Tales behind Thottangal


Translated from Malayalam by A. Purushothaman

My first book of short stories is Oru Palam Manayola (A measure of Red Arsenic). This book was published in the year Nineteen Fifty Seven. The story Tharavadu (Ancestral home) is included in this collection. After writing Tharavadu, I joined the Army. After twenty two years, writing Thottangal (Ballads) I have committed suicide. A writer is dying when he does not write any more.

Why is A minus B referred to, while discussing Thottangal ?

When you wrote Thottangal did you feel the satisfaction you had on completion of A minus B ?

The decline of the author of the novel A minus B . The things you publish these days - including Thottangal - are either the blabber of a mad man or the result of an arrogance that you can do anything under the cover of fame already achieved.

The novelette Thottangal is prompting me to write this letter. In fact the stories published before such as Male or female? and Ammini also prompted me. Your venture in this direction. It is not that the pulsations of this kind are not present in A minus B and Ezhamedangal (Wives) .

I returned to my native place in the year Nineteen Sixty Eight. I had with me, the draft of Thazhvarakal (Valleys). I had felt giddiness while conceptualizing the novel Thazhvarakal in which a lot many incidents which are neither moving, shaking, thought-provoking nor funny are described one after another . I do not remember from where I wrote the portion presenting the character, Captain Prabhakar, in his tent. I also do not remember, how and where I started writing this novel. I brought the draft copy of Thazhvarakal from Kanpur. In this novel, the story is not written, only the characters are presented. I walk, meditating on how to present the characters. Along the very wide road of the campus, I walked slipping about. Tripped, I may fall down. Immediately I sat down slowly. It is while walking, I am able to think the way I like. I will be taking rest while doing hard work. My health is rather weak. My classmates called me old soul. All along the way they tickled on my head. Pulling out the sharp grass blades they threw at my head, shaved in circle above ears. Blood trickled. I have never walked, without tears filling my eyes. May be because of harassment due to others or due to worries in my life. Even then, I discovered the poet who constructed the image of Kovilan, approaching as a mad elephant trumpeting and shaking his chains. Isn't this amazing? I was unable to complete a story bringing it forth from memory. How much meaningful is the caption the thin red line to me. I know the essence of thin red line. I have seen a lot many ammeters. I also understand the thin red line in my brain. When I feel an urge to get up, to shout, to roar, the needle is brought down to the left side from the danger point, applying negative bias. Thus I had to stop working on Thazhvarakal . I returned to my native place and started copying. Somehow it was completed. I want to write Himalayam . Valleys are climbing up to the mountains. I have difficulty in writing. My chest hurts. I wrote clutching my chest. I wrote for more than an year. On reading, there is not even a speck of my soul anywhere in it. I bundled up all my notebooks full of writing, put them in a pit, and set fire. I burned them all, till the last bit of paper burned off. I sweated profusely. I returned home hoping to make a living by writing stories. If I am healthy, I can write again. I took medical treatment also. Doctor Jose arrived at the diagnosis that there was a minor pus formation in the tissue on the outer layer of a bone in the chest. Almost seventy percent among the middle aged patients suffer from chest pain due to such kind of pus formation. Turpentine was given for external application. The pain decreased gradually. Still I do not have the courage to begin a long effort. I should practice to avoid sleep and write. Now I am just a beginner. One story. I wrote it.

A second one. I wrote that also. Writing is always a struggle for me. I cannot have a sumptuous meal. I can't eat full. Since I drink a lot of water I don't get sleep. If I sleep, I get a sensation to urinate. If I get up, I again drink water. I should not sleep. Unless I finish what I have to write, I don't get comfortable sleep. There is moonlight in my head. I am mad. Whatever I write is only the blabber of a mad man. I regain my confidence when I complete each story. I can bear, I can hold on up to a week. Then let me try writing a novelette. Long time ago, I wrote {\sf Tharavadu} to find out whether I can approach the structure of a novel. I was unable to finish copying it sitting at home. The novelette brought me to a predicament somewhat similar.

