Prof T J Joseph's memoir 'Attupokatha Ormakal' (titled 'A Thousand Cuts' in English) has won the Kerala Sahithya Akademi award in the autobiography category.
The book is the former Malayalam professor's account of how a question he had framed for an internal semester exam for B.Com students in 2010 had so outraged Muslim fringe elements that they lay in wait, and when the opportunity presented, pulled him out of his car and chopped off his right hand in front of his mother and sister.
The offending question was a conversation between a character named Muhammad and God. The God calls Muhammad "son of a *****". Joseph did not conjure this question out of thin air. He had taken this passage from filmmaker P T Kunju Muhammad's book 'Thirakathayude Reethishastram' (The Science of Screenplay Writing) with a minor change. When he made the question, Joseph gave the nameless character in Kunju Muhammad's passage a name: Muhammad. Joseph had said the name came from Kunju Muhammad.
But the bigots were not convinced. They destroyed a family. On May 8, 2015, the High Court convicted 13 Popular Front of India activists.
This brutal and merciless act of revenge in the name of religion took place five years before two Al Qaeda operatives stormed the French office of Charlie Hebdo magazine for publishing cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, killing 11.
Joseph's book, published in 2020 by DC books, is not an act of atonement but a retelling of a trauma with the greatest of restraint and dignity, but also with a dash of humour. “I don't know whether people with fundamentalist tendencies would be moved by my book. But I am sure this book can change ordinary individuals,” Prof Joseph told Onmanorama over the phone from Ireland, where he is on a three-month visa to be with his daughter Annie, son-in-law Balakrishna and one-year-old grandson Nihan.
He said speaking about his trauma was not his intention while setting out to write the memoir. “Though it is called an autobiography, I was only trying to sketch the social reality of Kerala. I wanted to show how insecure an ordinary individual is in a land such as ours, glorified for its literacy and social harmony,” he said.
The book is a testament to the fact that Joseph was emotionally mutilated long before the physical mutilation happened. He lost his job and was disowned by his Church. Even civil society had ostracised him. An all-party meeting called by the district collector had recommended action against the professor. “I hope this book would make my readers more modern and cosmopolitan in their outlook. I also hope that my sufferings would give them the strength to take on their miseries with greater assurance and presence of mind," Prof Joseph said.
After the mutilation, Joseph's traumatised wife slipped deeper into depression and finally committed suicide.
In his book, Joseph describes the day he found his wife Salomi hanging. "She was leaning on the wall of the bathroom. One end of a towel was tied to the bathroom rod and the other end was on her neck. Her knees had collapsed, tightening the knot on her neck," Joseph writes.
He rushed her to the hospital, but she was already dead. He kept pressing her chest all the way, desperately hoping she would cough up any moment and come back to life.
At the hospital, when he found there was no urgency in the actions of the casualty doctor he asked him to quickly do something to get her breathing. "Without a hint of emotion, the doctor said, 'There is no point using defibrillators on a dead body'," Joseph writes.
"I felt I was losing weight. Someone held me and sat me on a chair. After a while, another doctor came and took my hands. I didn't then realise that he was a doctor. I thought he was someone who knew me. With great despair, I said, 'My wife died. Just now'. When I said that, what was I expecting? Mercy or sympathy? After that, no one came near me. I sat like a fully defeated man."