The 26th death anniversary of the doyen of Malayalam literature, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, also caringly addressed as Beypore Sultan is on July 5, 2020.
Freedom fighter, activist, story teller and humanist, Basheer is known for his the narration of stories with loftier thoughts in simple language. Almost all his works were well received, especially those books the author received critical acclaim includes Balyakalasakhi (Childhood Companion), Shabdangal (Sounds), Pathummayude Aadu (The Goat of Fathima), Mathilukal (The Walls), Ntuppappakkoranendarnnu (My Grandfather Had an Elephant), Janmadinam (Birthday) and Anargha Nimisham (A Long Moment). Many of his popular fictions were translated into different languages and Basheer’s acclaim knew no bounds. Rightly so, Basheer received the fourth highest civilian honour of Padmashri from the Government of India back in 1982. In addition to that, the doyen of Malayalam Literature also received the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship and the Kerala State Film Award for Best Story.
Born on January 21, 1908 at Thalayolaparambu, a small village near Vaikom in Kottayam district of Kerala, Basheer was the eldest son of Kayi Abdurahman and Kunjathumma. Though, the initial part of his schooling was in the vernacular medium of Malayalam in his village, nevertheless, Basheer moved to an English medium school in the town of Vaikom, which had a distance of five miles from Thalayolapparambu. When the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi visited Vaikom to kick-start the now famous Vaikom Sathyagraham (Indian Independence Movement against the Colonial rule of the British), Basheer met the Freedom Fighter and instantly he became his follower. As a true follower, Basheer put into practice, all the Swadeshi (Indegenous) ideals, espoused by Gandhi. Basheer wore only Khadi (Hand made cotton dress. Drawing great inspiration from Gandhi, Basheer later narrated his experience on how he got into the car in which the Mahatma was traveling and managed to grab his hand.
Determined to plunge himself in the freedom movement, Basheer dropped out of the school and traversed the length and breath of India. In addition to that, Basheer also traveled to far of destinations including Asia and Africa, a sojourn that took him seven years to cover. During this time, Basheer did odd jobs on his way for him to stay afloat. He did many jobs such as loom fitter, cook, Newspaper seller, fortune teller, accountant, sports goods agent, shepherd, watchman, hotel manager, to name a few, which came of handy for the author to pen his experience in his seminal works he writer later.
After leaving his studies in the Fifth Form, Basheer, he wanted to involve himself in the Independence Movement, but nothing great was happening in Kochi, the then Princely State. With secular outlook and tolerance to all religions, Basheer left Vaikom, lock, stock and barrel to the then Malabar District to plunge himself in the Salt Satyagraha agitation in 1930. But before he could make it to the venue of the protest, Basheer, along with other participants were rounded up by the police and he had to undergo three months imprisonment at the Kannur Prison. While he was confined in the prison, Basheer did learn about the firebrand revolutionaries of the time such as Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru, who were executed while the author was still in the prison.
Basheer, along with 600 other supporters of the freedom movement were set free from the prison in March 1931 as per the Gandhi-Irwin pact. Once out of prison, Basheer indulged in activities such as organising an anti-British Movement, heading a revolutionary journal titled Ujjivanam and when the British authorities came to know about the same, they issued arrest warrant against Basheer. Subsequently, Basheer left Kerala and travelled across the country. Besides doing odd jobs, Basheer also lived as an ascetic with Hindu saints and Sufi mystics at the foothills of Himalayas and Ganga River Basin. Basheer followed the customs and practices of these sages and Sufis and spent around five years with them. Often, Basheer encountered near death experience for want of food and water. Hunger made his resolve more steely. In addition to the jobs he had handled which was narrated earlier, Basheer also had hands on experience on taking up menial jobs as well. He worked in places such as Ajmer, Peshawar (Now in Pakistan), Kashmir and Calcutta (Now Kolkatta).
After extensive travel and gathering worldly insights, Basheer came back to Kochi in the mid 1930s. There too, Basheer undertook odd jobs such as washing vessels at the restaurants. It was during this time, Basheer happened to meet a Sports goods maker from Sialkot, who inquired whether he was interested in taking up the agency in Kerala. When Basheer went back home at Thalayolapparamu and found his father’s business had gone for a toss and the family was facing abject poverty, the young Basheer accept the offer and took up the agency. Basheer began working for the sales of sports goods from Sialkot Sports Company in Ernakulam. When the going was good, Basheer was forced to leave the agency, following a bicycle accident, which made him bedridden for a short while.
