Column | Remembering the remarkable career of Dr KM George

Dr K M George began writing in Malayalam in the 1940s and translated the works of Henry David Thoreau and Rabindranath Tagore.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines serendipity as “the fact of finding interesting or valuable things by chance.” This is the only way for this writer to describe the feeling of coming across a 1972 edition of Dr K M George’s 'Western Influence on Malayalam Language and Literature'. This book, which has long been out of print, is a must-read for anyone who is seriously interested in the Malayalam language and Kerala’s international connections.

The book helps a reader understand how the Malayalam language evolved over the centuries and became what it is today. Given the fact that it was published over 50 years ago, many of the Malayalam words taken from Dutch, Portuguese and French have now been replaced with English variants.

There was a time when the word 'kalasam' was the correct way to say trousers. This was derived from the French caleçon (now used more commonly for underwear in the original language). The word 'kayil' is still used in many households for big spoons. It evolved from 'kulil', which was taken from the French cuillère (spoon).

There are also interesting references to incidents where proverbs, idioms and even references from classical foreign literature were used in Malayalam. George wrote, “While criticising Kerala University, a member of the (Kerala) assembly said, ‘As it has been said that there is something rotten in state of Denmark, I am sorry to say that there is something rotten in the syndicate of the university.’” This reference to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet just shows how well educated some politicians were in the 1960s.

Coming across this rare and great book was serendipitous since it led this writer to read more about some of the other works of its author.

Karimpumannil Mathai George was born in 1914 in what is now Pathanamthitta district. He did his Bachelor’s in mathematics but then decided to pursue his Master’s in Malayalam literature. By the time his book on the Western influence in Malayalam was out in 1972, George was one of the most accomplished non-fiction and academic writers to hail from Kerala.

Early works

He began writing in Malayalam in the 1940s and translated the works of Henry David Thoreau and Rabindranath Tagore. George attained a degree of fame and repute in academic circles after the publication of 'Ramacaritham and the study of early Malayalam' in 1956.

He was invited by the Soviet authorities to visit the USSR, and in 1964 published a travelogue in Malayalam about his three-week visit. It goes without say that this book would make for fascinating reading and deserves an English translation.

In 1964, he received the Fulbright Travel Grant and took up an assignment as Visiting Professor of Linguistics at the University of Chicago. “This gave me the further privilege of receiving an Alumni Research Grant from the United States Educational Foundation in India in 1967,” George wrote in the preface of his book on Western influence on Malayalam.

With this grant he moved to Hawaii. “In the congenial and quiet atmosphere of the East-West Center, located in the salubrious and enchanting island of Hawaii, the difficult work of writing a book became a pleasure,” George added.

It was only in the 1980s that he began to receive major state awards for his work. In 1987, George shared the Soviet Land Nehru Award with P N Haksar and R K Narayan. A year later, he was awarded the Padma Shri. A Padma Bhushan came his way in 2001. Among his other awards was the Ezhuthachan Puraskaram, the highest honour for writers in Kerala.

He continued to research, translate and write well into his 80s. It’s a shame that many of his books on a variety of topics such as his biography of 'Kumaran Asan', 'Tamizh Sahityam' and 'Place-names of Southern India: A Generic Approach to Toponymy' are difficult to find.

Language and literature was George’s true calling in life. He managed to write over 50 books and edited 15 others in a career that spanned the better part of seven decades. He passed away in 2002, leaving behind a legacy that is incomparable. Generations of scholars would benefit from the reprinting of George’s wide body of work.

(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.