JULY 8, 2022
FROM THE PADDY FIELDS and serpentine backwaters of Southwest India’s Malabar Coast, Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar in 1778 began an arduous journey. As a senior priest in the Syriac Catholic community in Malabar, he hoped that a meeting with Pope Pius VI would shore up the increasingly fragile unity of his church. Over more than a year, via Madras, Ceylon, the Cape of Good Hope, Brazil, and Portugal, Kathanar traveled to Rome, where he succeeded in his mission. And that would be that, an interesting if slightly arcane chapter in ecclesiastical history, had it not been for the Malayalam-language text that emerged from Kathanar’s travels: Varthamanappusthakam, a rich history of Christian Kerala and a fierce critique of the colonial church administration. It was also the first travelogue written in any Indian language.
Kathanar’s solemn goal, always at the forefront of his mind, dominates much of the narrative, but he was also a keen observer of the places and people he encountered on his years-long journey. The images he evokes are memorable; his cities, like Calvino’s, are a series of striking pictures, urban landscapes that seamlessly blend the familiar and the unnerving. In densely crowded Genoa, servants carry wealthy citizens on chairs, elevating them above the masses who throng the streets, which are “so narrow that those who pass through some of them at mid day would feel as though it were sunset.” Livorno’s harbor, built to “accommodate and protect ships from the fury of the wind,” is a hive of cosmopolitanism, built on the trade of Armenians, Greeks, and Jews. Europeans themselves are by turn impressive and repellent. The inhabitants of modern-day Liguria, who cultivated an array of crops despite their land of “barren hills and rocks,” had much to teach: “If our people of Malabar had the will to do one fourth of what they do, there would have been no famine and want among us.” The Portuguese inhabitants of Benguela in Angola, however, “are pale like bodies without blood. Their hands, neck, head and legs are shrunk while their belly is protruding.”
Varthamanappusthakam was inaccessible for most of its history. Composed shortly after Kathanar’s journey, it was published only in 1936, and was not translated into English — by Placid J. Podipara, another Keralite Syriac priest — for another 35 years. The text remains obscure today. But the story Kathanar told, the history he cataloged, the curiosity he had about places other than his own, all serve to make Varthamanappusthakam a landmark work in the history of Indian writing. More specifically, it forms a core text of Malayalam literature, which, with its origins in one of history’s great trading hubs, has always had its eyes open to the wider world.
Roughly 35 million people speak Malayalam as a primary language, most of them living in Kerala. This is less than three percent of Indians; when Indian languages are ranked by native-speaker populations, Malayalam barely makes the top 10. Its minor status does not, however, extend to India’s literary scene. Since the prestigious JCB Prize for Literature was established in 2018, three of its four awardees have been Malayalam novels in translation. Between 1999 and 2019, Malayalam novels also made up almost half the recipients of the respected Crossword Book Award for translated fiction.
Malayalam has a literary heritage stretching back centuries. Its first epic poems are believed to have been written in the 13th century, and poetry and prose literature have played a critical role in the development of Malayali culture over the generations that followed. Its modern dominance in Indian literary prestige may be attributed, in part, to Kerala’s long-standing emphasis on providing high-quality and widely accessible education. This policy, which has its roots in the activities of Christian missionaries, has remained a mainstay of the left-wing governments that have ruled the state since independence, with the result that Kerala has become the first Indian state to claim universal literacy. The state administration has also been proactive in promoting Malayalam literature, setting up a dedicated institution — the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University, named for a 16th-century poet who is often considered the founding figure of the modern language — to cultivate the study of Malayali culture. The commitment of Kerala’s rulers to fostering literacy and literary culture is without parallel in modern Indian history.
In other ways, too, Kerala sits apart in India. The state has resisted the wave of exclusionary Hindu nationalist politics that has enthralled most of the country, maintaining its status as a longtime communist bastion. This deep-seated political ferment may go some way toward explaining the rich seam of social engagement that runs through much of Malayalam literature. As early as the 18th century, the poet Kunchan Nambiar had begun to establish the long tradition of Malayalam social satire. Since then, Malayalam literature’s most celebrated exponents have been firmly opposed to social conservatism, wrestling with caste and political violence in language that often pushes the boundaries of India’s hysterically sensitive social mores. During the regime of Rajiv Gandhi, O. V. Vijayan’s satirical Dharmapuranam (The Saga of Dharmapuri, 1985) was as controversial for its sexual and scatological themes as for its anti-authoritarian message, while S. Hareesh’s more recent Meesha (2018), in which a character makes crude remarks about women visiting a Hindu temple, was withdrawn from serialization after right-wing groups responded in the only way they know how: threatening the author publicly. Some writers, such as the freedom fighter Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and the feminist activist Sarah Joseph, expanded their preoccupation with society’s marginalized people beyond the pages of their books by becoming political activists. Malayalam political writing has made a splash abroad, too: the iconic contemporary writer Benyamin’s 2008 novel Goat Days was banned in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for its portrayal of the difficult lives of Indian migrant labor in the Gulf.
