This short note is intended to be a very brief introduction to the novels of Kovilan.
Thakarnna Hridayangal (Broken Hearts) (1946)
In his first published novel, written at the age of nineteen (and revised forty years later in 1986), Kovilan tells the story of Inutty/Gopalan. For money, Gopalan, murders the man who brought him up - this is the central story. In his story, also the story of his fellow beings, told in so few words, Kovilan anticipated the extremist movement that swept through Kerala in the late sixties and early seventies. But the themes that one encounters in this novel did not originate in foreign lands; they germinated in the native soil. I am going to narrate, as coherent as possible, certain incidents that I myself either heard or experienced. Those incidents will never fade from my heart. The emotions they evoke in me burn like molten lead. They have become unbearable. Let me try to exorcise them from my heart by transferring them to another medium - from the preface of first edition.
A minus B (1958)
Lack of something. A minus B. As if life is not perfect - from A minus B.
Written in 1956, A minus B brought malayalam novel to new heights. This was the first malayalam novel with characters from every part of India. In its portrayal of life in a military barrack, it doesn't have a central character or a conventional beginning or end. Characters are not pre-conceived types; they come alive before your eyes.
Ezhamedangal (Wives) (1965)
Ezhamedangal means wives. The name has its etymology in Indian Astrology. Through the portrayal of life in the military told between two feasts (in between what takes the story forward is some incidents in the army mess), Kovilan portrays the decadence of Indian upper/middle class in the first decade after independence. The insulted and the injured, however, do not take it lying down. They do put up a brave resistance. The novel ends at the beginning of India-China war. Kovilan comes back later to similar motifs at a different time and place in the novel Bharathan.
Thazvarakal (Valleys) (1969)
India-China War of 1962 stands as a backdrop to this novel which tells the story of a group of human beings (about twenty five characters appear in this novel) in an army camp. I wrote valleys with the intention of discovering India, the novelist has confessed elsewhere. Narrating episodes that span a few days, entire lifetimes are revealed before the reader. The novelist seems to believe that past for every Indian is a living present. Folk tales and epic stories heard in early childhood lay awake in their memory and guide the present actions of some of them. Dark experiences from the past come back to haunt them. Coming from distant regions of India, they are all so different, yet they are so similar in some aspects. In recording the episodes novelist does not pass judgment on any one of them. Can one human being understand another one? This basic problem is raised again and again in the novels of Kovilan. By virtue of becoming the character himself on every occasion, the novelist brings the reader to the center stage of action where the reader finds himself sharing the thoughts, feelings and actions of the characters.
Himalayam (Himalaya) (1972)
Kovilan's vision of life reaches its peak in Himalayam. This is a vision that encompasses everything. Rajasekharan, a character from Thazhvarakal finally comes to realise the true meanings of Aham Brahmasmi and Tatvam Asi. Yet he remains fully sensitive to the pathos of daily mundane life. Himalayam presents life in its full complexity with all its beauty and ugliness, benevolence and brutality, compassion and meanness, calmness and storms. Through its day and night and the final thandavam, Kovilan brings us face to face with Siva, the primordial artist: terrific creator, benign destroyer (we are reminded of Satarudreeyam). Bull, snake, river, moon - symbols associated with Siva are scattered throughout the novel. Rajasekharan, Sivanandan, Hariharan, Sasidharan - the characters share their names with Siva.
The language of Himalayam deserves special mention. Years of Sanskrit study in his young age has not been in vain. Himalayam is to be recited loudly, not to be read silently. One reason for the non-popularity of this novel among the reading public in Malayalam may be due to this: it is classified under novel, not poetry! Another reason for its obscurity may be the fact that Thazhvarakal and Himalayam need to be read together. Without climbing the Valleys one cannot appreciate the grandeur of Himalayam. The ascent has to start from the valleys. Then the reader will appreciate fully, the characters of Rajasekharan, K.G. Nair, Hariharan, Ali Saheer, the complex relationship between Thomas and Sivanandan, the Prabhakar-Sobha-Sasidharan triangle, etc.
According to the Malayalam dictionary SabdaTaravali, the word thottam could mean feelings, thoughts, creation, song in praise of Goddess Bhadrakali, birth, bringing back to life, strength, creation, spirit, sight, light, etc. The novel Thottangal evokes all these in the reader's mind.
In a mere sixty pages, in telling the history of a family (as well as the land) through the dreams, thoughts and nightmares of an elderly woman in her sixties, Kovilan analyses his own society. Thottam songs reverberate throughout the novel. A work of fiction to be sung, not read. Kovilan's style in Thottangal has been celebrated, among many other things, for it's severe terseness.
The theme of food appearing in Ezhamedangal finds center stage in this novel written during the infamous emergency. The further degradation of the upper/middle class of India in the mid-seventies is portrayed with surgical precision in this tale with Indian Institute of Technology as the backdrop. The servitude forced up on in Ezhamedangal has turned in to accepted lot here. From the fierce protests to the total lack of protests. The exploitation of the powerless/uneducated by the powerful/educated continues with greater force. What makes this possible? What is the remedy? Kovilan's diagnosis and his treatment, written between the lines, will shock you.
Janmantharangal (Different Lives) (1982)
Partly autobiographical (Kovilan was hospitalized for surgery in the Choondal Hospital in Nineteen Seventy Five) Janmantharangal obliterates the boundaries of real and imaginary life. The poet and friend K. V. Ramakrishnan appears once. Divakaran, the oracle from Thottangal, appears many times. In this novel Mooppilasseri enters the world of fiction for the first time. Janmantharangal is a good example of Kovilan's ability to weave extra ordinary stories out of ordinary lives.
In Thattakam Kovilan returns to his native village. Like Mahabharata, the author's life is inseparable from the story here. In telling the continuing story of Mooppilasseri (a thinly veiled Kandanisseri, author's birth place), in rendering its living myths, legends, history, Kovilan manages to create new myths and legends. The story, of course, includes the beginning of beginnings, for example, the myth behind the creation of Munimada. Unlike Mahabharata, as time changes, narrative style also changes. Like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, Mooppilasseri is a universe in itself, spread on a much a wider canvas. If the reader has any doubt as to what is attempted here, let us simply quote the author: Thattakam is India itself (in a private communication).