Aradikkadavil Chennappan.
Chennapan's wife Unnimol.
Children. Malu, Nandini, Devani, Divakaran, Gopi.
Their white bitch.
In Thekkekkara, Unnimol's father, grandfather, brother, brother's daughter Kathy.
Chennadan Sekharan.
Onapparamban Narayanan. Narayanan's son Vijayakumar, the engineer.
Postman Kunhappan.
Matapparambil Madhavan.
Aradi river, ferry, mana, bridge, banyan tree, brahmin landlord.
Ferryman - Muthappan.
The lagoon field, Chennadan island, the dear divine Goddess Chennattamma.
These are the people who appear in Thottangal .

This story can be written as the life history of Unnimol. As a maiden when she was frolicking about in Thekkekkara, marriage proposals came. The first and second aborted. The third one was successful. She became the mother of five children. Gopi is in Delhi. Divakaran is an oracle. Malu works in Taluk office. Nandini does tailoring. Devani is studying Hindi. Apart from bearing children from Chennappan, Unnimol and Chennappan do not have any mental affinity. She has never loved any one. She does not know what love is. Even then she is sad. Her marriage did not take place to the house in Thamarassery. When she was sixty years old, Vijayakumar, the son of Onapparamban Narayanan, came from Thamarassery to Aradikkadavu. When she comes to know that this is the son of Narayanan, who had sought marriage with her long time ago, Unnimol is shattered. That mother sees Vijayakumar in her front yard. What he has come for is to book a puppy in advance. Love is also here. Love is between Devani and Vijayakumar. They have not done any mischief. It is only that they have met at the river at the time of bathing. Mother does not know anything. Is Vijayakumar her son or lover? If Onapparamban Narayanan had married her this son might have borne to her. That did not happen. She sees his father in him. Odappazham, she had heard about the boy who sought alliance, that he is just like Odappazham. She wants to kiss him, to embrace him.

Can't there be a story like this? I do not know whether this story itself has been written before. I have seen human relations, in general, only as parallels. I presented characters in {\sf Thazhvarakal} with the idea that India can be discovered through human relations. As for those characters they had lived with me. Unnimol and Chennappan are alive. Narayanan is dead. Vijayakumar is not an engineer, he is a school teacher. At least some of you must have seen him walking briskly to West Nada to catch a bus. Only, you may not have paid any attention to him, since you do not know that he is the model of a character in Thottangal .

Unnimol, who is alive, has seven children. She has grand children who are mothers. For all appearances Unnimol has a satisfactory life. I know her. That I know her! I do not even know myself. I do not know any body except that I know them by look. Once or twice, Vijayakumar and I together had gone to Unnimol's house. When I introduced Vijayakumar to Unnimol the mother, I did not feel whether she had any emotional changes. Chennappan the father strangled his daughter. I came to know that her tongue protruded out. The marks of his fingers remained clotted on her neck for many days. Unnimol must have realized that I came to know this incident. She started telling me her problems. The aborted marriage proposals were referred to. She has never known peace or happiness after her marriage till date.

Chennappan always keeps on talking. He lived in the past. When we were managing the ferry ... when we were leveling the lagoon ridges ... when we were conducting local meetings ... . He takes pride in the non-existent family splendour and makes money by selling in advance the smart puppies of the white bitch. These are his concepts about marriage also. His three girls have attained the marriageable age. When someone comes with a decent marriage proposal, he returns bored after listening to the soliloquy of Chennappan. I cannot do that. I had to keep on listening. I sat in front of him, thinking about something else. Sometime or other I nodded once. Chennappan also talked about the great ancestor Muthappan who came from Kotttappuram or Chamravattom to Aradikkadavu. During those days, arrogant Muslims were prevailing in the nearby Aradikkadavu. This Muthappan was brought along with the family to control them. This may be history. This history is absent in Thottangal . I do not handle situations which may create tensions for communal feelings. People of all religion are present in my stories. We decide one's religion by the name! I shudder to write a story with Ezhava as a symbol of good and Christian as incarnation of evil. While reading the best seller published with characters named with wretched and abominable prejudices, I pray mentally - Oh creator, you do not know what you are doing!

I wrote Vendamkadi during the time I heard many stories from Chennappan. After a long time, Unnimol the mother happened to visit my house and expressed her interest in visiting Onapparamba. She wants to meet Vijayakumar's mother. Talk to her. Enquire about her welfare. Now the story writer in me was waking up. Afterwards, some vacation came up. Kuttettan wrote to children to collect old songs and grandmother's tales. Chennappan, the Gopi's father came to my home. My children surrounded him. I copied the songs for them. Thus I got the boat song The winds and clouds and the darkness also descended.

