Perhaps it was all the reading that he did as a student of Malayalam Literature that made Sreejith Perunthachan so curious about the ways of writers. If at one point he wondered what were the favourite words of the writers who work with thousands of words every day, at another he wanted to know what was the shortest story each of them had written. Both ended up as books by Sreejith, a journalist whoâ€™s made it a habit to find answers to his curious questions and then publish them for equally curious readers. The newest of these books â€“ Kadha Nurukk (Flash Stories) â€“ contains details of the shortest stories written by 46 Malayalam writers.
It all began with Sreejithâ€™s visit to meet legendary writer MT Vasudevan Nair on the latterâ€™s 80th birthday. While a small crowd gathered at his Kozhikode abode with wishes and greetings, MT took Sreejith to a corner to talk about his shortest tale Jalavidya (Magic). Sreejith watched fascinated as MTâ€™s face grew expressive as he narrated the story about the magician who did wonders, but could not convince the people of a certain land of his originality. The certain place happened to be Kerala. â€śHis eyes grew wide as he explained the last scene of the magician cutting out his heart and the people said it is a goatâ€™s, not the manâ€™s,â€ť Sreejith says, excited that the great writer who has a reputation for being short with people granted so much of his time and energy to an admirer.
Jalavidya is one Sreejithâ€™s favourite in the book, and the longest among the shortest short stories he chose â€“ a page in all. The shortest is Vaishakanâ€™s Mathetharathvam (secularism), a single line long. It goes: â€śJaathikum mathathinum ethire adhideeramai poradiya aa mahaan nammude jaathiyaanuâ€ť. Meaning, the great man who fought bravely against caste and religion belongs to our caste.
In each of the 46 tales, Sreejith canâ€™t help adding bits connecting one story to another, either by the same writer or a different one. He sounds like a teacher as he inadvertently launches into a short analysis of the stories. â€śIt sort of jumps out of me, it is not planned,â€ť he confesses.
Not so surprising, considering he took three years just to research these stories. â€śTo write about these two to three-line stories I went through the entire works of nearly all the writers. Not just for the sake of my research, but because I was deeply interested in them,â€ť he says. So, we were not wrong earlier in assuming it was his love for literature that kept bringing these intriguing questions to his head.
In his short introduction to the book, matching the title, Sreejith tucks in some more information â€“ that of the longest novel (In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust) and a famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Two strangers meet on a train in Poeâ€™s story, and one asks the other if he believes in ghosts. The other says no and turns his head away but when he turns it back again, there is nobody there.
â€śWhen you read so much of a writer they sometimes get into your head, and you begin to imagine how they would perceive matters,â€ť Sreejith says dreamily. So you have chapters where you read Sreejithâ€™s version of what Vaikom Mohammed Basheer or Nanappan (MP Narayana Pillai) or Kunjunni Master would have said in reaction to a particular situation.
It is however not always the most obvious observation. In his chapter about M Mukundanâ€™s shortest tale, Pashu, where the writer wishes he was a cow, having to worry only about the grass and the water it needs to survive, Sreejith makes no connection to the current political situation in the country where anything related to cows becomes a sensitive topic, and people are killed for it. For Chandramathiâ€™s story Vishwasa vanjana athalle ellaam, on the sexual assault of a girl who comes back to the place of her attack because someone has promised her ice cream, Sreejith does not mention the infamous ice cream parlour sex case. Instead, he vaguely mentions the name of Suryanelli, a place that became famous for a case in which a 16-year-old girl was raped by many men over days.
However, Sreejithâ€™s choice of shortest stories does not shy away from pointing out the blatant discrimination of women. In Ashithaâ€™s Sthambanangal, you read about a woman who wakes up early and goes through the drudgery of housework until evening falls, when her husband answers the census question about her as, â€śWife, age 35, no work.â€ť She dies in shock. Sreejith becomes outraged when he talks about it.
He also registers his protests against casteism and the indifference towards the poor. Madhavikuttyâ€™s Vishudda Grantham (Holy Book) is about a child who drops a holy book at a shop she works at and gets rebuked by the owner. When the child says sheâ€™s had nothing to eat all day, he asks her to tell her complaints to god and stabs her.
But the saddest of all is perhaps Dr Punathil Kunjabdulla's story of a hungry child who gets to have a feast when his father dies and turns to ask his mother, "When will you die?"
Scattered among the serious shorts are a few funny anecdotes. Basheer of course can be trusted to bring out a laugh or two. And he does in Ashupathriyile maranam where a patient declared dead at the hospital, begins to make noises on his trip back home through a pothole-filled road. At the end of the journey heâ€™s come back alive and calls the holes on the road great doctors.
Yet another satire appears in the chapter about Mundoor Krishnankuttyâ€™s Makan. The father in the story is upset that his son was getting the first rank in all his classes because that would mean he will become no minister or MP but a civil officer who will have to be at their beck and call.
Sreejith has included many prominent writers in his list including OV Vijayan, VKN, Sarah Joseph, Sethu, CV Balakrishnan, NS Madhavan, Parakkadavu, N Prabhakaran and KL Mohanavarma among others. That you also get to read interesting asides through Sreejith's remarksâ€“ such as OV Vijayan getting a lowly third-class for Malayalam in his Bachelors but penning some of the best masterpieces in the languageâ€“is a happy bonus.
Along with MT's work that started it all, Sreejith picks Edgar Allan Poe's ghost story and P Surendran's Puzhu as his three favourites on the list.