When he convalesced from his injuries, Basheer went on a job hunt spree. During his job hunt, Basheer barged into the office of a sold proprietary newspaper firm, Jayakesari. The owner told Basheer that he could not afford to hire him, nevertheless, he would pay Basheer, if he wrote stories in his daily. That was how Basheer embarked on the new job of writing stories in the Malayalam daily, Jayakesari. Thus came his maiden story, Ente Thankam (My Darling), published in 1937. This story eventually catapulted Basheer as a path breaker in the Malayalam romantic fiction genre. The story had the dark complexioned female protagonist having a hunchback. From then on, Basheer wrote a slew of stories published between 1937 and 1941 in another weekly publication named Navajeevan, which came from Thiruvananthapuram.
The same year, or the following year, Basheer was rounded up again and lodged in a lock-up in Kottayam initially and later shifted him to another lock-up in Kollam Kasba Police Station (Village Police Station). It was from these lock-ups he heard several tales relating to the atrocities pertaining to the freedom movement, which Basheer judiciously used it in his later works he penned from these lock-ups. As an undertrial, Basheer had spent considerable amount of time in the lock-up and subsequently, when his case was taken up, the court awarded him two years and six months prison sentence. Basheer was shifted to the Central Prison in Thiruvananthapuram after the verdict. It was at this prison, Basheer did forbade MP Paul from publishing Balyakalasakhi. In 1943, Basheer penned Premalekhanam, while still in prison serving his term, but the novel was published only after his release from the prison. Rightly so, Basheer’s Balyakalasakhi underwent revisions and an introduction written by MP Paul. Pertaining to this, later, literary critic and friend of Basheer, MK Sanu said that the introductory note of MP Paul had eventually helped Basheer in terms of developing his writing career. Basheer published his own works initially and went on house to house calls and sold his works. In addition to that, Basheer also started two book stores in Ernakulam by names such as Circle Book House to start with and later renamed it as Basheer’s Bookstall. When India gained her independence, Basheer left active politics and focused on his writings, nevertheless, he did express his concerns over morality and political integrity in his subsequent novels he wrote.
When Basheer got married in 1958, he was well over 48 years old and the bride, a mere 26 years of age. Basheer addressed Fathima as Fabi, by adding the first syllables of Fathima and Basheer. Later a son and a daughter was born to the couple and they named them Anees and Shahina respectively. The couple and their children settled in Baypore in ozhikode. During this time, Basheer underwent a bout of mental depression and in fact, he was admitted to mental sanatoriums twice.
When Basheer was undergoing treatment for his ailmemet at a Metal Hospital in Thrissur, Basheer wrote one of his masterpiece works, Pathummayude Aadu. In 1962, Basheer suffered the second bout of mental depression, nevertheless, he recovered both the times, neaver leaving his writing. When Basheer wrote about his later-day life in Beypore, when he relocated along with his family, Basheer earned the sobriquet, Beypore Sultan!
His end came in Beypore on July 5, 1994 when he was 84 years old. His spouse died two decades later on July 15, 2015 at the age of 77.
Unique Writing Style
Known for his unconventional style of Malayalam language, Basheer did not have reservation about writing his novels in the literary language. He not only wrote in spoken Malayalam but also not overtaly bothered about the correctness of grammar either. But, the publishers were initially wary of his writing style and occasional interfered in his work by editing it into formal Malayalam from his conversational style of writing. This enraged Basheer in no uncertain terms. When he found that his unique conversational style was changed into much more standardised language and thus taking of the sheen, he ensured that the publishers were publishing his version and not the edited version sans freshness and natural flow.
Being a Malayalam teacher, Basheer’s brother Abdul Khader had the propensity to correct the former’s usage of Malayalam in his works. Once, when Khader was reading one of Basheer’s stories and he asked his sibling as to where were Aakhyas and Aakyathas (elements of Malayalam grammar) in that story, Basheer lost his temper and admonished his brother stating that he wrote in lucid conversational Malayalam catering to a common man like how he speaks and asked him not to find to bring in the stupid grammar into it. Basheer focused only on the rustic village conversational style of Malayalam without overtly bothered about the nuances of the language. Despite having thorough knowledge about Malayalam language and its grammar, he laughed at his own experience by remarking about his lack of knowledge in Chaste Malayalam.
