Why Delhi was the muse for Malayalam writer M Mukundan, this year’s JCB Prize for Literature winner

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On a hot June afternoon in 1961, a 19-year-old man from the once-French enclave of Mahe stepped out from a train that arrived, from Kerala, at New Delhi station. A taxi took him to Lodhi Colony, a residential area dominated by government quarters, where his elder brother, lived. Six decades later, he recalls the strange smell that greeted him as he stepped out on to the platform. The smell of Delhi, he says, has stayed with him all these years. The city — its alleys, crowds, the warm smell of summer and the winter chill — have haunted him all his life. They changed him as a writer.

It was in 1969, seven years after he made Delhi his home, that M Mukundan, 79, first wrote about his beloved city. Delhi (Current Books) was his first major work that gave the young novelist a cult following in his language, Malayalam. It reflected the zeitgeist of the time — the rebellious Sixties, when youth across the world sought to smash the system, or, in disillusionment found refuge in radical lifestyle choices that ranged from transcendental meditation to drugs.
Aravindan, the hero of Delhi, had shades of young Mukundan, who was discovering himself in the big city. “The sights and sounds I saw in the 1960s is what Delhi is. A short period, but an intense period,” he says.

Four decades later, he returned to mine Delhi for another novel. Delhi: A Soliloquy (Delhi Gathakal; DC Books), a translation of which won the JCB Prize for Literature last month, is a more mature work that has an epic quality. A sweeping view of Delhi from the 1960s to 1980s, it is the biography of a city in turmoil and transition. Within the large panorama of history, Mukundan situates the subculture of the Malayali diaspora and the struggles of lower-middle class families. Sahadevan, the conscience of Delhi: A Soliloquy is a mature version of Aravindan in Delhi. If Aravindan was an unsuccessful artist, Sahadevan is a failed novelist — “Delhi: A Soliloquy” is the novel that he publishes late in life under someone else’s name. Aravindan arrives in Delhi after winning a prize for his painting, shacks up in a mess in Connaught Place and wastes away while consuming bhang in Paharganj and sharing psychedelic dreams with friends.
“The train came to a standstill at New Delhi Station. The platform was wet. The station was wet. Delhi was wet. The earth and sky were wet. Rain flowed down the spine of the train. Rain slithered down the platforms and pillars like snakes. The tracks were decked with rain drops. There was the smell of rain everywhere. And of coal fumes. Rain fell to the earth from the sky. Coal fumes galloped to the sky from the earth.” (Delhi)

This sense of optimism, as Aravindan arrives in Delhi (1965), is missing when Sahadevan reaches Delhi (1959). Sahadevan’s Delhi, as he tells himself, “is the ground where Gandhi ji fell after he was shot”. War clouds are gathering on the borders. Death, of dreams and lives, is lurking everywhere. As China invades India, Sahadevan’s mentor, Sreedharanunni, a trade unionist rooted in the borderless solidarity of working class, dies from a heart attack, leaving behind a young family with no savings other than a clerk’s government quarter, where a photograph of Chinese Prime Minister Zhou EnLai adorns the wall. For Sahadevan, Sreedharanunni’s death is the demise of a dream that he never recovers from. Sahadevan becomes a sentinel of Delhi as he roams its deep recesses, discovering life and living its miseries, refusing to grab opportunities to transform himself into a “successful” person. He doesn’t marry or build a family. He lives for others and soaks in their tragedies, in the process transcending the limits of his own regional subculture. He is a witness to the rise of the radical Left, the 1971 war, influx of refugees from West Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh. He experiences the violence of the Emergency (1975) and lives through the trauma of the anti-Sikh riots (1984). Each of these events scars his soul, inflicts wounds that refuse to heal. The march of history muddies his memory. His life becomes an intimate conversation with Delhi. Delhi: A Soliloquy is a scrapbook of history, the memory of a city traumatised by its past. In its bloodstained pages are stories of religious and gender prejudice, caste and communal violence, commoners with big hearts reaching out to rebuild faith in humanity.

M Mukundan Mukundan’s collection of Mukundande Kathakal (Stories
by Mukundan)

Mukundan lived in Delhi for nearly half a century. In the 1950s and ’60s, jobs were scarce for young men in Kerala. After completing their school education, they learnt typing and shorthand and travelled to Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai in search of work. Mukundan had his schooling in French and chose Delhi to make his life. His elder brother and writer of some repute, M Raghavan, was employed with the French Embassy. He spent the first three years in Delhi learning the French language and studying its literature. He read the classics and spent his spare time roaming the city.

Delhi, Mukundan remembers, was then a city of villages ringed in by fields where wheat and vegetables grew. “I used to go for walks among the cauliflower fields in what is today Greater Kailash. People felt far more secure in the city then,” he says. His French skills fetched him a job as an assistant to a counsellor at the embassy. It required him to visit libraries and gather research material for the counsellor. The best of contemporary French literature was available at the embassy; Mukundan read voraciously. Later, he would join the American Library and read British and American literature.

