Ballads of Rage : An Introduction to the Stories of Kovilan

P. Radhakrishnan Nair

(From the Introduction to Selected Stories of Kovilan

Being a mere aficionado of the fiction of Kovilan, I am neither eligible nor competent to conduct an expert study based on a critical analysis of these stories. Therefore all I intend to do here is to record, rather unskillfully, some general feelings these stories evoked in my mind.

Whenever I think about the stories of Kovilan a particular poem comes to my mind - Kutiyozhikkal by Vailoppilli. There is not even an iota of ideological link between stories of Kovilan and that poem. It is doubtful whether a poem has been written in Malayalam language within the last four decades that intensely perturb our mind like Kutiyozhikkal . Yet that great work has been singularly ignored by our critics. Vailoppilli is not known because of that work. I have pointed out this case only to indicate that the stories of Kovilan suffer a similar fate. Making loud noises without any content and churning out stories of love triangles with the pretension of being progressive, many writers have managed to amass awards and rewards. Meanwhile, Kovilan who continually traced the beats of Time with sincerity and without any compromise has escaped recognition. (Remember how late even the Akademi woke up to notice him!). This oversight indicates a major fault, which is never pardonable, of the prevailing mode of literary appreciation.

I have mentioned about making noises without any content. This needs to be explained. In Malayalam, short story grew up along with the Progressive Literary Movement. What did those writers do who were the spokesmen of the Progressive Movement? Under the shabby cover of Capitalist-Proletarian Class Consciousness they have merely recycled simple stories of love triangles, ever popular with the public. The art of delivering pearls by diving deep into the abyss of human mind was unknown to many of them. Most of them held a merely superfluous view of life. That is why some critic has stated that after Indulekha no Malayalam novel has been written. With such a strong statement I foresee a flood of protests. In the appraisal of Malayalam short story we have to disregard marching songs and stories on par with slogans which are of only temporary relevance, even though they have roused generations. On realising this, we see that such protests are meaningless.

The one and only fault of Kovilan appears to be the following. Away from the crowd, he gave expressions to his own feelings in his own incomparable style. From the first to the latest, each story was a test to Kovilan. To give strength and sharpness of chisel to language; through images make the heart undulate with intense emotions; to bring forth brilliance which does not simply flash like the swift ray of a meteor - this is the style of Kovilan. There is no other style which can match with it. This leads us to observe that as a writer of fiction Kovilan is a genius in Malayalam literature.

In studying the stories of Kovilan, we cannot separate out Kovilan, the man. That world of stories is related so strongly to his own experiences in life. In his realizations of the fierceness of anguish prevalent in the countryside, in his tales of human beings who sit in army trenches holding on to their dear life, in his portrayal of people enduring life in the ice-cold surroundings of the Himalayas, you encounter the author himself. Here writer is not living through his characters; the poet himself becomes the character. Any art form can achieve success only when the artist forsakes his own identity and takes on that of the character.

In his study of the Malayalam short story, one of the critics has portrayed Kovilan merely as an author of military stories. What a childish and inept analysis! Kovilan has not written a single military story. In his stories where images of army life and village life appear profusely, his sole concern was to tell the story of human beings. He has achieved his goal with almost perfection. He has conjured up in his stories many facets of alluring yet raging countryside as well as varied backdrops of army life. It is definitely a mistake to shut him up in a tiny shell with the label of military writer. This mistake has prevented many from carrying out a comprehensive study of Kovilan.

Kovilan sings the saga of Man; he is the bard of human dignity. I have called Kovilan a poet in the sense that starting out as a poet he has rendered poetry through fiction. Kovilan started writing fiction not because he failed in poetry. He became a true poet when he realized that poetry is prose. It is clear when we observe the way poetry and prose are interwoven in his works like Thottangal .

Kovilan is poet of experimentation. It is commonly stated that M.T. Vasudevan Nair is the writer who brought fiction close to lyrics thereby erasing the boundary of prose and poetry - perhaps a correct statement. Most of M.T's stories are poems of sentimentalism. A Veena tuned with the light strings of romantic feelings. But Kovilan is not a poet of sentimentality. He is the poet who has rendered fiction in poetry in the varied colors of realism, keeping sentimentalism at bay.

With its resounding reverberations, stories of Kovilan often remind us of the sound of Chenda. Even though often monstrous, in that piercing play of its rhythm lies a music of rage. I think Kovilan is the bard of this music of rage.

This music of rage deserves an explanation. It is connected with Kovilan's outlook on life. Kovilan does not know the gimmick of getting the words to dance daintily on velvety pastures of life. He is the story teller of present tense. Look at the language in those stories. Everything takes place in the present tense. What Kovilan delivers is the intensity, not the charm of this present tense. Kovilan will respond intensely only to life's disappointments and its deep shocks. Then the music arising in him does not have the language of silence, it has the frightening aura of rage. Compassion is the trademark of Kovilan, yet he tells the stories of compassion, sending shock waves in the reader's mind. This is a craft unattainable to many of our writers who simply produce color and sound by lighting crackers.

Kovilan's philosophy of life is also special. He knows how to qualify life in pretty words like true, auspicious, and beautiful. But he will tell you that the foundation stone of life is hunger, nothing but hunger. He would not disagree no matter how you analyze hunger. I feel that the measuring rod to scale Kovilan's fiction is this special philosophy.

