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Kadeesa ‘Kurup’s Tryst with Modernity

As a writer Akbar Kakkattil has not received the critical attention he deserves in
Malayalam literature. Akbar emerged in Malayalam literature as a fictionist to be
reckoned with in the late-Seventies when the tide of Modernism had abated. Today he is
generally categorized as a postmodernist although his texts are not marked by the
characteristics which are generally identified with postmodernism. In fact one of the
most obvious features of Akbar’s stories and novels is that they are readerly texts. It will
not be too far off the mark to suggest that Akbar belongs to the group of writers who
brought back to fiction the readers whom modernism had alienated.

The readerliness of Akbar’s fiction does not take away anything from the
significance of the serious intervention it has made in contemporary Kerala culture,
giving expression to the bewilderment, sense of alienation and existential dilemmas of
Malayalees at the turn of the Twenty First century. More than anything else, Akbar’s
propensity to draw his themes and contexts from his native Kadathanadu region sets him
apart from many other writers of his generation. So much so that Punathil Kunhabdulla,
a fellow-Kadathanadan of the previous generation would gladly surrender the title of ‘the
chronicler of Kadathanad’ to Akbar.

Akbar’s Kadathanadan credentials are impeccable: the impish humour, the

uncompromising allegiance to the regional ethos and an unflinching faith in cultural
pluralism and the legacy of what is generally described as the ‘Kerala Renaissance.’ The
last needs to be underlined. These are troubled times for Kerala society. All its
progressive inheritance, including cultural pluralism is being threatened by
fundamentalism and obscurantism on the one hand and global capital on the other. And
many of its universally respected ‘masters of culture’ (the term first used by Maxim
Gorky which would serve as a rough translation for the Malayalam expression
‘samskarika nayakar’) are being exposed as idols with feet of clay.

Although Akbar is a teacher by profession, the presence of a large number of

teachers and students in his fiction cannot be explained away under the common
denominator of ‘writer’s experience.’ Schools constitute the most visible public space in
Kerala. Even a cursory reading of the history of the socio-political movements in
Twentieth Century Kerala would show the role of public spaces in the transformation of
the society from medievalism to modernity. Homes were (and still are) the last bastions
of medievalism in Kerala society. Akbar has written two whole collections of stories
about schools and school teachers, Adhyaapaka Kathakal (Teachers’ Tales) and School
Diary. What is most remarkable about the stories in these collections is that they also
mercilessly expose the gaps and fault lines in the transformation of Kerala society in the
Twentieth Century. Sukumar Azheekkode’s tongue-in-cheek remark in his preface to
School Diary that, unlike the teachers in Karoor’s fiction, Akbar’s teachers are not ‘poor’
in any sense, but rather well ‘accomplished’, needs to be reckoned with.

Though Akbar has largely steered clear of the modernists’ craft, his fiction
abound with themes and concerns that would be instantly recognized as the staple of
modernist fiction: the individual caught in situations which are bewildering and absurd,
the looming shadow of authoritarian power, or the experience of sexuality as a descend
into a labyrinth or as a compulsory disorder. Perhaps these are not typical modernist pre-
occupations. The modernists can, at best, be credited with examining them more
comprehensively and diligently than their predecessors.

Minus their humour, many of Akbar’s stories would probably pale into
insignificance. Akbar’s fiction abounds with quibbles and wisecracks, many of them
homegrown and carrying unmistakable Kadathanadan marks. But they never become
‘fatal Cleopatras’ for which Akbar is ready to lose his fictional world. Unlike in the
stories of VKN (who has been given the title ‘the patriarch of laughter’ by his doting
admirers) the narrator in Akbar’s fiction is not the feudal baron who uses and abuses
language as he would a prostitute. Rather, he is a mischievous child who plays with
language, as the infant Krishna did with his mother Yasoda. Moreover (this often goes
unremarked) Akbar’s humour is often tinged with pathos. Like Sanjayan (M R Nair), one
of the most powerful and most popular humourists of all time in Malayalam, Akbar is a
master of the kind of hilarious laughter that trails off into tears.

Vadakku Ninnoru Kudumba Vrithantham (A Family Tale from the North) which
won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2003 is a typical Akbar novel in many ways,
except that there are shades of an idyllic world in which the tension and dilemmas of
Kerala’s social transformation in the second half of the Twentieth Century are only
vaguely refracted. The fairy-tale union of Kadeesa ‘Kurup’ and Alikkutty Kakka will
linger in the reader’s mind for a long time. So would the metamorphosis of Kadeesa into
Kadeesa ‘Kurup.’The ‘pre-teen’ love of Kadeesa and Alikkutty has a flavour that is ever-
fresh and renewed by every one of the innumerable narratives in Malayalam starting with
Basheer’s Balyakalasakhi. The witticisms scattered throughout the novel are, however,
typically Akbaresque. Kadeesa’s answer to the moulavi’s question at the madrasa which
became the turning point in her life almost matches the famous answer Majeed, the
protagonist of Balyakalasakhi, gave to his mathematics teacher on adding one and one.

