The Diary of a Malayali Madman by N Prabhakaran amalgamates politics with fixated lunacy. From absurd pig farms to folklore and politics, The Diary of a Malayali Madman brings, rather weaves together various elements of life in a manner that'll make you turn pages as if the survival of mankind depended on it. Prabhakaran's stories are based in North Kerala and provide a view of a world that a reader (even a novice one) will want to plunge themselves into. The book has been translated by Jayasree Kalathil. We got a chance to have a dialogue with Prabhakaran and get an insight into what went into writing the Diary of a Malayali Madman.
You began writing in 1966. What has, since then, changed in your writing?
In the beginning, there was nothing. I wrote without any preconceived idea of the purpose or aesthetic qualities of good writing. I just wrote – poems, short stories and a few articles. When I look back I find nothing to be proud of in my early writings.
By 1971 I entered into a new stage. In 1971, my short story ‘Ottayante Pappan’ (Mahout of a rogue tusker) won the first prize in a competition conducted by Mathrubhumi, a prestigious Malayalam weekly, in connection with the Vishu special edition. In those days it was a significant recognition and the writer in me felt strongly that, hereafter, my writing should be very serious and that I should cultivate an independent style that would bear a different mark. But, fifteen years later, when I was gathering stories for my first collection, also titled Ottayante Pappan, I saw that I had written only 11 stories during those years. I know now that what, in my case, had worked as writer’s block was the burden of modernism that my writing-self experienced heavily in those years. I could shake off this shackle to some extent by writing the novella Ezhinum Meethe (Beyond Seven) based on the story of Kathivanur Veeran, one of the most popular folk gods of North Malabar.
Social commitments were another issue. When I started writing, my idea of social commitment was rather crude. It took several years to be free from it. Even now I write on political issues. But I am absolutely free. I write whatever I feel truthful. No political party or cultural organisation enjoys the right to instruct me. I also don’t allow any theory – post-modern, post-structuralist or the like – to rule over my sensibility. My world has become, to adapt the title of Fernando Pessoa’s selected poems, a little larger than the entire universe. I know that freedom should be the watchword of writing.
With the Diary of a Malayali Madman, did you fear that your work could lose its essence when translated?
I did not have such a fear. I know no translation, even when it is commendably creative, can bring the true flavour of the original work into the translation. The connotations or various semantic shades of a word in a particular context, and the feelings and memories it may generate cannot be transferred in total to the target language. But that is a linguistic issue. I am really happy with the present translation. I hope readers from other parts of India and the world will find it interesting in many ways.
The aspect of surrealism that can be found in Diary of a Malayali Madman, is it an intentional effort to display a post-modern aesthetic?
The Diary of a Malayali Madman is not surrealistic although here and there one may find something illogical or abnormal. I haven’t made an intentional effort to display a post-modern aesthetic.
Once, a friend of mine, Rajesh, who was then a jail warden told me a story about an interesting incident which circulated among the jail staff. The story was this: A monkey charmer was remanded in the jail where my friend worked, on the charge of picking someone’s pocket. The monkey also was brought to the jail and a warden tied him to a mango tree in the jail compound. On the very first night, the jail officials gave a small portion of their supper to him. They were also kind enough to let him have a share of their drinks. The monkey was very happy. The next day he rose to a jubilant mood and expressed his excitement through frantic jumping and the like. This continued for a month or so and the friendship between the monkey and the jail officials turned into a strong tie. When the time came for the monkey charmer to leave the jail, the jail officials had to use their muscle power to make the monkey go with his master. When Rajesh was completing his narration, an idea flashed through my mind quite unexpectedly: I should start writing a new story tonight making the monkey the central character. This is the story behind ‘Diary of a Malayali Madman’.
Madness and surrealistic elements in the story are part of the narrative technique. If I did not employ them, the story would not have been there. And let me add one more thing. Look at contemporary politics: age-old customs related to religious beliefs, and many of our social practices. Any sensible fellow would very easily discern that there are abundant elements of absurdity in them. The Malayali madman is, in fact, determined to present an authentic and realistic account of all these things. As surrealistic or totally illogical elements are vigorously active in many walks of our life, the madman’s diary can be truthful only by including all these things in it.
What was that one surprising thing you learned in creating your cannon?
One thing I learned from my life in writing is that what we say about human beings, in general, is applicable to writers also. They are not birds of the same feather. Some among them are very keen on the commercial success of their books. Many find satisfaction if their books are widely read and discussed. A few others are free from all such concerns. I am one who always expects the excitement of reaching a true reader who with their innate capacity can catch the inner voice of my writing.
You have 42 books, spanning several genres - which genre is your favourite?
Please don’t think I am pushing aside your question but, in fact, I have no particular affinity to any genre. A variety of thoughts, memories, fears, anxieties, strange ideas, spiritual thirst and the like visit my mind freely seeking expression. Each selects or dictates a form for it. The choice is not mine. I write a poem only because the content of the poem asks me to use the form of poetry for it. There were occasions when a story came to me in its entirety. Then I can do nothing else but put it in writing exactly as it is.
Do you ever hear from your readers? What kinds of criticism have you come across?
I give ear to the responses of all types of readers. Criticism usually comes from those whose sensibility is tied to some fixed ideas. Years of experience has taught me that among the readers only a very few reach the crux of any writing. Others wander only at the periphery of a novel or story or poem. Often, they wait to see how the hegemonic forces in the literary scene judge a literary work and, wasting no time, enthusiastically make it their own. I whole-heartedly listen to only those readers who have proven their calibre and intellectual honesty.