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A Renaissance man with a wrong birthday

  • July 15, 2023
  • 18 min read
A Renaissance man with a wrong birthday

“See, this is how a ‘Child of Karkitakam‘ becomes ‘Kismet’s (destiny’s) child’. Or rather, it is a rarest of rare classical instance of such a turnaround.” This was how N. Gopala Krishnan (NGK ) as his friends call him, writer, translator and erstwhile senior administrator in government services, referred to the media coverage of the 80th birthday celebrations of M. T. Vasudevan Nair. This comment was made in a private conversation in 2013 at Kozhikode, the coastal town in north Kerala where NGK and MT resided. NGK was known to have a penchant for adding some flourish or a bit of allegory to normal, everyday conversations. Sometimes, these verbal exercises were so involved that they used to go above the heads of those who were being addressed. But, the allegory in his comment on MT was not lost on the audience. All of us were from Kerala and we understood what Karkitakam and Kismet meant in Malayalam.

Karkitakam, the harshest of harsh monsoon months was synonymous with penury and privation in Kerala. Kismet, a word shared by many Indian languages meant good luck or positive destiny. NGK’s one-liner captures MT’s journey from being a deprived child to an advanced age with tremendous material and intellectual successes.

N. Gopala Krishnan

NGK was not in the habit of explaining his allegories. However, on this occasion, the English translator of MT’s last novel Varanasi (published in 2003), followed up his combination of “Karkitakam” and “Kismet” with a sort of solemn elucidation. He said that MT’s life as well as his birthdays have a trajectory marked by great gains, but this journey was by no means smooth or easy. “To reach where he has, MT had to draw copiously not only from his innate and vast creativity, but also go through sordid ordeals characterised by strenuous and sustained physical labour. It was nothing short of an onerous journey for the mind and the body.” NGK passed away in 2014 but eight years later, in 2022, his allegory came back to my mind when I read about yet another MT birthday in the Kerala newspapers.

July 14, 2022. On this day, MT started yet another journey by road, from his house in Kozhikode to the Malankara hills in central Kerala’s Thodupuzha. A journey of about 250 kilometres is not usually very long but it is arduous in this South Indian State during the monsoon marked by sporadic rains of varying intensity. The highways of Kerala have some notoriously rough patches too, especially while going up the hills of the ‘Malanad’ regions of Thodupuzha. The strict restrictions on travel and social interactions that were imposed off and on in the State since March 2019 on account of the COVID pandemic were in force until the second week of July 2022. Still, not many senior citizens are venturing out to travel, especially by road.

As per official records, on July 15, the very next day of his journey, MT would complete 89 years of age. By normal “senior citizen” standards, the trip would have been quite daunting. But, MT was not the one to be deterred by the multiple factors that would have limited others elders’ wish to travel. A couple of months before the journey, he was afflicted with various ailments – high fever and chest congestion, which would, presumably, have had a relatively serious impact given his long-standing diabetes and unremitting ‘beedi’ smoking. But, as has been his wont over several decades, MT seemed to have overcome the physical strains caused by the ailments by taking adequate medication and drawing up on his self-generated energy and will power.

Thus, he left Kozhikode that morning, took a short break for lunch at the central Kerala town of Thrissur, and went up the hills to reach Thodupuzha by the evening. Thankfully, the rains had not hindered his progress through the day. He joined daughter Aswathy at Thodupuzha, who had been camping there over the past few days to oversee the production of one of the episodes of a nine-part OTT anthology movie series based on stories written by MT.

 

The next day, on July 15, MT joined the film crew at the shooting location around noon. Prominent film Director Priyadarshan and internationally renowned actor Mohanlal, who were part of the project, welcomed MT. A birthday celebration of sorts followed, complete with a “cutting the cake” ceremony and the traditional Kerala Sadya (feast). A very unique form of nostalgia has often been a prominent characteristic of the Malayalis’ socio-cultural life and naturally MT’s literature has time and again captured and reflected this trait. Nostalgia is an overwhelming sensation for almost everybody on the sets that day, for different reasons.

