as you grow. You reflect on them at different points. Naalukettu was written in the light of these stories. The ‘naalukettu’ (traditional homestead with four-sided courtyard) I was living in then was apparently an ‘ettukettu’ (traditional homestead with eight-sided courtyard) that was demolished at some point. I had heard lots of stories about the dismantling of large ancient households but I hadn’t seen any. I could only imagine and it reflected in my writing.

SG: When one talks about this imagination, one becomes curious about its origins, about the imaginary characters, especially women. What role do you think your experiences played in such a touching characterisation of women?

MT: It’s all the experiences. The character called ‘Kuttyedathi’ was actually a woman I used to call Meenakshi edathi (elder sister named Meenakshi)—a woman with a bell in her ear. I had seen her cutting it with a sharp knife. She would ask me to get the knife from the kitchen and then close the door.

There used to be a mentally unstable person in the neighbourhood back then. He lived in a house with a large pond where we used to go and bathe as children. The man was called Velayudhettan. We would be scared as Velayudhettan was chained in the house, with food and other things strewn about him. It was a pathetic sight. Even as children we were scared to look at him for a long time. His image was deeply etched in my mind.

After a few years, when I was older, this man came to my house one evening and called out my mother’s name — ‘Maluedathi’. Someone said it was Velayudhettan. He had broken the chain and come. My mom was unaffected and asked him what he needed. He said, 'I need some rice.' She took him to the kitchen and asked him to wash his hands but he refused. My mom served him food and he left after eating his fill. This incident was stuck in my mind—the man in chains, the man who broke out.

SG: The story of Velayudhettan begins when he is cured of his insanity, but the villagers refuse to believe that he is cured. Finally, he has to declare that he is mad. Such a pitiful situation! 

MT: Yes, he says, 'I am mad, chain me’. We store such experiences within us. They are not used immediately. Like children collecting little things, filling their pockets with pebbles and other things...to play with them later, we also keep such memories.

SG: Leela…

MT: My father was in Ceylon for a long time. There were other people who went there with my father, as servants, etc. They started spreading rumours about Leela being my father’s own child. That became a huge issue. My parents quarrelled with each other.  My father left with Leela and went to his place. All this was in my mind. Although I travelled to many parts of the world, I always wanted to go to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). But, I could never go...even though it's very close and I often visited Madras (Chennai). My father lived in a place called Kadugannawa. When I went there, I could find nothing as he had left a long time ago. The way these imagined narratives that bloom in the mind transform into reality is very moving. I went to Colombo and then travelled to different parts of the country. In my mind, Kadugannawa was my father's place. The address we had for my father was ‘T.N. Nair, Kadugannawa Road’—that’s all. What were we supposed to think? That when we go to a small place called Kadugannawa, there would be people there who knew my father, right? No one was there, no one. Years had passed. Was there a Nair doing business here? No one remembered. Leela was also supposed to have been with him, but no one knew about her either. These are all real incidents, but with the passing of years, the situation had changed. Generations had passed. Anyone who knew about a trader from Kerala named T.N. Nair had left the scene.

SG: When we come to Kaalam, the context of the novel and the story itself changes. It is an age of intense transformation. Do you consider it a milestone in any way?

MT: By that time, the way we used to live had changed. The way we saw life had also changed. This was the case across world literature, not just in my case. The urge was to reach the top level, irrespective of the ways and means. Whether by hook or crook we had to reach that level. ‘Whatever happens, I have to be on top’. Whether in cities or villages, we have seen this attitude. The changed times were reflected in the novel.

SG: Indeed. Out of the two genres, which one do you prefer more, short stories or novels?

MT: The two are completely different. In a novel, certain parts may be weak. We realise this in later readings. But this cannot happen in a short story. It has to be aligned perfectly.

SG: Your work Kathakarante Panippura (The Workshop of the Storyteller) was written in 1963. It explains your take on the craft of storytelling.

MT: My style of story writing is like this: When I get the basic idea of the story, most of the time I write it in my mind first. Only after doing this do I sit down to write. The beginning, the middle...an unwritten form (of the story) is there in my mind. Then I reproduce it on paper and polish and edit it. 

Different writers have different styles. Some writers prefer to sit and finish the story in one go. I keep it in my mind for days and then write.

