M Sukumaran did not go to receive the award that the Kendra Sahitya Akademi announced for him in 2006 for Chuvanna Chinnangal, a short story collection. He did not decline it either. He was just not the kind to go get an award and beam for a newspaper photo with it the next day. Friends – politicians and writers – and family who knew him well would tell you how indifferent he would be to such recognitions. The first one came in 1976, when Sukumaran won the state’s Sahitya Akademi award for writing Marichittillathavarude Smarakangal.
Communist leader MA Baby, talking at the Thiruvananthapuram Press Club on Saturday, remembered his late friend Sukumaran as a man of innocence, as he described the Akademi incident.
On March 16, Baby and other friends of Sukumaran observed the first anniversary of the writer’s passing. When Baby spoke, he pointed to the second row where Sukumaran’s daughter Rajani sat quietly with her family, following in her father’s footsteps of not going on stage, choosing instead to be among the crowd.
Sukumaran’s life is not much more than what they all spoke of, Rajani tells TNM, after the remembrance. “He had no secrets,” she says.
Dismissal from work, Leftist writings
Sukumaran grew up in Palakkad and moved to the capital city in 1963. He began writing at 16 and published his first story at the age of 20, the same year he started working at the Accountant General’s office in Thiruvananthapuram. The same office would dismiss him from service 11 years later for taking part in trade union work. It was a year before the Emergency was declared, Rajani recalls.
“Yes, 11 of them were let off for striking, and because it was the Emergency soon after, it was not possible to apply anywhere else. The dismissal had come directly from the president of the country,” the daughter of few words says. But she is a writer too, who didn’t show her works to her writer dad, but he would eventually read them when it got published. “He still didn’t say anything about it,” she says. But there was a lot of affection, she says, not just for the family but for everyone he knew.
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Among his works, she loves Sheshakriya the most. It tells the story of Kunjayyappan, who is ostracised by the party he had worked for. “The first one he published was Mazhathullikal for Manorama in ’63. He kept writing even as he got a job, and when he lost it too. In the first years the writings had a Palakkadan touch, but then it became Leftist.”
The writings, which got picked up a lot by the coveted Mathrubhumi magazine, were also known for an uncommon style. Baby said it would catch on to your nerves. K Satchidanandan, contemporary writer, wrote in an obit last year, “First, he invented a form of fiction in Malayalam that can be called “political allegory” and practised it with a unique craftsmanship. Second, as a keen observer of international and national politics, he was aware of the gradual drying up of his sources of hope and dared to express this awareness sharply but subtly in his stories and short novels.”
Critiquing the Left
Sukumaran critiqued the Communist parties, he fought with them too. “Yes he did," Baby agrees. "We should examine it, and if there are any shortcomings in the parties, it should be corrected. But in 2016, when he was asked if he still believed in the Left parties and Communism, he said yes, who else is there for the people. He said that only the Left can save the people, that it is the last hope.”
Satchidanandan, in his essay, points out the literary works through which he critiqued ‘the gradual moral decadence and ideological shifts of the Communist parties, mainly in USSR and China’ – Vellezhuttu (Cataract), Sheshakriya (The Last Rites) and Pitrutarpanam (Obeisance to the Father).
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“At the same time he never gave up hope. Till his last breath he believed in the possible resurrection of the Left in India in some form. He went on dreaming of an ideal Left free from the many ills that plague the existing one. He shared the faith that common people and party workers at the lowest level still have in the parties,” Satchidanandan writes.
Sukumaran used to say that he did not become a Communist by memorising the theories of Das Capital or statements from The Communist Manifesto, Satchidanandan records. “The hungry lives of intense labour among the persecuted and marginalised ignited the ash-laden sparks of oppressive inequality he had experienced as a child. He observed these lives carefully. This, and the provocative environment of his office, is what made him turn to Communism.”
Baby, in his speech, wonders how Sukumaran would react to the recent incident of lakhs of defence production employees going on a three-day strike against the privatisation of the industry, or of the huge number of farmers walking from Nasik to Mumbai asking for their rights. “Because just like they say personal is political, cultural is also political,” he says.
Break from writing
In 1982, Sukumaran had declared that he would not write anymore. “He said he had nothing more to say,” Ranjini says.
Satchidanandan quotes the words he wrote then in a letter to his friends, “I can hear around me the question as to why I stopped writing. I had to end my career because of a strong and ceaseless inner voice telling me that I have written whatever I had to write in this life and if I write again I will just be repeating what I have already written. An artist should never accept the fate of a bullock going round and round an oil-press. And no one else can share or resolve the dilemmas in a writer’s creative life.”
For 10 years after that, he didn’t write. In 1992 he wrote Pitrutarpanam and in ’94, Janithakam. Pitrutarpanam tells the story of Sreekumara Menon, an old revolutionary, whose daughter thinks he is mad. In 2005, he wrote Chuvanna Chinnangal and three years later, Swadeshabhimani, Kelappan, Abdurahiman.