A modern-day Icarus

A modern-day Icarus

This is a poignant narrative that is at once both intensely personal and highly political.

The Man Who Learnt To Fly But Could Not Land

Socio-political upheaval British Malabar witnessed in the 1930s and 40s was tumultuous. The organised national movement in the region was as much against feudal landlords as against the foreign rule. The Congress Socialist Party and left wing leaders mobilised poor peasants and set up village-level units to fight social oppression and exploitation, leading to turbulence. This milieu is the setting for Thachom Poyil Rajeevan’s KTN Kottoor: Ezhuthum Jeevithavum, now translated into English. Malayalam film Njan (self-portrait) is an adaptation of the same novel.

The novel deals with the trials and tribulations of a fictional writer Koyiloth Thazhe Narayanan Kottoor who hails from a traditional land-owning family in a remote village at the foot of Western Ghats. Fascinated by the idea of freedom, the bright boy is drawn into the freedom movement, facing the wrath of landlords. He is also a sensitive poet who conjures up visions of an ideal world.

Narayanan learns quite early that politics means a lot of compromise. But, the idealist in him won’t give in. After a spell in jail, he returns only to be spurned by his erstwhile comrades who brand him as a renegade. He withdraws into his shell and tries to find solace in writing as a tool of social change. He struggles to find his moorings, grapples with love and lust, much to the chagrin of his people. The only person close to Narayanan is Nakulan, his father Kunjappa Nair’s offspring born to a low-caste woman. Narayanan’s affair with housemaid Janu sparks a furore forcing him to abandon home and take refuge in alcohol and women. From then on, it all goes downhill.

Identity crisis

Brilliant young men caught in identity crisis ending nowhere are familiar to readers of Malayalam novels. Narayanan’s life is no different. It is endless agony of a man coming to terms with himself as a writer and as an individual. As a child he believed that he could fly.  The novel succeeds in keeping the readers glued to Narayanan’s journey to the end. Rajeevan blends history, myth and personal narratives, creating a world inhabited by goblins, goddesses, demons and ghosts and a fortune-telling parrot. It is an exploration of a society in transition, the stranglehold of rigid caste hierarchy, crumbling joint families, decadence, debauching landlords and a clash of ideologies.

Narayanan ends up ditching all women in his life. His classmate Susheela, who adores him for his brilliance, is the first to be let down. Neither is he able to find love in his blind wife Lakshmikutty. His aunt Vishalakshi Amma, who brought him up after the death of his parents, dies heartbroken after seeing the ruin of her nephew. Widowed soon after marriage, she is the epitome of women destined to suffer in silence, weeping away in dark corners of feudal mansions. Outcast Kunjooli is coveted secretly and scorned publicly by the landed gentry.

The narrative is poignant, intensely personal and political. When freedom as an idea evolves into reality, it need not benefit all is the key message of the novel. Rajeevan, who is also a leading poet, explores history with a humanist perspective and its impact on ordinary people. Though not an easy work to translate in view of the abundant use of local idioms, slang, rituals and folklore, P J Mathew manages to capture the essence of the cultural landscape. This engaging novel woven around a crucial slice of Malabar history is worth reading.

M K Chandra Bose

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