The mindset of many of the characters of the novel is certainly pre-modern –

Kadeesa ‘Kurup’, the protagonist (deviating from convention, let us call her the
protagonist) providing the prime example. The manner in which she treats her daughters-
in-law Aysha and Haseena meets the standards of the feudal mother-in-law-daughter-in-
law paradigm. She is shrewish and spiteful, but mostly straightforward and ,
occasionally, can even be taken for a ride (as Aysha, Haseena and David ‘Saheb’ do).
Everything about Alikkutty kakka is also enjoyably uncomplicated: his legendary
miserliness, his sharp trade practices, his quiet humour (illustrated by his comparison of
conjugal love to a chit fund) and his rarely-revealed affection for his sons and daughters-

Pakran Haji, Kadeesa’s neighbour, Kadeesa’s father, the late Moosakkuttty

Kakka, Krishan ‘teacher’s father, the late Rama Kurup, Kadeesa’s sister Biyyathu and
Gopalan the Malayan who dresses up as Onappottan during Onam appear before us like
mirages from a fast-receding world. The annual fair at Orkkatteri and ‘panappayattu’, the
traditional rural tea parties for raising money in need are still part of Kadathanad’s
cultural life. But today they are pale shadows of their former selves.

Kadathanad’s pluralist culture is amply refracted in the novel. The intimate

neighbourly relationship between the families of Kadeesa ‘Kurup’ and Krishan ‘teacher’
is not the stuff of well-meaning, but contrived ‘secularist fiction’; it is the faithful
portrayal of real life experience which is an integral part of Kadathanadan culture. In his
role as Onappottan Gopalan demands and gets a sizable tip from Kadeesa. Kadeesa’s
aesthetic sense give an added charm to Rajamma’s Onappookkalam. When the
Onassadya is served Rajamma’s parents hastily assure Kadeesa that the chicken on the
table is ‘halal.’ Kerala’s cultural pluralism is, of course, a pre-modern phenomenon in
which diverse communities can co-exist peacefully, but are always required to maintain a
certain distance between them. The travails of modernization are altering Kerala’s social
landscape. The uplands of Kadathanad, especially villages like Nadapuram have
witnessed an increase in communal tension during the last two decades. But less noticed
are the positive fall-outs of modernization like the slow, but steady increase in inter-
community marriages. Although there are no hints of such a transformation in the novel,
in stories like ‘Akbar Mash”, Akbar has ventured to suggest that such changes have
probably come to stay.

In the novel modernity is introduced into the idyllic Kadathanadan landscape in

several ways. The telephone in Kadeesa’s home is an obvious icon. But there are less
ostentatious objects and events. One of them is the entry of David ‘Saheb’ into the story
as Alikkutty kakka’s young shop assistant. David belongs to a Christian migrant family
(one of the many which came from Thiruvithamkoor in search of cheap land) living in a
village on the hills. Kadeesa stares at him with unconcealed curiosity when she meets
him for the first time. She had never set eyes on a Christian in her life before. But David
is not the run-of-the-mill ‘chettan’ (the nickname for Christian migrants in Malabar). He
is the archetypal go-getter of modernity. He has acquired only a primary school
education. But he can speak English (which he has learned from a British estate
manager) fairly well. He started work at Alikkutty kakka’s provision store on a daily
wage of five rupees. But on the very first day he gets the idea that he deserves at least six
rupees a day.

The dialect-standard equation is brought into play in the novel, although on a

more subdued note than in Basheer’s Ntuppooppakku Oranendarnnu. In Basheer’s novel
the dialect is a loser which ‘goes gently into the good night.’ But here it has an
uncompromising champion in Kadeesa. Haseena’s attempts to introduce the standard
language into the household, meets with fierce opposition from Kadeesa. But can one
assume from the way the writer has glossed almost every single word and phrase of the
Kadathanadan dialect that he, like Basheer, is on the other side of the fence?

Modernity is not the only intrusive force in Akbar’s idyllic world. Haseena is a
typical ‘New Woman’ by the standards of the Kadathanadan Muslim community. She has
had a college education, has ‘new fangled’ notions about women’s rights and wears a sari
and a blouse that exposes her midriff. Kadeesa is intolerant of her new fangled ways
from the beginning. Things reached a head when Sulaiman, Haseena’s brother-in-law
wrote to Kadeesa about the video cassette of Haseena’s wedding with Hassan which
created an uproar when it was shown to his friends. Haseena looked like a film star in the
video, Sulaiman wrote, exposing much more of her chest and midriff than was considered
decent for Muslim women. Kadeesa’s response was to order Haseena to put on a purdah
when she went out “as was befitting a woman of our community.” Kadeesa’s
observation about Malayalee Muslim women’s dress is not grounded in facts. Kadeesa
herself (typically like Muslim women in Malabar a generation ago) wears a kachimundui
with dark greenish-blue borders, a long-sleeved penkuppayam and a white loose veil, like
a nun’s, thrown loosely back from the forehead. The purdah became widespread in
Malabar only during the last quarter of a century.

Social transformation in the novel is marked not by struggle and resistance, but by
accommodation and compromise. Life with Kadeesa ‘Kurup’ is misery for Haseena. But
she decides to put up with it stoically till Hassan takes her to UAE. Occasionally she
teams up with Aysha, her fellow-sufferer to outwit Kadeesa. This, in spite of the fact (as
the dramatic scene in the last chapter shows) that Kadeesa is only a paper tiger when
confronted. The well-deserved slap that Haseena administers Kadeesa in the last chapter
may have other messages as well. Faith and tradition cannot subjugate women forever.
Haseena’s slap is, perhaps, as politically resounding as Nora’s slamming of the front door
of her doll’s house in Ibsen’s epoch-making play. Somewhere, an explosion is brewing.
Those who miss or ignore the foreboding signs are going to be terribly sorry.

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