|Essay - Part II||
Another Essay on Malayalam
Malayalam. malayalaM.A palindrome.
Celebrating the fecundity of the Indian experience in his Midnight's Children, the novelist Salman Rushdie couldn't pass up a chance to joke about the palidromic name of our language. Often misguessed as the language of Malayasia, this language of the southwestern state of Kerala is a member of the Indo-Dravidian family. Population of the region--and hence the number of speakers of Malayalam--is approaching 35 million, women slighly exceeding men with a ratio of 1036/1000, and it is important to keep in mind that Kerala's population density is a whopping 749/sq km.
Although Kerala itself is a new political entitity as it was formed only in 1956, incorporating the Malayalam speaking kingdoms of Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar which was ruled directly by the British, the region has had old, complex, often unbelievable historical connections with the larger world outside, without quite being a player, Kerala was at least a scene of innumerable ancient dramas. Indeed, Sangam literature refers to Kerala (the Cheras) as kudapulavendar, the Western power! King Solomon is believed to have imported spices and timber from the area! To top it off, the Christians believe that Apostle Thomas himself arrived in Kerala in the year 52 AD.
Without too much difficulty, one can see in Kerala traces of much ancient traffic, and it is not hard to agree on the key phases of this region's historical development, which eventually becomes synonymous with the growth of its lanaguage and culture. Throughout the three key hegemonic phases--Dravidian, Aryan and European--Malayalam language assimilated new genres and styles, and gradually built up a rich regional literary tradition, an integral part of Indian Literature, not to mention World Literature.
If I were to write about eighteenth century or nineteeth century Malayalam literature, I would not have been bold enough to make such a claim--it would have been nice--for Malayalam literature was mostly parochial and derivative, but the rise of modern consciousness changed all that, and by early Twentieth Century, the transformation was complete.
Writers like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Arundhati Roy have created an impression in the West that any good writer in India who is staring at the blank paper preparing to produce his or her masterpiece will have to choose English as the creative medium on acccount of some inexplicable inadequacy of the so-called "vernacular", the mother-tongue. In a recent essay introducing an anthology of contemporary Indian writing from India, Salman Rushdie wrote: "The prose writing--both fiction and non-fiction-- created in this period (1947-57) by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen `recognised' languages of India, the so-called `vernacular languages', during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning,
`Indo-Anglian' literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution
India has yet made to the world of books. The true Indian literature of
the first post-colonial half-century has been made in the language the
British left behind.'' Without disputing Rushdie's judgement of the quality
of the work done in English, one can easily see the folly of judging the
writings in the "eighteen recognized"
Until now most regional language writers have had no need to justify the mother-tongue, for they are all writing in languages nearly as old and rich as the English language, which itself was a negligible little language that suddenly blossomed in the post Norman conquest (1066 AD) years, in the light and darkness of French hegemony. It is no coincidence, and it is no news, that the blossoming of the English language and the rise of political and economic power in early modern England happened simultaneously, and without taking into account the enormous political issues surrounding language and power, it is pointless to try to respond to Rushdie, or even try to correct the great many highly literate people in the West who think that only English is "language" and everything else in India is "dialect."
A non-Malayalam reader's dismisal of regional language literatures like Malayalam need not be taken too seriously. Rushdie did mention O.V. Vijayan in the same dismissive tone, perhaps having read the recent Penguin translations, but anyone who has read Kasakkinte Ithihasam or the stories of Basheer, Zacharia, N. S. Madhavan, Gracy, Madhavi Kutty, Sara Joseph, or even the poetry printed in any single issue of Bhasha Poshini will know that Rushdie's statement is wrong and better forgiven. In a review of Rushdie's anthology published in Indian Express, the reviewer S. Prasannarajan--this review also circulated on an email discussion group popular among postcolonial scholars and students in the US and elsewhere--the writer said that if only Malayalam and the Indian regional literatures had a Gregory Rabassa (the great translator of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude), Rushdie and "international aficionado of oriental imagination" would not dismiss regional literatures.
In this brief discussion, I wish to put aside quibbles about professional translation and international marketing and offer an outline of Malayalam literature in the last one hundred years. Again, I know this period has its harsh critics, too: V.C. Sreejan, for instance, has chastized an entire century for imitating the West and its literary forms! Whether we ought to see the trajectory behind Twentieth Century Malayalam Literature as mere imitation or not, it is a fact that only in the twentieth century, with the advent of social modernity, that Malayalam literature has completely transformed itself into a truly independent literature that can encompass all classes and communities.
Now, as Malayalam literature responds to the cultural trends of other
prominent literatures in the East and the West, it is also able to contribute
exemplary works of poetry and fiction in return to the larger world beyond
the geographical boundaries of Kerala.
ORIGINS OF THE LANGUAGE
Endless debates about the origins of Malayalam language mark one aspect
of the Kerala
After the waning of the Sangam Age, the Kerala region went through a
The first Malayalam prose work, Bhashakautiliyam, a commentary on Kautilya's
Almost exclusively poetic in form, the post-Sangam literature was in
the mythical mode
Literary journals like Vidya Vinodini, and Bhasha Poshini (still published by Malayala Manorama group, without question one of the best literary journals in any language in the world) opened up the language for the larger public while several prolific writers and scholars belonging to the different royal families patronized literature. Translations from Sanskrit and English helped the foundation of a broader base for Malayalam writers. This period is marked by the trail- blazing work by the Text Book Committee of Travancore (1866) which functioned like a literary movement. Valiya Koyil Thampuran and A. R. Rajaraja Varma were champions of this movement even though these two royals were basically part of the orthodox literary establishment.
European education and Christian Missions had already created a suitable
What is Malayalam Yesterday's
Poets Yesterday's Poets2 Yesterday's
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