 

Nostalgia

For MT, the story being filmed was a revisit to his yesteryear. It was ‘Olavum Threeravum’ (Ripples and Shores), which had been originally made into a movie in 1969. MT’s screenplay was then directed by legendary Malayalam filmmaker P.N Menon. The lead role was played by Madhu, one of the icons of Malayalam cinema. Over a decade ago, writing in a prominent Malayalam daily, Priyadarshan had described MT as the personal pride of every Malayali. In the same breath he declared that the desire to “make a film on something written by MT” was the most intense creative urge that he had ever had. His career as a cinema director had begun in Kerala with the Malayalam film industry, but in due course, he had moved on to a successful career in other languages and film industries too, including Hindi and Tamil. He was a much sought after director, but he himself had described the “absence of an MT film” by him as “a choking void” in his career. Finally, Priyadarshan was getting to fill that void. As for Mohanlal, the protagonist in the MT movie being shot, some of the stellar characters that helped him make a mark in the movies through a career lasting for over four decades, were written by MT.

Thus the Thodupuzha episode of July 14 and 15, 2022 involving other creative giants of Malayalam cinema, was a microcosm of MT’s own life _ his journey that saw the transformation of a “Karkitakam’s child into a destiny’s child”.

 

The Son of Karikitakam

Karkitakam is the month of intense rain lasting for days on end. Dark rain clouds dominate the skies almost perennially during this month. In the olden times, the rain and the dark atmosphere created by it practically put a stop to all human activity, including professional engagements. So much so, the month was synonymous with deprivation and Malayalis feared this leanest of lean months the most. Throughout this month, Kerala reverberates with the ritualistic daily reading of the Ramayana. Indeed, divine powers are invoked to drive away the gloom, the fear and the ill-effects of the season of depression.

The early birthdays as well as the early childhood that Vasu (as MT was called at home) had, in many ways, corroborated the sobriquet of “Karkitakam’s Child”. His mother Ammalu Amma had serious health issues while carrying him in her womb. There was even a medical advice to terminate the pregnancy. This was attempted, but the termination of pregnancy did not succeed. Then, Ammalu Amma had wanted a girl after having given birth to three sons. Thus Vasu was essentially an “unwanted and accidental” child. His father T Narayanan Nair was employed in Ceylon and was not present at the time of his birth. Vasu would see him for the first time only after he had crossed the age of two.

MT’s three elders brothers – M.T. Govindan Nair, M.T. Balakrishnan Nair and M.T. Narayanan Nair – as well as many of his relatives have recorded that his early childhood was very much in keeping with the dark and uncertain elements associated with the month of Karkitakam. According to his brothers, he was an obstinate kid craving for attention and was extremely difficult, almost rebelliously delinquent. The economic travails of the family as well as the absentee father working in far off lands added to the sense of alienation that the young MT had. MT himself has recorded that, as a child, he did feel a sense of loss at not getting the father’s affection.

Ammalu Amma, mother of MT Vasudevan Nair

Vasu’s stubbornness had many manifestations in his difficult childhood. His brother MTB Nair recorded as follows in an article. “He (Vasu) would cry lying on the bed when he woke up. When he realised crying was not helping him get attention, he would come to the kitchen. Mother would have work in the kitchen. He would beat her. She would strike him back when she couldn’t tolerate it any longer. Then it was over. He would beat mother, pinch and scratch her. He would tear the clothes she was wearing. Such was the vehemence in his actions that people who came home would wonder: Oh my! Why does this child behave in such manner! What does sister Ammalu do with him? I have heard mother tell them, it is an age where he needs affection and care. Do I have time for it? Is there anyone here?”

MT’s birthdays came and went but were never celebrated in childhood. The birthdays of his brothers were also treated with same indifference by the larger family. Normally, the sweet dish called payasam is made in Malayali households to celebrate birthdays, but the MT brothers never experienced this pleasant culinary gift in their childhoods. In the matrilineal system of household governance that existed in the Nair households such as MT’s during that period, the controls of the treasury and granary were with the uncles, who allocated whatever meagre supplies of rice and other essentials that they deemed fit to the rest of the family. Any request for enhancement of supplies was met with severe opprobrium.

MT has written a semi-fictional account on a birthday situation of yore. The story titled “Oru Pirannalinte Orma” (Memory of a Birthday) shows his mother fainting after being beaten by her brother for asking extra quantity of rice for making payasam. While creating this fictional narrative loosely based on a real incident, MT deftly delineated some contours of his depressive childhood. In the same narrative, however, MT also recorded some other developments of the time in which the story was written, where a person, who is evidently much in love with him, wrote as follows: “Your birthday is on the next Thursday. You should have your breakfast only after a morning bath. It is a good omen that it is Thursday. I am offering Dhara and Payasam (special prayers and sacred sweet to propitiate God) at the Shiva temple”. This narrative shows that finally, there are people who not only remember his birthday but observe it quietly through prayers and offerings to god.

