Francis Noronha, a native of Alappuzha and a novelist, better known for his immensely popular short stories, has won the Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council (KCBC) Media Commission 2019 Media Award in Literature Section.
The Alappuzha native Francis Noronha has bagged this year’s Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council (KCBC) Media Commission Media Award in the Literature Section for his works such as Thottappan, Kakkukali and Pennahchi. He has written a sole novel, Asharanarude Suvishesham and the rest of his works in short stories. Noronha’s writing has deep influence on the rural hinterland of Alappuzha and he probes deep into the lives of the downtrodden people. His book, Thottappan is a collection of seven stories. Each story is distinct and interpreted in different ways. Instead of saying that this is great piece of literature, it would be prudent to say that this book will touch the heart. Through Thottappan, Noronha has proven himself that he is a promising writer who will scale more heights. His usage of language, which is very poetic and each of his short stories are gems when it came to how he had portrayed human lives with all its dimensions.
When asked whether he aspired to become an established writer in the Malayalam literary horizon, Noronha told The Indian News Editor in Chief, Jayashankar Menon, “I was a voracious reader in the first place. I wasn’t too sure whether I will end up as a full-time writer. When I was around 14 or so, that is when I had just finished my Class X, I fell ill. It took a very long time to cure. I was shuttling between Alappuzha Medical College and Kottayam Medical College. My mother used to accompany me. Initially, I was admitted in Alappuzha Medical College and eventually, when I required more intense treatment, I was referred to Kottayam Medical College. In fact, that was the first time I was venturing outside of my district of Alappuzha. I was very young then and I was too scared of seeing the high rise buildings. When I was in the Kottayam Medical College, the lines from the poem of Sugathakumari used to fill my mind. Right from my childhood, I was feeling lonely and till date, I have the same feeling. I never had many friends to boast off, except for one Basheer in school, who was a physically challenged boy. I had inferiority complex, so to say and precisely for that reason, I did not mingle with other boys frequently. Till I finished my graduation I was in and out of the hospital as my ailment was so protracted and took longer to recover. So, this hospital life had only brought me to the world of reading,” he said.
Kasi Visweswaran, the top most nephrologist in south India used to treat him at the hospital. Whenever the doctor came on his visits, he saw Noronha reading study books. Given his pathetic condition and the financial background, he was very sympathetic with the boy. One of the nurses gifted him a Bible and later the doctor began giving Noronha few books to read.
When Noronha completed his B.Com, he told his mother that he wanted to pursue post graduation in commerce. His mother reminded him of the financial situation in the house and advised to take up some job. That was the time, he got a small job as an account in Alappuzha diocese. The salary was not that great, nevertheless, they paid him Rs.250 as a beginner. Although, that took care of his expense and occasionally, the young Noronha was able to offer some help to his mother. This office was attached to the seminary. From there, he met Father Xavier Kuriyamsseri, who was the Editor of the Malayalam magazine, Mukharekha. Probably, after getting impressed with Noronha’s conversation style seeing a flair for literature in the young man, the Father took Noronha to his office and asked him whether he could help the Father in bringing out the magazine. Noronha told the Father that he did not have any clue about how a magazine functioned and further said that if the Father could teach Noronha the nuances of journalism, he could take up the offer.
“The Father reassured me that all I had to do was to collect all the articles that came then and selected the best ones and edit those and bring out the magazine. He further said that he would help me in terms of clearing any kind of doubt. Suffice it to say, the entire mantle of running the magazine fell on us. Although, there were colleagues like Boban and three others who was very resourceful, our responsibilities became manifold. We had to collect articles, choose those fit to be published, edit it and sent it for print. Often, I ended up writing more articles and interviewing more people. During those days, there were drinking water scarcity in Pallithodu village. I wrote an article on that issue, laying emphasis on the need of implementing rainwater harvesting on a war footing. When we were bringing out issue after issue, often there was paucity for good articles, stories and poems. When I informed the Father that quality poems and short stories were between far and few, he said, why don’t yourself try writing. That was when I tried my hand in jotting down a poem,” Noronha said.
In fact, his first poem appeared in the magazine with a pseudonym, Shajan Cleetus. That poem received excellent response from the readers. Often, Noronha used to write just to fill the space in the pages. This was the time, he wrote a story titled: Aadaminte Mazha. He showed it to the Father to get his feedback. The response from him was not satisfactory as he told that the story was not conforming to rules of the Church. Nevertheless he liked the story and the Father asked Noronha to send the same to some other magazine. Noronha has a friend called J Jubit, who is a novelist. He has written a novel called, Aroopiyude Veena. He always helps Noronha in improving his writing skills. After reading his story, Jubit said that the story was excellent and further said that they could try sending it to some magazine to be published.
Aravindan KS Mangalam, working in DC Books was Jubit’s friend. Once Noronha visited Kottayam, he met Mangalam and gave the manuscript of Adaminte Muzha to him and asked him to read. He assured Noronha that he would read it and give his feedback. One night, he saw message in his mobile phone stating that the letter of God was with Noronha. When he read the message sent by Mangalam, he was so excited because Mangalam had not only mentioned about only God, rather he mentioned the letter of God was with Noronha.
