Published January 23, 2022

After a sunny Christmas day in Karachi, I left the following dawn for London, aware of the cold, the miniscule days and long evening hours that lay in wait. There was also mandatory self-isolation, but I already had my strategies of dealing with that: I planned to raid my bookshelves, selecting titles to reread that I hadn’t looked at for about 20 years.

Conversations with a young friend in Islamabad, who had inspired me to teach a course on African novels last year, reminded me to start with Africa — which was also alphabetically convenient. I started with Kenyan short story writer Grace Ogot; I was entranced over the silent New Year by one of her collections, and delighted that two more, and a novel, were beside me.

But a chance encounter changed my trajectory. The consultant I met when I went to hospital for my three-monthly appointment in early January was a Muslim woman from Kerala, India. She asked me, somewhat hesitantly, if there were any migrants from her region, and I said — remembering the author and activist B.M. Kutty — that there were, but very few, and they had now entirely assimilated.

But on the bus on the way home, I remembered that Vaikom Muhammed Basheer (1908-1994), one of Kerala’s most famous 20th century writers, had actually travelled through what was to become Pakistan in the years before Partition, but I couldn’t find details of his visit.

I’ve also forgotten when I first began to read his work in translation, but it must have been 30 years ago, with a tiny volume of three of his novellas, Me Grandad ‘Ad an Elephant, skilfully translated from the original Malayalam by R.E. Asher and published by Edinburgh University Press in 1980. It was already a rare book when I came across it in the SOAS library, but one day— probably in 1999 — I bought a second-hand copy and greedily read it again.

The first story, ‘Childhood Friend’ (1944), had haunted me ever since I’d first encountered it. It was even more effective on a second reading: tenderness, lyricism, compassion and brutal economic realism packed into a mere 50 pages. The novella was beside me, along with the works of Ismat Chughtai and Tennessee Williams, when I started work on ‘Cactus Town’, which became the title story of the first collection I published in Pakistan. I decided to take a detour from Africa to revisit the stories after about two decades.

In ‘Childhood Friend’, Basheer’s hero, Majid, muses: “People are the same everywhere: the only difference is language and dress. All are men and women … they are born, grow, mate, reproduce. Then death. That’s all. The grim struggle that fills the time between birth and death is everywhere.”

Universal humanism aside, however, Basheer’s story of a childhood friendship that develops into an adolescent romance blighted by financial necessity, then continues as a relationship that appears adulterous to a conservative community, also cast light on a little-known community, Kerala’s Muslims, to whom Basheer belonged.

This may have been the reason for his success beyond the borders of Kerala, just as Arundhati Roy’s depiction of Kerala’s Christians was to account for at least part of the success of The God of Small Things half a century later. Asher’s selection is tellingly subtitled Three Stories of Muslim Life in Kerala. Basheer himself, in the title story (written several years later) seems quite committed to portraying his community warts, quaint superstitions and all, sometimes with riotous humour, for a majority readership unfamiliar with their ways.

In this tale, Kunjupattuma, an untutored village girl, becomes the protege of city-bred Aisha, and eventually marries Aisha’s brother Nisar, who had once — in a finely calibrated cinematic piece — rescued Kunju from a ditch, then taught her family about basic hygiene and sanitation.

Even as he pokes fun at superstition, Basheer interweaves fables from the peripheries of Islam into the texture of his romantic comedy-satire, celebrating and revelling in folk idiom and stories that derive from the Holy Quran and the stories of the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions — the story’s references range from Sidratul Muntaha to Hazrat Ali’s sword Zulfiqar, all of which would be as strange to the average non-Muslim Indian reader as they would to a Westerner.

Basheer aimed to warn Muslims to give up outworn traditions — embodied here in the persona of the heroine’s mother, who glories in the memory of the eponymous elephant (a feudal past) — in search of a new humanism and a revised reading of religion and faith.

‘Childhood Friend’ transcends the melodramatic genre into which it might have fallen, in its power, candour and its brilliant imagery of plants, flowers, trees and growth. Me Grandad ‘Ad an Elephant, too, escapes generic categorisation; rather than anthropology disguised as a didactic tale, it’s a wonderfully comic depiction of false pride, ignorance, enterprise and the great resilience of youth. There are no villains, and even the satire is never cruel or derisory. Images of the beauties and cruelties of plant and animal life proliferate.

Although some may see ‘Elephant’ as a Cinderella story with a Pygmalion twist, Asher rightly points out that, unlike most of his Malayali contemporaries “who acknowledge their debt to Zola, Maupassant, Chekhov and others … Basheer is conscious of no such influence and it would be a fruitless task to try to find one. In fact, there is in all respects no neat way of categorising his writing.”

At a time when world literature was beset by heavy-handed socio-historical contextualisation, Asher’s introduction is ahead of its day in minimising orientalist, or even postcolonial, readings. Although I’d originally much preferred the darker ‘Childhood Friend’, on rereading the stories I took at least as much pleasure in the title story: I wonder if, in certain ways, ‘Elephant’ is the more mature and achieved piece.

Basheer held that the “ultimate end of both life and art was goodness — the betterment of the self and humanity.” Imbued with this belief, this collection is a treasure, and should be made available as a modern classic to all South Asian readers.

The columnist is a London-based short story writer and novelist

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 23rd, 2022



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