V.K. Madhavankutty’s expertise in the art of remembering is well-known. His new work in Malayalam, Asreekaram (Accursed) which is under translation into English, is no different, what with a bouquet of reminiscences and recollections of life in a village in Kerala unfolding into a poignant story: the saga of Kalyanikutty. While no thread of a story as such runs in Village Before Time (his earlier novel)—which is rather a dexterously blended mosaic of disjointed episodes and denouements—Accursed has a muscular storyline about it, rendering it organically strong. Accursed is all about the life and death of Kalyanikutty, narrated with care for economy of words—which is this author’s hallmark—which explains the thinness of the book, the fact that it talks about the whole life of a forsaken woman notwithstanding.
In Kerala, fiction, as a literary genre, presently witnesses a great deal of experiment both in the domain of narratives and themes. Admittedly, such a change helps the literature to enrich itself, introducing the ever-avid readers to new trends prevalent elsewhere, especially in Europe, and renewing the readers’ literary sensibility. However, the novel in the process at times loses its simplicity and seductive power, making the task of reading difficult. It is against this background that Accursed assumes importance. It is a simple novel, quite unpretentious. It doesn’t demand on the part of readers any special effort.
Also, a new trend much in evidence these days in Kerala is the shift of fictionscape towards urban milieus. More often than not, writers bring it upon themselves to write about life in cities. With uncontrolled urbanization, Kerala villages are fast disappearing one by one. The advent of consumer culture quickens the pace of this transformation. Brand new cars race along the dusty roads where not so long ago bullock carts slogged. As a result, the novel too, it seems, is moving away from rural life and its simplicity and earthiness.
Happily, Accursed redeems the forsaken village in Malayalam fiction. The novel is set in a rural milieu in South Malabar known for its cultural traditions and richness. Kalyanikutty was born in a traditional family where the matrilineal system—now moribund—was still in practice at that time. A family always needs a scapegoat for all its misfortunes. And Kalyanikutty happened to be the chosen one—a receptacle of curses of the family and the society at large. Her parents had had three daughters. She was the second one and there began her misfortune. When the elder daughter Saudamini was born, the parents expected the second one to be a male child. With the birth of Kalyanikutty their dream was shattered. For the very reason, they despised Kalyanikutty. She grew up as an intelligent girl. She wasn’t pretty, but was quite feminine with her long, dense hair. The family as a whole harassed her. Customarily when a woman has her period, she is considered an ‘untouchable’ and retreats into the marappura—isolation room—until she is cleansed. For the family members, always eager to harass Kalyanikutty, this time of the monthly cycle was an opportunity to force her into prolonged isolation and mental agony. Thus, the marappura turned a torture house.
She was a perfectly obedient daughter. When her parents asked her to discontinue her studies and take care of domestic chores, she did it without a whimper of protest. As early as her school days, she knew that she was the accursed of the family and resigned herself to that role with magnanimity.
When she was asked to marry, she married. When it was time to conceive children, she conceived. Obedient, indeed. Not only to her parents and husband, but even to God. Her life was a short breath of God. The story is told in the first person, the narrator at large. He was informed of Kalyanikutty’s death by an inland letter. Why not a telegram, if not a phone call? Evidently, nobody bothered to take that much pain and spend money on a telegram or a phone call. To inform about Kalyanikutty’s demise, an Inland letter was more than enough. For her cremation, they cut down a sterile mango tree. Because her corpse was not worth a fruit-bearing mango tree. Thus, she was treated even on her death as an accursed.
The author weaves around the protagonist Kalyanikutty a plethora of typical village characters.
Eroticism is part of South Malabar’s real life. When women walk back home after taking their bath in the pond, in their dampened clothes, male gaze freezes on them. Married men had several mistresses. Images of this eroticism and romance are abundantly painted in the book, in a subtle way though.
All said, Accursed is a whisper that cannot be lost amid the cacophony of our present-day fiction.
M. Mukundan writes in Malayalam, French and English.