“That made me so excited and motivated me further to write more. And so, the story got published in Kala Kaumudi magazine in 2014. After this story, it took two solid years for me to write another story. Lot of people liked the story. Beneath the story, Kala Kaumudi had given my mobile phone number, so I used to receive umpteen number of calls stating that they loved the story. It was in 2016, my short story, Kadavaraal. The story was in my mind for well over a year. Life was in its brim in this story and I could write about many aspects of the society including politics. This story gave me immense satisfaction. I sent to Malayalam Weekly and within a month S. Kalesh, its Editor called me and said that he liked the story and assured me that he would carry that story soon. But, I had to wait for another eleven months to see the story published in that weekly. For the Onam edition, they published a series of eleven stories as the festival of stories with the title: The Malayalam Story has Changed by adding our photographs. In fact, the magazine gave lot of publicity before publishing it. My story assured as the eleventh story,” Noronha said.
A week after the story got published, on a discussion held at Malayala Manorama television, titled: Talk of the Story participated by S. Raman and Hareesh, Noronha was watching the programme from home. S. Hareesh was telling that there was a new writer by name Noronha, whose story, Kadavaral had portrayed the exact political atmosphere that was prevailing then. The debate went on to add that Noronha was able to exactly highlight the issue of marginalised people of the local province. S. Hareesh was his favourite novelist. Noronha used to enjoy his books and Hareesh had inspired him a lot to become a writer. In the presence of Pramod Raman, when Hareesh was discussing about Norohna’s book and its message that too in the presence of Santhosh Echikanam, he was in cloud nine, as he used to adore all these panelists. Even then, he was scared to send his stories to publications such as Mathrubhumi and Bhashaposhini, as these two magazines were dream of any budding writer to get into. There are skeptics with a different view about these magazines, but the fact is that these two magazines have that kind of stature in the Malayalam literary arena. It was only after penning two stories such as Pennachi and Irulrathi, Noronha mustered courage to send the story Thottappan to Mathrubhoomi Weekly. The very next edition itself, along with four other prominent writers, his story also got published. Thottappan was received well by the readers across the state. There were reviews pouring in including Malayala Manorama online. Gradually, Noronha was evolving himself as a writer by gaining recognition. Even now, he is not able to convince himself that he is a writer, though everyone says that he is one. “I see my writing towards achieving the status as a writer. After that Kakkukali was published in Mathrubhumi Weekly Magazine with my picture on the cover ( In fact, it was a cover story), I felt very happy and that was how I forayed in the world of writing. But before writing all these stories, I wrote a novel.” Noronha said.
What was the reason for Noronha to enter into the world of novel writing. “If I think of the opportunity to write a novel, through the association of the Father Xavier, in Alappuzha he asked me to write a biography of the yesteryear Pius Father Msgr. Reynolds Purakkal. I told Father that though I wouldn’t able to write a biography of him, but would certain write a feature on him. As part of collecting data to write a feature about Father Purakkal, I visited the sea-side and wherever he had spent time to serve the people. Like a research scholar, I was trying to track the life of Father Purakkal right from the year 1910. It was only then I realised that the canvas with which I am going write is so big. Whatever I wrote till then, I showed it to the Father and he only suggested me to write it as a novel. If I did it like a fiction, the Father said, the outcome of the book would be excellent. He liked up to whatever I had written then. And that was how I brought out a novel. As a writer, the path I had traversed and reached is this, even I stand on the way, if you ask me whether I am a writer, I can only stand with anxiety.
Koonhattu Enna Pennu
Thottappan has lot of autobiographical elements in it. The protagonist Kunjadu in this book, though a girl, through her he was able to register a lot of things that had happened during his childhood. “My schooling was in a Muslim school. The mosque was located in the middle of the school. So, the prayers that came from the mosque, the school in the surrounding with thatched roofs, Buva, who used to serve us Upma, knowing my hunger Bua will serve a little more food and look at my face with affection…all these nostalgic things I was able to write. Then canards about the donation box that was kept in front of the mosque like whoever steals money from that box, the snakes will bite them. All these childhood memories I could share with nostalgia in this book. I had also written about the chocolates we had eaten during the childhood and other such experiences, those situations at school, which evoked hurt, those bitter experiences I had received from my teachers and companions, all these things I was able to write. So, to a certain extend, I was able to share my life in that book. There was this curious reader who once asked me whether I had actually chosen a male character as the protagonist and then transformed that into a female character. I think that might be true in a way because if you ask the gender of the protagonist called Kunjadu (Little Lamb), I will not be having the right answer. As far as I am concerned it is all the same. How can you define a person whether that person is a male or female. Biologically, perhaps, we might be able to tell whether a person is a male or female. But, when you take the persons’ mind and the individuality we cannot define a man or a woman. Perhaps you can see men in women and in all men women too. The proportion keeps changing in individuals. A woman who become complete, we call her mother. So, in the imagination of woman, mother is the ultimate. So, in Thottappan, I was able to bring that kind of a woman who was complete. Woman has wholesome presence in this novel. It defines as what should constitute a woman. If it is a mother or a daughter, that character has got that much peculiarity. I was able to gift such a character to Malayalam and that brings me happiness,” he said with a bit of nostalgia.
