On a late autumn day in 2013 there was an air of excitement at the Sputnik Hotel in Moscow. Almost every single member of the Russian capital’s tiny Malayali community had turned up at the Soviet era hotel for a very special Onam celebration. That year the guest of honour wasn’t a Russian personality who was fond of Kerala, but a Malayali literary giant whose work was well known among the Indologists and intellectual class of Russia. A Malayali man dressed as King Mahabali waited outside the hotel and welcomed the Indian Ambassador and the special guest - O N V Kurup, who was 82 at that time.
ONV was in Moscow for another special occasion. Exactly 67 years after his first poem ‘Munnotu' (Forward) appeared in a magazine, a collection of his poems was translated and published in Russian by the Gorky Institute of World Literature. The introduction of the book, which also contains a poem about Leo Tolstoy, was written by none other than Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister.
Like many other giants of Malayalam literature, ONV developed socialist leanings in the 1940s and 50s, but his fondness for Russia and its culture went well beyond political ideologies. He had a special liking for Alexander Pushkin, and the translated book of ONV's poems began and ended with a work on the Russia’s national poet.
'Pushkin - Swatantrya Bodhathinte Durantakatha’ was one of ONV’s most famous works. Unfortunately the book (its title roughly translates as Pushkin - The tragedy of freedom of consciousness) has neither been translated in English or in Russian!
Unlike many writers and poets who had fantasies of the Soviet Union and Russia by extension from afar, ONV did visit the country and had a first hand look at life in Russia.
Perhaps his most memorable visit to the country was in 1978 for a celebration marking the 150th birth anniversary of Leo Tolstoy. The Soviet Union marked the occasion in great style and held ceremonies both in Moscow and Yassnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s home. Invitees were also given a special commemorative medal, as a way of recognising their own contribution to the world literature.
The Moscow that ONV would have seen in the peak of the Brezhnev era would have felt like another universe when the poet visited the city in 2013. By the time ONV's book of poems was published, communism was dead and buried in Russia, with the remnants of that era being few and far between. ONV’s love for Russia continued well after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Three years after his visit to Moscow for Tolstoy’s birth anniversary celebrations, ONV was awarded the Soviet Land Nehru award for his book ‘Uppu' (Salt). In a literary career that spanned several decades, the poet won several Indian and international awards, including the Jnanpith in 2007 for his overall contributions to Malayalam literature.
In 2015, the Russian government awarded ONV the Pushkin Medal, one of the most prestigious state decorations. His works earned praise from Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I want to thank you for your dedicated efforts to preserve the wealth of Russian culture and language, and for your educational work, which unites people in different countries and continents,” Putin said in his address during the award ceremony at the Kremlin.
Those who have interacted with the poet, who passed away a few months after he received the Russian state decoration, say that he was reasonably pleased with all the awards and recognition but they didn’t seem to matter to him in the greater scheme of things. A Russian translator who met ONV in 2013 told me he was blown away by the sheer humility and light-hearted nature of the poet. “This was reflected in his poetry, which at times looked deceptively simple, but had far greater meanings,” the translator said.
Indeed, ONV was completely unpretentious and never bothered to conform to the ‘isms’ of literature. He wrote his poems as they came to him. The same could be said about the lyrics that he wrote for Malayalam films. Who can ever forget the beautiful songs in ‘Nakhakshathangal?’
In an era where vanity and arrogance seem to be ‘virtues’ that are celebrated by the international media, ONV's grace and class set an example for those who aren’t lured by instant fame.
I have deliberately refrained from referring to ONV as ‘Kerala’s Pushkin’ as this would be an injustice to both giants of literature. Like Pushkin, ONV had a special love for poetry. “Poetry is brought forth and bred by humanity as the pearl is by the ocean,” ONV wrote in 2000. “The poet is the shell destined to break open its breast to give forth its pearl to others and disappear in some corner of the earth.”