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The renowned writer says all five stories come from real life influences, and translator Jayasree Kalathil says they take over your mind as a reader.

You have got to love Aagi. One day, he decides to write a diary, laughs at the title he has given it and goes on to describe his days. Aagi is that man who writes about Baduvathi the Cat talking about Kandan Kannan her husband who hates alcohol and then gets chided by the tea shop owner for laughing alone. He is also that man who talks to a professor and then finds the professor replaced by an enormous rooster.

“I was disappointed that my conversation with the professor was disrupted, but felt happy to have met the rooster,” he writes. There, easy and sweet, the way his mind works and the way he then jots it all down.

Technically, it’s not Aagi but N Prabhakaran, known writer and Aagi’s creator, who writes the diary. It is one story in a collection of five. Prabhakaran says in his preface that he was writing a novel when one night a madman, who had no connection to the novel’s storyline, came to his mind with an array of random musings. The writer then wrote in earnest with an ease and speed he has never had before. Jayasree Kalathil, after consulting Prabhakaran, chose Aagi's story and four others the author had written in different years, and translated them into English as a collection - Diary of a Malayali Madman.

Of the title story

“The preface, as it is, also acts as part of the story. The line of demarcation is very thin. The last paragraph of the preface makes it clear,” Prabhakaran writes in an email interview. The last paragraph says that the protagonist of this story has already forgotten about this diary and is currently immersed in work of a philosophical nature.

You can just about imagine Aagi doing that. Once in the diary, he has a conversation with god – “a long chat” in his words, when god tells him, “I am what you want me to be. You are the one who should decide who I am.” And then god says that will do for now, we can continue the discussion if Aagi decides to do a PhD in Philosophy.

You’d imagine the author definitely must have had some sort of background in psychology the way he easily gets on the mind of a mentally ill person, even if it is one whom he created. “I think I have an innate interest in the phenomenon of the human mind. Looking back, I think by my teenage years, I mean by 17 or 18, I came to understand that the working of the human mind is complex; making judgements on the acts and behaviours of many are not easy as their real intention is shrouded by many pretensions,” Prabhakaran says.

N Prabhakaran; Image Courtesy: Sasi K Kayyur

Of the human mind

Seventeen or eighteen! That’s the age most of us reluctantly crawl out of childhood or adolescence. But Prabhakaran says his self-awareness also attained a higher level at this stage. “On several occasions I could feel the power of forces pulling me to opposite directions. Without this understanding I might not have been able to write the story Ottayante Pappan (Mahout of a rogue tusker) in 1971. The story is the depiction of a personality which is split to the core.”

He thinks he was also strongly influenced by late Prof MN Vijayan, the pioneer of psychological (Freudian) criticism in Malayalam literature, who was his teacher. “It is not Prof Vijayan’s writings but his selfless and adorably humanitarian approach to many who had severe problems adjusting with their family and social surroundings that made lasting impressions on me.”

In another story – ‘Tender Coconut’ – the protagonist is in fact a consulting psychologist. He doesn’t speak of a diary as the others do, he just writes the accounts of his days working in Dr Murukan’s clinic, and about one of his clients in particular, whose story he can’t forget. This story is more in the form of a thriller, in that, you are as anxious as the protagonist to find out why this client of his told him a story the way he did – a lie but with roots of truth in it, and a lie told so convincingly.

Stories with real life influence

Each of the stories in the collection has real life characters behind them, Prabhakaran says. He doesn’t speak of the origins of ‘Tender Coconut’ but Aagi’s story, he writes, had been inspired by an experience told to him by a friend, Rajesh, who was a jail warden. “Rajesh told me about a monkey which was brought to the jail along with his master who was remanded on a pick- pocketing charge. The monkey was tied to a mango tree in the jail compound. On the first day itself, the warders and other jail officials shared their food and drinks with the monkey. The monkey was thrilled with this unexpected gesture of affection, and within a few days he became so strongly attached to the jail officials that when the monkey charmer was released from the jail, the officials had to force him to go along with his master,” Prabhakaran shares.

