Thasarak, Kerala | Inside a village of legend
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A peahen skittered across the road. A peacock sat on a stump in the middle of a paddy field, its luxuriant green feathers soaking wet in the rains.
I was reminded of a scene in O.V. Vijayan’s The Legends Of Khasak (Khasakkinte Itihasam in Malayalam), in which Kunhamina, a young girl, encounters a flock of peafowl. As she feeds the vellayappams (palm toddy-fermented rice batter pancakes) to the birds, one of them pecks her calf. Kunhamina is euphoric that she has been pecked by a real peacock and can’t wait to share the experience with her friends, Kholusu and Noorjehan.
Rain drizzled down from the August sky as I rode on my cousin’s red Libero to Thasarak, the setting of Vijayan’s magnum opus, from Ottapalam, my hometown. As I biked through villages with names like Kinassery (village of dreams) and Kannadi (mirror), I could discern the sources of Vijayan’s inspiration.
Today, portions of the novel are prescribed reading in Kerala schools. Indeed, many schools arrange picnics and trips to the village in search of the Alla-pitcha and Kunhamina of their imagination. With its 1994 English translation (by Vijayan himself), Khasakkinte Itihasam became more accessible to a pan-Indian readership, while the 50-odd reprints of the original Malayalam are testimony to its enduring appeal.
I’m from Kerala but, after many years in other parts of the world, was not very comfortable reading in Malayalam. On a friend’s recommendation, I had picked up The Legends Of Khasak, saving the original till I was more proficient reading the language. And so it was that I discovered Thasarak and its people, the intricate storyline frequently reminding me of Salman Rushdie’s writings. Like all good books, it sucked me into its world. I felt the protagonist Ravi’s listlessness, and I was charmed by Madhavan Nair, the tailor and Ravi’s aide. My heart went out to Chand Umma after she lost one child after the other to the pox, and I nursed a certain curiosity about the mysterious village belle, Mymoona. The book had made a lasting impression on me and prompted me to start buying and reading Malayalam books in their original form.
Khasak remained in a corner of my mind till a recent newspaper article said the Kerala government was looking to promote Thasarak as a literary travel destination. As soon as I read this, I sat up. So Khasak wasn’t just a figment of Vijayan’s imagination. It was a real village with real people, just 40km from my hometown.
“Welcome to the legendary land of Khasak,” a rain-battered, flex-board sign announced in Malayalam. An unfinished stupa-like concrete arch stood on the road, the government’s attempt to glorify Vijayan’s literary achievement.
At Thasarak, about 20 tiled-roof houses jostled with concrete-terraced ones on either side of a road with potholes full of earth-coloured rainwater. Ponds, some of them overgrown with water hyacinth, hosted moorhens that walked on leaves with their stick-thin legs.
On the first day of classes at the seedling house, which doubles up as his lodging, Ravi, the schoolteacher and the protagonist of The Legends Of Khasak, looks out of the window at a pond. There, he and his students see a moorhen chick ensnared in lotus meshes. They watch in amazement as the parent birds release the chick by pecking at the meshes. I wonder which of the ponds around me Vijayan had in mind while writing this.
The book, we know, was born in 1956, when Vijayan’s sister O.V. Shanta was assigned to teach at a single-teacher primary school in Thasarak. Her parents moved with her to the remote village. Vijayan, who had been expelled recently from the college where he taught (presumably because of his Leftist leanings), joined his family in Thasarak.
As a card-carrying Communist, Vijayan had already published two stories dealing with fictional peasant uprisings in Palakkad. Yet the secret trial and subsequent execution in 1958 of Hungarian Communist icon Imre Nagy made Vijayan rethink his Communist beliefs, recast the “revolutionary novel” he was then writing with Ravi as “liberation’s germ-carrier”, and set it in the village he found himself in. I rode through the narrow main road of the village, expecting something momentous, something, anything to suggest that a great literary work had been set here. I only saw a road flanked by lush paddy fields, moss-covered electric poles, concrete houses, and ponds where women washed clothes. Clearly, Vijayan had filled in the details with his imagination, conjuring up the mountains beyond the paddy fields, Aliyar’s teashop, Kuppu’s toddy shop and the village of Koomankavu alongside the complex, nuanced characters that populated the village.
A few feet away, at the edge of a pond hugging the road, I met a man who appeared to be in his 70s. In the leaden rain, he washed and dried himself, unfurled his broken umbrella, and prepared to walk back home. I exchanged pleasantries with him and told him that I was there to visit the one-time home of my literary idol, Vijayan.
To my astonishment, he responded immediately to the name. “I used to take him around on a bullock cart,” said Karim—as he introduced himself—with a toothy smile. “I must have been 15. There were no automobiles here then, but he wanted to see places where he could set his book. My brother Kuttadan even appears in the novel (as the psychic of the lower castes).”
We walked to the seedling house, where many pivotal scenes play out in the novel. Vijayan’s sister Shanta’s school in real life, this is where Ravi conducts his affair with Mymoona, and where the village idiot, the recently orphaned Appu-kili, finds shelter. Today, the walls of the seedling house are crumbling, there is no door at the entrance and the wooden ceiling is rotted through.
“Have you read the book?” I asked Karim. He evaded my question. “It has been so long, I do not remember anything in the book,” he said.
I sat on the thinna, the seedling house sit-out. I dusted the floor and ran my hand over the wooden pillar. The people of Thasarak went on with their “drab existence”, Vijayan had noted in the afterword of his novel. “They were in no hurry”.
But Karim seemed to be in a hurry. “I need to have my breakfast,” he said, walking away with his broken umbrella, into the pouring rain.
Prathap Nair is a Bangalore-based writer.