It was M T Vasudevan Nair who discovered the writer in N S Madhavan. MT had picked Madhavan's story as the best from a promising lot that had accumulated on his desk as part of a competition held for the Vishu Special edition of Mathrubhumi.
But this is not the reason why Madhavan is forever indebted to M T.
“Of course, I would not be a writer if this story of mine didn't bag a prize. Because at the time I had not thought of becoming a writer,” Madhavan said while taking part in a debate on the topic 'The MT Malayali has read' (Malayali Vayicha MT) organised by Manorama Online as part of the writer's 90th birthday celebrations.
Madhavan is grateful for the first prize but what MT had done was something even bigger. He revived the writer in Madhavan who Madhavan himself had forgotten.
After the 'Vishu edition' triumph, Madhavan went on to publish nearly 10 stories; largely in the post-modernist style and some of them like 'Choolamettile Shavangal' were critically acclaimed. In between, he became an IAS officer and left Kerala to join the Bihar cadre.
Once there, his connection with Malayalam language started to fray, and finally snapped. “It complicated matters that English was not my lingua franca. It was Hindi. Since this is an Indian language; it had a tendency to colonise my brain. It was as if for 10 years I had forgotten Malayalam. I had even forgotten that I was once a writer,” Madhavan said.
He returned to Kerala in 1987. E K Nayanar was then the Chief Minister. Madhavan was put in charge of budget preparations.
“At that point I was going through a linguistic confusion. Similar-sounding words meant different things in Hindi and Malayalam. For instance, 'neethi' in Malayalam means justice. But in Hindi, it is 'policy'. Likewise, 'upanyasam' in Malayalam means 'essay'. In Hindi, it is 'novel',” Madhavan said.
This confusion was getting reflected in the official notes the IAS officer was preparing and, soon enough, was noticed by none other than E M S Namboodiripad, then the CPM general secretary.
“EMS once asked me why I was writing like this. 'Hadn't you won some big prize for a short story', he asked me,” Madhavan said. This was reason enough for the civil servant to quickly restore his Malayalam proficiency. “Language is like cycling and swimming. The skill will never leave you,” he said.
The year was 1990. FIFA World Cup was on in Italy. Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita's wildly unconventional play robbed Madhavan off his sleep; the long-haired goalie seemed more interested in scoring goals than watching his post.
Higuita's antics had a profound impact on Madhavan. After over a decade, Madhavan resumed writing. Madhavan modelled his protagonist, Father Geevarghese, on Higuita. “This was a complete break from my earlier stories,” Madhavan said.
It took him nearly three months to complete. On at least three occasions, he had even misplaced the drafts. Eventually, he got it all together and summoned up enough courage to send the story to MT. “I even included a cover with my return address so that they could send my story back if not accepted,” Madhavan said.
He clearly remembers the date he posted the story: December 23, 1990. “I remember dashing to a post office on the way to a Christmas-related programme,” Madhavan recollected.
What happened in response would have surprised and even re-defined Madhavan more than any of Higuita's daredevilry.
'Higuita' was published by MT in the very next edition of Mathrubhumi on December 30. “A story that was already planned to be taken in the edition was kept aside to include mine,” Madhavan said. “This was a big editorial decision,” he said. Ever since, Madhavan has not stopped writing.
This respect for MT's judgment, which marked his second coming, will forever remain in Madhavan's heart.
Even if there was no official duty involved, MT can still indulge writers. T D Ramakrishan had not published even a story before he wrote his first novel 'Alpha'. Still, he thought of sending a copy to MT.
He was not expecting it but Ramakrishnan got a reply: five sentences in English. “He did not say that I had done something brilliant. He said the theme was unique (it was about a scientist going back to leading a primitive life). He said writings of such kind had relevance and wanted me to keep writing,” Ramakrishnan said. “I still keep the letter like a treasure,” he said.
Later, when 'Alpha' was translated into Tamil, it was MT who released the book.
However, unlike Madhavan or Ramakrishnan, poet Rafeeq Ahammad's life had not intersected with MT's in a life-changing way. Poet and critic Alamcode Leelakrishnan had earlier during the discussion said that M T had the mystique of the ocean and the elephant.
Ahammad agrees. “Like the ocean and the elephant, I look at this colossus from a distance, always with awe,” he said.