I know the lagoon field of Thottangal . When I was ten years old, I walked along that lagoon field, along the river bank for the first time. My father and mother were with me. I saw the red water lilies that time. After I grew up, I also went down in the gushing water to block the opening in the broken ridge. If there is something called emergency it is in the broken lagoon ridge. There is no difference between man, woman, hands or bodies there. I also have dreams about the riddle of lagoon cultivation. I read, with high hopes, the working reports of the engineers who prepared a master plan for the lagoon ridges of Thrissur district. These kinds of news excite me. I am sad because the earth is a virgin, and it is impossible for the man with a short life span to see her growing. During my travels to several places I saw many sights. I walked along the banks of the great lake between Secunderabad and Hyderabad. It is after dark. There was moonlight. There is a road on the other side also. There are lamp poles in that road. I do not see the road, lamp poles, lamp or light. I look over to the lake island. In the moonlight, over the blue glassy surface of the lake, light towers are descending. Not light towers. Golden pillars. The golden pillars are alive and moving. Each one has a halo of light around it. The moon light, water surface, the halo of the golden pillars - all dissolve in the waves. I attempted a streak of this light show in Thottangal. You and I will die. At least after us, on our lagoon ridges bunds, roads, lamp poles, moonlight, water body and cool ripples will be there. Also the light towers.

The father and the grandfather of Thekkekkara also appear in Thottangal . I saw only the father. He was a farmer. What he taught his children are not poetry and grammar. The children became farmers and officers. Their children are among the officers in gazetted rank today. There are farmers also. Unnimol's brother is no more today. His daughter is not a doctor. I made Kathy a doctor for the story. Mother can visualize her oracle son Divakaran and his betrothed model only in a dream.

I met postman Kunhappan in Chennappan's house. He is neither a postman nor Kunhappan. When he came on the pretext of cooperating to arrange a job nearer home for Malu, the girl, I happened to be sitting in the portico. That man is either a school master or the son of a retired school master. That person, who came in connection with the job, took out horoscopes from his bag. He read out the nominal roll of middle aged bachelors. Further he needs to know what is Malu's age, her birth star? He had some snacks also in style. There are facts which prompted me to make him a postman. A postman whom I know very well is a manager of public affairs and a middleman. You can entrust him to buy and sell properties. Doing this work, he has also brought some property in his name. If I bring a postman in the story, I can very nicely present the son Gopi through the letter from Delhi.

The caste-feudal systems have hurt me a lot. My landlord has also helped my family. My father survived by the kindness of a neighbouring feudal family. My father just says that {\it the food they gave me remains in my stomach}. Even today I can walk only with a panting chest in front of their doorsteps. May be, I may not have been born, in the absence of their gruel. My father might have died when he was seven or eight years old. To the best of my knowledge, my forefathers were troubled by the associates and managers of the landlord. They cut and removed trees from our compound. They constructed bungalows. Till two or three years before, only when one measure of paddy was costing fifteen rupees the bungalow man opened his godown. When the daily wages came to the level of six and three rupees, he poured out his liabilities. When the tenancy rights were formalized, he worried that he will die that day.

My father had the acquaintance of the eldest Namboodiri of mana. Along with father I also went to the mana. That great man behaved affectionately with me. I forgot the way father taught me to stand in utmost humility in front of him. He rejoiced openly when he came to know that I was studying Sanskrit. The plot where I am staying was assigned by him for the simple contract of two Annas. The managers undermined the mana and the children starved. They begged for the surplus dues and survived out of it.

Aradimana is described in Thottangal . The mana near Aradikkadavu is highly prosperous even today. When I presented the landlord who comes asking for one measure of paddy in the story, I was visualizing my landlord. The title landlord is not entirely monstrous to me.

I do not know who Chennadan Sekharan is. He can be anyone. He is the lord and controller of life these days. Chennappan had rowed the boat for smuggling. He has also told me many stories about it.

