The truth is that there is nothing much left for MT to say. He has always given clear-cut answers to everything. And we have asked him far too many questions as well. Having said that he doesn’t think he has an answer to everything. Neither does this wordsmith think that he is the last word on everything. So MT has officially turned 90 today. But if you go according to the Malayalam calendar, there are a few more days left for his birthday, which falls on August 9. “That might be true. Back then such things weren’t important.”
As he turns 90, MT feels that life has been kind to him. And at heart, he really wants to thank a lot of people. His birth was something of a miracle. The doctor had given up but not the baby, who was determined to enter this world. The tiny human who was born with a lot of deficiencies always had some health problems. Loneliness led him to the world of writing. Young MT would walk for miles in search of books. He would borrow money to buy books. And he idolized the writers. MT wanted to be like them. He was destined to be a writer. And to reach the pinnacle of greatness.
MT feels he is going with the flow. Excerpts from the interview.
For Malayalee readers and people from the world of literature, MT Vasudevan Nair is as much a voracious reader as he is a great writer. Malayalees were introduced to Hemingway, Marquez, and other legendary writers and works through you. But in the latter half of the literary career, readers do not know much about the reading of MT.
As far as I am concerned reading is part of my life. Though my reading might not be as avid and quick as before, I still retain my bookishness and interest in reading. Though not very severe, I have some issues with my eyesight. I need to be careful. I need to consult a doctor now and then. But amidst all this, I read books. It is the feeling that I will get everything I like when I read that leads me to books. And reading has never let me down that way.
Is it that MT has a mind that seems to enjoy life's uncertainties? Quitting the government job you got during tutorial teaching after two days and returning to teaching seems to suggest that. And is it also that such an open mind is helping your writing? Or is it that your writing is steering your life forward?
At one point in our life, we realize that having a job is important. We need a job so that we don’t need to be dependent on someone for our needs. I remember asking my mother for money to send a letter. Though she gave it, it is also true that I couldn't keep asking her. Then having a job became inevitable. I just wanted some job and so accepted the job of a village officer. But then as quickly I realized that I should quit the job.
I knew the path I should take. And this job won't let me take that path. So I felt teaching was the best option. Since I am not a trained teacher, I would get the job only for short stints. I would have thought of taking it as a full-time career if I was a trained teacher. Teaching had the advantage of getting enough spare time to write. Even then I could never plan my writing or set deadlines. And very often I am not able to write whatever comes to my mind. There are also instances when some of your writing don’t work. So you just need to forget about it and move on. Sometimes you will plan a certain word count and that won't work either. A story idea happens, and I toss and turn it in my mind. Writing happens somewhere in the middle of it. That’s all I can say.
Can you describe your philosophy in writing?
I can’t say that. I don’t really have a philosophical mind. I started reading at a very young age and used to borrow books to read. After reading, I feel that I have achieved something. But I want more of it and then I start my quest to find more of them. When I learned that the book I am searching for is available at a certain place, I travel to that place to get it. Sometimes I borrow books.
Acquiring books was also not easy back then as it is today. Even school libraries were not very common. There might be one almirah stacked with books at some corner of the school. And there will be sports equipment stacked in the same place. The teacher who is in charge of the library won't have the time or inclination to hand over the books you asked for. There were also too many formalities to get books. So the teacher will keep postponing it. But strangely, all I felt was sympathy for him. Those who can write are great people. And we want to emulate that. In the end, we start telling ourselves to write.
How many books do you own?
Probably 3000? And that includes both Malayalam and English books. I consider books as my treasure. Some people give me books. Some regularly send books from abroad. And I can’t be happier. Most of them would be unfamiliar to me.
You used to write poetry. How do you see the poetry scene in Malayalam today? Who is your favourite poet?
I used to write poetry during my childhood. I would read poetry and start admiring the poets. So I guess I would have probably written them out of my admiration for these poets. There were so many poets like G Sankarakurup, Idasheri, Akkitham, Vailoppilli, Changampuzha, etc. And they had so many admirers. There is also the issue that poems are not always available as and when you want them. Sometimes at home, I was often instructed to buy certain poems.
But by the time we reach the bookshop, it would have gone out of stock. Then we go in search of the people who possess it. I have seen the older women at my house transcribing Ramanan into another book sitting all night. And I have also mentioned that in a book (Ramaneeyam Oru Kaalam—MT).
I don't read as much poetry today as I used to. And not everything can be read. There are so many periodicals today. While reading some stuff, my mind will approve of it, and it will be remembered.
Who is your favourite poet?
That I can’t say. I like to read and enjoy good poetry. It can be any poet. Just that I don’t dislike anyone.
What are your hopes for the new lineup of writers?
Good stories are coming. Again here also there is the issue of not having enough visibility. I get recommendations from writers, and I try to buy them.
Who is your favourite storyteller?
That also I can’t say. We have travelled through so many of these stories and are still travelling. I adore and respect all of them.
You shy away from addressing yourself as a writer and prefer to call yourself a journalist. Why is it so considering the fact that right from the onset you knew you can’t be anyone else than a writer?
That comes from a habit. I might have to elaborate when I say I am a writer. So it is always easier to say that I work at a newspaper office. There is no need to explain.
How much has the journalist in MT influenced the writer in MT?
