Bharathan - A Novel By Kovilan

Introduction by A. Purushothaman

The author - Kovilan

Bharathan is a novel written by Kovilan, one of the great novelists of Malayalam literature. Born in Kerala in 1923, Kovilan had his professional career in the Royal Indian Navy (1943-46) and the Indian Army - Core of Signals (1948-68). During the last year of his service in the army, Kovilan worked as an instructor of NCC (National Cadet Corps - student wing of armed forces) at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur (1967-68).

The place - IIT, Kanpur

The incidents narrated in Bharathan takes place in the campus of Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India. IITs were established by a separate act of the Indian Parliament as institutes of higher education and research in science, engineering and technology at Kanpur, Kharagpur, Bombay, Madras, and Delhi. These campuses are set up as self-sufficient with all facilities provided for the students and the faculty to study, work and stay.

The characters

Bharathan is a conductor in one of the line buses of IIT.

Ambi is the owner of an eating place, which serves food to the workers and students.

Kamalesh Kumar Goyal is a research student from Agra University who goes to IIT, Kanpur for using the advanced computer facilities.

Yageswar Prasad is an illiterate security guard of the bank.

Bharat Bhusan is the security officer.

The two security guards at the main gate of the campus are part of the elaborate security setup.

Professor Gopinathan is a Professor of Nuclear Chemistry.

Madhu Chaturvedi is the superintendent of Graphic Arts.

Kishanlal is a farmer from village who comes to IIT to meet his childhood bride Madhu Chaturvedi.

The milkman, who delivers milk in a cycle rickshaw is an inseparable part of IIT life.

Sushama, wife of Yageswar Prasad, works as a maid servant of Madhu Chaturvedi.

Nannu and Munnu are children of Yageswar Prasad.

The plot

The novel begins when Bharathan is suspended on 31st May 1968 by the transport officer for not obeying the instructions of his wife. Bharathan meets Kamalesh Kumar Goyal, a research student from Agra University in Ambi's hotel.

Next day, on 1st June 1968, Anil Kumar, brother of Kamalesh Kumar gets injured in a bus accident and Bharathan helps him.

On 2ndJune, Bharathan is interrogated by an officer in connection with the death of Yageswar Prasad, the security guard of the bank who was murdered on the night of 31st May 1968. Yageswar Prasad and Bharathan used to be neighbors staying in the garages of Prof. Gopinathan. Bharathan is accused of the murder.

Kishanlal, a villager arrives at IIT searching for his wife Madhu Chaturvedi. She is working as superintendent of Graphic Arts at IIT. Their was a childhood marriage.

Now Madhu Chaturvedi does not want to recognize or accept Kishanlal as her husband. Reluctantly she accommodates Kishanlal in her servant's room.

In a dream sequence, Bharathan converses with Yageswar Prasad. Prasad implies that he was killed by the security officer who broke in to the bank during the night for replacing the real currency notes with counterfeit notes.

A mock trial of Bharathan takes place. Ambi, the hotel owner is the judge. Goyal, the research student is the prosecutor. The estate officer's black dog is the jury. As the trial progresses, it is revealed that during the night, Madhu Chaturvedi had poured petrol over the sleeping Kishanlal, set him on fire and had cried for help. Bharathan had arrived at the scene and then and there the guards arrested him. Bharathan is accused of setting fire on Kishanlal and molesting Madhu Chaturvedi. Towards the end of the trial, suddenly, the black dog leaps forth and kills Bharathan.

An Overview

At the outset the story of Bharathan appears both ironic and simple. Two insignificant, harmless and innocent people, Yageswar Prasad and Kishanlal are killed. The killers are known to the victims. The security officer Bharat Bhusan, the killer of Yageswar Prasad is his boss. Madhu Chaturvedi who killed Kishanlal was married to him when they were children. In fact the victims were killed after they recognized their killers. The investigators, instead of identifying the actual culprits organize adequate circumstantial evidence and falsely accuse Bharathan, another insignificant, harmless, and innocent man guilty of both the murders. Crucification of innocence appears to be the central theme of the novel. This is emphasized by the references to the crucified Jesus Christ in the last chapter. Moreover, Madhu Chaturvedi is directly compared to Virgin Mary keeping vigil below the cross.