The approbation of his individuality as well as his social being kept growing through later years. And in 1992, on the eve of his 59th birthday, a group of litterateurs from Kerala, including renowned poets Sugatha Kumari and O.N.V Kurup, as well as some well wishers from the United States gather around the Niagara waterfalls to celebrate it. In the same year, MT had yet another birthday celebration in the company of friends from the writers’ and journalists’ fraternity, at Stratford upon Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. MT himself has fond memories of this celebration and some of his friends rate this as the best birthday the maestro has ever had.

 

New Sensibility

But, as NGK solemnly explained that day, MT had reached these heights combining his immense creativity and intense labour. This combination spanned diverse aspects of life, literature and arts. His literary output imparted a new sensibility to the Malayalam novel and the short story. This sensibility was evident in both form and content as well as the inexplicable beauty and rhythm of the language as reflected in literature. Along with fiction, he made forays into non-fiction commentary on contemporary issues and history. This too had his distinct stamp that captured the nuances of a given situation or the personalities involved in it, in a language and in a manner without parallel. In short, MT’s occupation with the written word added tremendous value to prose in the Malayalam language.

 

Many worlds of MT

Then, MT became a much awarded film-maker, who once again pioneered and strengthened one particular stream of the neo-realist cinema in India. He is also the most illustrious literary editor that the journalism in Kerala has seen in its history. At least two generations of new writers owe their place in the limelight to this truly perceptive editor, whose journalistic endeavors not merely promoted Malayalam literature’s forays into modernism but literally galvanised it. Yet another attribute of MT is that he is an institution builder, particularly of cultural institutions that have proactively sought – with varying degrees of success – to rebuild the essence of the social and cultural trends often described as the Kerala Renaissance.

His most important contribution in this regard is the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Memorial, at Tirur in north Kerala. Thunchath Ezhuthachan, considered the ‘father of Malayalam language, not only evolved the 51-character alphabet system for the Malayalam equivalent of Sanskrit, but also made contributions to refine its style and imparted to it an ‘individuality’ of its own. The collective effect of these diverse streams can only be termed as the MT phenomenon, which has held sway over successive generations of literary connoisseurs, cultural aesthetes and social observers in the 20th and 21st centuries. In chronological terms, this is an effect that has been conspicuous right through the nearly seven decades that Kerala has existed as a State in the sovereign republic of India. It is the emergence of this ‘MT phenomenon’ that is at the root of the unique journeys of his birthday and the way its celebrations have evolved over the years.

Thunchan Parambu situated in Tirur, Kerala

 

In the three decades preceding 2023 – that is his 60th birthday (Shashtipoorthi), – MT’s birthday is observed by Malayali communities across the world. Literary aficionados belonging to other communities and following other languages also become part of the celebrations. The media in Kerala, consisting of newspapers, portals and television in diverse languages, literally celebrates the birthday with some verve. Almost all newspapers have front-page coverages referring to the birthday and all other forms of media, including television and radio, have special packages of stories and commemorative features on various aspects of MT’s literary, social and personal lives.

This year ( 2023 ), these celebrations have touched a new high, especially because MT completes the auspicious “Navathi” age of 90. There are other reasons to celebrate too. The year also marks the 50th anniversary of MT’s internationally acclaimed pathbreaking neorealist Malayalam film Nirmalyam, as well as the 30th anniversary of his leadership of the Thunchan Memorial Trust. The different aspects of the MT phenomenon are also being celebrated through a series of events highlighting the landmark happenings in MT’s life. It started with a five-day festival at Thunchan Parambu titled “saadaram ” ( Respectfully ). The festival was inaugurated by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on May 16 and the inaugural event was attended by film actor Mammotty. Over the five-day festival, different aspects of MT’s creative life – novel, short stories, cinema, journalism,cultural interventions and institution building – were discussed from a historical and contemporary perspective. The discussion on MT’s novels generated a heated debate between Tamil writer Jayamohan and Malayalam critic M.M. Narayanan. Jayamohan analysed MT’s novels essentially as stories of individual alienation and pathos while Narayanan countered that these individual stories had deep historical and political dimensions too. The debate left its imprint on Kerala’s social and cultural spaces for days on end, underscoring the continuing relevance of MT’s creative contributions.

