Pilgrimage to Thassarak
The village is slowly becoming Kerala’s only centre of literary pilgrimage with OV Vijayan’s fans trickling in from across the State, as they look for places which inspired the storyteller to pick up characters for his famous novel, writes VR Jayaraj
Once upon a time, even before the garden lizards and dinosaurs were born, two dots of life went out for an evening walk. They reached a valley that stood bathed in the twilight of the dusk. “Don’t you want to see the other side of this?” the small dot asked the large one. “Green valley,” said the elder sister. “Let me stay here.”
“I must go,” said the younger one. She looked at the endless pathways lying in front of her. “Will you forget me?” the elder sister asked. “I won’t,” the other one replied. “You will forget,” said the elder sister. “This is the loveless story of the series of generations. There are only departures and grief in this.” The younger sister walked away. The elder one stood there alone in that valley of dusk. She grew out from the mossy tininess. She became bigger. Roots penetrated into the bed-chambers of the fathers. Branches grew thicker, drinking the breast-milk of death. A girl with suruma in her eyes and anklet on the legs came to pluck the flowers. She broke a twig and plucked a flower from the Chembaka tree that stood there alone. The Chembaka said: “Oh, sister, you forgot me, didn’t you?”
That is how Ravi, the protagonist of OV Vijayan’s novel Khasakinte Ithihasam (Legends of Khasak), sought to merge his philosophy of the Being with the stories, myths, archetypes and geography of a tiny, sleepy village in the middle of a vast paddy field in Kerala’s still-rustic Palakkad district. Khasak was the variation Vijayan gave to the village’s real name Thassarak, where hypocrisies of modernity are yet to spread their cultural and sociological venom. Thassarak still keeps several things that Vijayan’s Ravi saw, interacted with and failed in transforming in those years of primary political evolution of the freed Indian nation. The only visible differences perhaps are the dilapidated, narrow asphalt road that ends at the renovated mosque of Khaliyar, the electric poles and the one or two small houses that now crave to change their appearance with roofs of reinforced concrete.
Thassarak’s importance in the history of Malayalam literature is tremendous. Time, as we see and use it today, is separated into two historical zones — BC and AD — because of Jesus Christ. Vijayan’s Khasak, based on Thassarak and its life, separated the history of literature in Kerala into BK and AK — Before Khasak and After Khasak. Published first in 1969, Khasakinte Ithihasam has had over 50 reprints in the past 44 years, making it the widest read Malayalam novel. Khasak is seen as the harbinger of modernity into Malayalam literature, though that was a time when writing in Kerala would have found it difficult to resist the literary and philosophical revolutions that were taking place everywhere in the world, especially Europe and Latin America, as it struggled to get back to its feet after the throes of wars. Vijayan’s novel, which he took 12 years to write in its final form, thus became the essence of that transformation.
I still remember Vijayan, stricken by Parkinson’s, telling me at his Chanakyapuri residence on a grey Delhi morning in an early 1990s winter, that Khasak would never happened if there was no Thassarak. At that moment, I would remember the flight of Ravi, who wanted to meld the Upanishads and astrophysics, from his home in Ooty with a bundle of sin’s burden in his soul saying, “Oh, my father of stories and evening walks, your son is fleeing out of this leaf-nest of the tailor bird,” into a journey through uncertainties that would finally bring him into Khasak or Kerala’s Thassarak. There was a time in Kerala when almost every learned young man considered himself Ravi wandering through the paddy fields and dry lands of Thassarak with pangs in the soul.
Slowly, very slowly, Thassarak is becoming Kerala’s only centre of literary pilgrimage with Vijayan’s fans trickling in from all over the State, filled with reminiscences of the characters of Khasak and their memories of the lust, hatred and existential angst, thanks to the initiative of the State Government’s Department of Culture. Restoration and renovation works are continuing on the actual remains — there are not many — on which Vijayan’s novel was built upon. A gateway — modelled on the great Sanchi gates — at the entrance to the village, construction of which had started three years ago, is yet to be completed. Restoration work is still going on at the Njattupura, the rustic building for keeping rice seeds and agricultural implements in Thassarak where Khasak’s Ravi taught the story-fed little souls at the single-teacher school. When I reached there on that June afternoon amid driving rains, there were three other pilgrims who had come all the way from the northern borders of Kozhikode district, some 150 km away from Thassarak.
