SK Pottekkatt’s 1971 novel set in a village, showered with Kendra Sahitya Akademy award and a Jnanpith continues to draw readers across generations.

Collage with black and white image of SK Pottekkatt looking sideways and smiling and the colourful yellow cover of his book Oru Desathinte KadhaSK Pottekkatt / Courtesy
Features Books Saturday, February 05, 2022 - 14:51
Written by  Cris

There are way too many characters in Athiranippadam, a fictional village that formed when a swamp dried up and homes got built. But one of them, introduced before anyone else and reappearing only for a few pages in between, remains to me the most special. Ammukutty, first sighted warring with the wind to get a grip on her umbrella, only has a brief encounter with the hero, Sreedharan. She barely has a word or two in reply to Sreedharan’s spray of questions. For two days, we see her, and then we don’t. I wonder why SK Pottekkatt, writing his autobiographical novel Oru Desathinte Kadha, set Ammukutty’s story before anyone else’s.

The enchanting novel, with its Kendra Sahitya Akademy award and a Jnanpith, turned 50 years old last September. Tributes and remembrances flowed in for the beloved author, who was once a Member of Parliament, a traveller of the world and always a writer of his native tongue. The S and K in his name stand for Sankarankutty and Kunjiraman. The boy in the novel is aptly named Sreedharan, born last among the four kids of Krishnan Master, a teacher who held onto the values of truth for a lifetime.

In luring language, the way fairytales draw children, Pottekkatt describes the world of Athiranippadam, shaped out of the village he spent his childhood years in Thottulippadam near Francis Road of Kozhikode. Many of those characters and stories are real, writes Sumithra Jayaprakash, daughter of Pottekkatt, in a tribute in Mathrubhumi magazine.

Like I found Ammukutty, everyone who read Oru Desathinte Kadha (The story of a locale), would have had favourites. Kunjappu, Sreedharan’s eldest brother, is a very likely candidate. He is introduced as a naughty child, a troublemaker with no interest in studies. As an adult, he goes to fight for the Indian army while it is still under the British rule and comes back to Athiranippadam with many tales for villagers circling around him. He is not your ideal guy, not at all like his disciplined father, but he seems quite the fun person like a grownup child. Gopal, Sreedharan’s second brother, who is conspicuously absent in his early years suddenly shows up ill and remains bedridden till his death. Sort of like the Beth of Little Women. Only here, it is all boys with one boy having died before Sreedharan was even born.

The exchanges between Sreedharan and Gopalan become interesting as they spend their time with the poetry of Asan and discussing the meaning of life. It is not pretentious, just the painful realisations of a regretful brother.

Sreedharan is mostly reduced to an observer, with the job of describing the sights and stories of that quaint village and its many people. Adharam Aandi, Meesha Kanaran, Kuloose Parangodan, Unnuliyamma, Eerchakkaran Velu, Usthad Vasu, Narayani, Appu, Kelanjeri Kunjikelu Melan, Ashari Madhavan, the list goes on.

As a teenager he joins a gang called ‘Supper Circuit’ where men who roam around late in the night cause mischief in the village. One of their pranks is a long and twisted affair of swapping calendars between houses so that an orthodox Hindu finds pictures of Christian gods hanging on his front wall. There has only been one Muslim family in the neighbourhood, and they disappeared after selling property to Sreedharan’s father. But you hear of detailed stories of the Malabar Rebellion, called ‘Jahala’ by the villagers, a 1921 uprising by Muslims against the colonial rule and feudal Hindus. In the book, it is often exaggerated stories that get passed on but at times, the sad casualties of the war are also revealed.

You do not hear Sreedharan’s take on the rebellion, but at nights he finds it hard to sleep thinking of the assaulted and the bereaved women.

Sreedharan is a soft boy, growing up into a soft man, hiding his poetry from his father who thought it a waste of time. As a child, he develops a soft spot for Narayani, the sister of his friend in Ilanjippoyyil, his mother’s native land. Narayani is a child who is paralysed below her waist and asks her brother to get perakkaa (guava) for the ‘virunnukaran’ (visitor).

In his teenage years, he develops crushes, watching a girl quietly from afar and writing a letter to her school address. When news of the letter reaches home, Sreedharan fears his strict dad will reach for the stick, but is surprised to see an amused expression. “My son, you fool, you sent a letter to her school address?” he asks, nearly laughing out loud.

But his mother is not amused. Sreedharan hears her in the kitchen, thudding on her chest as she wails. It is the stereotype of the old fashioned woman of the house, little seen outside the kitchen or taking part in any decision making. That’s a disappointment to deal with, as you hold on tight to the Narayanis and Ammukuttys and nameless heroines receiving love letters. There are women like the foulmouthed Unnuliyamma, the flirty Chirutha, and the myth of a woman who died in the lake when her lover is killed only to rise as a ghost every midnight and walk to his grave.

Mathrubhumi cover on SK Pottekkatt

But in tune with the times, many are not written as intelligent or independent. The book is not forgiving of women who take the forbidden path. At one point, it is disheartening to hear the man of principles, Krishnan Master, joke that it is not bad for the family if a woman occasionally gets beaten by the husband. He says this after resolving the marital worries of a couple, forbidding the husband to beat the wife when he is drunk. So the man resorts to beating her when he is not drunk.

At a few places, Sreedharan keeps mentioning an unflattering Tamil song he heard as a child about how you cannot trust the ‘chelaketya’ (Sari-wearing) person. But he thinks of all the women in his life with respect. Saraswathy Ambal, a Tamil widow who comes to live nearby, is spoken of like a goddess. Narayani is never forgotten. Even Ammukutty, whom he saw only twice, has a place in his heart. Long after her death, with tears in his eyes, he reads the lovely long poems she jotted down in a notebook.

In Sumithra’s writeup, she talks about a part in the book that Pottekkatt removed because his wife had objected to it. It’s about Emma, the German woman with hair the colour of fire that a grownup Sreedharan meets at a hotel in Switzerland. Pottekkatt’s wife made him remove a part about Sreedharan touching her wounded finger. Instead, in those pages where Sreedharan, after a moment’s hesitation withdraws from Emma’s embrace, you read about another young woman with blue black hair waiting in Mahe for someone to arrive. She is the one he marries, of course.

Sreedharan, visiting Athiranippadam after a gap of 35 years talks about his marriage to Velu Moopan, who by then is old and frail, but has the memory of an elephant. He chuckles as he asks, ‘were there no letters exchanged?’ remembering the note young Sreedharan wrote to a schoolgirl.

Humour is a constant in the pages of Oru Desathinte Kadha, making its way through generations of readers. Some things don’t age. But it is the language that most pulls you to the book, making you wonder how a single voice can be so endearing. I am glad Sreedharan remains a child for the most part of the book, like the “minor” in Supper Circuit. The days and thoughts of the young from a hundred years ago are enchanting. A child can tell things no adult will take note of. And Pottekkatt had kept all of those memories safely inside of him. No wonder he found the words fall freely out of him when he wrote the chapters for Kunkumam, a magazine that serialised the novel. Sumithra writes he was simply copying down his memories. I only wish he tweaked the memory of Ammukutty a little, let Sreedharan see her a third time, and read a poem she wrote while she was still alive.  

Also read: Angu, Adheham, Sir and Madam: Tracing the origins of 'respectful' language in Kerala