The emotional aspect of the festival came out when renowned actors and directors of Malayalam cinema recalled the impact of the MT phenomenon on them. There was also the ” tribute through dance ” to MT by his daughter and renowned Bharatnatyam danseuse Aswathy V Nair. The compositions were based on the songs that were part of the movies written and / or directed by MT as well as his favorite verses from the Mahabharata in Malayalam.

The MT@90 celebrations are continuing with different publications organising their own festivals. Mathrubhumi, the media house with considerable reach among Keralaites across the world, has begun its five day festival on July 10 at Kozhikode. It was inaugurated by celebrated filmmaker Maniratnam and attended by author Manu S. Pillai. Malayala Manorama, the largest circulated Malayalam daily, has initiated celebrations lasting 90 days on July 14. National and international celebrities from the world of literature and cinema are expected to participate in these celebrations to be held in different parts of Kerala.

To top it all, the year would also witness the presentation of the movie productions of nine short stories of MT, a majority of them directed by a clutch of celebrated directors. MT’s trip to the high ranges in 2022 on his 89th birthday was to witness shoots of one of these movies. Apart from ‘Olavum Threeravum’ Priyadarshan directs Silalikhitham ( Inscriptions ) too. MT’s daughter Awasthy makes her directorial debut in this series with Vilpana (The Sale). Other movies in the series and it’s directors are as follows.Abhayam Thedi Veendum (Once again, In Search of Refuge, Santosh Sivan ), Swargam Thurakkunna Samayam (When the Doors of Heaven Open, Jayaraj ), Kazhcha (Vision, Shyama Prasad), Kadalkkaattu (Sea Breeze, Rathish Ambat), Sherlock( Mahesh Narayanan ), Kadugannava Oru Yathra Kurippu (Kadugannava, A Travel Note, Ranjith ).

Interestingly, what is being celebrated across the Malayali universe is not MT’s actual birthday. July 15, the date that is marked as MT’s birthday is one that was ascribed by an uncle of his while getting him admitted to an school before the permissible age of admission. In the initial years of his life,this oversight did not matter as there was no scope for birthday celebrations on account of colossal constraints of resources and social mobility.Later, the wrong date was widely acknowledged and honoured. Talking about this to me, MT had said at this later stage too, there was no urge to correct the mistake, because signifying birthdays was not a primary concern for him. In other words, he indicated that his was an approach that sought to paraphrase Shakespeare’s famous quote : “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.”

To put the record straight, MT’s real date of birth is not July 15, but August 9. A majority of those who have sought to chronicle parts of MT’s life with some precision have pointed out that the Gregorian calendar was not followed in MT’s ancestral home. The norm was to follow the Malayalam “Kolla Varsham “calendar. As per this calendar, MT was born on Uthrattathi day in Karkitakam in the Kolla Varsham 1108. This was the 25th day of Karkitakam that year. MT says that, in the early years of his life no one really cross checked the corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar.

This cross-checking was done decades later, around the mid-1960s, after MT had become a celebrated Malayalam writer. Even when the cross-checking was done, the unique methods of calculation of days and months in the Kolla Varsham calendar created their own quirky results. Thus, the corresponding date in the Gregorian calendar was shown as August 8 as per some calculations and as August 9 in some other calculations. There has been no serious effort to rationalise the different dates, in all probability, following the paraphrased Shakespearean “what’s in a date” logic.

All the same, since the date 15th of July was entered in application forms while getting admitted to school as a kid, the date has got stuck. Not just in official records, but in the collective social memory of Keralites as a whole. And year after year, the media celebrates this collective consciousness. 2023 July is no different.


Venkitesh Ramakrishnan is the CMD and Managing Editor of The AIDEM. A Delhi based political journalist with four decades of experience, he has followed MT’s life and work closely.

About Author

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan is the CMD and Managing Editor of The AIDEM. A Delhi based political journalist with four decades of experience.

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Venu Edakkazhiyur
Venu Edakkazhiyur
7 months ago

A good article but different in perspective comparing to other several articles on MT at his 90th birthday. Hope it would be a curtain riser of your much awaited book on him.

Manish Raju
Manish Raju
7 months ago

A little too long in comparison to standard portal articles , but certainly worth it for the expanse this covers and the thorough understanding of the “ MT phenomenon “ Had read his “ Bhima “ in translation and been enthralled . But did not know about the institution builder in MT .

Ramesh Krishnan
Ramesh Krishnan
7 months ago

Highly informative, well chronicled, spiced with snippets.
Compliments to the author.