I have not discussed the secrets of Matapparambil Madhavan. Long ago, someone came to Aradikkadavu, looking for a girl to marry. The girl had gone to school. The man wanted to see the girl. Father went out to show the girl. He loitered around the class room and called out the daughter. Daughter enquired about the man. Father told her that he had come to see their calf. Chennappan demanded one share of the man's property well in advance. I do not know what the groom (this was to be his third marriage) did afterwards. Today he is a grand rich man owning forests and elephants. Whatever be the purity and necessity of marriage, marriage proposals are discussed merely on the basis of cattle trade. At least Chennapan's ideas about the marriage of his children are based on the same principle.

I was never able to write a life history effectively through the beginning, the middle and the end. The story is dried, powdered, pounded and packed in a barrel. Set fire to it at a convenient place. Let it flash, explode and bloom. I do not remember when and how I decided to begin or present the story through the mother's dream. Three manuscripts having two different beginnings such as Unnimol climbed down the stairs after Papa and Shouts and calls were heard are now right in front of me. The story published in Mathrubhumi Weekly begins with Shouts and calls were heard. Both happen if the lagoon ridge breaks. On the southern side, the fructified lagoon field lay gasping, as a pregnant woman. Far away, above the Chennadan island, rain clouds descended, as a Munnuurkkudam about to burst. On the wet belly buttons of the rain clouds the sun rays blushed as child birth. This is how I started writing Thottangal . Isn't she the mother who delivered the children? Sitting in the portico, isn't she thinking about the tragedy of her children? I thought, let the beginning itself be like this. I did not write it just like that. I, who have stood watching long enough the sliding descending clouds above the lagoon fields and sun rays scattering between the clouds, do not know what is meant by childbirth. I have to seek the help of a person who has delivered children. Is it Munnuurkkudam or Thonnuuramkudam? What is the meaning of the statement that Munnurkkudam is broken? How did you deliver? How did you lie down? Did you see your delivery? Did you experience pain, uneasiness, deliverance, birth or death? Questions, answers and explanations went on for a day or two. I do not get any sleep. I do not say anything. Why are you silent? Can't talk now. I am thinking. I am sleepless. No one should touch me. I will not talk to anyone. It is festival time for my children. They can do anything. Father will not trouble them. If at all I sleep for a while, I wake up with clear ideas. The first sentence. I keep thinking about the sentence which is going to be the first. Whenever I get up from sleep if the same sentence is surfacing clearly, I get up straight, extend the wick of the lamp, and sit down to write. I got the beginning of the story - On the southern side the fructified lagoon field lay gasping .

Even though I liked the overview of clouds, the mother sitting in the portico will not be able to narrate the story in one stretch. If the story has to end completely, Chennappan should have strangled Devani. Mother should witness the sight of father trying to kill the child she delivered. There should not be anything else remaining for the mother to suffer in this life. Mother saw the life's flame flickering in the protruding tongue of the daughter. Devani does not die. May be because the calf with half severed neck came running along the road followed by the crowd, Chennappan released his grip. I cannot guarantee that some time later he will not kill the daughter or the children. He has also reached the threshold of despair. But the mother do not want to live anymore. Then she dreams about her father. Papa, please take me away. This life is enough for me. This is where Thottangal begins. In the year Ninety Nine (M.E.) during the night of the flood, Unnimol, Gopi the new born baby, and Chennappan had traveled to Thekkekkara through the deluge. She has told me that story. I modified that she is pregnant at that time. Also I added a reason in the story that she had fallen in water and got frightened when she was a small child. I feel that this reason is good enough to join the threads of the story at several places.

My mind was possessed when I described the deluge of the year Ninety Nine through the mother's dream. Whatever time I copied, I became possessed whenever I describe the deluge and the boat caught in the deluge. In the dream, an old experience is blooming. In the deluge, in the boat while seeking warmth in the lower belly at the boat's bow, the humming of Thottam begins. Through the boat song of Chennappan, Muthappan the great ancestor of the family is presented.

In the boat song I copied, sung by Chennappan, there are brahmins in the boat wailing, thinking about their pregnant wives. That portion is omitted in Thottangal . The Muthappan who was brought in to settle down in order to fight the Muslims became the boatman in the story. I related the boatman who sank and the brahmin bringing the medicine for delivery. I can state what happened and also write what is nonexistent. Call it an imaginary story.