Note that both the victims were villagers who came to the city. In spite of being a security guard of the bank, Yageswar Prasad was illiterate. He had started to learn reading and writing from Bharathan. His literacy helped him to spell, even though incomplete, the name of his killer using his finger in his own blood as he lay dying. (It is unfortunate that the investigators used it to their advantage). The irony is that the establishment, which is created to protect the weak, is seen as exploiting them to serve the vested interests.

Kovilan tries to establish hunger as the greatest tragedy of human existence. In fact he refers to it as the curse of God. The migration of villagers to city for gainful employment (Bharathan, Ambi, Prasad, Madhu) is the rat race for obtaining better and more food. Bharathan had come all the way to Kanpur looking for employment. He was not able to find suitable employment in his native place, in spite of being a graduate. Even though Goyal is deeply involved with his research on atmosphere and solving problems using computers he had to forcibly take a break to have some food. Prof. Gopinathan, immersed in research in Nuclear Chemistry, also has to have at least milk and oats for survival of his body. Ambi, on realizing that his chances for earning more and better food as a driver are slim, recognizes a business opportunity in his surroundings and sets up a temporary hotel. As testified by him later, this was a wise move. Yageswar Prasad leaves his village and migrates to Kanpur with his family looking for employment and hence better food. We also have a lame illiterate milkman, who turns out to be a victor in the race for food. He is successful in supporting his family. The security officer Bharat Bhusan who breaks open the bank along with the manager and the cashier to substitute real currency with counterfeit notes is also doing this for better and more food. Madhu Chaturvedi left her village, got educated and opted for the convenient and comfortable life in the city. She is driven by her desire for convenience and comfort and hence better food. Consider Sushama. Her decision of not selling the she-goat to Ambi is purely based on her assured source of income and hence food.

Besides the hunger for food, we also see people driven by hunger for other things. Prof. Gopinathan still travels in his folding cycle. In spite of having two garages, he does not buy a car, since he is fully consumed by the hunger for knowledge. Then we have the villager Kishanlal who comes to Kanpur driven by his hunger for love. After acquiring food necessary for sustenance, Yageswar Prasad is driven by hunger for literacy and nearly accomplishes this task.

If hunger is an ever-present all-powerful driving force, why doesn't Prasad yield to the temptation of two thousand rupees? Is it because he is a fool and innocent? By remaining a silent witness and not offering any resistance, Prasad actually facilitates the action of his killers and helps in the trapping of Bharathan. His abject surrender in fact leads to the ultimate banishment of his wife and children from IIT. The other fool, Kishanlal meekly confronts his wife from childhood, Madhu Chaturvedi. His own meekness ultimately leads to his fiery death. Kovilan also narrates the stories of a measuring man, a soldier, a girl and Yageswar Prasad who are denied entry to heaven or hell after death. Kovilan refers to all these people as innocent fools. He implies that the status quo is maintained by the blood of these fools. To top it all, we have the central character Bharathan who readily resigns to his despicable end without a single utterance of protest.

On the other hand, we have people such as Madhu Chaturvedi and Ambi. The novel implies that Madhu was responsible for providing the design of counterfeit notes, using her expertise in graphics arts. She schemes the murder of Kishanlal efficiently. We do have another irony here. In contrast to the contemporary Indian society, where even now occasionally brides are burned by the husband's family for not bringing in enough dowry, here the bride singlehandedly plots and succeeds in burning her husband to death. Is it a form of protest by Madhu Chaturvedi, who wants to take revenge against the society which facilitated her childhood marriage?

Look at Goyal. he is only a visiting research student. In the final episode, he is in love with Madhu Chaturvedi and he is the prosecutor and hence part of the establishment.

Ambi, the driver, becomes a hotel owner. Besides serving cheap food to the workers and students, he also supplies soft and hot drinks, charas, ganja, and opium. He becomes a rich landlord in his native place with money gained by dubious means. In the mock trial, Ambi is the judge vested with the responsibility to maintain status quo in the society.

