VAIKOM MUHAMMAD BASHEER: A Time-Travelling Experience

The story of how I discovered Basheer of words.

His importance is in the fact that every Keralite knows his name. Normally, the criterion to be known by everyone in Kerala is politics. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer was a writer without a strong inclination towards propagandism in literature. He was a storyteller who focused all his energies in establishing the connection of his subjectivity with the cosmic objectivity. His works, therefore, are tantalizingly personal and impressively authentic. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer stands out as one of the very few writers in Malayalam language, who could gather public interest without the interference of visible politics. He died in 5 July 1994.

The Present
Fourteen years after his death, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer still holds his charm and charisma to readers in Malayalam. This is nothing extraordinary. What is beyond comprehension is that like many other ‘highly educated’ individuals, who had severed their umbilical cord with mother Malayalam at a much younger age, the author of this article too finds the attraction irresistible towards ‘Basheerian’ literature.

This is a concept I mentioned in one of my classes too. Imagine the possibility of travelling trough time. Imagine you are communicating with the person even after his or her lifetime. This is precisely what is reflected when I face Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s writings now. The other day, I was in Kannur, the city lost to cultural perverts, who’d never read a book unless to impress another person or to pass a Public Service Commission Exam. In the city, I was expecting Onam consumer fairs—grand consumer extravaganza. However, the first tent I came across was the one with a fancy banner that said “18 Puranas, first time in Kerala.” Hell, whatever that meant, I was hooked. It was a book exhibition and sale. After all, I had just found the best way to get intoxicated in a city of boredom—a book fair.

I went inside. Making my first guesses coming true, it was the book fest organized by Kerala’s most important amazon of a book company. If I even mentioned their name here, they would shut down my blog simply by blowing the air in their attitude. The entryway was full of Malayalam books that grinned at me with their glossy covers. I ventured through a mother and her fat girl on a narrow trail to reach at the head of the line to see if there are English books there. I found the English section (a very small portion) at the other end of the line of books that were kept at the entryway.
An excerpt from Pathummayude Aadu

Most of the English titles were either Indian English political propaganda or a few selected bestselling authors. I found some of my favorites there too. However, I would not dare buy them. No, I did not even think about buying. Books are very costly in bookshops around Kannur, especially at the seller, whose book fair I was visiting. Their banner outside said they would give ten percent discount. This, I did not think would make any difference to cut the costs down. They had The Fault in Our Stars for about Rs 300, but I had bought it already through for about half the money. In other words, I wasn’t impressed. I turned to other tables. Rows of Malayalam books illuminated no interest in me, either to turn their pages or to look at the cover design, let alone to buy one of them.

I started walking faster and reached towards the end of the exhibited books. There I found the inspiration for this article—the collections and novels by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. His books were short with easy prices and ‘simple’. His language was the language of the ordinary individual from Malabar. He did not have the aura of the high-handed cultural elitists. He was a common man, or so he was accepted by the masses. The high culture and university students also accepted Vaikom Muhammad Basheer as an author. This was part of the greatness in him. He was the Mark Twain of Malayalam literature.

The Past
My first encounter with Basheer is not in my memory any more. I have clearly forgotten when it happened and why. My strongest educated guess is that it might be through the textbooks that were prescribed for the course in my high school. I remember studying his novel, Pathummayude Aadu when I was in tenth grade. In fact, I also remember not merely studying the novel, but imbibing every bit of its spirit into my mind as a young writer and feeling enthusiastic about copying the writer’s techniques. Pathummayude Aadu was a worthwhile read, indeed. I owe partly, the enthusiasm I felt to the teacher who taught us Malayalam language. I remember two of them, especially: Raghavan master and Gopinathan master. I pray for their good health and long life. May many thirsty young minds find refuge in the abundant intellectual shade of these charismatic teachers. This is one of the reasons I dedicated my third book Prabuddha: the Clear-sighted to all my teachers.

Basheer was a constant driving force in all those wonderful classes led by Gopinathan master. That was where I fell in genuine love with his style and language. However, my academic environment could not sustain my love for Malayalam for long. After tenth, I joined another school for completing twelfth because the school I studied at did not conduct Higher Secondary course during those days. I found refuge in the inept library at the new school. Basheer was my constant companion.

Where did I get the idea of buying books? I do not remember. Perhaps, from my father. He has a habit of buying books and in my childhood, I was amazed at the money he used to spend in books. For everyone else in the family it was a total waste of time and money. However, even as a child, I realized there was magic in those books. During my twelfth grade, I was obsessed by the idea of buying books. It felt cool, meaningful. (Not the world outside, of course, but to my inner world that I cherished)

The cover image of My Grandad Had an Elephant in Malayalam
My pocket money was about ten rupees during those days. This was the money required to buy lunch. I never asked money from my parents for any other needs. I never had any other needs. It owes to my parents’ diligence in providing me with the food and cloths I needed at the right time.

Five days, I spent without lunch. Now I had Rs 50. From a small literary bulletin arrived at home, I had a good awareness of the prices of books. I compared them day and night. I wanted the pleasure of reading to last longer. I was particularly interested in getting a book with the maximum number of pages in such a short supply of money.

This would be the first ever book I would buy with ‘my money’ or at least, I can say the money I earned out of accepting hunger for five consecutive days. Finally, I fixed my pointer on an author and a book. The book was the Malayalam original of My Grandad had an Elephant. The author was Vaikom Muhammad Basheer.

The Future
Out of everything I know about books, I feel most vulnerable and confused about what I might be reading in the future. I am not concerned about the end of books, like some high-handed publishers might argue. I am, on the other hand bothered about my own tastes in reading. E-books or paperbacks, I would be happy to get my hands on a good book. The book should talk to me, that’s all. As I say, the book should find me.

Will Vaikom Muhammad Basheer find me? (That lean old man in his grave.)

Hasn’t he already done that?


stephen boka said…
Your reminiscences remind me of something I did last winter, whiling away the cold evenings... I thought of the books I read and enjoyed as a child and then sought them out on Amazon. I was able to find all of them, as I remember!
Anu Lal said…
You've done an awesome job my friend. The time spent with books is time well spent. I enjoy thinking back and recollecting stories behind those books that excited me as a kid.

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