Basheer did not hide his contempt for grammatical correctness one bit and he from his statement to his brother corroborating his aversion ‘Ninte Lodukkoos Akhyaadam’ (Your Silly Stupid Grammar). This and his sermonising about the importance of grammer is reflected in Basheer’s novel, Pathummayude Aadu.
Basheer’s characters in his novels stand out as mostly he portrays them as marginalised people. Invariably, the characters don different caps like that of a gambler, pickpocket, prostitute and more. But, all these characters stand out naive and pure in Basheer’s seminal works. Basheer is also known as a keen observe of human character and the skillful jelling of humour and pathos are evident in all his works. Also, situations such as hunger, poverty, love and prison life will recur in many of his works. His novels have enormous influence on his association with India’s independence struggle, the experiences he had gathered during his long travels across the country and abroad, different situations existed in Kerala, especially about his neighbourhoods amonngs the Muslim community in Beypore. Themes such as poverty, politics, prison, homosexuality….all these overlap his stories. His love stories were received well in Kerala. No other author could elicit the kind of reception and recognition Basheer had received from the Malayalee readers, who took love related stories to their hearts. Love and humanity are recurring themes that finds ample space in majority of Basheer’s novels. For instance, in his story, Mucheetukalikkarante Makal (Gambler’s Daughter), when Sainaba, the daughter emerges from the water after stealing his bananas, Mandan Musthappa (Stupid Mustappa) tells her, “Sainaba, do go back home and wipe the water from your hair, lest you would fall sick.”
This is the kind of pristine humansim one can find in many of Basheer’s novels.
Basheer was never attracted to Western Literature one bit. He wrote: “I can readily say that I have not been influenced by any literature, Western or Eastern, for, when I started writing I had no idea of literature. Even now it is not much different. It is only after I had written quite a bit, that I had opportunities to contact Western literature. I read all that I could get hold of—Somerset Maugham, Steinbeck, Maupassant, Flaubert, Romain Rolland, Gorky, Chekhov, Hemingway, Pearl S. Buck, Shakespeare, Galsworthy, Shaw… In fact, I organised one or two bookstalls so that I could get more books to read. But I read these books mainly to know their craft. I myself had plenty of experience to write about! I have even now! I am unable to ascertain who has influenced me. Perhaps Romain Rolland and Steinbeck—but even they, not much.”
If we look for Basheer’s style of writing, we can find that most of his writing falls under prose fiction – short stories and novels, nevertheless, there is this one-act play and a slew of essays and reminiscences to his credit. Most of Basheer’s fictions are diverse and replete with contrasts. You can find merrier situations as well as poignant ones in the same novel. One can as well find realistic sagas as well as supernatural narrations. When few of his works can be purely narrative, while others might show the blend of poems in prose. What makes his works great is the fact that at the outset, his narration style remains simple, thus concealing a great subtlety of expression too. Another feather on Basheer’s cap is the fact that his works have been translated into 18 languages, a proof of the universality of his writings.
When his literary career branched out with the novel, Premalekhanam, a hillarious saga of love between Keshavan Nair, who is a youth employed in a bank and hailing from an upper caste Hindu Nair community and Saramma, an unemployed Christian girl. Replete with sarcastic snide and hilarious remarks, we can read the undercurrents of religious and caste rigidity prevailed in Kerala back then (although the situation is no different even now). Basheer takes a dig at all these bigot views with a pinch of sarcasm in this novel. The late film maker, PA Backer made a movie, the adaptation of Basheer’s novel, Premalekhanam in 1985. As the theme was so popular, another film was also made on these lines by Aneesh Anwar as early as 2017.
After Premalekhanam, Basheer wrote another novel, Balyakalasakhi, the wreaked love tale of Majeed and Suhara, which is considered as the most important novels in Malayalam literature.
For the first time in the annals of Malayalam Literature, such a small story, with only 75 odd pages, Balyakalasakhi is treated as Basheer’s magnum opus novel.
In his foreword, titled: Jeevithathil Ninnum Oru Eedu (A Page From Life), MP Paul clearly segregates the wheat from the chaff and brings out the fact how Basheer’s work is different from the cliched love stories of his times. Again, this novel was also adapted into a Malayalam cinema with the same name, directed by Sasikumar. This story too was remade with the same title back in 2014, directed by Pramod Payyanur, with Mammootty and Isha Talwar in the lead roles.
