Obituary: Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai

Kuldip Singh
Sunday 25 April 1999 23:02

FOR OVER 50 years Thakazhi Siva-sankara Pillai, writing in his native Malayalam language, poignantly portrayed the social transformation of society in his home state of Kerala in southern India, empathising with the poor and downtrodden in a caste-bound, feudal society.

Through 40 novels and over 600 short stories Pillai chronicled Kerala's evolution and incisively portrayed the drama of unpredictable human relations.

Pillai's romantic novel Chemeen ("Shrimp", 1956, published in English as Chemmeen: a novel in 1962) introduced Malayam literature and the magic of Kerala to the outside world, establishing his reputation as a literary colossus. It was taken up by Unesco under its project of Mutual Appreciation of Eastern and Cultural Values and translated into 19 languages including Vietnamese and Slav.

Chemeen is a romantic love story set against the backdrop of a small Kerala fishing village that rises to the heights of a Greek tragedy. It is woven around the coastal myth centred around Kadalamma, the sea goddess who destroys those fishermen whose wives become "unchaste".

The seaside romance of the Muslim fisherman Pareekutty and the Hindu Karuthamma caught readers' imagination like no other Malayalam writing had and it was made into a film in some 15 countries. It also won Pillai India's highest literary prize, the Sahitya Academy Award, in 1958.

Literary critics, however, regard Kayar ("Coir", published in the 1960s), encompassing a time-span of over 250 years, as Pillai's most significant work. The inspiration for this magnum opus came to him in the 1940s when, as a practising legal pleader in Kerala, he stumbled across ancient land records that held a wealth of fascinating social detail.

Kayar has no hero or heroine, but chronicles the impact events like land ownership laws, the joint family system, the breakdown of Kerala's matrilineal society, the two World Wars and the rise of Communism have on a small village over six generations. Pillai's under-developed little village of Thakazhi with its rice fields, bordered by the Arabian Sea, is at the heart of his works. So too are its charming harvest festivals, folk songs and dances and the superstitions of the illiterate majority and their exploiters.

And though the locale in Pillai's novels remains constant, his themes vary. In Thottiyude Makan (published in English as The Scavenger's Son, 1993), one of his earlier works, Pillai narrates the heart-rending story of a scavenger determined that his son will not take up his wretched profession, who is eventually mortified to see him following in his footsteps. Randidanghazi ("Two Measures of Rice") depicts the landlord-labourer relationship, as a helpless untouchable faces the shame of his upper-caste employer outraging his wife's modesty.

Pillai was born in 1912 in Thakazhi village in Kerala into a moderately comfortable farming family. He was exposed to literature early by his father who would daily read from the great Indian epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to his family after supper. This left a lasting impression on Pillai's mind and there are strains of these epics in both form and structure in his writings. He also devoured the work of Western writers, especially Tolstoy and Maupassant, and in 1934, after several short stories, published Tyagathinu Pratiphalam ("Fruits of sacrifice"), his first novel, which dealt with social and economic equality and attacked hypocritical sexual taboos.

After training as a legal pleader at the Law College in the state capital Trivandrum, he set up practice in the small town of Ambalapuzha in 1939. But Pillai's heart was not in the law and after a brief stint in journalism he took to full-time writing. Being the son of a landed farmer in Kerala's water-logged, economically backward area, gave Pillai added insight into the state's social problems. And though he claimed not to have been influenced by the Leftist movement that gave Kerala the world's first elected Communist government in the 1960s, he admitted that Marxism had helped give clearer shape to his social consciousness.

But success in no way changed Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's simple life style. Although he travelled extensively he was comfortable only in his simple cottage in Thakazhi and even in his later years he never lost his fire and vibrancy in challenging orthodoxy and the establishment.

Kuldip Singh

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, novelist: born Thakazhi, India 17 April 1919; married 1936 (one son, four daughters); died Alppuzha, India 11 April 1999.

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