While struggling for a story, many things happen on their own. Thus I got the calf with the severed neck. My daughter has seen a calf, kept for butchery, running away after breaking the ropes. She ran along the same road referred to in Thottangal . Her neck was severed, head hanging down. Whenever she cried through her severed neck, blood sprayed out. It was two or three years ago when my daughter saw this. Even then, I do not know why she told me about it, just when I was writing a story. To me, the calf kept for butchery and Devani appeared one and the same. In the story I left out those who ran after the calf. Again I was omitting the emotional aspects of religion. Hindus do not kill cows. But daughter is the progeny of man. Hence after the calf, Allahu Akbar, Swamiye Saranam, Praise the Lord and Haleluiah . After writing Thottangal I read attentively the news about the ox kept for butchery killing the butcher and the buffalo reserved for meat committing suicide by jumping in to the sea.

I had started writing Thottangal in March 1970. March 6th was Sivarathri. That day, my youngest daughter suddenly had a question.

Father, why are there snakes on Siva's neck?

What should I say? She is seven years old. Even then I said.

A poison called Kalakoodam. Just a drop of that poison is enough to kill all the human beings, animals, birds, butterflies, plants, grasses - she was getting enough - in the whole world. Just one drop is enough to destroy the world. As for Siva, he drank all that poison. Siva did not die. The poison got stuck in Siva's neck. His neck became blue. In the neck of Siva, who did not die even after drinking all that poison, what matters if many snakes rest?

My daughter's question and my own explanation gave me a lot of inspiration. I have incorporated this incident in Thottangal . It is sometime since I am infatuated with Thottam style. I also hoped to make an attempt in the primitive style of Thottangal. In Ezhamedangal (wives) and Thazhvarakal (valleys) also, at some occasions this style has occurred, without my knowledge, I becoming possessed. During all these occasions I wrote the sentences singing. To this style, which I call the flow of language or rhythm, Unnimol's story suited well. I prepared myself without eating or sleeping. As the cloud which descended over the lagoon field, dream enveloped the story. How many times I must have rewritten! The first manuscript I have is the draft in which the approximate shape of the story is cast. I copied it down three times. I edit the incidents before, after, reverse, about turn, all these times. The third copy was forwarded to the editor. He wrote that many portions have deviated from the style of Thottangal . The story was serialized like Merumpoove. I received warnings that I should even be killed. Umesh wrote that he liked Thottangal very much. Balakrishnan who used to order, scold, and encourage me appreciated the story this time. I received also the expert opinion that Thottangal has collapsed due to the inability to effectively tackle the time component}.

I had cursed so many times my habit of pushing the cart by tying the horse behind. Even then his habit has possessed me without escape. Methil Radhakrishnan feared that this habit will kill me eventually.

Again I sat down to correct and rewrite Thottangal . I have dismantled and rewrote A minus B also after it was published in the weekly. I was unable to modify the structure of the story while rewriting. Accidently I discovered a note book, which was used for copying Thottangal , remaining incomplete. Whatever changes were made, editing carried out and discarded, those and over and above where tried much before. I added captions such as dream, wakefulness to the incidents. To the portions which deviated from the Thottam style, I imparted the style. I was unable to transform all the incidents completely to Thottam style - that happened only whenever I became possessed. I imparted a little more effectiveness to the portion where the engineer Vijayakumar appears as both a son and a lover to Unnimol. I felt, as the story of a family, as the story of a woman, only this much is possible. The new version was handed over to the publisher.

I do not pretend that whatever I write is good. But I wish that whatever I write should be good. I also work hard to the best of my ability to make this wish happen. I happened to listen to Sukumar Azhikode's discourse on the waves rising high to kiss the horizon. Poor waves of the sea! Will their lips ever rise up to the horizon? Rising up roaring, they collapse and shatter without being able to touch anywhere. Was not Azhikode speaking about me? What all hopes I have! I collapse and shatter. I fall back in to the infinite ocean of time. After me, waves after waves come. May be I am alone, a lone tusker. I may have only limited talents. I may be the liability of the publisher. I am present in the infinite ocean of time. Again I rise along with the waves to kiss the horizon. Did Kovilan die writing Thottangal ? I do not believe in death. Didn't I say that I am living in the waves that follow me and my unlimited will power will again rise up?

Malayalam Original copyright 1972 V.V. Ayyappan. All rights reserved.

English Translation copyright 1998 A. Purushothaman. All rights reserved. 1