He had also started writing stories in Malayalam by the ’60s. The first recognition came when the counsellor spotted a review of Mukundan’s short story collection, Veedu (House), in Thought, a prominent magazine, and organised a cocktail party at the embassy to introduce Mukundan to other writers in Delhi. “Nirmal Verma, Habib Tanvir, the critic KK Nair (Krishna Chaitanya) were among those who came. It was the first big encouragement I received,” Mukundan recalls. Delhi, which was published in 1969, launched Mukundan into the big league.

The 1960s were a time of transition in Malayalam fiction. Modernist writers such as OV Vijayan, George Varghese Kakkanadan, Vadake Koottala Narayanankutty Nair (VKN), MP Narayana Pillai, A Sethumadhavan (Sethu), Punathil Kunjabdulla, Pattathuvila Karunakaran, Anand and others had started to change the form, language and subject matter of literature. Fiction started to travel beyond the borders of Kerala and engage with ideas emanating from Europe. Mukundan, schooled in French existentialist classics and the modernist idiom in European art, was well-poised to ride this wave. Young readers exposed to communism and modernist poetry in Malayalam flocked to this new writing that captured the restive spirit of the times. None captured the angst of the educated but disillusioned youth like Mukundan. Stories such as Veshyakale, Ningalkkoru Ambalam (A Temple for Whores), Radha Radha Matram (Radha, Only Radha), Anchara Vayassulla Kutti (A Five-year-old Child), Mundanam Cheyyappetta Jeevitam (Tonsured Life) spoke about alienation and the absurdity of living and were celebrated as examples of the new modernist fiction.

Interestingly, most of these writers were based in Delhi and in touch with one another. Each had a distinct voice, which helped the modernist short story to gain new readers. Vijayan and VKN, too, set novels in Delhi that captured the political life of the city in a subversive idiom that continues to surprise readers to this day. Mukundan also wrote a monograph, Enthanu Adhunikata (What is Modernism; 1976), as a manifesto for his generation. But the modernist writing faced an avalanche of criticism from the conservatives, who saw in them evidence of debauchery, decadent capitalist values, a betrayal of tradition and roots and defeatist in their vision. It was a wave of cultural globalisation that shook the foundations of the literary establishment in Malayalam.

Delhi was also an experiment in language. Critic V Rajakrishnan, in his introduction to Mukundan’s short stories, mentions the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre in works like Delhi. Mukundan admits to this intellectual debt but is quick to point out that characters such as Aravindan in Delhi were not rare in the city in the 1960s. “I had a secure job, but I related to those people, especially Europeans, who had left their societies in search of a different life experience. I shared a mental landscape with them,” says Mukundan. The flâneur in him also exposed him to the underbelly of Delhi and allowed him to portray experiences unfamiliar to Malayalam fiction readers. Fascination for Cubist art inspired him to be inventive in form and language. Novels such as Haridwaril Manikal Muzhangunnu (Bells Toll in Hardwar; 2008), Koottam Thetti Meyunnavar (Away from the Herd; 2001) endeared him to the youth and established him as an icon in the 1970s. Restive young men in Kerala identified with the characters of these novels, which also stood for its narrative innovations.

In the 1980s, Mukundan discovered new ground with the short story, Delhi-1981. Rajakrishnan cites this story as a departure in form and subject in Mukundan’s oeuvre. Cinematic in its narration, it describes two men physically assaulting a young woman in broad daylight and in front of many people, who prefer to remain voyeuristic spectators. The only living being that responds to the gruesome assault is a pigeon that pecks on the head of one of the two rapists. It anticipated a Delhi, where empathy was in short supply.

In 2004, Mukundan took early retirement and, in 2006, returned to Kerala. By then, he had won all major awards in Malayalam, and the French government awarded him the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters (Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; 1998). The rebel in him had mellowed and he grew close to the Left establishment in the state. He continued to be a popular writer, though the modernist phase in Malayalam novel had ended.

Then, in 2011, he published Delhi Gathakal (Delhi: A Soliloquy). Episodic in its structure with rounded characters, especially strong women, a tragic vision underlies the novel. Sahadevan has shades of Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe (1904). It was a novel that had stayed with Mukundan for years. He had once written down Jean Christophe’s words: “It is good fortune to stay amidst miseries and tragedies. They make you feel that you have lived.” Sahadevan embraces the miseries of his friends as his own, and the sorrow of Delhi becomes his own fate.

Mukundan has a thing for places. He believes that home is where you are; there is no permanent home. His two Mayyazhi (Mahe) novels — Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil (On the Banks of the River Mayyazhi;1999) and Deivathinte Vikruthikal (God’s Mischief; 1998) — are elegant though tragic works that capture life in the former French enclave and its strange cast of residents caught between two cultures.

But what’s the fascination with Delhi? “Some cities, like some people, force you to be creative. Delhi is one such city,” Mukundan says, “It puts a pen into your hand and makes you write.” Mukundan had returned to his flat in the city when he was writing Delhi: A Soliloquy. “It helps to live in the midst of the place and people you are writing about. The city comes alive then.” Sahadevan’s soliloquy ends in the 1980s.

Is there a novel in the years thereafter? All that Mukundan says is that in his dreams, he is often walking along the grand columns of Connaught Place, watching beautiful people bask in the winter sun.

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