Basheer’s Janmadinam (Birthday), written in the year 1945 has autobiographical elements. This novel is pertaining to a writer, who is finding it difficult to get a square meal on his birthday. This novel is very touching and Basheer shares his own tryst with hunger during his long sojourns. His other stories portrays the situations that an average reader could comprehend without any hassles. These works depict the darker and seamier sides of human existence. A case in point is Basheer’s novel, Shabdangal, published in 1947, the year India gained her independence from the British rule. This book received fair amount of brickbats from the skeptics and conservatives criticising Basheer for depicting violence and vulgarity. But, Basheer was unmoved with all those frivolous charges.
In 1951, Basheer’s Ntuppuppakkoranendarnnu was published and it became a talking point in the length and breath of Kerala. This novel takes a dig at the superstitious practices that existed among the Muslim community in Kerala. Kunjupathumma, the protagonist of this hillarious novel is an illeterate, innocent and naive village girl. She falls in love with the city dweller, the educated and progressive young man, Nisaar Ahamed. What turns out later in the novel is proving a point that illiteracy is the breeding ground for superstitions and further the novel brings the attention of the people how education could brig about progress and to further discard age old conventions.
“Velichathinenthoru Velicham” (Brightness Have More Brightness) is the oft repeated quote you can find often in Basheer’s novel Ntuppuppaakkoraanaendaarnnu. The gist of this statement is the snobbish utterances of the people boasting about how their forefathers had the great fortune of owning elephants, and the author trivialises those airy guffaws as a mere reason for these snobs to conceal their shortcomings. This novel underwent translation in English by RE Asher.
Basheer’s next novel is Pathummayude Aadu, which too has autobiographical elements, published in 1959. Unlike his other works, Basheer has adopted his own family members as characters in this novel. The book deals with the tale of everyday life in a Muslim family in a simple, yet powerful way. Mathilukal, his next work tells the tale of Basheer’s prison life in the pre-Independence days and the novel depicts the sad irony set against a turbulent political backdrop.
Apparently, in this novel, Basheer falls in love with a woman in the prison, who is serving life sentence. The best part is that the two are not seeing each other. They stand on either sides of an insurmountable wall. The two exchange love-promises, seperated by a big wall and they were not even able to see say and bid farewell. Basheer’s loneliness and confinement inside the prison are frustrating him to the brim before he meets Narayani. When the order for his release from prison comes, Basheer lodges his protest by shouting loud, “Who needs freedom? There is a bigger prison outside this place.”
Eminent Malayalam film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan made a film with the same name, adaptation of Basheer’s novel, with Mammootty and KPAC Lalitha in the lead.
Basheer’s other works such as Sthalathe Pradhana Divyan, Anavariyum Ponkurishum, Mucheetukalikkarante Makal and Ettukali Mammoonju, all these novels are written with the incidents that happened in his home village of Thalayolapparambu. The word Sthalam refer to his native village.
Later, the Chennai based theatre group, Perch has adapted portions from Basheer’s novel, Premalekhanam and Mucheettukalikkarante Makal and made drama under the title, The Moonshine and the Sky Toffee.
A slew of awards and accolades followed Basheer. Sahitya Akademi honoured him with their fellowship back in 1970, in addition to the prestigious fellowship from Kerala as well. He won Padmashri in 1982 and five years later, the University of Calicut conferred an honorary degree of the Doctor of Letters on January 19, 1987. Basheer bagged the Kerala State Film Award for Best Story for the Adoor Gopalakrishnan flick, Mathilukal in 1989 and the first Lalithambika Antharjanam Award three years later. This was followed by the Prem Nazir Award, also in 1992. In 1993, Basheer bagged two more awards, the Muttathu Varkey Award and the Vallathol Award. He received the Thamrapathra from the Government of India in 1972 and ten years later the Abu Dhabi Malayala Samajam Literary Awaard was bestowed on him. Samskaradeepam Award, Basheer received in 1987 and the Jeddah Arangu Award in 1994. The Government of India has recognised him and through the postal department, a commemorative stamp on him was also released. A sculpture of Basheer’s Pathummayude Aadu has been installed in Mananchira in Kozhikode in memory of Basheer.