We come to appreciate light only when the sun sets or the lamps are out. Similarly, we really come to know what freedom is when we are in jail. One day in jail would give a detainee much more insight into what freedom is than can be gained reading and listening for a lifetime outside. (p. 177)
The Man Who Learnt to Fly but Could Not Land by Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, translated by PJ Mathew, comes to us readers at the right time as we grapple with the definition of the term freedom, trying to view it through the lenses of restrictions placed in the way of realizing it fully.
When the author states in his note that, ‘It was neither from teachers nor from books that I first heard the word “freedom” and came to know about India’s freedom struggle. Born into a family of nationalists, I imbibed these terms from my familial and social environs’, it is evident he stresses on a subaltern way of understanding history, for history expands as ‘his story’, the commoner’s story.
The novel’s protagonist Narayanan is born into an affluent and respectable upper class Nair household in the tiny village of Kottoor located at the foot of the Western Ghats in the Malabar region. On Freedom Day, 26 January 1930, when the Indian National Congress passed a resolution in Lahore declaring complete Independence from British rule, the people of Kottoor, blissfully unaware of terms like government and freedom, marched behind Koyilotu Thazhe Kunjappa Nair, a much revered noble man. He, in turn, was led by his young son Narayanan enthusiastically carrying the tricolor tied to a pole. Right after he conveyed the importance of freedom from the British and self-rule to Kottoorans, Kunjappa Nair breathed his last, leaving his motherless son alone in this ruthless world.