SG: You rewrote an epic like the Mahabharata from the perspective of Bhima, with a realistic treatment. Bhima is someone usually depicted as being all brawn and no brain...

MT: When I started re-reading (the Mahabharata), I realised this wasn’t fully true. He was very strong. That strength was a curse as well as a blessing. His elder brother was confident of winning the war because of him. He stood at crucial points and bore the brunt of the attack. He faced it like a halfback in football. Bhima was ready for everything. I always thought about it from that point. Bhima loved Abhimanyu, as a dear nephew. He was proud of Abhimanyu’s skill with weapons. Then he was killed and the entire unit, including Bhima, mourned him.

Later, his own son Ghatotkacha was killed and Bhima was there when the news reaches the barracks. Yudhishthira mourned his death, saying he was the first child of the Pandavas. Krishna listened to this and asked why everyone was sad. When he was told Ghatotkacha was dead, Krishna said, 'You fools should celebrate this death rather than mourning it.' A father was listening to this...Bhima stood right beside him, listening to this.

There are other such matters... Everyone needed his strength but no one ever saw his heart, his pain...

SG: Even Draupadi...

MT: Yes, even her. Thus, we can bring new perspective to any character, provided we have good reasons.  

SG: Could you talk about your strong women characters, like Vimala (from The Snow), Draupadi or Sumithra. These women surpassed their limited circumstances.  

MT: Those women—my mother, relatives—are the ones who have influenced me. My model has always been my mother. My mother did not read anything I wrote. Amma was taken to Madras for treatment when I was in college.

Not just that, Amma was a strong character. We were four brothers. Once, the property was being partitioned and everyone was talking about dividing it into four parts. Amma came out and said it had to be five. ‘I have a sister and she has a daughter. My sons will somehow survive. But what will she do? So, not four parts, but five’. That was my mother’s character.

There was a time when we fell on hard times. Someone would be sent to get a sackfull of grains on credit. Once we got it, Amma would ensure that a relative's family staying near us would also have sufficient food. Thus, my mother was sensitive to everyone's well-being.

I have seen such strong women around me, not just in my family but also in and around the village. Their strength fascinated me. In fact, there is a character (in the Mahabharata) that we have always neglected—Balandhara, Bhima’s wife. Even Vyasa did not talk about her in detail. She is a formidable character.

SG: You placed Balandhara there, on your own.

MT: My Balandhara is a strong character. In fact, Balandhara was not given sufficient importance there. But she was the daughter of a great king. She was supposed to compete with Draupadi. Though I realised her importance, I did not develop her character fully. 

SG: On the contrary, in a story like ‘Oppol’, the woman succumbs to her circumstances. All of us know the boy is her son, though he calls her ‘elder sister’. But due to circumstances, her mother forces her to get married. And the state of the child...it's all portrayed so well.

MT: The child was brought up that way. He was referring to his grandmother as his mother.

SG: If I may ask another question...You have also written several screenplays for films as well as directed some. What happens when your story gets transformed into a film? What kind of compromises do you have to make and what freedom do you experience?

MT: Of course, compromises are necessary. The medium is different, and we have to remove certain things according to the medium. Sometimes we are free to add things.

SG: When you think of transforming a story into a film, which medium do you prefer?

MT: Nothing can beat the story. As far as I am concerned, I always prefer literature.

SG: What do you think of translations? Your work has been translated into many languages.

MT: Some have been translated. Readers from respective languages have told me some of the translations are really good. They are the ones who should decide. The Kannada translation of Randamoozham, done by a Malayali, has been appreciated by my friends there. Though they know us as writers, when they can actually access it (the work) in their language, it feels good.

SG: As a former magazine editor, how do you perceive the current trends in media?

MT: Though I did journalism for a long time, what I had been doing was literary journalism, in the Weekly. I was always interested in introducing writers and translations from other languages. That has been my passion. There was a Republic edition with one story from each Indian language with a brief introduction about the author and the short story. This was done for several years and a relationship was formed with writers from various languages.

SG: What about the Western writers who influenced you?

MT: Different writers have influenced me at different points. Still, some of the most interesting and unbeatable storytellers are Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant. Later, Latin American literature also began to reach us.

SG: I hereby express my sincere gratitude for taking out time to talk to us at length.