In the 1950s, the ideals of Marx, Engels and Lenin found millions of takers in Kerala. Many in the state looked towards Moscow for inspiration, given how the USSR rebuilt itself from the ashes of World War 2 and managed to house, feed and educate its masses. It was around this time that a young man, who had been sacked from his teaching position in a college, moved to a village in the Palakkad district called Thasarak. This young man, who described his position as “jobless and at a loose end” at that time, was none other than O V Vijayan. “Destiny had been readying me for Khasak,” Vijayan said when asked about his move to the tranquil village.
Destiny was indeed playing a much bigger role that would have far-reaching consequences around the world. Around 6,716 kilometres away from the cloud-topped mountains of Palakkad, the Hungarian capital of Budapest witnessed a massive uprising against its government and the Soviet policies it followed. What began as a leader-less student protest quickly gained momentum and turned into the first challenge to Soviet dominance in any Eastern European country since the fall of Nazi Germany.
Disorder and violence led to the collapse of the Hungarian government, and the arrival of Soviet troops. Imre Nagy, who headed the new government in Budapest, was widely loved across the world, even at a time when there was no social media and instant messaging enabled by smartphones. The movement that began in June, 1956, ended with the arrival of Soviet troops in November of that year. Fighting claimed the lives of at least 3,000 civilians and around the same number of combatants. Such was the global uproar over the events that even India condemned the Soviet actions to crush the revolution. Instead of negotiating with the Hungarian revolutionaries, Nikita Khrushchev and the Politburo committed a bloody and costly blunder, which is seen as one of the former Soviet Union’s darkest moments in international relations.
From revolution writing to a magical realism
Back in Palakkad and other places in Kerala, the events in Budapest led to a degree of disillusionment. Vijayan was one of those young Malayalis who was upset by the actions of the Soviet Union. His journey as a writer is widely documented in his memoirs. Before the events in Budapest, Vijayan had published two long stories about an imaginary uprising of peasants in Palakkad. His political mentors apparently wanted something that had “more Inquilab” in them.
The young writer agreed to work on those lines but then the events in Budapest, which culminated in the execution of Negy, happened. “It was then that tragedy from afar shattered the carnival of liberation,” Vijayan wrote in his memoirs. “In Hungary, they tricked and shot Imre Nagy. It blew my mind. I turned away, I began my unchartered journey. Looking back, I thank Providence, because I missed writing the ‘revolutionary’ novel by a hair’s breadth.”
This unchartered journey ended up in the novel Khasakkinte Itihasam, serialised and published in parts in 1968, and as a single edition in 1969. The intermingling of dreams and legends in the village and the subsequent metaphorical inward journey of the protagonist was the first work of magical realism in Malayalam. Interestingly enough, on the other end of the globe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was working on One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that was in the same style and as beautifully written as Vijayan’s debut novel.
A revolution in Malayalam writing
Such was its impact of Khasak (as the book is often referred to) on Malayalam literature that it helped budding writers break free of the shackles of conservatism that governed expression in the language. Literary connoisseurs often look at Malayalam writing before and after the publication of Khasak.
While Khasak was immensely popular in Kerala and among the Malayali diaspora, it did not reach the heights of Marquez’s work in the literary world. It was only in 1994 that an English translation, The Legends of Khasak, was available. Vijayan translated the book himself but bilingual readers complain about the translation being truncated and almost reading like another novel. There were subsequent translations in French and German, but for the book to reach out to a much wider audience, perhaps the time has come for a very competent translator to bring about a new edition, as a tribute to Vijayan, who passed away in 2005. It would also be a great idea to translate the book into Hungarian, given how one of the most important events in Hungarian history was responsible for Khasak in its present form.
For those of us with roots in Palakkad, and a deep desire to one day live there, Vijayan’s work is a part of our heritage, something that will continue to be passed down for generations to come.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island')