Overcome by emotional and communal fragility, India is ruled by a cripplingly thin-skinned party whose mindset reveres uniformity, snarls at dissent, and seeks to impose Hindi-language dominance across the country. For generations, and certainly today, to write in Malayalam has been to challenge and provoke, to bend the mind toward ideas that would struggle to take root away from Kerala’s exceptionally iconoclastic intellectual landscape.
V. J. James’s Nireeswaran, published in 2014 and released in translation by Vintage this past April, is a compelling contribution to this tradition. In a Kerala village, the committed rationalists Antony, Bhaskaran, and Sahir are disgusted by what they see as the credulity of the religious folks around them. Determined to undermine the hold of dogma over their community, they twist the traditional worship of murtis, physical manifestations of God, by installing a stone idol of a mutilated human form under mango and peepal trees in the center of the village, dubbing it Nireeswaran, or “anti-god.” Although intended as a protest against organized religion, Nireeswaran is quickly adopted by the villagers; in India, for a place to have a local god — or several — is the norm. Requests to the new deity flood in: for a man to awake from a coma; for luck on school exams; for a visa to the Gulf. But the three Dawkinsians’s guffawing soon turns to shock as benediction appears to flow into the village in a steady stream, its source seemingly none other than their snide little statue, causing chaos in their ranks and forcing them to question their own narrative.
Throughout the upheaval their plans cause, there is one significant, lasting impact that perhaps escapes them: Nireeswaran democratizes the idea of God, reducing — or elevating — it to the level of ordinary human beings. Nowhere is this clearer than when Janaki, a prostitute, notes wryly that, although appealing for customers to an ordinary god would be out of the question, “since Nireeswaran was an anti-god, such boons could also be sought”; or when the intellectually disabled outcast Sumitran, prevented by a “bramble fence of threats” from ever accessing the town’s temple, is delighted by his ability to pray in front of the Nireeswaran idol: “How long had he been yearning for a god whom he could touch like his own body!”
Kerala’s leftist sympathies and rejection of sectarian politics have never meant an aversion to religion. An insignificant number of Keralites are atheists; more than half are Hindu and a quarter Muslim, and Kerala’s Christian population is the largest of any Indian state, a diversity reflected among the characters in this novel. With Nireeswaran, then, James is exploring issues that shape Keralite — and Indian — life to a substantial degree: the accessibility of God, the control of religious narrative, and the richness of small-town life, with its blend of parochial prejudice and neighborly solidarity. And James’s characters feel like real people, their backgrounds and lives richly fleshed out, while his narrative reads like a story rather than a political polemic or sociological treatise. In his preface, he asserts that “Nireeswaran is neither a protest nor an appeal.”
The defining quality of Nireeswaran is James’s acute sensitivity to the subjective truths of each character. Believer and anti-theist alike can be noble or boorish; dignity is afforded in equal measure to the prostitute, the scientist, and the priest; arrogance, no matter its source, can only ever lead to humbling capitulation. James’s writing is striking, and alive with meaning: Indrajit, one of Nireeswaran’s putative beneficiaries, awoken from a 24-year coma, stands awestruck by the side of the road, watching children confidently navigate unfamiliar streams of heavy traffic; a barber, depressed, slumps against bags of collected hair, “like another lifeless sack”; a local matriarch chugs home from the hospital in an autorickshaw named “Don’t Hit Me, Bro!” The story is at once a philosophical discourse on the nature of worship and an examination of the effects of dogmatism in its many forms. At its most effective, though, it is a portrait of individual lives, from the worlds upended by Indrajit’s miracle cure to the struggles of Janaki, the prostitute, to reconcile her trade with her image of herself.
James, a prolific novelist and short story writer, has won multiple prizes for his work, both in the original language and in translation. The Malayalam version of Nireeswaran, the first of a trio of James’s novels due to be published in English by Penguin Random House, has picked up Kerala’s two most prestigious literary awards, with further acclaim due, no doubt, for the English translation. Nireeswaran’s translator, Ministhy S, is by day an officer in India’s elite civil service, but her commitment to her side gig, translating James’s past work as well as that of other luminaries including the novelist K. R. Meera and the poet Veerankutty, has made her a key figure of the modern Malayalam literary landscape (she also translates Hindi). Malayalam-to-English translation is an established field with its own doyens — Prema Jayakumar, Gita Krishnankutty, and Fathima E. V., among many others — whose work over the past several decades has helped catapult Malayalam literature into the Indian mainstream.
On a broader level, the prestige of Indian literature in translation has recently been given a major boost by Tomb of Sand (2018), written by Hindi author Geetanjali Shree and translated by the Hindi and Urdu literature veteran Daisy Rockwell, which this year became the first novel in an Indian language to win the International Booker Prize. Malayalam literature has yet to break into the global circuit — Kerala’s most famous literary export, Arundhati Roy, writes in English — but, pushed ever forward by the likes of Ministhy S and her fellow translators, it is only a matter of time. All the better: the writing being done in this small corner of the subcontinent, in a language spoken by so few, has a great deal to say.
Aditya Narayan Sharma is a graduate student in political thought at Cambridge. His work on books and politics has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Diplomat, Indian Express, and elsewhere.