We are faced with another irony. IIT is the seat of higher learning. The expertise and skill (in graphic arts) is implied to be utilized in producing counterfeit notes. Is there an implication that instead of leading to a better society, the technological advances improves the deceits perpetuated in the society? It is also worth looking at the reference to Indian Penal Code 420 which implies deceit in Hindi. Assigning the number 420 to Madhu Chaturvedi's flat is purposeful and symbolic. The flat becomes a trap of deceit and death for Kishanlal.

Bharathan, though a graduate, works as waiter, mess-boy and finally conductor. Yageswar Prasad, the security guard is illiterate but a straightforward person. The security guards at the main gate are literate but their knowledge is used for exploiting and intimidating Kishanlal. The educated Madhu has no qualms in burning Kishanlal to death. She also aids in the production of counterfeit notes using her knowledge of graphic arts. The studious and meticulous Goyal exploits the quick intelligence of a computer in the ruthless prosecution of innocence. The structure Kovilan uses a novel combination of flashback and stream of consciousness in narrating the story. The first two chapters are presented through Bharathan's point of view. The third chapter is the interrogation of Bharathan. Chapters four and five deals with Kishanlal's world with vivid flashbacks to his childhood. Chapter six is Bharathan's dream. Chapter seven which is the final chapter of the novel deals with Bharathan's trial. But it is left ambiguous whether the events described in this chapter indeed occur in reality or in the confused and disturbed mind of Bharathan (who, incidentally, had his last food several days back). In all these chapters Kovilan manages the shift between stream of consciousness, and flashback interspersed by the author's narration effectively. Reality and imagination are well merged.

The time scale is fixed, to begin with 31st May 1968 - when Bharathan gets suspended. Anil Kumar gets injured on 1stJune, early morning, followed by Bharathan's interrogation on 2nd June 1968. Prasad is killed during the night of 31st May 1968. Kishanlal arrives in IIT after the murder of Prasad. The time scale gets blurred thereafter. The incidents in chapters four and five (Kishanlal's arrival) happen in the evening. As if to merge with the dream and subsequent trial, the boundaries of time are not fixed in the last two chapters. Throughout the novel, the narration is enriched by detailed observations. For example, look at the scene, where Goyal comes to Ambi's hotel. Totally weak, Goyal is unable to stand erect. With trembling hands he holds on to the table. Bharathan feels as if Goyal's entire body is vibrating, and the vibration is transferred to the steel top of the table. The fall of Anil Kumar from from the foot board of the bus is another example. Or see the contrast established by the interrogating officer between Bharathan, the Conductor and Bharatha, the emperor. The officer is praising the rich tradition of India wherein even an orphan can become an emperor. He is also citing the history of Aurangazeb, who ruthlessly exterminated his brothers to become the emperor. Hence we also have a tradition of ruthless brutality!

When Kishanlal stands waiting in front of the closed door of flat no. 420 he feels extremely thirsty. The thirst revives in him old memories when he was delirious, suffering from pneumonia. The scene where Kishanlal visualizes his mother going to fetch water is one of the most beautiful narratives of our literature. Equally noteworthy is the scene where Kishanlal stands before the closed door, in the approaching darkness of dusk, when the fluorescent lamp is put on. Or see the passage where Kishanlal is confronted by Prasad's children, Nannu and Munnu.

It is interesting to note how effectively Kovilan uses various sounds and sights. The whistling of the sound of the bell in Kishanlal's ear reminds him of his marriage and of death. After Madhu accommodates him in the flat, each of the street lights appear to him as showering silver coins. He had buried a coin in the sand bank of the river when he was a child! Sitting in Ambi's hotel, Bharathan sees the torrent of heavenly Ganges, looking at the long rows of street lights!

A word about the language. Quite a few places, Kovilan has retained Hindi as it is. An example is 420, where he writes chaar sow beese. In the Hindi speaking region of northern India, 420 means deceit - purposeful deceit. It is the outcome of the liberal use of the Indian Penal Code 420 against innocent people to arrest them under any pretext. It is impossible to convey the meaning of char sow beese in any other language. Similarly what Madhu asks on seeing Kishanlal is retained in Hindi - the effect is unattainable in any other language.

Bharathan, remains for the reader a rich and rewarding experience in terms of the numerous issues that novel raises, style of narration and the magnificent interplay between reality and imagination and their ultimate merger.