Many of Kerala’s literary giants have been deeply influenced by the works of Russian masters. It’s easy to see shades of Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin in Malayalam literature. One book, however, stands out for its sheer genius. Oru Sankeerthanam Pole (Like a Psalm) by Perumbadavam Sreedharan, first published in 1993, is a novel that looks 21 days in the life of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anna Snitkina, the writer’s stenographer who would become his wife.
The book, which is set in 19th century St. Petersburg, chronicles how Dostoyevsky meets Snitkina and how they fall in love. In the 1980s, in the twilight of the Soviet Union, few Malayalis had visited the country. The only source of information and imagination about Russia was from literature and magazines such as Soviet Land. Perumbadavam, who at that time had not set foot on Russian soil, managed to capture the St. Petersburg of Tsar Alexander II, a city that was starting to feel the effects of the emperor’s social reforms.
Using Snitkina’s memoirs and Dostoyevsky’s novels and stories, Perumbadavam delves deep into the Russian author’s mind. It’s no secret that many of Dostoyevsky’s characters are actually portrayals of himself. Oru Sankeerthanam Pole highlights the Russian writer’s vices such as his addiction to gambling and alcohol, and how that helped him write The Gambler.
Readers in Kerala lapped up the book. More than 50,000 copies were sold in the first few years after publication. It has since been translated into English and several other languages. Perumbadavam released the 66th edition of the book in St. Petersburg, a city he finally managed to visit in 2015, 23 years after the first edition was published. At last count, more than 2.5 lakh copies of the book have been sold.
It is equally impressive that a book set in the capital of the Russian Empire and written in a Kerala village was accepted for publishing. In all fairness, when it comes to literature, Kerala has always been open to path-breaking ideas. Compare this to the English-language publishing industry in India, where agents and publishers routinely compartmentalize writers and reject manuscripts and pitches of works without Indian characters and an Indian setting! One author told me off the record that a “cultural apartheid” was in place in the industry, backed by a belief that it was the “birth right” of Western middle-aged men to write about third countries.
Perumbadavam's journey in a film
In 2016, writer Paul Zacharia, filmmaker Shiny Jacob Benjamin and producer Baby Mathew teamed up to bring out a Malayalam-Russian docu-fiction film titled In Return: Just a Book. Perumbadavam talks about depicting Russia and Dostoyevsky. With two brilliant actors playing the roles of Dostoyevsky and Snitkina, the film is a perfect supplement to the novel.
Many believe that it was socialist leanings that led Malayali writers to be inspired by the greats of Russian literature, but Perumbadavam's Russia was not the Soviet Union. In an interview ahead of the film’s release a few years ago, Perumbadavam said that he associated Russia with literature from another century. “In my youth Russia was my dream destination, not the Russia of Lenin and Stalin, but the Russia of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gorky and Dostoevsky. And Dostoevsky was my favourite author. His novels and life inspired me to write Oru Sankeerthanam Pole.”
The Dostoyevsky House Museum in the heart of St. Petersburg continues to be a pilgrimage spot for fans of the writer from different parts of the world. As a regular visitor to this museum, it’s heartening to hear Malayalam speech there at times. The best part of a Malayali’s links with Dostoyevsky and other Russian writers is the fact that an overwhelming majority have read these works in Malayalam translation and not in English, linking Russia and Kerala without a third language. It would even be nicer if more of us learned Russian to a level where we could read the literature in the original, and not lose anything in translation. Efforts to reach such proficiency are highly appreciated in Russia.