Kovilan is a writer who has grown with time. In this respect he differs from many writers who are stuck at a single stage in their developement. His later stories are written in a style different from his earlier stories. A writer, to whom each story is a test, has to grow with time. It may appear that this growth has brought Kovilan even to Ultra Modernism. Some critics have evaluated him as such. Recently one critic has noted that Kovilan is the guru of Ultra Modernism. Kovilan has written some stories which may be called Ultra Modern. Some of his recent stories are written in a different style. Even then he has managed to keep his individuality without loosing it. While many writers freely borrowed Western literature and stories of existentialism as if of their own and became high priests of Ultra Modernism, Kovilan has stood apart. With the ease of a genius, making those experiments his own, he depicted ideas. There is no voice of helplessness there. No rhythm of despair. What he has tried even there is to venerate in the altar of human spirit, the twists and turns that erupt in the throbbing flow of life.

A criticism has been heard that technique gets importance in the stories of Kovilan. If what is meant by technique is the craft of the writer, that artistry is the very breathing air that sustains the life of a writer. If on the other hand, by artistry what is meant is the trickery of intentionally wrapping the story in artificialities and embellishing it with colors, that feat is beyond the reach of Kovilan. Perhaps this criticism is raised by those who mistakenly contend that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end that tally. In fact, once one realise that the structure of a story is created impromptu, not by design, there is no need to make too much noise about technique. Once the seed of an idea or the ray of an emotion germinates in his mind, Kovilan remains restless until it develops as a story and is transferred on to paper. The artistry necessary to make each word condensed, charged with meanings and make an imprint on reader's perception arise spontaneously on every occasion. Sometimes the story may not have a beginning. Sometimes no end. Yet the brave new voice of emotion conveyed by those stories is both ethereal and inimitable.

Creation of proper atmosphere plays an important role in the stories of Kovilan. Bringing you to an atmosphere sometimes frightful, sometimes pathetic, he will withdraw. The expertise he exhibits in creating this atmosphere will perturb you. Kovilan has not written a single story which does not bring forth a plethora of problems and unsettle your mind with intense emotions. All this is achieved with cryptic language. Have you spoken with Kovilan? The only way he knows how to talk is starting very slowly in a low pitch, quickly climbing up to a high pitch, giving out heat and light. Creating the atmosphere for stories is also like this. Sometimes it starts with a blast, sometimes it ends with one. I would like to say that Kovilan is the most rebellious writer in Malayalam who unleashes a hurricane in the mind of the reader.

Kovilan's characters have never been caricatures. The characters of a writer who dwells on his inner self can never be caricatures. Keeping every character in their own atmosphere, Kovilan tries to bring fullness to their personality. That is why Kovilan stood alone while the characters of some writers who started writing along with Kovilan degenerated to types. That is the same reason why during the Progressive Literary Movement, while many got accolades by creating types, Kovilan stood alone. Kovilan's success lies in preserving his individuality, standing apart. He is a lone traveler in the world of fiction. That is why his style has remained both exemplary and exquisite.

Kovilan is the only writer who is able to invoke the folk style to the structure of story giving it the charm of a folk song. Seeing the success that style achieved in works like {\sf Sujatha} and {\sf Thottangal} one may feel that his enticing style deserves further experimentation.

Kovilan does not need the accompaniment of events to write a story. An instant, a perturbation, a ray of emotion - that is enough to stir up Kovilan's mind. To transplant this commotion - to communicate this to the reader effectively - that is Kovilan's style. Definitely the story teller may be taking you for a rush. You may get tired in this running. Yet, this running is the important thing. In this endless run Kovilan can't write a single line without shaking the conscious of society. That is why I can state with conviction that Kovilan is the only rebellious writer in Malayalam.

We don't have writers who haven't touched the soft corners of reader's mind by dealing with themes of love. Often they fly away crossing the exalted regions of decency. In this field, we have only one writer who has succeeded in creating the atmosphere of sublime love - Uroob. In this area also Kovilan stands alone. When Kovilan creates love scenes, you will not find there the magic veal of emotional doldrums. Kovilan has tried to depict desire, the first beat of life force, by exalting it and acclimatizing it with life. He does n't have eyes to see the colorful flicks of love. The love that is depicted in the stories of Kovilan is the love of human beings suffering from various predicaments. It is dignified, it is strong, it pierces your soul.

I have dwelled on these matters so much just to indicate in how many ways Kovilan stands apart in the world of Malayalam short story. Climbing down to the valleys from the lofty peaks of Himalayas, Kovilan's poetic spirit views human life in its wholesome. I have only attempted to record some scattered thoughts which arose while reading Kovilan's short stories. Stories of Kovilan do not lend themselves to analysis. Each story stands by itself as a full-fledged poem. That may be the reason why they are not amenable to detailed studies.

The stories of Kovilan are filled with incomparable images. Those images take shape from the sound that dissolved in the beats of folk songs, the sound that melted down from the tune of folk songs. In this context it is irrelevant to illustrate these features with examples. For the moment I have simply outlined how to approach the stories of Kovilan. There is no magic or wizardy in the stories of Kovilan. What they delineate are the thoughts and emotions that shape up in the intense mind of raw human being. It will stab you with language; it will blind you with intensity. Because what Kovilan is holding in his hand is not a pen but a machete. The machete of intense emotion that cuts down and shatters anything and everything. Let me perform, with gratitude, the duty of wiping the edge of that machete.


Malayalam Original: copyright 1980 P. Radhakrishnan Nair.

Translated by A.H., September 1998. 1