Thassarak formed the setting for his ‘epic’ when Vijayan, novelist, philosopher, journalist and cartoonist, stayed there after his sister was appointed as the teacher of a single-teacher school there in 1956 in the socially and economically backward village. Vijayan was then going through a period of uncertainty as he was out of job and had ample time to wander around to learn history and philosophy from the dust and the tall palmyra trees (Karimpana). Vijayan himself said about it: “Destiny had been readying for me for Khasak.”
Most of the characters in the novel have been modelled after the real-life characters he came across in Thassarak. Many things changed, as they should, when the real-life Thassarak became Khasak in the novel. The protagonist himself became the teacher and the myths, stories and histories that remained shrouded in the writer’s memories got reborn after the encounters with the gods, men and women of the agrarian village. Sivaraman Nair’s Njattupura became the centre of the world and all of Thassarak was the laboratory of life for the protagonist who was fleeing from himself with a soul overburdened with sins of entering banned territories of lust and flesh.
The present inhabitants of Thassarak are not much aware of how real and truthful the stories Vijayan, who bid adieu to this world on March 30, 2005, at the age of 74, had weaved out from the myths, gods, stories and milestones of Thassarak and adjoining villages are. But Hameed, caretaker at the local mosque, which should have been the famed Khaliyar Palli (mosque of the Khaliyar) around which life revolved in Khasak, says visiting scholars in literature have found a lot of similarities. The Arabikkulam, the large pond where murdered men’s heads swam at midnoons and where Maimuna, the ultimate feminine form to be found in Khasak, stood bathing there with just a single cloth wrapped around her lust-arousing body, is now a distant resemblance of what the writer depicted in the novel as it lays there filled to the brim in monsoon but with the surface hidden away by a waving carpet of African weeds.
Ask them about Pulimkombathe Pothi (Bhagavati), the Goddess who resides on a gigantic tamarind tree whose branches are covered with snake-ants which would bite to death any men climbing it to collect the fruits if his woman has committed adultery, they will tell you they are not sure about her. So many things that are described in detail in the novel are missing in Khasak but that is how novels are created. But the palmyra trees, rising to the heavens by metaphorically tearing the screens of the blue and crossing the path of the clouds stood there. The myth is that there was a time when the palmyra trees, the succour of lives of all those who lived by tapping toddy, used to lower their heads for the tapper to collect the liquor but they stopped doing it after the tapper’s wife committed adultery. “That is one thing I don’t want to be associated with Thassarak,” said a young villager. “It is as though almost every woman — young, middle-aged or widowed — have been waiting for Ravi’s arrival to dedicate herself to him. Our women have never been like that,” jokes the young man.
But the Njattupura, still standing there on the verge of the village sitting on a wide embankment in the middle of the paddy field, nullifies the distance between fact and fiction. A rest there for the reader is like an intoxicated tour of the Tughlaqabad fort in which one sees the old city of purdah-clad women searching for bangles coming alive. I sat there on the small verandah for a very long time “listening” to the soft voice with which Ravi used to tell Kunhamina, Chanthumuthu, Kunjunooru and even Appukkili — all characters — stories of evolution. I could see Sivaraman Nair sitting angry at his wife Narayani, who would walk the length of that verandah with half-naked body covered in sandal paste, for her adventure tours in which she gave a match to Kuppu the toddy-tapper to light his beedi. I could see in front of my eyes Chanthumma, still in her plum youth, sitting on Ravi’s cot in sweat after telling him the story of the astrologer’s daughter who became Pulimkombathe Pothi after she was gang-raped and murdered by the White army. I am not yet sure whether it was mere hallucination created by a mind that was so immersed in the lines of Khasak which made me see Maimuna, the Yagashwa of Khasak, bringing beedis that according to her were the firewood for the pyre, to Ravi. The Njattupura, in that sense, was the essence of Vijayan’s Khasak, so based in reality that it continues to keep the visitor enwrapped in the magic of literary creation.
I do not know how appropriate the word literary pilgrimage is in a world where ‘museumisation’ has made every speck of dust in any important place a tourist attraction. But I have realised from works like Living to Tell the Tale, the autobiography of Gabriel García Márquez, that a chance meeting with a place can be the start of the creation of a magical environment that could later turn the original into a metaphor for the unreal. Village Macondo of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is an example. If such settings happen to be real, they indeed deserve to be places of pilgrimage. Thassarak, which despite its tangibility and real-ness, has thus become a metaphor of Vijayan’s creation, Khasak. It tells us why places with great cultural backgrounds should become centres of pilgrimage. History does not progress through wars and revolutions alone.
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