Aagi too ends up in a prison where a monkey like this comes. But the whole story that Aagi writes is so adorable, it’s not just the monkey you think about.

In one place he writes about an Urdu play he watches and two women who dance in it. Aagi writes that as he watched the play he began to feel sad because the rhythm of this dance would never be repeated in quite the same way again. No video recording would be the same. But as he wept on he had a thought. The dance would remain in the atmosphere, or particles of the dance would come together in some part of the atmosphere. “There, on an invisible and unknowledgeable stage, this dance will continue eternally. The future – many futures – will receive their dance, while remaining unaware of it. This thought made me exceedingly happy,” darling Aagi writes.

‘No favourites’

But Prabhakaran does not choose Aagi’s story as his favourite. “I know that the narration of the ‘Diary’ is almost flawless and considerably better than that of other stories. But I don’t want to place it in the first row pushing others to the second or third row. My love for all of them is equal,” he speaks like a true creator and then adds, “Each one of them is a bearer of truths that the society crushes. I am their compassionate witness.”

Prabhakaran shares the stories behind two more of them – ‘Pigman’ and ‘Wild Goat’ (yes there is an animal presence in all of the stories, which are interestingly sketched before every story begins). “The seed for ‘Pigman’ fell in me when I came across a pig wallowing in the filthy water in a roadside ditch near a mental asylum – to be accurate, a centre for custodial care. ‘Wild goat’ emerged from the feelings I had when the lonely cry of a wild goat fell in my ears as I lay awake on the veranda on the first floor of an unfinished  building, called bungalow  by the locals, in a remote village in the vicinity of a forest in Karnataka.”

Diary of a madwoman

Curiously, I looked for a story that had a female protagonist in it and was delighted to find that Krishna’s tale was the longest – ‘Invisible Forests’. “Krishna is the representative of simple, intelligent, unpretentious and sensitive young educated women belonging to lower middle class. I have always been interested in imagining the inner life of such women in detail,” is all the author says about the story.

Krishna is 30, unmarried and very, very lonely in the house where she lives with her sister and family. She just has to talk, on and on, and when she finds no one else, she simply has a conversation in her room, imagining someone else there. Not strange, we all do that, but Krishna does it so much and so often that she fears she might end up speaking out aloud in public. So she starts writing a diary. Krishna muses of love, politics and humans. Unlike the others she doesn’t mention dates, so you can’t place her at a certain time – perhaps it is the '80s, gathering by the ways in which people spend their time.

Prabhakaran sounds entirely different when Krishna takes over – all observant, all woman-like. But he does that for each of his characters. They are all poles and poles apart.

Translator’s take

The translator – Jayasree – says she loved them all. “They are all unique. But characters, even minor ones, have a way of taking over your mind as a reader, and especially so if you are engulfed in their worlds as a translator. In that sense, I would say Krishna from ‘Invisible Forests’, Aagi from ‘Diary of a Malayali Madman’ and Appayi, Georgekutty’s friend from ‘Wild Goat’ really got under my skin.”

Jayaree Kalathil

It is Aagi that wouldn’t leave her head though, after she read the book, when she was in Kerala for a few months, following her dad’s death. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to him because I was in Greece when he passed away suddenly, which made it a very difficult time for me. I was also spending endless hours waiting around in government offices, banks and such, settling his affairs. I started translating the story as a way of keeping myself occupied. At that point, I had no clear plans to try and publish it.”

But the subject interested her deeply. “I am very interested in cultural representations of mental states that are usually called ‘madness’ in our society. It is the central subject of my day job – I am a mental health researcher and activist. I ended up in this work because of my personal experiences of being diagnosed as mad, psychotic and so on,” she reveals.

Translation is never an easy job but she has had a ‘hugely satisfying’ experience, Jayasree says. “N Prabhakaran’s works have a certain musicality that I wanted to convey, and that is probably what I paid most attention to, more than the words and idioms.”