Thottappan is for us Anglo Indians or for that matter Latin Catholics, he is the most important person in Church, deserving more reverence than our parents. Noronha said, “We call God Father to a person who is given our child to inculcate the virtues of Christ. So, initially, I thought I would name the novel as Thalathottappan. But, somehow, I felt Thottappan much more lively. My Thottappan was a foreman. He was an operator in an ice plant. Though he was not financial sound or having big education, nevertheless, he had wide range. He discovers small things in an innovative way. He had built a house using wood and cement and all the things like furniture he himself made. He was living in that house. So, my Thottappan had lot of peculiarities. That Thottappan had inspired me a lot in terms of writing this book. So, Thottappan has lot of peculiarities as a character. In this novel, it is this Thottappan who takes care of the Kunjad. The relationship between the two are beyond the morality we espouse.”
Thottappan in movie…
Shanawas K Bhavakutty, the director of Kismat has made Thottappan. “Within a week after reading the novel, he called me and said he read the story and was impressed and that he wanted to make movie based on this story. When Shanawas called me I actually thought somebody is making a prank call making fun of me. Then when he said he was the director of Kismat, I felt happy. Shanawas said that he was in the midst of another project and took assurance from me that I am not giving this story to anyone else. He also gave me assurance that by all means he would be making this movie. Shanawas invited me to an apartment in Ernakulam and I, along with Bibit went there. During the discussion, Shanawas said few characters in my novel was haunting him. I also agreed. So, he took all these haunting characters as it is from the novel for the movie. He was actually taking away the characters from the story and infusing it into the canvas of the cinema. The shooting got over successfully and the dubbing and other post production work is going on. It proves that it possible to live as father and daughter, though, without being biologically the same. I am sure that Thottappan will be liked by all,” Noronha said.
Vinayagan as Thottappan
About the experience he had with Vianayagan, Noronha said, “I happened to visit the shooting location of Thottappan several times. Though I was not able to be there continuously, nevertheless, during holidays, I was able to see the shoot. I was seeing Vinayagan for the first time at the shooting location. He is just an ordinary person. Down to earth, when he was dealing with all at the shooting location. I was really surprised as he did not have any airs that the celebrities of cinema usually have. The character of Thottappan is safe in his hand because the body language, the way he looks, the way he speaks, it was the same character of Thottappan, when I was imagining when I was writing the story. The character of Kunjadu is done by a new comer from Thrissur by name Priyamvatha. There was a training camp held one week before the shoot. I took part in that camp. I was able to interact with those who took part in the training camp. In fact, it was a great team work. All the characters were adequately trained before the shoot itself. So, it is a well thought out film and the post production work is going on in full swing. I am not saying that my entire novel was brought to the movie, rather, I would say, the director has brought all the characters from my novel to the screen in a commendable way.”
Kadalinte Uppurasam Kalarnna Bhaasha (The language of the sea laced with salt)
“My novel is actually connected to the sea shore area. All the 25 chapters are replete with sea. The story is revolving around the lives of fisher folk, about a clergy who loved them, a story, which narrates the lives of poor and unfortunate children and the Father who took them all under his care. The story has breeze that smells salt. We call the sea breeze that blows in the evening as Katchankaatu. Christmas is called as Nathaal. All these sea shore terminologies are incorporated in this novel and that makes the reading all the more interesting. Nathaal means the soil with high content of salt. So, I have not given footnote to all these terms used in seashore by the poor fisher-folk. Obviously, people from other districts will not be able to comprehend. For instance, a reader from Malabar called me and asked the meaning of Nathaal and asked as to why I did not give the footnote for the reader’s comprehension, my answer was simple. I am writing about the poor fisher folks and the biggest celebration of Christmas and they say that it as Nathaal. To get that ambiance of the sea shore life, I used the word as it is without giving any explanation and spoiling the richness of reading. Not that I had left the word high and dry. I have interpreted when I narrate about the Christmas star being tied on the tree, the readers can easily comprehend that the word Nathaal is nothing but Christmas. Even if a reader skips the meaning for the first time, the second time he or she is likely to understand the word meaning. Not many novels can be read in one sitting and reading. I had spent considerable amount of time with these fisher folks, staying with them, even going with them to the deep sea to see for myself how they caught fish. Only after gaining experience first hand, I did start writing this novel, Asharanarude Suvishesham. Only three or four stories I had written about sea shore life and the rest of the stories are all different. But, the readers generally associate me as the writer of sea and shore may be because of the way it was written. If these stories stand the test of time, only time will prove,” Noronha signed off.