I enjoy being a journalist. But that has also affected my writing. I need to find time to write. I would often require keeping aside my writing for my job. But at work, I often enjoy reading other people's writings. We are able to read and gauge so many writings. And we have the responsibility to pick from them. There will be differing opinions but somehow we don’t want to chuck anything. All these can be stressful, and we are required to fight our own battles here.
There are so many journalists who claim to have been discovered by you. Who is that one big discovery?
I can’t really say that. They are writers. And their strengths and weaknesses are right there. What is important is that they got our attention. There might be some buzz about a good talent and that’s how we come to know about them. Beyond this, we are not important here.
Recently Mukundan and Sethu spoke about the support they received from MT the journalist. Didn’t that make you happy?
What is more heartening is to see them scale heights of greatness. I was just a medium. If not me, there will be someone else to do that for them. Even if I wasn’t there, it would have happened.
How do the new generation and their perspective on life affect society's approach to writing, reading, and literature?
As far as I am concerned, reading is my liability. Reading is shaping our personality. We are gaining, earning, and investing from reading. Those who love to read will keep on reading. So much so that they will feel like they cease to exist if they can’t read.
There is a talk that ever since we have found various other platforms to keep people engaged, the reading habit has drastically reduced.
Reading is not an engagement. And reading is not a leisure for me.
There have been many voices of dissent against you. But you have never responded to them. How do you do that?
Such things don’t really affect me. Therefore I haven’t really found it important to respond to them. Something that doesn’t affect us doesn’t deserve a response.
Who among your characters has some remnants of MT in them? There are many who consider Sethu in Kalam as MT himself.
There are autobiographical elements in it. I have borrowed many events from my life in that book.
Who is your favourite among your characters?
Each character is important to me. Some are part of my family, some are outsiders, some are people who know my family, and some are just those whom I have heard about. They never leave us. They keep coming back to us on various occasions. That’s how each character was developed. And they are all important.
“While looking inward there was nothing. My mind was as broken and empty as a begging bowl. Nothing to give as well. And nothing seems to linger as well,” these words from Varanasi continue to stay in our minds. On your 90th birthday with the hope that while looking back you might have a contradictory thought running through your mind, can I ask you how life has treated you? What is on your mind?
I haven’t really thought like that. There is no anxiety as to how long I will live or the desire to live that long. We were here and that’s an opportunity time bestowed on us. It all happened very organically. I do feel that I have a lot of people to thank for that.
How much is your childhood and Kudaloor in your mind now? Do you still feel the energy of that time?
My writing started from there. In fact, there are more stories to write from there. I write about the stories of the people there. It is quite another matter if there was a right or wrong in what I wrote. We might have had some commitments and all that invariably ended up on the writing table. At that time there were murmurs regarding the ethicality of some of my writings. I wrote about my Uncle. If I am questioned about the fairness of it, I don’t really bother to justify it. And there is no need to explain it also. It so happened that we got an idea and kept it in our minds. When the right time came, we used that idea. That’s how the writing originates. That is also the writer’s fate. I have got so many writing materials from there. And there are more than enough to source from there.
The re-interpretation of folk and epic characters is your speciality. What is the inspiration behind the modification of Chanthu and Bheeman? Are you really attempting to honour its creators?
I am merely repeating what they said. I am not trying to correct or reject them. Tomorrow other writers might re-interpret their work or write what they wrote. Or some others might give a spin to what I wrote as well.
Some of your observations about new-age Malayalam books created a furore in literary circles. There were positive and negative reactions to your opinion that most of the writing is difficult to finish. Are we living in an age of such intolerance that one can’t even offer an honest opinion?
I don’t see that as an intolerance. The inability to finish reading a book is a recent phenomenon. But we are not really dismissing a book here, just adding it to our collection. And it turns into another experience when you read it later. It can also be that the book can seek you out. That has happened also. Therefore we don’t really need to refrain from saying what we have in our mind. And everyone is free to voice their opinion as well.
Malayalees expect writers to take a stand on various socio-political issues. But you rarely react. How do you decide on this?
You don’t really need to react to everything. During rare instances, we might think otherwise. Then we might react. I don’t really think we need to express our opinion about everything. I haven’t felt the need to criticize or react against everything. I am under no such illusion that the world revolves around my opinions.
Some of the films that you have directed as well as scripted changed the course of Malayalam cinema. Does cinema increase the popularity of literature?
Both are two different things. Cinema is more popular. There is more audience for cinema. Families enjoy cinema.
Most of the films you directed are based on your short stories. They are simple and profound. But the novels, made on a large scale were directed by others. How did that happen?
I feel happy that I was able to direct certain films. Otherwise, movie direction requires a lot of effort. A film made on a large canvas requires the necessary paraphernalia, support, and other facilities. All that can only be done by a professional filmmaker. So I have always tried to make films from short stories. That’s all I can do.
Which is your favourite film of the ones you have directed?
I am happy that I was able to do the kind of films I set out to do. But there have been minor grievances as well. The films I've made stay with me as ongoing reflections on them. There is always this thought that I could have made it better. What are the flaws and how did it happen? Even now I have such thoughts.
Among the directors you have worked with, who did you feel the most connected with?
I have had the most collaborations with Hariharan and IV Sasi. With them, after discussions and all, you always get the feeling that you will get what you had in mind.
We are all waiting for your next novel. When can we expect that?
It is there. I am in the process of writing it. Speed is an issue. But I am continuing.
Stories continue to unfold in MT. He knows that 'readers are watching closely'. He hopes to 'satisfy their hope someday.'